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September 24, 2013When Zylan Cheatham took his official visit to San Diego State earlier this month, he sat down with the coaching staff and watched some film of past Aztec games, and one player in particular caught his eye.
It wasn't Kawhi Leonard or Jamaal Franklin, who are now playing in the NBA.
Instead it was Billy White, the super-athletic 6-foot-8 forward who went on to play professionally overseas and in the NBA Development League.
"There were a bunch of times when he snatched the rebound and pushed the ball looking up the floor, or going all the way and finishing in transition," Cheatham said. "To be honest it looked a lot like me when I'm sitting at home watching my game film and I can definitely see myself fitting into that program. I liked how they used him and that was one of the biggest selling points watching the film. It opened my eyes and made me realize what San Diego State was actually all about."
There have been plenty of great guards that have come out of San Diego State, but in recent years the program has been known for its forwards and wings. Players that are long and athletic with good motors, but most importantly are skilled, versatile and can play and guard multiple positions.
The most recent example is sophomore Winston Shepard, who is the definition of a "point forward" with his court vision and passing ability at 6-foot-8. Shepard played more than 20 minutes per game as a true freshman last season and spent much of that time running the offense for SDSU. He's on the NBA radar and might have a shot at getting selected in the next NBA Draft if he has a breakout season like some are predicting. Jamaal Franklin will likely settle into a shooting guard role in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, but he was a jack-of-all trades wing at San Diego State and even guarded opposing teams' power forwards when the Aztecs were without a true starting big man his sophomore year. Current San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard is SDSU's most famous recent basketball product, and made a name for himself with his versatility, defensive tenacity and rebounding while leading the Aztecs to the Sweet 16 in the 2010-11 season. The aforementioned Billy White was also an explosive forward that could run the floor, rebound, defend, score in the low post and even step out to hit the occasional three. Looking even further back, Lorrenzo Wade was a multi-faceted and athletic wing cut from the same cloth.
At San Diego State, those players blurred traditional positional boundaries. Were they small forwards? Power forwards? It didn't matter.
Cheatham believes he fits that mold as well.
"I can handle the ball at 6'8," the four-star Phoenix (Ariz.) South Mountain wing said. "My court vision is outstanding I think for my age and my size. I'm athletic and can move pretty well with good footwork. Athletic-wise I don't really see too many that are better in the country. But just an overall complete game, that's what I play.
"I've had a few people try to tell me I'm a 'four' or a 'three,' but I don't really have a position. I'm a player; I'm a playmaker. That's how I like to look at it."
The Aztecs have been selling Cheatham on their history of developing athletic and skilled forwards, and he's listening intently.
"It's no secret that SDSU gets up and down the floor and likes taller ball-handlers and versatile wings, guys who can make things happen in the open court and that fits my game pretty much. The way I push the ball and find guys and finish in transition is second to none compared to anyone in the country."
While watching the film on his visit, Cheatham also appreciated how SDSU head coach Steve Fisher gave his players the freedom to play their own games and flourish in the Aztecs' free-flowing system (remember back when Fisher supported Franklin's decision to try a self alley-oop dunk off the backboard between three defenders at Fresno State last season?).
"That's going to be a big part in my decision because I know how it feels not being able to push the ball up the floor or have that confidence from a coach that believes you can do it."
Cheatham felt that way last summer while playing with California Supreme on the Nike EYBL circuit, despite nearly averaging a double-double (8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game) against the top high school competition in the country.
"I was playing more of a center and back to the basket kind of guy and I wasn't able to show my versatility," He said. "The EYBL experience was amazing but I just didn't think it was the best for me as a guy who's trying to develop his game."
With the November Signing Period rapidly approaching, Cheatham's recruitment is in the home stretch. Besides the official visit he took to SDSU earlier this month, he also has officials scheduled to Washington (this weekend) and New Mexico (in October). Coaches from all three schools have stopped by Cheatham's school in recent weeks to check in on him, and Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher is expected to drop by South Mountain on Tuesday to see him again.
Cheatham will likely announce his decision shortly after his last visit, and plans to sign his Letter of Intent on his birthday, Nov. 17.
"Whatever program I choose, I want it to be a program where I can see myself coming in and making an instant impact opposed to having to change my whole game and try something new," he said. "I'm not afraid of the challenge, but I just think why try to be something new when I can just add to what I'm already doing and help my team to get better and have an impact as a freshman?"
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