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The ex-boxer is improving rapidly for USF basketball.
By GREG AUMAN
Published December 19, 2007
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
To fully appreciate USF guard Jesus Verdejo as a basketball player, you have to understand that this wasn't his first sport. Before he was knocking down 3-pointers, he was knocking out opponents; before he was boxing out, he was just boxing.
From age 4 until 15, Verdejo boxed in his native Puerto Rico, where he was a Golden Gloves champion and likely could have followed a path in the ring to as much success as he has found in college basketball.
"I think I made a good decision," Verdejo said in coming to the United States to focus on basketball. "I started growing up, getting past 6 feet tall, so you've got to go to heavyweight, put on a lot of weight."
Verdejo is very much a fighter on the hardwood, physical enough to rebound against bigger opponents but with plenty of range as a 3-point threat as well.
"I've never had a boxer before," USF coach Stan Heath said of his 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior, a middleweight in his boxing days. "It's illegal for him to hit anybody. He's lethal. I don't really want to get into a boxing match with him, and I don't think his teammates do, either. He's a nice enough kid that that's not going to happen."
Verdejo once trained in the same gym as Felix Trinidad, and one of his best friends back home is Trinidad's brother-in-law. Verdejo said he fought 14 bouts as an amateur in Puerto Rico, winning all 14 and going down only once along the way. His high school coach in Miami, Art Alvarez, said he knew Verdejo was serious about boxing when he went home for Christmas break ... and had three bouts before he returned home. All knockouts.
"Boxing is just like basketball. You have to be quick, you have to anticipate things. I think every team in America should have a boxing workout," said Verdejo, noting that Spurs star Manu Ginobili has benefited from boxing in the offseason. "Boxing helps my quickness, my eyes, my hands, my peripheral vision, my footwork."
Verdejo's progress as a basketball player was much like his as a boxer, after realizing there was more to the sport than just punching. He started his college career at Arizona in 2004-05, where he earned a reputation as being a scorer, but little else.
"I got mad at myself because people knew me only as a scorer," Verdejo said. "That's a bad reputation. You don't want to have that. You can score, but can you play D? No coach is going to play you if you don't play D. I took that as a shot at myself."
Sitting out a season after transferring to USF, Verdejo focused on becoming a well-rounded player, and now he is as proud of his defense as any part of his game. He said he used to be "a slackoff" on defense, comparing himself to a tired fighter who hugs his opponent.
His numbers have improved across the board in Heath's more uptempo motion offense; in 10 games, he has hit as many 3-pointers (15) as he did in 22 games last season. After shooting 29 percent beyond the arc last year, he's at 41 percent this season, and his free-throw shooting is a huge upgrade, from 58 percent as a sophomore to 83 percent as a junior.
"Jesus has blended in with what we're doing very well," Heath said. "More than anything, he's easy to coach, very receptive to coaching and does everything to the best of his ability. He's got his heart and soul in the right spots."
Being from Puerto Rico gave Verdejo invaluable international experience as part of his native country's national team. He has played in Greece, Italy, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He remembers a game in the Pan American games in which he faced a Team USA roster so loaded that Adam Morrison, a future No. 1 NBA pick, was coming off the bench.
Verdejo has started every game in USF's 7-3 start, and much of his success comes from feeling at home in a scheme for the first time in years.
"I feel like I'm back in high school. I feel comfortable," Verdejo said. "It's an offense he lets you play in, lets you move. You don't have to dribble a lot. If you can set screens and move without the ball, you're going to get points and get your teammates open. You just learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward."
USF at Wake Forest
When/where: 7, Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Records: USF 7-3; Wake Forest 6-3.
Scouting report: USF freshman guard Dominique Jones practiced as normal Tuesday after turning his ankle in Monday's practice. In the past three games Jones has 30, 30 and 25 points. ... The Bulls beat Wake Forest at the St. Pete Times Forum last season. ... The key matchup should be inside, where 6-9, 270-pound USF senior Kentrell Gransberry (15.7 points, 10.7 rebounds) goes against 6-8, 235-pound freshman James Johnson (12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds). ... The Bulls return home to face St. Francis (N.Y.) on Saturday.
[Last modified December 19, 2007, 00:01:34]