By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy
As he embarks on his final high school campaign, Dexter Strickland is putting the finishing touches on his transformation from scoring guard to point guard.
At the high school level, there's little distinction between the two. Strickland brings the ball up the court for perennial power St. Patrick but uses his explosiveness to create scoring opportunities for himself. Think Allen Iverson, not Jason Kidd.
But when Strickland gets to North Carolina next year, he's not going to be able to rely solely on his ability to put the ball in the basket. So the 6-foot-3, 180-pound playmaker has spent the past year learning what it takes to become a floor general, from running an offense to feeding the post.
Now Strickland, who's rated the nation's No. 19 senior recruit in the ESPNU 100, can do it all -- capable of lighting up the scoreboard but also able to rack up double-digit assists. Think Chris Paul.
Of course, Strickland has had plenty of experience adapting, both on and off the court.
The biggest change in his life came back in the sixth grade, when Strickland couldn't stay out of trouble at school. His mother, Sheronne, thought he needed a strong male role model in his life on a daily basis, so she sent him to live with his father, Dexter.
"I was always getting kicked out of class or suspended," he says. "My father's really big on discipline and he taught me how to be a man."
It didn't take long for Strickland to shape up. And when his father wasn't straightening him out at home, he was roughing him up on the basketball court. The weak need not apply on Jersey playgrounds, and Strickland wasn't raised to be soft.
"My dad would take me to the park and wouldn't let me score," Strickland says. "He's a big guy and would make rules like I couldn't call any fouls, and that made me tougher."
Strickland's toughness came in handy when he decided to attend St. Pat's. The school that has produced NBA players Al Harrington and Samuel Dalembert had stars like Corey Fisher (now at Villanova) and Jeff Robinson (now at Memphis) on board when Strickland was a freshman.
Strickland went from scoring at will against middle school defenses to going head-to-head with future NCAA stars. As his ninth-grade year wore on, Strickland found himself in an unusual spot: on the bench. He was a key role player on a team that won the Tournament of Champions, but for someone used to being a star, it took some getting used to.
"I learned how to be patient," Strickland says. "I didn't always play that much, and I got mad some games because my love for the game makes me want to be out there all the time."
That experience will come in handy next year when Strickland heads down to Chapel Hill. St. Pat's is like a prep version of UNC, a school loaded with tradition and talented players, where freshmen rarely become instant superstars. While a lot of high school stars might struggle in supporting roles, Strickland will be ready to come off the bench.
"Guys need to fit in playing a role as freshmen," St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle says. "He can come in, average six or seven points and contribute where they need him to."
Boyle, the man who has built St. Pat's into a perennial national power, is unquestionably one of the best prep coaches in America, but he can be tough on his players. It's not a style for everyone, but it makes the great ones even greater.
As Strickland got older and started earning more and more playing time -- as a sophomore he started for a Celtics team that won its second consecutive Tournament of Champions title, and he was the team's unquestioned star as a junior -- Boyle stayed on him. Unlike some pampered stars who can't handle criticism, Strickland thrived.
"He's a coach so he's going to yell at you," Strickland says. "He's going to challenge you, so you have to take it and learn from it. But he's not going to say anything to hurt your feelings, just to make you better."
Strickland responds to Boyle because he knows the coach is only trying to make him better. And the only thing Strickland wants to do is get better.
"He wants to be a great player," Boyle says.
Toward that end, Strickland regularly works out three times a day in the offseason, starting before school at 7 a.m. and wrapping up 12 hours later.
"I want to work harder than anyone else,"
Strickland says. "I think about my mother and the rest of my family, and I want to give them a better life. They've made a lot of sacrifices for me, so I want to sacrifice for them. I know when I'm home playing PlayStation 3, other guys are out there working on their games, so that pushes me to go harder."
There's no doubt it's paid off. After earning Star-Ledger All-Non-Public second team honors as a sophomore, Strickland exploded last year, averaging 17.7 points per game and being selected to The Star-Ledger's All-State first team.
While Strickland's junior season didn't end the way he wanted it to -- the Celtics lost in the North Jersey, Non-Public B final to rival St. Anthony -- it was a spectacular year made even more special by his commitment to North Carolina in January.
"It just felt like home," Strickland says.
Maybe that's because he brought nearly his entire family with him on his visit. Unlike most recruits, who come by themselves or with a parent, the Stricklands loaded nine family members into a rented RV to make the trip to Chapel Hill. For nine hours of driving split up over two days, the Stricklands watched movies, played games and enjoyed some serious bonding time. When they arrived, Jersey took over Carolina.
Sounds like a sign of things to come.