One on One with Chris Dortch: Josh Wallace
College basketball is great because of players like Auburn guard Josh Wallace.
For every five-star, blue-chip recruit in the game today, there are 100 players like Wallace: talented but overlooked by power conference schools, maybe a step slow or a tad too short, destined to play at a mid-major school or lower … unless they have the guts or the confidence to defy conventional wisdom and put their talent to the test in unconventional fashion.
Wallace is all about guts and confidence, part of the reason his story is as compelling as it is atypical. Two years ago, he was a first-team all-state player at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, Fla. who was quick of foot and of mind. There aren’t many players who can beat just about anyone they come up against in a half-court sprint or solving a Sudoku puzzle. Count Wallace among them.
Raised by his mother, who’s been a professor of business education and computer science at Pensacola State College for 33 years, Wallace quickly learned his priorities. “She stressed academics way before ball,” Wallace said. “You had to get your work done before you could even think about playing sports. Academics were a big part of growing up.”
True, but Joyce Hopson-Longmire gave her son some physical gifts, too. She had played high school basketball in her native Arkansas. Wallace also inherited some basketball ability from his father Robert Wallace, who once traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Given those athletic genes and the emphasis his mother placed on academics, Wallace was close to being a total package in high school: good player, good kid, an off-the-charts 4.45 grade point average and 12 hours of college credit already earned. What’s not to like, right?
Well, there was one thing, at least as far as schools in the Southeastern or Atlantic Coast conferences were concerned. Wallace is listed—perhaps charitably so—at 5-foot-10. There isn’t much call for a sub six-footer in the SEC or ACC unless, as in the case of Florida’s Erving Walker, they can take over games with their scoring ability.
Wallace was a good scorer in high school but not a game-breaking shooter like Walker. By the time he reached his senior season, it was apparent Florida or Florida State weren’t going to be extending scholarship offers. For that matter, neither did Jacksonville, North Florida, Stetson or Florida Gulf Coast.
“I had a few [Division I] offers,” Wallace said. “Campbell came in late. Southeastern Louisiana. Cornell was looking at me a little bit and Tulane for a while. Mostly it was Division II schools and a lot of junior colleges.”
Wallace might have ended up at one of those junior colleges had his high school coach, Terrence Harris, not intervened. He contacted a friend, Tim Craft, who at the time was working for Auburn and former coach Jeff Lebo. Harris told Craft in no uncertain terms that if the Tigers took a chance on Wallace, he would beat out any scholarship point guard on their roster.
Auburn sounded good to Wallace, because it offered engineering. Wallace had always excelled in math and science, and a cousin he had looked up to all his life had studied engineering in college.
“I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Wallace said. “He had graduated from South Carolina State and gone into engineering. If he did something, I wanted to do it, too.”
So Wallace, an 80-percent academic scholarship in hand, headed for the Plains as a walk-on and quickly convinced Lebo he was worthy of playing time. He saw action in 24 games as a freshman, and though he averaged only 1.2 points and an assist per game, Wallace thought he had carved out a niche for himself, at the very least as a tempo-changing reserve point guard.
When Lebo was fired after last season, Wallace feared he would be buried on the bench behind recruits brought in by new coach Tony Barbee. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. Barbee runs the dribble-drive motion offense he learned from Kentucky coach John Calipari, and he saw a role for Wallace.
“He’s absolutely going to play for us,” Barbee told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook last summer. “He’s a tough kid who’s really fast and quick with the ball. He’ll fit in perfectly in this offense because he’s got the speed to break his man down.”
Five months after Barbee made that statement, Wallace has proven it to be correct. Wallace is the only non- (athletic) scholarship player starting in the SEC. And he’s not just holding down a spot for an outmanned team. Wallace leads the SEC in steals (40, or 1.9 per game), is second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1:1) and third in assists (4.0 apg).
Those numbers are all excellent barometers of a point guard’s worth. Wallace’s shooting percentages (.348 from the field, .308 from three-point range, .625 from the free-throw line) could stand some improvement, but having long since learned the value of hard work, he’s been willing to put in the time on his stroke.
Wallace’s efforts paid dividends last Saturday, when he outshined South Carolina’s heralded freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, scoring a career-high 17 points, grabbing four rebounds and handing out three assists in helping lead the Tigers, who had been winless in six SEC games, to an improbable 79-64 victory in Columbia.
Before the game, Wallace had been apprised of Ellington’s four-star recruit pedigree and considerable talents and was eager to take on the challenge of trying to outplay him.
“I knew he was a good shooter and really quick,” Wallace said. “You had to respect his game. But coach [Barbee] told me not to be afraid to throw the first punch and don’t get punched first. I was looking forward to the challenge of guarding him.”
Wallace’s performance against South Carolina and Ellington—who was limited to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field and 1-of-7 from three-point range—didn’t surprise Barbee, who has come to respect the mindset with which his tiny point guard plays the game.
“As coaches, you want guys who play bigger than what they are,” Barbee said. “You see a lot of 6-10 guys play like a 6-foot guard. When Josh looks in the mirror, he sees a guy that’s 6-10, 300 pounds. And that’s how he plays. He brings it every day.
“Josh has come a long way, and he continues to grow.”
The SEC isn’t the easiest league in which to learn on the job, but then Wallace has always been a quick study. Auburn assistant coach Tony Madlock mentions speed first when asked to assess Wallace’s strengths, but he’s also quick to point out some less obvious strengths.
“One thing I’m finding out the SEC is that there are a lot of good, small point guards in the league,” Madlock said. “Most of them score better than Josh does. But he brings intangible leadership qualities, plays so hard and is smart. And his attitude is great—he’s told us that he’ll help this program any way he can.
“Josh is a special kid.”