For much of the past year, coaches have been telling Sheldon Blackwell his erratic jumper is all that separates him from establishing himself as one of Southern California's most coveted class of 2013 recruits.
As a result, the 6-foot-5 combo guard has made it his mission to prove outside shooting is no longer the weakness of his game. Every workout, no matter how exhausted he is or how much he has left to do that day, Blackwell will not leave the gym until he has sunk a certain number of jump shots, sometimes 300, sometimes 500 and sometimes even 1,000.
If Blackwell can consistently make opposing defenders pay for daring him to shoot from the perimeter during the July evaluation period the next three weeks, he believes scholarship offers from marquee programs will follow. Gonzaga, Washington, UNLV, and St. John's are among the high-majors who have emailed and sent letters so far, but mid-tier West Coast Conference programs like San Diego, San Francisco and Pacific are the only schools to offer scholarships.
"Trying to get my dream schools involved, that does drive me," Blackwell said. "I feel like I'm underrated and I feel like I can do better, but that's up to me. I try to block out all the pressure on me and just play my game, but I do feel like I have to play better and do better."
The pressure facing Blackwell this month to showcase the improvements he has made to his game highlights the fact that elite recruits typically aren't the ones with the most on the line during the July evaluation period. Instead those who have the most to lose or gain are the marginal recruits seeking their first scholarship offers or the mid-tier prospects like Blackwell desperate to prove they're good enough for a high-major program.
If Blackwell has any doubts about the impact a strong July can have, the Etiwanda High School senior-to-be only needs to look to his siblings for motivation.
Older brother Perris Blackwell, now a forward at Washington, had yet to receive heavy interest from any programs until a series of eye-opening performances the second day of a July tournament persuaded 15 coaches to offer scholarships that week. And older sister Jada Blackwell appeared earmarked for UC Riverside, Cal State Northridge or Long Beach State before an impressive summer before her senior year helped her land at Arizona State instead.
The Blackwell family believes Sheldon can make a similar jump if he plays to his potential in a pair of tournaments in Anaheim the next two weeks and the Adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas at the end of the month.
"He's really excited," his father Henry Blackwell said. "He knows he has been classified as a mid-major prospect, but he has worked hard to try to have a tremendous evaluation period and bring in some high-major offers. There's a little pressure on him, but he understands that's part of the process and he's fine with it."
It's no surprise to Henry Blackwell that his children played sports, but the former East Carolina defensive end does chuckle that they gravitated toward basketball rather than football. Since oldest brother Perris was too big for most youth football leagues as a kid, he focused on basketball and his two younger siblings followed his lead.
One of the qualities Sheldon Blackwell did inherit from his father is his competitiveness. He gets so frustrated after losses that he'll hours — sometimes days — to cool off.
Two years ago, when Blackwell's club team was eliminated from a tournament by a fellow Inland Empire Basketball Program team coached by family friend Keith Howard, he didn't take it especially well.
"He wouldn't shake hands with us," Howard, now Blackwell's AAU coach, said with a laugh. "Here it is, all the kids are from the same program and he trains with me, and he wouldn't shake my hand or talk to me. He's a competitive kid. He carries it within, but it becomes very personal for him."
The past few months, Blackwell has channeled that competitiveness into his workouts and his weight lifting sessions in order to make sure he's prepared for July. He rebounds well for a guard, gets to the basket with ease and defends multiple positions, but there are some facets of his game that needed improvement.
In addition to simply taking dozens of shots per day to get his confidence up, Blackwell has worked to quicken his release and get the proper rotation on the ball. He also has tried to get better at pushing the ball up court and initiating the offense since he views himself as a big point guard at the college level.
All the hard work has Blackwell excited about how his game has grown.
"I see a lot of improvement," he said. "I'm catching and shooting. I'm coming off the dribble off screens. I'm shooting the 18 footer. I'm rebounding more and trying to see my outlets. And I'm trying to be more of a leader."
Those qualities apparently were all on display at a recent pickup game in which Howard had Blackwell play with a group of former college players and European pros including NBA guard Goran Dragic's younger brother, Zoran.
"He played really well," Howard said. "Those guys who were there, they thought he was in college. When I told them he was going into his senior year, they're like, 'He's really good.'"
Blackwell hopes he plays that well the next three weeks. If he does, one of his "dream schools" may soon become a reality.