By Adam Hoge-
CHICAGO (CBS) — When Howard Moore walked into the Hinsdale Central High School gym on March 16, 2010, he wasn’t exactly expecting to find the player who four years later would lead Wisconsin to the Final Four.
As it was, the Badgers weren’t really in play for Simeon freshman phenom Jabari Parker.
No, the then-assistant Wisconsin coach in charge of recruiting Chicago wasn’t there to see Parker. The Badgers, who had lost out on St. Ignatius forward Nnanna Egwu to Illinois, were in need of a big man.
And that night in Hinsdale, Moore found his guy.
“I saw a raw, 6-10 kid that was very, very skilled,” Moore, now Illinois-Chicago’s head coach, told CBSChicago.com on Tuesday. “He had the ability to pass and shoot. He did a lot of nice things as a basketball player.”
That player was Frank Kaminsky, then a junior at Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill., and future star of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Back then, Kaminsky was a lightly recruited center who struggled to even see the floor with his AAU team the previous summer.
“I just remember Frankie being so weak and not really ready yet, but that was in the summer of 2009, and then fast forward to the spring of 2010, and he’s a completely different player,” Moore said.
By then, a lot of the big men in the area were off the board, having already verbally committed to other schools. That included Egwu, who Moore had recruited hard and prioritized ahead of Kaminsky.
“Frankie wasn’t a big name on the circuit,” Moore said. “And even we were caught up on some other guys initially. I remember watching Nnanna Egwu. I really liked Nnanna, and I thought he was more prepared to be a Big Ten player at an earlier stage than Frankie was.”
But sitting at the Class 4A Hinsdale Central Supersectional in March of 2010, Moore still had a scholarship available and, in the final game of his junior year, Kaminsky earned that scholarship.
“It’s a little bit of luck, it’s a little bit of follow-up, and you see a kid develop,” Moore said.
Kaminsky scored 15 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in a double-overtime loss to Simeon that night, but it was enough to sell Moore, who in turn had to sell Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan.
“I said, ‘Coach, it’s a no-brainer,’” Moore said. “And so as a staff we agreed that we had to offer him, and the rest is history.”
Moore presented Kaminsky with the scholarship offer on his official visit later that spring and, if it wasn’t for one important hold-up, he would have committed on the spot.
“I committed two weeks after they offered me, and that’s just because I had to get my mom to go there before I committed,” Kaminsky said.
Moore remembers Mary Kaminsky as being “a little torn” because she was a former volleyball player at Northwestern. In fact, the Kaminskys were a Northwestern family, as Frank also had an aunt and uncle who played basketball there.
But the selling points of Wisconsin were convincing. Kaminsky’s parents met with Bo Ryan on their return trip and, as Moore put it, “You knew the kid was coming.”
So how is it that outside of Wisconsin and Northwestern, the star of this year’s NCAA Tournament only had offers from DePaul, Bradley, Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois?
“There were a lot of people who told me what I could and couldn’t do without knowing,” Kaminsky said. “That was frustrating to me, but I think it’s turned out in my favor.”
Part of it is because Kaminsky started out as a guard in high school before he went through a tremendous growth spurt. Those guard skills have been on display throughout the NCAA Tournament, but it took awhile for Kaminsky to get comfortable in his new 7-foot frame.
“It’s a lot like (Memphis Grizzles forward and former Badger) Jon Leuer in the sense that they were both guards at a young age, and then all the sudden they had these tremendous growth spurts and now you got bigs with guard skills,” Moore said.
But Leuer’s promise was more apparent early on his college career. Kaminsky only averaged 1.8 points as a freshman and 4.2 points as a sophomore.
This summer, Moore, who took the UIC job shortly after Kaminsky committed to Wisconsin, went up to Madison to attend one of the Badgers’ practices as they prepared for their exhibition tour in Canada. With Wisconsin having graduated three starters from its frontcourt, Moore quickly sensed some urgency from Bo Ryan when it came to Kaminsky.
“They were,not concerned, but they were at attention to the fact that he had to start showing up,” Moore said.
The season didn’t get off to a great start either. Kaminsky only had 26 points through the first three contests.
And then the North Dakota game happened. Kaminsky dropped 43 points and made 16 of 19 field goals, breaking Wisconsin’s single-game scoring record. For the first time in his college career, he looked like much more than just a 3-point shooting big man. He finally had an inside game.
Of course, that was against North Dakota, and at times this season, Kaminsky still had to muster up enough aggression in the paint. He progressively got better and in a recent late-season stretch has scored 28 points on both Michigan State and Arizona. The Wildcats in particular had no answer for Kaminsky in the Elite Eight on Saturday, as likely top-10 NBA Draft pick Aaron Gordon needed help when matched up on the Wisconsin center.
Yes, Bo Ryan has a knack for developing big men in his system, but this might be his greatest project yet.
“Obviously, Coach knows what he’s doing,” Moore said. “He knows what to do with big guys who have the skill set. And also, he’s got guys who buy into the system, and it’s a good marriage both ways.”
So what is that skill set for a Bo Ryan big?
“The stereotype is a big man who can step out and shoot, but I don’t necessarily think you have to have the ability to shoot,” Moore said. “When you look at (New Orleans Pelicans center and former Badger) Greg Stiemsma, he wasn’t a great shooter, but Greg could really pass. So if you aren’t going to be a great shooter, the ability to pass the ball from the perimeter is the key.”
That’s where Kaminsky’s history as a guard gives him an advantage. He can step back and hit a three or blow right by slower big men by putting the ball on the floor. And now, with his developed post moves and footwork inside, he’s led Wisconsin to the Final Four, where on Saturday it will face a Kentucky team stacked with future NBA talent.
Not surprisingly, Moore will be in the building Saturday in Arlington, Texas, cheering on his alma mater. He said it was “very emotional” seeing Ryan make it to his first Division I Final Four, especially knowing there are players on the team he recruited there. Moore was also instrumental in getting senior guard Ben Brust to Wisconsin after he originally signed a letter of intent with Iowa.
“I had a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how we were going to get that kid into Wisconsin,” he said.
It’s unclear exactly what the seating capacity will be at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas this weekend, but there are about 97,000 more seats than there are at Hinsdale Central, where Moore found Wisconsin’s future Final Four center four years ago.
And this time around, it’s safe to say he won’t be the only one with a close eye on Frank Kaminsky.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.