Alaskans thrive in Division 1 college basketball

bbragg@adn.comFebruary 13, 2013 

The heat is on Anchorage's Devon Bookert at Florida State. He plays in the ACC, a college basketball crucible where the teams are storied, the players are epic and the fans are among the most hostile in the country. He knew he'd hit the big time when he walked onto an opponent's court and saw students in the stands wearing masks made of his mug shot.

But it's not the prospect of facing Duke or North Carolina that makes Bookert sweat. It's living with 7-foot-1 center Michael Ojo of Nigeria.

"He's from Africa and he likes the heat up real high," Bookert said. "I can't stand the heat. I can't stand the humidity. So we have free throw shooting contests to decide who gets to set the temperature."

A pretty cool customer when it came to making clutch shots at West High, Bookert is holding his own as a freshman at Florida State, whether he is playing point guard for the Seminoles or earning the right to set the thermostat in his dorm room.

But the road to Division I basketball was a circuitous one for both Bookert and Damon Sherman-Newsome.

Two years ago they were the kings of Alaska high school basketball, Bookert as a do-it-all guard for West and Sherman-Newsome was an inside force for Bartlett. When their teams met for the Class 4A championship game in 2011, Sherman-Newsome led the Golden Bears to victory by dominating the paint for 14 points and eight rebounds, while Bookert dazzled in defeat, scoring 38 points.

They were the hottest college prospects in the state, and then they disappeared -- on purpose.

Bookert spent a year at the Impact Basketball Academy in Las Vegas. Sherman-Newsome spent at year at Angelina Community College in Lufkin, Texas.

Today, both are key reserves for Division I basketball teams. Bookert is a 6-foot-3 guard at Florida State and Sherman-Newsome is a 6-5 guard at Colgate, and both say the detours were critical to getting them to where they are.

"I didn't have much coming out of high school so I went to junior college for a year," Sherman-Newsome said in a recent interview. "It was a pretty tough decision, but I felt like it would help.

"Coming from Alaska, we don't get much recruiting. I had a lot of (interest from Division II schools) but I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to go Division I."

Bookert chose a different option -- an academy made for basketball players who want to sharpen their game and broaden their opportunities. At about $30,000 a year including housing, it's a more expensive option than junior college.

"It made me better," Bookert said.

And it helped make a name for him.

More college coaches got to see Bookert once he enrolled at the Impact Academy. He enrolled after his senior year at West, which allowed him to play in summer showcase tournaments with a top AAU team from California.

He said it was those tournaments that earned him the attention of several schools, including Florida State.

Before then, Bookert said he received "zero" interest from Division I schools. "That happened when I finally got to play AAU," he said.

Though Alaska has AAU teams, they usually aren't among the elite teams at tournaments and so they don't often play in front of Division I coaches. In the summer when he was in high school, Sherman-Newsome played for an elite-level AAU team from Seattle, but NCAA rules prevented him from playing with that team during recruiting periods. The rule says an athlete can only play for AAU teams in bordering states, a tough restriction in a place with no neighboring states. Bookert, for example, couldn't play for a California AAU team until he was enrolled in a Nevada academy.

While Bookert was busy drawing attention in Las Vegas his first year out of high school, Sherman-Newsome was getting comfortable playing a new position. Although he is a guard at Colgate, he was a post player much of the time in middle school and high school.

"That's how it works in Alaska," he said. "If you're 6-4, you gotta play center. My first full season of playing guard was my senior year in high school. It was an adjustment. It's still an adjustment."

Sherman-Newsome has filled in at point guard a time or two for Colgate but he spends most of his time on the wing, where he contributes an average of 6.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. He said he doesn't miss playing in the paint.

"Every now and then I get a blocked shot, but I'm not as much of a charge-taker as I should be," he said. "I didn't like playing post. I always knew my dream was to play in Division I and I knew if I was gonna play Division I it would have to be as a guard."

With Colgate, Sherman-Newsome has played in front of more than 21,000 fans at Syracuse's Carrier Dome, has gone up against former East High player Derrick Wilson at Marquette and has faced rowdy student sections at Providence and Illinois.

"Having a real student section going against you is probably one of the funnest things I've done playing basketball," he said.

Bookert plays in the ACC, which just might lead the nation when it comes to crazy student sections. At a road game earlier this season, he was stunned to see his face in the stands. It was students from the rival school wearing masks made from his mug shot.

Games are so loud, he said, he can barely hear anything.

"You can't hear the ball bouncing. You can't hear your coach. You look at your teammates but you can barely hear what they're saying," he said. "The only thing you can really hear is the sound of your own breath running down the court."

Bookert has three more seasons to get used to life in the ACC. Even though he spent a year at the Impact academy after high school, it didn't take away a year of eligibility. Sherman-Newsome only gets three seasons at Colgate, because he used one year of eligibility playing junior college basketball.

Both say the detours they took on their way to Division I basketball were worth it. Both say they would advise other Alaskans with Division I dreams to consider following similar paths and get themselves to places where coaches will see them.

"Go to camps and play in AAU tournaments so they will see you," Bookert said, "because unless you're a Trajan Langdon or Carlos Boozer, they're not gonna come up to see you."

"Definitely think about getting out of Alaska if you can," Sherman-Newsome said. "They don't really come to Alaska unless you're Mario Chalmers. If you can afford it and you can get out, I would get out."

 

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

By the numbers

Devon Bookert

Florida State

17.9 minutes per game

5.1 points per game

1.3 rebounds per game

2.1 assists per game

50.0 percent field goal shooting (36 of 72)

52.8 percent 3-point shooting (19 of 36)

86.7 percent free throw shooting (26 of 30)

 

Damon Sherman-Newsome

Colgate

22.2 minutes per game

6.4 points per game

2.7 rebounds per game

1.2 assists per game

38.7 percent field goal shooting (55 of 142)

29.8 percent 3-point shooting (17 of 57)

79.1 percent free throw shooting (33 of 43)

 

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