GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Knicks draft prospect Jeremy Tyler, who made national headlines in 2009 for skipping his senior year of high school to play professionally overseas, impressed GMs at Chicago's NBA draft combine in mid-May with his interviews.
Last Monday at the Knicks practice facility, Tyler gave a group of about 10 reporters a taste of how he did that. When a door opened into the media room and the 20-year-old center appeared, he introduced himself to every member of the media with an extended handshake and "Hi, I'm Jeremy." In my years working in sports, I had never seen a player do that before a press conference, large or small.
It was a pleasant surprise considering how Tyler had been portrayed in the two previous years. Back in 2009, several months after signing with the pro basketball club Maccabi Haifa in August, reports surfaced out of Israel that he was having a turbulent time. The New York Times reported: "His coach calls him lazy and out of shape. The team captain says he is soft. His teammates say he needs to learn to shut up and show up on time. He has no friends on the team. In extensive interviews with Tyler, his teammates, coaches, his father and advisers, the consensus is that he is so naïve and immature that he has no idea how naïve and immature he is. So enamored with his vast potential, Tyler has not developed the work ethic necessary to tap it."
Tyler admitted that being overseas in the foreign city of Haifa as an 18-year-old without his family by his side was "pretty tough," but he had an appetite to take on the challenge -- and he said it was a coming-of-age experience.
"That's exactly what I wanted," Tyler said. "I was coming to a situation not really knowing how to handle myself. I wanted to challenge myself, challenge my skills, challenge me as a person. It was like a developmental year. I grew up. I developed a lot of good daily things that I didn't have, such as being a professional, just learning how to carry myself and learning how to conduct myself in the public as a sports figure, as a model person."
Tyler left Haifa in March of 2010 to return to his hometown of San Diego, but it didn't take him very long to book another international flight. This time, it was to Tokyo, Japan, to play for the local Apache club -- and this time, he was mentally prepared. With the guidance of his sideline boss Bob Hill, who coached the Knicks in the 1986-87 season and other NBA teams in the 1990s, Tyler became the mature person the group of reporters met last week.
"[Bob's] been everything I could possibly want in a mentor, a coach and a father figure," Tyler said. "I was there by myself. I basically lived at his house. I was going there every day eating and he was installing how to be a professional, how to be a man, how to be a good person -- and all that transitioned over to basketball. He's been everything as far as teaching me the game. He always told me, 'If you have everything that I have in my brain in your body right now, you'll be the best player ever.' So I said, 'I'm going to soak up everything every single day.'"
Not only can Tyler sway the Knicks from now until next week's draft with his maturity -- one of the most important intangible assets needed to make it under the bright lights of New York -- but he plays a position, center, the team would like to upgrade. It appeared early on in the pre-draft process that they might look for a point guard to back up Chauncey Billups, especially with the concern over his age (34) and his recent playoff injury. But since his follow-up MRI showed no further damage to his left knee suffered in Game 1 of the first-round series vs. Boston, a player like Tyler (or a versatile forward like Chris Singleton) could re-direct the Knicks' focus heading into June 23.
Tyler, who was one of the top high school players in the country in the class of 2010 (he never went to college), is also applauded for his NBA-ready size (6'11", 260), big hands, 7'5" wingspan and athleticism, which onlookers raved about in Chicago. According to scouts, Tyler was one of two players (the other being Kentucky center Enes Kanter) who dramatically improved their stock.
Regarding his Knicks workout, Tyler said it was "real competitive" and he did "pretty good." Becoming a 'Bocker would be a dream come true for arguably the biggest sleeper in the draft.
"The Knicks are my favorite team," Tyler said. "I definitely can bring a lot of intensity, especially on defense. That was basically my role in Tokyo. I have a motor that never stops. I want to play hard and I go after it every single play. What I can bring to the Knicks is great, fundamental defense, especially a lot of heart added in to the heart that's already there, and just playing hard -- giving it everything I got."
Pretty soon, he may be sending out a welcome letter to every Knicks fan.
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