BURLINGTON, N.J. — Nikki Reed knew she had to move. Though she had lived her entire life in Mobile, Ala., Reed watched her oldest son, Jacoby, go from being a promising high school basketball player to being sent away to state prison at age 17 for robbery.
Reed didn't want her younger son, Trayvon, to get caught up in the culture of their Down the Bay neighborhood.
That decision to move, first to Montgomery, Ala., for three years before settling a little more than two years ago outside Atlanta in Snellville, Ga., helped put Trayvon Reed on a path that will land him at the University of Maryland this summer.
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Life Center Academy, 2045 Burlington Columbus Road, Burlington Township, NJ 08016, USA
"I had to [leave], the area was drug-infested," Nikki Reed recalled earlier this week. "You know how some people's scenery is nice buildings and the riverfront? Our scenery if we looked out the window was somebody selling crack."
Trayvon Reed, who was 11 when his brother went to prison, recalls what his mother told him as they prepared to move from Mobile a couple of years later, "how you're going to do something special with your life."
Having given in to his mother's wishes to stop playing football after they left a state where that sport is treated as religion, the now 7-foot-1 Reed is rated by many among the top 10 high school centers in the country.
Reed is a major part of Maryland's 2014 men's basketball recruiting class, currently ranked 10th nationally by ESPN.
Asked if he could help a team badly in needed of a shot-blocker, Reed said last week, "Most definitely, when I get to college next year I know I'm going to [have] a real defensive impact right away. I'm still working on my offense. It's getting better."
'It's a blessing'
While the family's move to Georgia allowed Reed to get on the Amateur Athletic Union basketball circuit, another decision could ultimately impact his basketball career even more. It came last summer, when Reed transferred to Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J., for his senior year.
Sitting in the gym of the Christian-based school, located amid the subdued suburban sprawl 30 minutes northeast of Philadelphia, Reed said he is grateful for what his life has become and what the future seemingly holds.
"I had my own mindset when I was little," Reed said. "I hung out with bad people and I did bad stuff, but I always said I wasn't going to jail. I was always into sports, but I [didn't] think I'd be as into it as I am right now. Growing up [in Mobile] was rough."
Coming to a part of the country where he had never been before is the latest part of Reed's journey to College Park.
"It's crazy. I never even [saw] myself playing basketball. Growing up, I was playing football," said Reed, who is averaging 12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.5 blocked shots per game. "For me to make it this far in my basketball career, it's a blessing."
Not many high school prospects are coached by a former Final Four MVP and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.
Now in his third year at Life Center Academy, former Louisville star Pervis Ellison, who played 11 seasons in the NBA, said that he's "never coached anyone like Trayvon."
"He's an intriguing prospect because of the uniqueness of his size," Ellison said.
Reed's height, and a wingspan that easily approaches eight feet, is what turned him from a marginal Division I prospect into a recruit sought after by several programs, including Florida State, Florida and Auburn.
Nikki Reed, who is 6-3 and has several family members 6-9 or taller, said her son once felt awkward standing a head or two above his peers.
"He has not always been comfortable with his height," she said. "We told him, 'God blessed you to be this tall for a reason and you've got to be appreciative of it.' He loves it now, where at one time it was a self-esteem issue with him. It's a beautiful thing."
'His confidence is growing'
Justin Young, a recruiting analyst in the Southeast for the past 15 years, recalled being unimpressed after watching Reed play before his sophomore year at Shiloh High in Snellville.
But Reed's combination of height and athletic ability was intriguing.
"We all know that basketball is a vertical sport and the taller you are, the longer stream of patience that you have," Young said. "He's a guy who's going to take some time and you've got to invest some patience, but the end result is the part that keeps everyone enticed to what he can become."
When Young watched Reed play at last summer's Peach Jam national showcase AAU tournament in Augusta, Ga., he saw a different player. Playing on a Florida-based team that featured five-star recruits Joel Berry (North Carolina), Grayson Allen (Duke) and D'Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Reed fit in.
"Going into this summer, I thought the national pundits had him overrated, but he played really well with four very good players around him," Young said. "He's the kind of guy who's going to thrive when he has talent around him. He had five or six moments where you said, 'There it is'. We've been waiting to see that for a long time."
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after Reed signed that his ability to block shots was "like a young [Dikembe] Mutombo" and that he was further along defensively than former Terps center Alex Len was at a similar age.
When Reed first came on Maryland's radar, he was content to stay on the perimeter and take jump shots. But Turgeon said Ellison has done a good job getting Reed to play inside.
"Pervis has done a nice job with him," Turgeon said Thursday. "He's got a nice touch [from 15 to 17] feet. He's getting stronger. He doesn't have a low base, so he's always shied away from being down low, but he's gotten a lot bigger and stronger this year. He's got a great feel with the ball in his hands. He's got some skill."
The most obvious difference in Reed since he arrived at Life Center Academy last summer is his physique. Though still scrawny at 232 pounds, Reed has put on between 15 to 18 pounds and hopes to add another 15 by the time he leaves.
As for his game, Ellison said "his confidence is growing."
"Trayvon has always been on teams where offensively he's been more of a lob dunk kind of guy," Ellison said. "Now he's been a lot more assertive in the post. Me being a post big myself, I harp on him all the time to demand the ball. His growth offensively has been tremendous."
Defensively, Ellison is quick to add that Reed is "way ahead of the curve. [With] his unique size, he alters shots, he blocks shots, he rebounds. Those aspects of the game he's going to provide immediately for Maryland."
Reed said he really didn't know much about the Terps until he watched Len play against defending champion Kentucky in the 2012-13 season opener. The 7-1 sophomore used a dominant performance against star freshman Nerlens Noel as a catapult to being picked No. 5 overall by the Phoenix Suns in June's NBA draft.
"He had a good game, and I thought, 'Hey Maryland's pretty nice, they're pretty good,'" Reed said. "If he came in at 216 [pounds] as a freshman and they developed him in two years, him just working hard, I said I can do the same thing. That really gave me a big influence on my decision."
Reed said he also had no idea who Ellison was when it was first mentioned to him that a former NBA player was going to be his coach, but after going on the Internet, Reed said, "I could tell he was a really good basketball player and stuff like that, and I was very excited."
'The sky's the limit'
Ellison hasn't quite turned Reed into the second coming of a player who was quickly nicknamed "Never Nervous Pervis" for the way he responded to the spotlight as a freshman by leading Louisville past Duke to the 1986 NCAA championship in Dallas.
Nor has Reed always lived up to his own credo of "playing hard all the time."
In a homecoming game last Friday against a much smaller team from the Academy of New Church, Reed seemed disinterested. He barely got off the ground and ran gingerly, which he and Ellison later attributed to shin splints.
"He's still growing," Ellison said in the dressing room after Life Center won easily. "The one thing I like about Trayvon is that he understands potential, and he has goals. What I'm trying to get him to understand is the level of work it takes to achieve what he set his goal out to be."
The next afternoon, matched against Westtown School and highly rated Georgios Papagiannis, a skilled 7-1 center from Greece considered among the top players in the Class of 2015, Reed appeared both more mobile and more motivated.
The improvement for Reed also has come in the classroom, said Rebecca Boudwin, a local attorney who tutors Reed and previously worked with two former Life Center stars, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters and Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross.
Boudwin said Reed is not taking his studies lightly.
"It's been leaps and bounds since he got here," she said. "One of the big things I've learned with Trayvon is keeping his focus. ... He has said that if he had stayed down there [in Georgia], he would have been lost in the system, and I don't think he would have qualified."
Reed, who still needs to get the requisite score on his upcoming ACT exam to qualify academically at Maryland, said that coming to Life Center Academy has been "tremendous" for his academic preparation.
"Because we're in a small classroom and there's not that many distractions, I can get my work done and the teachers want to help you and I can bond with them," Reed said. "It's been a better situation for me."
Reed said he still has "a big relationship" with his brother, who is expected to be released after seven years in March. Jacoby Reed was a 6-5 forward as a sophomore in high school when he fell into the wrong crowd.
Travyon Reed said that his brother has mentored him from prison, and his stepfather Daniel Moore has also been a positive influence.
"[My brother] basically is telling me to be the opposite of him, don't do what he did, keep positive people around you, and just go hard," Trayvon Reed said. "When I don't go hard, he yells at me. He tells me, 'That's the only way you're going to get out.' He said, 'You see the struggle I went through. Follow your dreams, the sky's the limit."