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Sasser admired secretly no more

Orlando's coach and GM knew how much they wanted the SMU guard. They just didn't want any other teams to know.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 29, 2001


ORLANDO -- Magic general manager John Gabriel spent a great deal of Wednesday night's draft talking to teams about draft and trade possibilities.

And whenever the name of Southern Methodist all-time leading scorer Jeryl Sasser surfaced, Gabriel cringed.

The Magic brass wanted to keep quiet its admiration of Sasser, a little-known 6-foot-6 point guard who wowed the team in his early June workout.

So, after grabbing DePaul center Steven Hunter at No. 15 and trading for North Carolina center Brendan Haywood, Orlando was relieved to find Sasser available at No. 22.

The secret is out.

"Yeah, we were able to keep that one quiet," coach Doc Rivers said. "It's nice to know that we can keep some things secret. We were pretty sure a couple of teams were looking at him. We didn't want to lose him."

With a desperate need for help inside, Orlando surprised no one by acquiring Hunter and Haywood, players expected to go in the first round. But Sasser might turn out to be the measuring stick of the draft.

A senior with a big body, an aggressive defensive style and a relentless work ethic, Sasser brings to an already athletic club ability on both ends of the court.

"His energy grows on you, and then he came in and worked out. We saw how dominant he could be with smaller players," Gabriel said. "You always like when the ball goes in the air to have an advantage over the other team. And when you're guy is 6-6 and the other guy is 6-0, you've got the advantage before the ball goes up."

Sasser, who joined Hunter and Haywood for an afternoon news conference Thursday, said he anticipated being drafted around the 22nd overall pick and was excited about playing with Orlando's nucleus.

"From my standpoint, this is a great situation," Sasser said. "With Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, a great coach in Doc and a great general manager ... It's just a blessing."

On draft night, the selection of Sasser turned heads because two more recognizable point guards, Iowa State's Jamaal Tinsley and St. John's Omar Cook, were on the board. "(Sasser's) approach to the game will fit in very well with the way Doc coaches," Gabriel said.

Though he saw time at shooting guard at SMU, Sasser will play point for the Magic and should help give Darrell Armstrong a rest. It's a challenge Sasser said he's ready for.

"I started off as a center (in high school). Then I moved to point guard," Sasser said. "Then at SMU, I ended up at point guard. I guess I just like the ball in my hands. I had a big growth spurt between my eighth grade year and then my freshman year. I grew 7 inches in one summer, so I already had the ball-handling skills.

"I kept my coordination, so posting up and playing out of position gives me versatility, and that might be my strongest point."

On a team that features McGrady and Armstrong, and expects Hill's return from injury, Sasser likely won't be asked to provide heavy scoring. Gabriel and Rivers project him as a defensive stopper.

"That's funny, but I was the all-time leading scorer at my school," said Sasser, who ended his 117-game career with 1,992 points, 465 assists, 197 steals and 976 rebounds. "I do try to play both ends of the court, though, both offense and then on the defensive side. I use my size to my advantage as much as I can, since most guards are shorter than me."

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