John Petty Jr. didn’t digest the magnitude of his popularity until the day in 2017 when he led Mae Jemison High School in Huntsville, Alabama, to a 5A state championship.
After the title game, the five-star recruit and Alabama commit told his head coach, Jack Doss, he wanted to find his family in the parking lot. But Doss advised the reserved player and eventual leader for No. 11 Alabama (vs. Georgia, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) to wait.
“My coach said, ‘Hold on, give it a minute. You don’t want to go out there yet,'” Petty recalled. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘The whole gym is waiting on you. You won’t like that.’ I went out there and there were so many people. Can I take a picture? Can I get an autograph? I didn’t get to my family until an hour later. I couldn’t even find them. I should have listened to him.”
Scenes such as that might have persuaded Petty — part of a list of five-star talent from the 2017 class that includes future Atlanta Hawks lottery pick Trae Young and Phoenix Suns star Deandre Ayton — that college basketball would be a quick springboard to NBA stardom. Instead, he’s one of five five-stars from his class who are still contributing at the NCAA Division I level in 2020-21, along with Florida State’s M.J. Walker, TCU’s Chuck O’Bannon Jr., Louisville’s Malik Williams and Washington’s Quade Green.
One-and-done didn’t happen for Petty, who is now a 6-foot-5 senior guard averaging 13.4 PPG and connecting on 39% of his 3-point attempts on a team that could win the SEC and make a run in the NCAA tournament. Petty said he believes he made the right choice to stay in school. The father of two will soon get his degree, and his NBA dream remains intact — he’s 59th in ESPN’s latest mock draft. He said he has stopped second-guessing himself and ignored the pressure top recruits often face to enter the draft after a year or two of college basketball.
“After my freshman year, I just felt like I didn’t produce enough or show enough to show them I could play at the next level,” Petty said. “With me, it’s all about getting better, no matter how long it takes, no matter how long you stay in college. That never really bothered me. I always heard, ‘You should go to the draft.’ But it was always my decision. I just wanted to get better and better every year.”
John Petty Jr. helps get Alabama off to a strong start against LSU by making his first seven shots from beyond the arc.
His journey also showcases the diversity within college basketball: Even in a one-and-done climate, each player’s path is unique. Petty’s former Alabama teammate Collin Sexton, who parlayed a single season at Alabama into an NBA career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, said he has reminded Petty of the payoff he has earned.
“He’s turned into a worker,” Sexton told ESPN. “We all know he should have been gone. I’m very impressed by him. And I make sure I encourage him. People are out here noticing.”
That’s the same advice Walker, who is averaging 13.7 PPG and connecting on 45% of his 3-point attempts at Florida State, received from his family whenever he would question his path as a young player. Walker said he needed those growing pains he felt over the past four years playing under Leonard Hamilton.
“You’re dealing with the outside noise,” Walker said about life as a freshman with five-star status. “Friends are telling you to go to the league. But I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way. I feel like I’ll be ready when it’s time for me to hear my name called.”
Florida State guard M.J. Walker dunks all over a defender and then proceeds to step over him.
During his freshman season, Walker’s excitement about helping Florida State advance to the Elite Eight was muted by sudden fatigue. Throughout most of his first year on campus, the midnight runs to the pizza joint on the first floor of his apartment building never seemed to affect him. Late in the season, however, he was sluggish. He played just eight minutes in his team’s 58-54 loss to Michigan in the 2018 Elite Eight. “That definitely humbled me,” he said. “I felt burnt out at the end of the season.”
Today, he carries a jug of water everywhere he goes on campus. And when Florida State had to pause team activities this season because of COVID-19 protocols, Walker led his teammates in wind sprints in the parking lot next to the practice facility. He also keeps Scottie Barnes, a projected first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, close to him, whispering the wisdom he’s attained throughout his time at Florida State.
Walker, the player who was always a few minutes late four years ago, cherishes punctuality now. He said he still dreams of playing in the NBA and he loves to see his friends excel at the next level. But his experience, the degree he’ll bring home to his parents and the postseason success he believes Florida State can achieve in Indianapolis, have validated his decision.
“You kind of question when it’s going to be your turn,” he said. “I feel like I battled that part of my mindset when I was young. I feel like I’m playing at peace right now.”
Williams can relate. He laughs about the changes he has undergone during his time at Louisville. He’s the “old” guy in the locker room, the only player remaining from his recruiting class. This season, he has been sidelined with a foot injury, the second significant foot injury of his career, but he’s confident he can help a good Louisville team finish strong.
Malik Williams throws down a posterizing dunk at the end of the second half, propelling Louisville to the 79-73 win vs. Duke.
Williams said some people urged him to make a quick leap to the NBA during his freshman season. But that wasn’t his mission. He said he always reminded himself to make the best decisions for his future. While he admits he didn’t come to Louisville with a love for academics, he’s on schedule to graduate with a degree.
“At the end of the day, when you make it, you want to stay there,” Williams said. “So you just want to be as ready as possible. I think that college is underrated in how it helps you develop and get ready for that game. From high school to college, there is a jump there. And the pros will be a whole different game up there. But I feel like my freshman year of college versus me now, I’m two different people, as far as the game of basketball and maturity-wise.”
Green was a five-star recruit at Kentucky before transferring to Washington, where he’s averaging 15.4 PPG. Sometimes, he thinks about what he’d say to that young man who first stepped onto Kentucky’s campus.
“I would tell him to not worry about the pressure and to do what Coach [John] Calipari says,” Green said. “I would be a sponge.”
Petty also admits he didn’t have the determination early in his career that drives him now. After a bad game during his freshman season, he’d wonder how NBA scouts in the building had evaluated him. It took time to get that thought out of his head so he could listen to his mother, who he says always told him God had a plan for his life.
Like Green, Petty stopped worrying about the impact every performance might have on his draft stock and just focused on his growth. This year, he’s made 69% of his shots at the rim, an 11% increase from last season, per hoop-math.com. He’s evaluated by Synergy Sports data as “very good” on defense, holding opposing players to a 33.3% clip in one-on-one situations. He’s also critical to Alabama’s status as the No. 2 team in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings.>
Alabama’s Jaden Shackelford misses a 3-pointer, but John Petty Jr. is there for a putback dunk.
Now, the five-star-turned-veteran-standout is ready to lead Alabama toward what would be its first Final Four appearance in school history.
“I always look back at all the adversity and just how it shaped me and how it molded me,” Petty said. “All the times I was down, thinking to myself, ‘Did I make the right decision? Did I do this right? Did I do that right?’ And just being down on myself. I’m finally out of that. I did make the right decision. I’m on one of the most special teams that has ever done anything at Alabama. This team is going to go down in history and the guys that I’m playing with … they’re my brothers.”
Whenever Petty and Sexton talk, they reflect on their lone season together. They also discuss their respective paths. It’s clear they’re both happy with the decisions they made.
“Everybody’s path is gonna be different,” Sexton said. “No one’s path is going to be the same. Some may stay in college more years to get to where they’re going. I try to tell people, don’t try to model their path off someone else’s success.”