For being such a quiet, soft-spoken teenager, Malik Pope is generating plenty of buzz.
Pope went from an under-the-radar basketball talent as a sophomore last season at Burbank High School to one of the hottest prospects in the nation after a spring and summer on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit.
A rangy, 6-foot-8 small forward with a throwback high flattop that makes him appear even taller, Pope has at least 17 major-college offers, including eight from Pacific-12 Conference schools and basketball powers Kansas, Louisville, Gonzaga and Georgetown.
Pope is rated the No. 1 Class of 2014 prospect in Northern California by NorCalPreps.com and No. 9 nationally by Rivals.com., but he said he sometimes feels like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole at Laguna Creek, his new school.
"I think it's more about where I'm comfortable," Pope said. "Here, everything's totally different my schedule, classes, teammates."
Pope's heart strings are still with Burbank, where he played last year with older brothers Remle and Emannuel Pope and close friends Jalen Coates and Clifford Lyles.
Burbank coach Lindsey Ferrell misses his big man, and not just because of his basketball talent, which he touted all last season despite Pope's modest stats of 7.8 points and 5.6 rebounds.
"Malik is a good kid, a very likable guy," Ferrell said. "We wish nothing but the best for him."
When Pope's mother, Nicole, moved her family to Elk Grove late last spring, she enrolled Malik at Laguna Creek.
By the end of the semester, Pope left Laguna Creek and attended a summer school class at Capital Christian and played with the Cougars at a Bay Area camp.
But when the fall semester started, Pope was back at Laguna Creek, though it was uncertain if he would play basketball as he worked to improve his grades.
"Malik is struggling with the change a little bit, but I understand where my mom is coming from," said Emannuel Pope, now a student at Cosumnes River College who keeps a close watch over his 16-year-old brother. "She wants to make sure he's on the right track as far as grades."
There's been a learning curve with his new teammates, too.
Pope is most comfortable playing on the wing, not in the post, but he towers over his teammates. Other than 6-3 junior Cecil Williams II, the other eight Cardinals average about 5-9.
So far the marriage has produced mixed results and a 4-3 record for the No. 14 Cardinals.
Pope had 33 points and 11 rebounds in a 76-59 win over No. 20 Woodcreek on Dec. 2 and scored 35 points in an 80-66 victory over St. Mary's of Stockton on Dec. 4. But in the team's losses to No. 9 Del Oro, Turlock and Lincoln of Stockton, he has looked out of sync with his teammates and lackadaisical at times. One observer called it "casual effort."
There is no argument about Pope's raw ability, however. He has hops, can dribble like a guard and shoots feathery rainbows from long distance.
"Pope is a talent," Woodcreek coach Paul Hayes said. "He has a devastating crossover, and if he gets within 10 to 12 feet of the basket, he can use his height to get off a jumper with a soft touch. In addition, he also had three threes against us, so you have to guard him on the perimeter, as well."
Laguna Creek coach Paul Casey was expecting a roller coaster ride.
Pope has been with his teammates only since the start of practice in early November; Laguna Creek is trying to replace its three graduated top scorers from last season; and Casey will need to integrate three transfers into the rotation when they become eligible in January.
"There's some growing pains right now, and we have a lot of work to do because Malik has been with us only a short while," Casey said. "But there's still the potential for a tremendous upside."
Casey has some returning experience with senior guards Kevante Williams, Ladarius Nguyen and Erion Wilder. Cecil Williams, a three-sport standout (football and baseball) with a 4.4 grade-point average, played last season as a sophomore.
The easygoing Casey, who started coaching boys basketball in 1978 in San Diego, has had playoff teams. His 2002-03 Valley team, led by Roburt Sallie and Wayne Hunter, won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I title and reached the CIF Northern California Regional final.
But he's never coached a so-young, so-high-profile talent such as Pope, who has had recruiters from more than a dozen colleges drop by to watch him practice and play.
"It's exciting," Casey said. "We already had a nice group of kids. Then you add a 6-8 16-year-old who moves like a guard and that makes things really interesting."