The Dagger - NCAAB

St. John’s signee will choose between college hoops, pro baseballBefore College of Southern Nevada pitching coach Nick Aiello began helping Amir Garrett prepare for the Major League draft three months ago, he admits thinking it was unlikely the 6-foot-6 high school senior would ever be more than a marginal pro prospect.

Garrett hadn't pitched in an organized game in nearly a full year. He attended a school that didn't even field a baseball team. And although he'd earned a full athletic scholarship to St. John's, it was to play basketball rather than baseball.

Aiello's skepticism quickly gave way to enthusiasm once he began working with Garrett three times a week in March and witnessed the left-hander's imposing frame and unusual raw ability.

What Garrett lacked in polish he made up for with power, slinging the ball 89 miles per hour the first time he threw in front of Aiello and peaking as high as 96 seven weeks later after working to strengthen his arm and hone his mechanics. It was enough to persuade Aiello to stake his reputation on Garrett rocket arm, so he called every Major League scout he knew and encouraged them to attend one of the southpaw's May throwing sessions.

"He picked everything so fast I was blown away," Aiello said. "The next thing I know he's throwing 92 to 96 in front of 40 scouts. It was unreal. It was absolutely the most bananas thing I've ever seen on a baseball diamond."

Assuming the scouts in attendance were as awed by Garrett as Aiello was, the Las Vegas resident will have to make a difficult yet enviable decision before Major League Baseball's August 15 signing deadline for draftees.

He could put his professional baseball career on hold and attempt to be a two-sport athlete at St. John's.  He could pursue college basketball during the school year and pro baseball during the summer. Or he could pass on his chance to be one of the key members of Steve Lavin's vaunted nine-man recruiting class and devote himself entirely to becoming a Major League pitcher.

Baseball America rates Garrett its 200th best prospect in this year's draft, though the threat of being unable to sign him may damage his stock. It will take a very lucrative signing bonus to dissuade a top 75 basketball recruit from playing at St. John's for a coaching staff he adores.

"We love Steve Lavin," Amir's father Darrow Garrett said. "Everyone wants to know how much money it will take for him to leave basketball for baseball. There was an article that said $1.5 million. There's no way we'd leave Coach Lavin high and dry for $1.5 million. I'm not saying he's worth more than that in basketball, but Coach Lavin is worth more than that to us."

Although a St. John's program that returns just one scholarship player desperately needs Garrett's shot-blocking, versatility and relentless hustle, Lavin has not put any pressure on the young forward to commit to basketball. In fact, Lavin will often bring up baseball when he speaks with Garrett or his father, asking what the young pitcher hit on the radar gun that week and encouraging him to make the best decision for him and his family.

"We have encouraged Amir to continue working to develop into the best basketball and baseball player he is capable of becoming," Lavin said in a statement released by a school spokesman. "His talent, competitive nature and determination has allowed him to have the opportunity to pursue his goals of competing at the highest level of two sports."

Garrett's pitching prowess may be a surprise to St. John's fans or even his high school teammates, but those closest to him have known about his passion for baseball for years.

Baseball was Garrett's favorite sport growing up until he began dabbling in organized basketball for the first time in high school. Even after hoops became his top priority, Garrett would often play for his AAU basketball team in daytime tournaments and then pitch for his American Legion baseball team at night.

When Garrett enrolled at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif. after temporarily moving from Las Vegas for to his junior year, word of his 90-mile-per-hour fastball eventually reached baseball coach Joel Romero. Fearing that Leuzinger's basketball coaches were exaggerating, Romero remained skeptical until Garrett participated in his first baseball workout days before the school year began.

"When he went to warm up, I'm sitting in the dugout talking to my players and I hear the glove being pounded by the ball," Romero said. "I'm like, 'Oh my god, this kid does throw hard.' At the time I didn't know how fast he was throwing, but it was definitely in the 90s. I had him face three batters and he struck them out on nine pitches. Easy."

It would have been easy for Garrett to renege on his promise to join Leuzinger's woeful baseball program after leading the basketball team to a section title, but he was excited to pitch again. He threw bullpen sessions in between state playoff basketball games, joined the baseball team immediately after the hoops season ended and struck out 24 batters in 18 innings though he also struggled with control.

Garrett likely would have remained a two-sport athlete at Leuzinger his senior year had he not received an offer from basketball juggernaut Findlay College Prep to return to Las Vegas and enroll at the school. Findlay fielded no other teams besides basketball, yet Darrow Garrett said his son didn't feel he could pass up the competition and exposure the famed basketball power would provide.

"How do you turn down Findlay Prep?" Darrow said. "He started playing basketball the summer before his freshman year, and by the time his junior year is over, he had a powerhouse like Findlay saying they wanted him to come to their school. You can't turn that down."

Garrett promised his father he wouldn't give up on baseball, a pledge he followed through on immediately after basketball season ended in March. He began a throwing program from Jaeger Sports designed to built arm strength, velocity and endurance. He also started throwing regularly with Aiello and family friend Keith Royal, stretching out his delivery and improving his off-speed pitches.

It's too early to project whether Garrett will be playing pro baseball or Big East basketball next year, but which way he's leaning seems to depend on whom you ask.

Aiello describes Garrett as "110 percent committed to baseball," adding that he thinks Garrett's potential as a pitcher dwarfs his basketball upside. The pitching coach backs that up by suggesting that Garrett's velocity may one day approach 100 miles per hour as his mechanics continue to improve.

Darrow Garrett describes his son as "a baseball player who happens to play basketball," but he says "it will take a lot" for a Major League franchise to persuade Amir to give up on  hoops right now. The elder Garrett harbors dreams of his son emerging as the next dual-sport athlete like Bo Jackson, so he doesn't believe it's necessary to choose between the two sports yet.

And then there's Amir, the person who seems the least fazed by the decision he must make. Hours before the start of Monday night's first round of the Major League draft, the younger Garrett was so oblivious to the stress that he asked his father if he could go see a movie with his friends.

Perhaps he's smart enough to realize that if the options are professional baseball or major conference basketball, there's no bad choice to be made.

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