In Charles Neal’s eyes, for a Rancho Mirage boys’ basketball team hunting for a CIF title after coming so close a year ago, losing two weeks ago to Vista Murrieta may have been a good thing.
The unquestioned leader of the Rattlers squad, now a senior, said this offseason after Rancho Mirage lost its final two games of the 2015-16 postseason, he took some time on his mental game. He focused on that just as much as honing his 3-point shot or his ability to dribble in traffic.
He not only needed to prepare his emotions for one final high school season, but also to work on how to lead a team in more than scoring.
To start, that means taking losses not as tough.
“I think a lot of guys were playing not to lose that game against Vista Murrieta, so having this loss early in the season will definitely help us,” he said. “Now we’ll just be able to play.”
But how to take losses off the court? Neal is still definitely a student. Regarded as the top basketball player the valley has produced recently, the Rattlers senior is yet to find serious Division I basketball recruiting interest despite being close to halfway through his swan song season.
Neal said, in talking with scouts and coaches in the offseason, he’s been told a lot that one thing he has little control over may be the one thing that’s keeping him without scholarship offers in his stocking come Christmas morning.
“A lot of coaches really love my game,” he said. “They always say I need to get bigger and stronger, but as far as skills and how well I see the floor, they all love my game.
“Hearing that definitely takes a toll.”
While many of Neal’s teammates hit a growth spurt in the offseason, Neal stayed fairly stationary at 6-foot-3, still with his wiry frame that looks not unlike another 6-3 guard who struggled to bring in big-time offers while a senior in high school.
Does Stephen Curry ring a bell?
“People want the next Russell Westbrook, and unfortunately, kids that look like Steph Curry get overlooked,” Rattlers coach Rob Hanmer said. “College coaches want to play with men, and Charles doesn’t look like that yet, and that’s the real world. If someone is patient with him, he’s going to mature and end up being really, really good in the future, and he’ll look like a man.”
Hanmer said in the start of this season, he can tell, skill-wise, that Neal’s hard work on his own and with his AAU team Gamepoint San Diego 17U has paid off. For starters, Neal has another shot to add to his selection in fast-break situations: He can dunk.
Beyond the obvious, the Rattlers coach said in every facet of the game, from dribbling through traffic, fade-away jumpers and finding the open teammate with a tricky outlet pass, Neal has improved. Doing so has made the game seem much slower, to the point Hanmer said that at times, he catches Neal trying to show off for potential coaches to compensate for what he lacks.
“I find myself pointing out often that he’s trying to entertain himself out there, and he just needs to keep things simple,” Hanmer said. “He doesn’t need to impress people and just do what he does. It’s good enough.”
Though he may not always show it, Neal said he agrees. Only he truly knows the work he’s put in, dedicating himself to a career at the next level. He has the points and assist numbers to back it up and the awards to show at least the basketball community in southern California recognizes the impact he can make.
But recruiting in college basketball is tough. Coaches can only watch so many players and have to, in some respect, look at hard numbers to start their search. Point guards scoring close to 20 points a game who stand 6-3 are a dime-a-dozen.
“He knows he’s worked hard and done what he’s supposed to do,” Hanmer said. “It’s just about finding that coach that would rather have that winning attitude that Charles brings each day than that freakish athlete that you can recruit and hope to teach him how to play basketball.”
With Hanmer’s wide circle of coaching friends and friends-of-friends, he said he feels something will come eventually. Though he wouldn’t get into specifics, he mentioned multiple acquaintances, including coaches at schools in Dallas and Idaho that have expressed interest in Charles. Many coaches at small programs, Hanmer said, have reached out, hoping Neal could fall to them if elite or even middle-of-the-road Division I schools don’t bite.
Junior college, where Neal could go for a year or two to essentially extend his recruiting period, is an option too.
“He could end up at the local JC or find himself in Timbuktu playing Division I basketball,” Hanmer said. “Or anywhere in between.”
This next week of basketball could be pivotal for Neal, though. With Rancho Mirage hosting the elite field of their Rancho Mirage Holiday Invitational, college coaches from all levels are expected to be in town to look at some of the top players in the Open Division, in particular. With some great games, Neal could catch their eyes, too.
Sometimes, recruiting takes weird fates of luck, too. In Hanmer’s time in the valley, he’s only seen five local players go on to play Division I college basketball and coached four of them: Marquis Strange (Howard University); Thomas Shewmake (Cal State Northridge); Caleb Gervin (Louisville); Christian Wilson (Texas-San Antonio); and Marshall Freeman (1995 grad of Palm Desert, went to Buffalo).
For Gervin, remembered as possibly the best basketball player the valley has ever had, his Louisville opportunity came from an unexpected place. As Hanmer remembers, President Gerald Ford’s security guard watched Gervin play, contacted a coaching friend he knew with the Cardinals and told them “You have to take this kid.”
Neal knows he has what it takes, but also knows this week, he can’t force anything. If the pressure of playing in front of an important crowd gets to him, just as if he rises to the occasion, there will be plenty of people on hand to witness it.
He’s waited and worked 18 years to reach his dream. What’s a couple more months, or even years?
“I know if I just play my game … I know I’ve worked hard all my life to this point, and if I play how I practice and do the things I’ve worked on, I know it’ll pay off,” he said.