Northwestern’s newest big man is a hard-working, yarmulke-wearing potential steal

Of all the walk-ons who will play Division I basketball next season, none is more likely to become an instant campus cult hero than the 6-10 yarmulke-wearing freshman Northwestern just added to its roster.

Aaron Liberman attended an 86-student Jewish high school near Los Angeles with no basketball gym on campus. He passed up interest from USC, Boston College and several mid-majors to be part of the Northwestern program. And his highlight videos feature so many dunks and blocked shots against small-school opposition that one website christened him the "Jewish Dwight Howard."

"If he has a good career there, you could see all the student section wearing yarmulkes to the game," chuckled Robert Icart, who coached Liberman as a senior at Valley Torah High School in Valley Village, Calif. "Can you imagine? That would be an amazing opportunity for him to impact the basketball community."

It's unlikely the 220-pound Liberman will have immediate success against brawny Big Ten forwards, but he still is an intriguing, risk-free addition for coach Bill Carmody.

Northwestern is revamping its frontcourt with a handful of raw but talented recruits who should someday help the Wildcats improve their notoriously poor interior defense and rebounding. And while Liberman may not see playing time initially, his skill level and work ethic give him a chance to carve out a niche if he can continue to add muscle.

Having never played much organized basketball before he enrolled at Valley Torah, Liberman didn't believe he had a future in the sport despite his height. Only after former Valley Torah coach Matt Meisels had him work out in front of then-Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons as a sophomore did Liberman begin to realize he had the potential to play in college.

"When you have one of the finest basketball minds take an interest in you, I think that's definitely a jolt of confidence.," said Meisels, who coached Liberman as a sophomore and junior. "I asked Jim if there was a chance this kid could take it to the next level. In true Jim Clemons fashion, he said, 'It all depends on how hard he wants to work.'"

Liberman, to his credit, worked very hard — in fact harder than Meisels could possibly have envisioned.

A dual Jewish and secular studies curriculum kept Valley Torah students in class from 7:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., but Liberman's day typically only got harder once school ended. He'd drive up to an hour to a vacant gym to do drills by himself or with a local college coach, then practiced with his high school teammates from roughly 9 to 11 p.m. Once he arrived home, he typically did his homework or worked with a tutor, caught a few hours sleep and then woke up to do it all over again the next day.

The hard work paid off for Liberman by his senior season. He averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks, leading Valley Torah to a shocking section championship in Southern California's lowest enrollment division.

Liberman's father is a Stanford alum who has made academics a priority for his sons, so it was imperative to the 6-10 big man that he found a school where he could play basketball but still get a top-notch education. Northwestern appealed to Liberman because of its academic reputation, the strong Jewish community in the area and the fact that their system is conducive to his style of play.

Liberman will have to put on muscle and adjust to far stronger competition to ever see the court at Northwestern, but his former high school coach warns not to count him out.

"I think he's a mid-major-plus prospect and in the right system like Northwestern's, he could contribute," Icart said. "I've coached Casey Jacobsen and Gilbert Arenas, and [Aaaron] is the hardest-working kid I've ever coached. Those two guys were gym rats, but Aaron is blue collar."

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