Alec Peters wanted to improve his ball-handling, so he wore dribble goggles that don’t allow you to look at the ball while dribbling. He didn’t just wear the goggles during practice, he wore them for an entire 40-game youth basketball season.
Peters, a 6-9 senior forward at Valparaiso, has used that single-minded vision, the idea of always looking to improve, to propel him from a unranked prospect into a late first- or early second-round NBA draft choice.
“I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be on the fast track,” Peters said. “I wasn’t done growing. I knew I was still getting better as a player. I knew I would have to take a different journey.”
The prototype for a player
Peters’ father Jeff manages a four-person staff that sells commercial fleet vehicles in their hometown of Washington, Ill., about 146 miles southwest of Chicago. When the Washington Recreation Association was looking for someone to run the town’s 32-team basketball recreation program, he stepped up.
He began by creating coaching guides, researching what drills a player needed to be able to perform at various ages. Alec was the willing test subject for the workouts, performing drills in fifth grade that were meant for eighth-graders. When Alec wasn’t doing chores with his siblings on the family’s 4,000-acre farm, he was playing basketball.
“We went to the gym for hours,” Jeff said. “I told Alec, ‘If I’m going to tell coaches this can be done, you have to be able to replicate it.’ We spent all our time on developing coaching drills for people to learn. He was the beneficiary of that. We did some extreme things and he never said, ‘Why are we doing this? The other kids aren’t doing this.’ ”
Last season at Valparaiso, Peters averaged 23 points and 10.1 rebounds, broke former coach Bryce Drew’s career scoring record there and was the Horizon League Player of the Year. His release is smooth, quick and consistent, a result of putting up 60 three-pointers in three minutes or 2,000 shots in a day when he was growing up.
“We had a guy who we paid money to help with his shot,” Jeff Peters said. “It was more (working on) the hand placement, the elbow, the hips, using certain methodology, like darts or diving, to make it to where it was just like breathing, it was effortless, That way, whether it was a 15-footer or 25-footer, it would feel the same. We worked hard early, maybe a little too early, because there were a few tears.”
At times, the coach-parent relationship was difficult for both to deal with, but Peters listened to the criticism.
“I understood,” Alec Peters said. “I was able to separate him as my dad and my coach. There were a lot of long car rides, though. A lot of me coming home and us not talking. I know my mom and my dad were on the same page a lot of the times with the criticism. I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences. We made it here doing it our own way.”
Staying the course
In high school, Peters wanted to be a perimeter player, but Washington High coach Kevin Brown said he pushed Peters to have a more rounded game.
“I was hard on him,” Brown said. “He always wanted to be a perimeter player, but with his (lack of) foot speed, we had to develop his post game so we could force post players to guard him. Then, he didn’t look so slow.”
He played quarterback on Washington’s football team his first two years of high school, but when he shot up to 6-7 before his junior year, he quit football. He started taking notebooks with him to write down his progress, goals and workouts in basketball.
“He was told by so many people that he was too slow, that he didn’t move well enough to play at the college level,” Brown said. “All the way until his junior year, there were very few people who thought he would be a college basketball player. Then, the first four games his junior year, he averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds and then he got mono. He couldn’t catch a break to get where he needed to be.”
Another reason Peters didn’t gather much notice from ranking services is he continued to play for his father for the Illinois Irish AAU team, rather than more high-profile AAU teams from Chicago, like Meanstreets or Mac Irvin Fire.
Peters said he didn’t need to travel to Chicago to improve in basketball. He just had to keep working.
“I wasn’t very good then,” he said. “I had a good basic understanding of basketball, but I wasn’t athletic. I didn’t look the part of a top recruit. It took time. Later in high school, I got stronger. We mostly stuck with the plan. At the end of the day, if you’re good enough, they will find you, no matter where you play. It wasn’t going to take playing for a different high school or AAU team..”
He was first-team all-state his junior year and he committed to Valparaiso in September of his senior year, choosing the Crusaders over Boston College and Illinois State. Shortly after he committed, Tennessee and Washington State offered, but he stuck with Valpo, signing with the Crusaders in the early signing period. His senior year, despite battling a foot injury, he was No. 5 in the Mr. Illinois basketball voting.
Brown said Peters never seriously considered signing with a major program because he wanted to be able to play right away and he wanted to be considered more than just an outside shooter.
“I’m a believer that if you want to play professionally, that you have to put numbers up for four years,” Brown said. “I was so worried those big schools would look at him as a shooter, not an athlete, not a scorer.”
Peters was so willing to be coached that Brown worried he might seem overeager.
“He worked so hard that I worried he would be accepted by teammates,” Brown said.
As a freshman at Valpo, he grew more than an inch and averaged 12.7 points and 4.8 rebounds. As a sophomore, he led the team with averages of 16.8 points and 6.7 rebounds. As a junior, he was an Associated Press honorable mention All-America selection, leading the Crusaders by averaging 18.7 points and 8.5 rebounds a game and was the first player since Kevin Durant to put up more than 18 points and eight rebounds and still make 80 three-pointers.
Gavin Sullivan, the CEO of the Illinois Irish, said Peters’ work ethic has separated him from others.
“He was getting ready for the NBA, at least his workouts were at that level, since the eighth grade,” Sullivan said. “He’s always had a high-level offensive game, but his quickness and athleticism has changed so much in the last four years and what’s put him there is his work ethic and his body changing.”
Ready for the doubters
Peters’ senior season at Valparaiso was cut short in February when he developed a stress fracture in his right foot. That has kept him from doing all the agility tests at the NBA Draft combine in Chicago in May.
Some of the pre-draft critiques of him are familiar: too slow, not explosive enough, will have problems getting off shots against NBA-length defenders. He pays them no mind because he has the confidence that comes with preparation.
“Some of the people who have criticized me are wrong 90 percent of the time and they still keep their jobs,” Peters said. “I always focused on myself and didn’t read articles. When I go into the gym, it doesn’t matter who’s there, I go in with the mentality that I’m the biggest and baddest in there. I don’t get caught up with comparisons. I know I am going to get better in my own way. I know my potential.”
Peters won’t be in New York, showing off a new suit for Thursday’s NBA draft. He’ll watch it on TV at a pub at home, with a small group of family and friends.
“It will be low-key, nothing crazy,” he said. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty with the draft. I’ll try to occupy myself during the day, maybe play a little golf. I don’t want to look at the phone the whole day.”