Alabama freshman Collin Sexton is a force to be reckoned with

Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama -- Collin Sexton is a bit of a maniac on the court. He can't help it. As soon as he gets a ball in his hands, his every movement is infused with a simmering intensity.

On a Tuesday night in mid-November, Sexton's alter ego, "Young Bull," has come out for Alabama's home opener against Lipscomb.

There was no mistaking the 6-foot-3 freshman guard from Mableton, Georgia, as he lingered a few paces behind his teammates during pregame warm-ups, eyes focused and trained downward. While most of his teammates breezed through the layup line, Sexton aimed for thunderous dunks. He was one of the last players to leave the floor, shaking his head after every missed shot.

Sexton was making his debut for the Crimson Tide after being suspended for the season opener against Memphis for a violation of NCAA rules. Jacob Heatherly and Matt Coffer were among those in attendance who came to see the 18-year-old do something special.

They designed and printed red "Young Bull" T-Shirts to wear to the game. In a football-obsessed state, these freshmen from Cullman, Alabama, are familiar with Sexton's highlight reel, including his performance in the McDonald's All America Game. In Sexton, they saw someone unafraid to push the limits.

"He wouldn't be scared to do something flashy," Coffer said, "and that's what separates the good from the great players. He does the extra."

He added: "Man, I'm just excited he's in Tuscaloosa. He's going to change the culture down here."

Alabama's much-hyped freshman Collin Sexton -- AKA Young Bull -- makes his debut tonight vs. Lipscomb after sitting out the season-opener. These fans were so excited they made T-shirts for the occasion.

Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer399d ago

While Sexton's athleticism and creativity were plain to see in his highlights, what Coffer and Heatherly had to see in person was the intensity with which Sexton plays.

"The emotion that he comes into the game with," Heatherly said before his buddy cut him off.

"Mamba mentality," Coffer said. "You can see it in his eyes."

You could hear it in his voice when, barely two minutes into the game, he let loose a scream after Donta Hall turned his pass into a dunk and an and-one.

You could see it in his mannerisms when he crouched in a defensive stance during the first half, wild-eyed, with both fists clenched tightly as if he were preparing for a brawl.

When he missed a 3-point attempt, he cursed at himself. Anything short of spectacular seemed to set off a storm inside him.

Sexton is the closest thing college basketball has to Russell Westbrook. Their size is the same, as is their game: scoring point guards with 3-point range and the ability to get to the rim at will. But it's their approach that is eerily similar: an unmistakable, white-hot intensity that is borderline maniacal.

Sexton finished with 22 points, five assists and two steals in an 86-64 win. Afterward, Alabama coach Avery Johnson lauded his response to his one-game suspension. Sexton was ruled ineligible after Alabama officials determined that he was the unnamed player referenced in a federal complaint in connection to a larger FBI investigation into several college basketball programs. Three days later, the school announced that Sexton had been reinstated and would be eligible to play after sitting out the season opener.

"He's had a lot on his plate," Johnson said before responding to a question about Sexton's energy on the court.

"Was he bouncing around? Was he active? Was he animated? Did he dunk in the warm-ups?" Johnson asked rhetorically before nodding his head. "Was he maybe trying to get the students fired up? Whatever it is, that's what we need. Because we don't talk. So I need a little animation and emotion, pride and -- whatever they call it -- swagger.

"I call it confidence, not arrogance. I'm sure he probably was [excited]. He's had a long road. ... If he was animated and emotional and excited about the game, that's the guy we recruited."

Avery Johnson won a championship as a player with the San Antonio Spurs and coached an NBA All-Star team in 2006 when he was head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. In 2015, after head-coaching stints with the Mavericks and the Brooklyn Nets, he found himself at the helm of a mediocre college basketball team in Alabama.

The last time the Crimson Tide made the NCAA tournament was 2012, and their last tourney win came in 2006. They haven't had a player drafted in the first round of the NBA draft since 2001.

So, yeah, it was always going to be a rebuild for Johnson in Tuscaloosa. He inherited a team of middling talent and finished 18-15 in his first season. But what was happening behind the scenes was far more important than the win-loss column.

Two months after Johnson took the job, a program-changing recruit was set to visit. Almost no one knew it at the time, but he would have the talent and the speed to make Alabama basketball not just good but also exciting.

When Collin Sexton, as a rising junior, arrived in Tuscaloosa for a summer camp with little interest from major college programs, Johnson and assistant coach Antoine Pettway saw a player with unrefined skills and character traits they found appealing.

Sexton was a top-notch trash-talker who would later have the gall to tell NBA legend Penny Hardaway that his son was "trash" during a game. He was so aggressive that he had to stop playing one-on-one with his older brother because he said it always ended in a fight. He was fearless charging to the basket and capable of making a living on the foul line.

Granted, he wasn't a pure point guard, but in an evolving game, that no longer seemed to matter. Alabama became Sexton's first scholarship offer, and then everything changed in a hurry.

Sexton's stock rose during his junior year. During the Nike EYBL tournament, he set a single-season scoring record of 31.7 points per game, outperforming top prospects Michael Porter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. He got invited to USA basketball and won a gold medal at the FIBA U-17 world championship.

He became a McDonald's All American and owned the all-star game with a behind-the-back, alley-oop pass that made Dwyane Wade rise from his seat. Sexton also won the dunk contest with a 360 jam and behind-the-back slam that got perfect 10s from the judges.

The offers piled up from the likes of Arizona and North Carolina. Kansas and NC State hosted Sexton on visits, but he held firm to Alabama.

"They believed in my potential before anyone else," he told ESPN.

Johnson, who pointed to this season as pivotal for his program, finally has the player who can make his vision of an uptempo, NCAA tournament-caliber team possible. Before the start of the season, Johnson orchestrated Alabama's first pro day for scouts to come get a close look at the team's prospects. Sexton, Johnson said, measured "off the charts."

"He's as fast as anyone I've seen at the college or pro level," Johnson said.

An NBA scout told ESPN's Jeff Borzello, "I'd take him in a heartbeat from what I've seen."

The scout added: "He's no more emotional or crazy than [Kevin] Garnett or Draymond [Green]."

Let it sink in for a moment: Sexton is the first Alabama player to score 40 points in a game since 1978.

And he did it as a freshman.

And he did it on the road against a tournament-caliber team in Minnesota.

And he did it while playing three-on-five.

Gophers coach Richard Pitino called Sexton's performance an "out-of-body experience." The Tide lost 89-84, but with five more minutes, extra fluid and possibly an oxygen tank, the rookie point guard might have finished the comeback.

"It was mostly just Collin Sexton throwing up 3s, to be honest with you," Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy said. "It was just one of those things where he was pulling up from anywhere. It was just a limitless range type of thing where it doesn't matter where he is on the court, he's just going to throw it up there."

Pitino added: "He could beat a single team, just one guy [by] himself. He's that good."

If Sexton wasn't on the national radar before, he was after that game. But to be clear, that wasn't a one-off game. He averages 21.8 points per game and has scored 20 or more in six of his nine games this season. He has already attempted 90 free-throws, which ranks sixth nationally.

"Every time I step on the court," Sexton said, "I have to give my all."

ESPN's Bracketology projects Alabama as a 9-seed in the NCAA tournament.

In Alabama's next game after the loss to Minnesota, against Louisiana Tech, we saw why the Crimson Tide could make a run. The whole team was off. Players were either too slow getting back on defense or too fast on offense. Sexton started off 0-for-5 shooting and was visibly frustrated. During one timeout, he unleashed a scream at himself and punched his right thigh.

But even though his shot wasn't falling, he impacted the game. On one possession, Dazon Ingram carried the ball downcourt, and the entire defense shaded and pulled toward Sexton, who stood in the corner beyond the arc. As a result, Ingram was given a clear lane to the basket and drew a foul when the defense crashed in on him.

Sexton, who wore Jordans while everyone else had on standard-issue Nikes, turned up the aggression in the second half. His shot wasn't falling, so he started driving to the rim. A huge dunk sparked the crowd, followed by a nifty layup. Then, showing the kind of court awareness scouts crave, he passed up a wide-open 3, dribbled into the lane and fed Hall for an easy dunk.

With just under two minutes remaining, Sexton took off on a fast break and slammed home a two-handed dunk to give Alabama the lead. The Tide won 77-74, and Sexton finished with 22 points, five rebounds, three steals and three assists.

Johnson lauded Sexton's maturity for understanding how to impact the game in different ways, while Louisiana Tech coach Eric Konkol couldn't do much more than throw up his hands in disbelief.

"If you would have told me Collin Sexton was 6-of-19 for the game, I would have thought we were in great shape," Konkol said. "And we were. But he is a guy that has a relentless motor, and he just keeps going. It seems like he never runs out of energy."

Alabama will go as far as Sexton takes it. Late in the season, when every possession matters, he'll be the one the Tide turn to. He's the one with the talent and the force of will to take over.

When he is wild-eyed with a head full of steam, no one will wonder why they call him Young Bull.