A cool smile creased the face of VJ King as the Paul VI senior swingman strode onto the hardwood and into the crowd’s curious gaze at Kentucky’s Fairdale High last month.
Along the baseline sat Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach who five years earlier had fawned over the potential of a skinny seventh grader, revving up the hype machine that surrounds King every time he takes the court. “He’s everything I’d want in a basketball player,” Pitino has since said.
Huddled in the stands was Louisville’s basketball team, each player voluntarily sacrificing his day off to join the throng packed into the modest gym for the King of the Bluegrass Overtime game between Paul VI and nearby North Bullitt.
They had all come to see King.
The prized Louisville recruit has plenty of experience playing on such a stage, the byproduct of following in the footsteps of LeBron James during his freshman and sophomore years at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Ohio. But only now, after a trying junior season at Paul VI, when he learned to play within himself rather than the expectations subsequently created by his talents, can King soak in a setting like the one in Kentucky and remain comfortable in his own skin.
Since dropping 35 points on that December evening, King is averaging 27.2 points and the No. 7 Panthers have won six straight entering Tuesday’s game at No. 9 McNamara.
“I still hold myself to that high standard, but I feel more comfortable now,” said King, a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 27 senior in the country by ESPN who recalled the scene in Fairdale, Ky. “Knowing where to fit in, making my college decision before the season, that’s taken a lot of pressure off me to where now, I can focus on playing with that freedom and us winning as a team. That’s the only thing that matters.”
[Paul VI swingman VJ King commits to Louisville]
Finding that place has been a four-year journey, one that started at the top and at times grew beyond his control. In the sixth grade, King picked up his first offer from UNC Charlotte. The next year, he drew praise from Pitino and former Florida coach Billy Donovan while playing varsity at United Faith Christian Academy in Charlotte.
But nothing accelerated his profile more than when his family moved back to Ohio and King enrolled at St. Vincent-St. Mary, where James made his name. After King became the first freshman to start since James and led the Fighting Irish to the state final, comparisons sprouted and the media labeled him “The Next King of Akron.”
“At first, it was kind of cool, because you’re being compared to LeBron,” King said. “But by my sophomore year, it was difficult because I wanted to be my own person.”
Perspective came by way of a talk with James himself. After meeting the Cleveland Cavaliers star and working out with him for a week during the summer of 2012, King gained a mentor who offered wisdom generated from his own trek through stardom.
“LeBron made it very clear to VJ from the beginning, there’s no sense in you trying to be me because you can’t be me anymore than I can be you,” King’s father, Vincent Sr., recalled. “He told him ‘My time has passed and your time is now.’ For him to say that to VJ really let VJ be comfortable in himself.”
King appeared ready to catapult that process before last season, when his family’s move to Virginia prompted his transfer to Paul VI. Fresh off a championship in arguably the country’s toughest conference, the addition of one of the country’s top juniors in King propelled the Panthers into the preseason national rankings conversation.
But as King worked to mesh his unselfish style of play with his new teammates while adjusting to playing with a shot clock, the success he had grown accustomed to wavered as Paul VI stumbled to a 4-5 start against teams heavy on talent and physicality.
“The skill level and work ethic is always there with VJ, but DMV basketball is a different animal and there were times you could tell he wasn’t used to the grit,” Panthers point guard Aaron Thompson said. “He had to deal with people in his ear saying he wasn’t ready for the league, but we knew he would adapt with time.”
Following a nationally televised loss to Montverde (Fla.) last January, a frustrated King retreated to a set of rocking chairs outside the team hotel, where he was soon joined by Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello.
“We ended up talking about the first month of the season and what we had learned and how he can turn the corner,” Farello said. “VJ’s skill set is ridiculous; he’s got all the tools. They were just a little scattered at first and it was a matter of organizing them and figuring it out.”
Rather than picking his spots, King unleashed a heightened sense of aggression, providing the edge necessary to bolster his midrange game and rebounding ability. By season’s end, King had posted a team-high average of 18.7 points and earned All-Met honors.
His ascent continued over the summer through intense workouts with his father — sessions known to them as “medicine” — and in playing with Team Takeover on the AAU circuit. By playing alongside some of the area’s top talent, King learned to better balance his attacking ability with savvy playmaking skills.
In turn, King feels he has rid himself of the baggage of expectations he once shouldered, and now he’s comfortable leading a Panthers team brimming with young talent and bent on reclaiming the WCAC crown.
“The expectations at St. V, obviously he was aware of it, but I don’t think it played as much of a factor in his style of play like last year,” King’s mother, Lo, said. “He’s comfortable again. He knows what to expect and he feels he has to be the leader of this team, so that confidence makes him who he is out on the court.”
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