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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Cameron Oliver, right, works out with his Grant teammates at practice Tuesday. Pacers coach Deonard Wilson said Oliver is a special talent. “I can coach another 20 years and not have anything like him,” Wilson said.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Senior forward Cameron Oliver is the key for Grant in its pursuit of its first outright league championship since 1999.

Preps Plus: Grant’s Oliver overcomes knee injury

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 - 12:00 am

Deonard Wilson and a coaching pal over the summer observed a 6-foot-8 prodigy – all arms, legs and upside – work wonders on a basketball court.

The coaches sighed.

“Oh, to have one of those,” the friend said to Wilson, Grant High School’s fourth-year coach. The friend frowned. Wilson grinned. He does have “one of those” players. In fact, Wilson has him.

The basketball eye candy that day was Cameron Oliver, Wilson’s senior star, whose long, graceful strides allow him to seemingly cover the floor in a few steps. Oliver also has 3-point range, and ballhandling skills, and his crowd-pleasing dunks down the lane have made the Pacers a popular draw at home in Del Paso Heights and on the road.

And the recruiters. They’re paying attention, too, scrambling for his signature on a scholarship.

Oliver bears a resemblance to Kevin Durant, the NBA scoring leader, in body and facial expressions, and looks even more like the Oklahoma City Thunder star when he dons glasses, just as Durant does during news conferences, when he’s off the court.

“I”m not sure there isn’t anything Cameron Oliver can’t do,” Wilson said. “I can coach another 20 years and not have anything like him.”

What else can Oliver do? His mother, Denita, said the answer is enlightening.

“He’s a good student, a good kid, and you should see him at home,” Denita said. “He can cook. He can bake. He can do laundry. He’s going to make a great husband some day.”

The road back

As anniversaries go, Sept. 1, 2012, will never be a pleasant one for Oliver. On that afternoon, days into his junior season of high expectations, he went down in a crumpled heap in a basketball showcase. An opponent crashed into him as he was in flight.

“I landed and I knew right away it was bad. A blown (left) knee,” Oliver said. I was completely devastated, miserable.”

Surgery to repair a torn ligament and months of rigorous rehabilitation kept Oliver away from his element. Wilson urged Oliver to attend practices, to participate in light dribbling and shooting drills, to be near friends.

“That was really good for me,” the well-spoken Oliver said. “I’m so relieved to be back. The hard work paid off. I’m relieved. I took the rehab on my knee really serious. I had to come back, and I have.”

And then some. Oliver is averaging 24 points and six rebounds for the 10-3 Pacers. Opponents have yet to figure out how to stop the Pacers’ star. He scores off curls and screens. He can start the fast break with the ball or finish it. He rebounds and hungrily blocks shots.

“Cameron can really go,” Burbank coach Lindsey Ferrell said. “He’s brutal to deal with. He steps away from the basket, and you think, ‘Good, go ahead and take that shot.’ But he makes those, too.”

Oliver’s knee has shown no ill effects. It doesn’t even swell after games.

“Cameron’s an inspiration to us because he works so hard, and he’s a great teammate,” junior forward TieNeal Martin said. “We’re glad he’s on our side.”

Oliver’s fans include opposing players.

“He’s my favorite player to watch,” Jesuit guard Isaiah Bailey said. “There isn’t anything Cameron can’t do, and to see him come all the way back is inspiring.”

But stardom often comes at a price. Teams have targeted Oliver in an effort to fluster him. In front of an overflow crowd at Inderkum last week, Oliver made five first-quarter 3-pointers. In the second quarter, he leaped for an alley-oop dunk but was undercut by a defender, dropping him in a tangled heap.

Half the fans in the gym gasped, particularly his family and teammates.

Oliver lay on his belly and placed his head on his hands. Then he smiled, as if to say, “If this is how teams have to stop me, then I’m really back.”

“That’s exactly how I read it, too,” said Wilson, his coach. “Sometimes, we think we have to fight fire with fire, but we have to be smart about things.”

Oliver’s teammates approached the player who undercut him, but order was restored. Inderkum coaches later apologized.

“I know I have to stay composed,” Oliver said.

Hot prospect

First, there was a trickle of recruiting interest in Oliver, perhaps a letter or two, and maybe a call. Now the trickle is an avalanche. The mail and calls from college coaches come pouring in at his home and at Grant. He has offers from every Pacific-12 Conference team except Stanford, and others across the country.

Oliver’s parents serve as buffers. They field the calls and text messages and intercept the mail.

“The recruiting has been overwhelming,” said Denita, Oliver’s mother. “As parents, we deal with it because we don’t want Cameron to be stressed. His senior year should be about school and basketball, about having fun.

“And I’m protective. I won’t hesitate to tell a recruiter, ‘You’re selling my son a dream, but I don’t want him walking into a nightmare.’ 

Sky’s the limit

Grant isn’t just a one-man show. This is a deep, talented team.

Martin, the forward who played running back and linebacker on Grant’s football team last fall, leads the Pacers with nine rebounds a game, muscling his 6-foot frame inside. Donovan Brown, another football player, is the floor leader. Coaches call the 5-9 point guard “Little Big Man” for his relentless efforts.

But Oliver is the key as Grant seeks to win the program’s first outright league championship since 1999, the year the Pacers last won a Northern California Regional championship.

As freshmen, the Pacers dreamed of winning a championship. Oliver led the battle cry, though he was only 6-foot. As he has grown, so have the expectations.

“Cameron can really dominate this game,” said Pacers assistant coach Willie Tatum, a star at Burbank in the early 1980s. “For some guys, the (high school) game becomes a little boring because they’re so good. Not Cameron. He’s still hungry. He wants a lot more.”

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD and listen to his “Extra Point” every Wednesday on ESPN Radio 1320.

Read more articles by Joe Davidson

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