Aaric Murray pulled off one of the stunners of the 2009 recruiting season when he signed with La Salle over a host of Big East programs, but that hardly represented the biggest surprise of this top-50 prospect's young career.
The most puzzling aspect of this story isn't that Murray, a 6-foot-10 center from Philadelphia, will suit up for La Salle, an Atlantic 10 program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1992. It's that he's playing college basketball at all.
Murray took up the sport just three years ago. At that point, the idea that he would earn a high school diploma, let alone earn a college scholarship, seemed far-fetched.
"I didn't really care about basketball," Murray said. "I just wanted to live life, go to the streets and hang out with girls."
He also didn't really care about school. Murray's consistent truancy grew into such a problem that he was sent to The Glen Mills School in the Philadelphia suburb of Concordville; Glen Mills is a boarding school for court-adjudicated male delinquents 15-18 years old.
"If there were 200 days you had to go to school," Murray said, "I'd say I probably went 100."
Located 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia, Glen Mills is the nation's oldest residential school for court-referred young men. The school preaches discipline and structure in its mission to help students develop life skills and change their behavior. The idea is that a change in approach will cause the students to live up to their potential and stop making the bad decisions that brought them to Glen Mills.
"Here at Glen Mills, your shirt has to be tucked in," said new Glen Mills coach Tony Bacon, who worked as an assistant at the school when Murray was there. "You have to wear pants the way they're supposed to be worn. You have to acknowledge people when you walk by them."
Murray's family members were hoping a new environment would help him alter his priorities and gain focus.
"I knew he was smart and knew he was capable if he had the opportunity," said Murray's mother, LaToya. "Glen Mills was the opportunity."
Aaric thrived in his new situation. The structure made him a better student, and even though the classes were harder, he found himself doing better.
Leaving the Big Six
Aaric Murray isn't the only top prospect who resisted the temptation of the major conferences, as 16 of the 2009 Rivals 150 will be playing for schools outside the Big Six conferences. A few of them went to traditional powers Gonzaga and UNLV, but some of the others chose much more surprising destinations:
C Aaric Murray
C Zeke Marshall
F Kawhi Leonard
San Diego State
C Rashanti Harris
G Anthony Marshall
F Chris Braswell
C Hassan Whiteside
F Mangisto Arop
F Terrell Vinson
C Greg Smith
G Andrew Bock
F Carlos Lopez
F Sam Dower
G Jason Calliste
F Jordan Swing
G Tyler Haws
After spending a year at Glen Mills, Murray had fulfilled his court-ordered requirements and was given the choice to return to his old school. He decided to stay.
"Before I went there, I didn't appreciate school," Murray said. "I didn't appreciate getting smart. I didn't know knowledge was power before I went there. Being around smart kids and smart people makes you want to be smart."
By this point, Murray had realized the Glen Mills experience had helped him turn his life around. He was improving as a student, and was developing into a promising basketball prospect.
As soon as Murray arrived at Glen Mills, the basketball coaches noticed his height and talked him into joining the team. The game never really had interested him, though he always had towered over his classmates.
"He rarely touched a basketball," LaToya Murray said. "Everybody would say he could play basketball, but he felt like, 'Just because I'm tall, it doesn't mean I'm supposed to play basketball.' "
Once he started playing for Glen Mills, Murray started to enjoy the game and discovered his height was only one of his strengths. Murray wasn't the typical awkward teenager who had to grow into his body. Word eventually started spreading. The tipping point for Murray came when he competed in an NBA Players Association camp in the summer of 2008. Because Murray wasn't an active participant on the AAU circuit, this event represented one of the first times he competed on a national stage against elite prospects.
"He was one of the best big men out there," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "That event is sort of what his national ranking hinged on. He's big and he's skilled. He's not an explosive athlete - he's an 'all right athlete' - but he has great length, he has outstanding size and he's skilled. He's comfortable with the basketball."
Murray stood out so much at that camp that he eventually was ranked as the No. 35 player in the 2009 recruiting class, a status that gave him his pick of schools. That's why Murray's choice came as a surprise.
Murray will be the highest-ranked true freshman to play for a school outside the Big Six conferences this season, and his decision left plenty of observers wondering why he hadn't picked a national power.
Of course, Murray wasn't the typical four-star prospect. Murray never had a "dream school" because he wasn't much of a fan growing up. That allowed him to focus on other criteria as he made his college choice.
Murray appreciated the proximity of La Salle's campus, which is less than a half-hour from his home. And he also liked the idea of blazing his own trail.
"I wanted to be my own man," he said. "I didn't want to go to other schools because of who else went there. I wanted to make my own path."
Time to dance?
Aaric Murray will try to help La Salle earn its first NCAA tournament bid since 1992. La Salle's NCAA drought is tied for the second-longest of any Atlantic 10 team. Here's a look at the last NCAA appearance for each A-10 program:
If Murray can make an instant impact, La Salle might earn that elusive NCAA bid. La Salle returns four starters from a team that went 18-13 last season, but the Explorers need someone to replace the inside presence of 6-9 center Vernon Goodridge. Although Goodridge remains in school, he can't play this season following the NCAA's decision not to grant him an extra year of eligibility.
Goodridge's absence could allow Murray to step in right away and provide an influx of youth on a team that already boasts plenty of experience. Second-team All-Atlantic 10 guard Rodney Green, Kimmani Barrett, Ruben Guillandeaux and Yves Mekongo Mbala have a combined total of 252 career starts.
"We're expecting him to make a significant impact," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "We think he's a talented kid. There's no reason why he shouldn't be able to help us immediately. He's big enough. He's athletic enough. He's skilled enough.
"It's very hard to find talented big men, and we expect him to work hard and help us from day one."
How much he can help immediately remains uncertain. Murray's relative lack of AAU experience makes him the biggest mystery of any top-50 prospect in this freshman class. Murray weighs about 245 pounds and realizes he must gain strength to deal with the grind of a college season.
As long as he can handle the physical demands, Murray's wide array of skills should make him a quality performer. Murray is a better ballhandler than most players of his size. He's a solid shooter who even made the occasional 3-pointer in all-star game settings. He also is a good shot blocker.
His work ethic offers even more reason for optimism. At one time, Murray may have skipped school as often as he attended it, but he has come a long way.
"You look at the decisions he's made and how he's conducted himself and what he's done academically, and you can see the proof's in the pudding," Giannini said. "This is a guy who's done good things and has made good decisions."
Murray has left Glen Mills behind, but the experience always will stick with him. He will begin working at his new school by relying on the lessons that he learned at his old one.
"They said you can always redeem yourself at anything," Murray said. "You never can hit rock bottom."
Murray never did hit rock bottom. Now, the sky's the limit.