Even after leading Walbrook to the Class 4A state championship last season, Rodney Spruill, a deceptively agile, sharp-shooting small forward, still heard the knocks against him as a Division I prospect.
Was he fleet-footed enough to defend against athletic guards in Division I? Was he big enough or strong enough to endure the banging underneath the basket among college big men?
"Could Rodney do it with his feet? Could Rodney defend a wing guy on the perimeter, somebody who is quick? Not at 255 pounds," Walbrook coach Kelvin Bridgers said. "Rodney is a versatile player, but his natural position is on the wing. In order for him to demonstrate that athletic ability, he had to drop that weight.
"Rodney understood those things, and he took it to heart. Not only did Rodney have to spend those hours working on defense in the gymnasium, but he had to pick up the jump rope, hit the weights, get his weight down."
Spruill reported to practice in November at 218 pounds, down from the 250 he weighed at the start of last season. Once Spruill's weight went down, his numbers went up. After averaging 16.9 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots last season, Spruill, who has grown an inch to 6 feet 5, contributed 22 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three blocks per game this season for Walbrook, which was upset by Mervo in Saturday's Class 3A North regional final.
"Rodney's always had the passion and the heart and the ability to make everyone around him better. But when Rodney came to the first couple of practices, he looked like a different guy, physically," senior guard Eric Pitts said. "Plus, he looked better doing the things he's always done - shooting the jumper, dunking aggressively, still hitting the boards, bodying up and giving you everything you want."
Whereas his game highs of a year ago were 27 points and 10 rebounds in a 65-63 victory over Dunbar in the Baltimore City League title game, Spruill played the best game of his career against Southwestern in a battle of unbeaten teams Dec. 16.
In that game, Spruill scored a career-high 43 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked three shots as the Warriors won, 72-68. That effort by Spruill, who scored the Warriors' final 10 points of the game, overcame those by Sabers standouts Jamal Barney and Jarwand Rheubottom, who scored 31 and 21 points, respectively.
"In that game, Rodney was a man possessed, and definitely was the key reason they won the game because no one else on his team scored in double figures," Southwestern coach Terry Leverett said. "Although he's a very disciplined player, Rodney can just flat out play, take over a game, and, at times, he's just a man among boys.
"Rodney's a legitimate big guy, an Adrian Dantley-type who can do the job on you from the inside or the outside. He's a good dribbler who can go to the rack and he can rebound well, or he can shoot the three-pointer," Leverett added. "I've always thought of him as being quick, even when he was carrying more weight. But losing all that weight will help to increase his endurance, so that now, he's just a big, quick guy that's not so heavy and who can do more damage for a longer length of time."
Spruill has also matured into a leader in the absence of All-Metro guard Velmar Coleman, whom he will join at Towson University, and second-team All-Metro guard Ed Tyson, who has twice been named Rookie of The Week at UMES.
"Last year, Rodney was more of a quiet player who led more by example," senior guard Marc Davis said. "But this year, Rodney's assumed his role as the leader of this team, and he's more of a talker and he's directing us a whole lot more."
That leadership at times has required staying under the basket more as opposed to playing on the perimeter, said Bridgers, who asked Spruill to be "more of a big man" in the Warriors' 55-34 victory over Southwestern in the city title game.
"Against Southwestern the second time, I asked Rodney to play around the bucket," said Bridgers, The Sun's 2004-05 All-Metro Coach of The Year. "Rodney did what was asked and he just sat in there the whole game, which was his sacrifice to the team."
Even so, Spruill scored a game-high 22 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked three shots alongside 6-7 teammate Kevin Thompson, a center who blocked three shots and grabbed 13 rebounds.
"No one's ever questioned what ability Rodney has to do all the things he can do with the ball, but now he can really move around the court and put the numbers up," said Bridgers, who called Towson "the right fit" for Spruill, even though he believes he could play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 or Big Ten. "So when you see a kid that's willing to be that unselfish - that he wants to win more than looking at how many points he scored - that's when you're looking at a young man that's committed to success."
That commitment begins at the dinner table, where he limits himself to a strict diet of fish, seafood and "an occasional broiled chicken, maybe with a salad," said Spruill, who was named The Sun's Player of The Year for Baltimore City last season.
"My stomach got smaller, I got faster; I feel like I've got better balance and I generally feel better," said Spruill, who also lifted weights in the offseason. "I can still put my back to the basket or play [both forward positions.] I can post up on the little guy, or I can blow right past the bigger guys. I feel like I can do everything better."
Spruill, who began playing basketball at 7, said his game has benefited from an offseason playing with Baltimore Select, a team that traveled to national tournaments.
It was with Baltimore Select at an event called The Players' Ball at Seton Hall on July 15 - his 18th birthday - that Spruill had what he considers his breakout game.
"We lost in double overtime, but I scored 29 points against a team that had top-ranked players who were going to Duke and North Carolina," Spruill said. "Now I'm trying to bring the same intensity to this season. I feel like my performances, so far, are better than they've been in the past, but you know what? There's always room for improvement."