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Mount St. Joseph's Phil Booth has grown into one of East Coast's top guards

Three summers ago, Phil Booth didn't have a chance.

Playing former Mount St. Joseph standout Eric Atkins one-on-one, the Gaels' current star was dominated by the then Notre Dame-bound point guard.

Atkins says Booth didn't score.

"It probably still haunts him," Atkins said.

It does.

"I'm pretty sure I might have scored once or twice. I don't know about him shutting me out," Booth said with a grin. "But he did beat me pretty good, I remember that."

Booth — who is spending this week in Union, N.J., at Nike's Point Guard Skills Academy featuring Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving and some of the top high school and college point guards in the country — remembers the other drubbings, too.

Like the countless times his father and his former Coppin State teammates' towering frames trapped the much younger Booth into corners, forcing him to pass during pickup games. Like the times on neighborhood courts when the older, larger kids would block shot attempts Booth took. Or the times Detroit Pistons guard Kim English (Randallstown) and Los Angeles Clippers forward DaJuan Summers (McDonogh), who have the same trainer as Booth, bullied him in local gyms, muscling their way through Booth to the basket if the games were ever close.

Booth didn't grow up on the AAU circuit against competition his age. He grew up, one lump at a time.

"Guys are quicker than you, they're faster than you and they're physical, so you have to be able to play the right way," Phil Booth Sr. said. "Now, sometimes, almost to a fault, he can be unselfish because when you play with older guys, you've got to make the right pass, you have to take the right shot, you can't just come down and jack up a lot of shots."

The lessons learned the hard way then are evident in the way Booth plays the game now. His talent was apparent to those opponents back then.

Booth Sr. knew his son had a chance to be special at the age of 10, when he attended the University of Maryland youth camp and was named the MVP of the 600-player event.

English and Summers raved to Kyle Jakobe, who has trained each of them in addition to Booth, about the young guard's footwork. What Booth could do as a 15- and 16-year-old was better than the average NBA player, they told Jakobe.

Jakobe has worked with Booth since he was an eighth grader. Jakobe came away from his first workout with Booth believing he could play in the NBA. So Jakobe called his father: "Dad, this kid I'm working out with can be as good as he wants to be," he told him.

Since that day, Jakobe's father has tracked Booth's progression. Sometimes he'll call his son and say, "'Man, this Phil kid you were talking about is really, really good.'"

He really is.

On a basketball court in a local gym one recent Sunday morning, Booth shot jumpers from the top of the key.

He took a chest pass from Jakobe and released a shot. Swish. Jakobe fired another pass, Booth another shot. Another swish. Followed by another. And another. And another. Catch, release, swish.

Booth then positioned himself under the hoop. He darted out to the 3-point line and curled around a chair, simulating coming off a screen during a game. He caught another chest pass, elevated off the floor, his body under control, and released another shot. Swish. Clockwork.

His Under Armour shirt turned a darker blue from increasing amounts of sweat as the shots amassed. For every errant shot that clanked off the rim, seven more were sent through the orange cylinder.

A senior-to-be, Booth boasts a resume that Atkins, whom he views as a big brother, is proud of. The owner of 17 scholarship offers, Booth was an All-Baltimore Catholic League first-team selection as a junior this past season and was named the Mark Amatucci Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-2 point guard averaged 17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists as a junior. He is the No. 63 prospect nationally in the 2014 class according to Scout.com.

The four-star recruit says Georgetown, Indiana, Missouri, Temple and Villanova have shown the most interest, but he won't name five finalists until later this summer. The plan is to pick a winner in the fall.

Booth was offered by Maryland, but he says he and coach Mark Turgeon have a mutual understanding that Maryland won't be the place for him, due to the recent commitments the Terrapins have received.

One school that has recently increased its pursuit of Booth is Ohio State. The Buckeyes have yet to extend Booth a scholarship offer, but coach Thad Matta has expressed interest in reuniting Booth with his Gaels backcourt mate of the past three seasons, Buckeye-to-be Kameron Williams.

Whichever school inks Booth to a scholarship will be adding a player on pace to eclipse the 2,000-point mark in high school, a player who takes the most pride in defending the opponent's top offensive threat.

Booth Sr. said the goal while teaching his son the game was always to make him a complete player, not just an offensive threat. Mission accomplished, according to Jakobe.

"You'll get a lot of guards out of the city who can score, but they don't make other people better," Jakobe said. "It's almost like a more selfish style of play in Baltimore, with guys out for their own and not really making guys better.

"The thing that's so special about Phil is he makes everyone on the court a better player. He'll be with a guy who's a 5 or 6 out of 10, and Phil makes him an 8."

Booth was never afforded the chance to be selfish, growing up on courts with older players who expected the youngster to at least look to pass first. Opponents may focus more on him now with Williams gone, but Booth's what's-best-for-the-team-is-best-for-me mentality won't be changing.

"Now teams might really focus on me, but I think the teammates I've got, they can very easily step up, so I don't see a problem," Booth said. "We'll be fine; the players on our team are very good."

Having Williams as a teammate the past three seasons meant a shared spotlight. As Booth described it, one was Batman to the other's Superman. It's Booth's team now.

"It's his year upcoming. He's the man on the team since Kam [Williams] left," said Atkins, a tri-captain at Notre Dame as a junior and the team's third-leading scorer at 11.2 points per game. "It's going to be a great opportunity for him."

Atkins sees NBA potential in Booth, whom he likens to Deron Williams and a young Jason Kidd. And Atkins saw it three summers ago.

As Booth and Atkins exited the gym after that rout, the Notre Dame-bound player had a message for his protege.

"He beat me like that and then said, 'I'm passing this torch to you to carry it on,'" Booth recalled. "It made me feel a little better after a loss, but yeah, it meant a lot coming from him."

The next time the two play, Booth just might be the one leaving the court victorious.

rhood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ryanhood19

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