Brian Cusworth could be their poster child.
As a freshman at John Burroughs High School in St. Louis, Mo., Cusworth was a 6’0 swingman.
But that was before he grew an average of three inches a year throughout high school.
As a sophomore, the taller Cusworth stayed on the perimeter and wore number 23.
But when he kept growing before his junior year, Cusworth became a power forward. In the process, he outgrew his uniform. Since the jersey numbers corresponded to their sizes, Cusworth became number 40 on the roster.
As a senior, Cusworth grew to 6’10 and added 11 to his uniform number.
Now, he’s Harvard’s 7’ sophomore center, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots as a perimeter player.
In fact, Cusworth’s history is the source of his greatest strength—his versatility—which has Ivy basketball pundits raving about his potential.
Unfortunately for the Crimson, Cusworth has been temporarily sidetracked by a stress fracture to the navicular in his foot that will keep him sidelined for the next month.
Turned Outside In
With his background in the back court, Cusworth is decidedly not your typical lumbering, touchless center.
In addition to being able to handle the ball, Cusworth has a deadly 15-foot jumper and can even step back and shoot the three on occasion.
In fact, Cusworth led his high school team in three-point shooting percentage not only as a sophomore, but also as a junior power forward and a 6’10 senior.
“My strength would definitely be my ability to face up to the basket, whereas it seems like the majority of guys my size at this level have been enormous all their lives,” Cusworth said. “When I was a freshman and when I was six feet, they were 6’4, 6’5 and they’ve always been facing with their back to the basket and have not had the requirement to be mobile, be versatile.”
So does Cusworth have visions of outshooting junior marksman Kevin Rogus after not attempting a single trey last year?
“I think I’ll be allowed to shoot, but I’m not going to go looking for that shot,” Cusworth said. “If it’s open, I’ll take it, but I’m not going to be looking for that. The paint is where I do most of the dirty work.”
And that’s the beauty of Cusworth—yes, he can play on the perimeter, but he’s also comfortable (and dangerous) inside.
“You need to find him near the basket because he’s got the hook shot and he’s hard to guard,” Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said. “He’s a very difficult target to get around, so certainly in the triangle areas around the basket, yes, he needs to get the ball there. He’s also a very, very capable elbow shooter, so whether it be any kind of rotation or a screen and a pop as the screener…he can do that.”
“He can drive past people,” Sullivan added. “He can put the ball on the floor and pull up and create a shot, so he’s got real versatility as a scorer, but just a low-block player? Oh, no, no.”
Cusworth might be even stronger defensively. In fact, as a senior in high school, he had more blocks than any team in school history.
“He’s got great timing when he blocks shots and he provides a big presence in the middle,” 6’7 freshman forward/center Brian Darcy said. “It’s really intimidating to teams that want to penetrate.”
This season, Cusworth wants to average at least two rejections a game and lead the Ivy League.
“He’s a great shot-blocker,” freshman Jim Goffredo said. “Having a big man in the middle definitely makes other teams change their plans.”
Hubie Brown’s Dream
But with Cusworth just moving into the starting lineup this year, he still has to prove he can capitalize on his potential and be productive.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone who doubts he can. At the end of last season, he won an “Ivy” on ivybasketball.com for “Best Upside for a Freshman.”
Even this year’s crop of freshmen has picked up on Cusworth’s upside.
“Brian probably has the most potential of anyone on the team because of his size and his coordination,” guard Ko Yada said.
“He has the potential to be one of the best players in the Ivy League,” sophomore forward Zach Martin added.
Sullivan—who obviously has a much broader perspective—went even further.
“He’s as skilled as any center you’re going to find ever in this league and certainly here,” Sullivan said. “Now, how it’s going to shake out, who knows, but the potential and the upside for him is that he can score out of the low post with a lot of different ways. He can score when a defender plays behind him, which a lot of teams do in our league. He can pivot-face. He can shoot. He can shoot from the elbows. He can shoot from the baseline, be a spot-up player. He’s got very good hands, good passing instincts. He’s a player you can lob the ball to and he can catch it out of his space and he has a presence around the rim.”
“On the defensive end, he can block shots,” Sullivan added. “Shot-blocking is a very difficult thing to teach. If you go through the basketball literature, there’s no books on shot-blocking, There’s no videos on shot-blocking. There’s no information on shot-blocking because it’s such an instinctive thing. He has that capability. He has a natural instinct to block some shots and not foul.
He’s got a potential to realize, but he could really be a special player. His skill package is just…you don’t get that here.”
Brains and Brawn
It’s funny that Sullivan mentions literature, because Cusworth grew up surrounded by it. His father—from whom Brian got his passion for basketball—is a hoops junkie.
“For a guy who never had really any experience other than intramurals, he lives and breathes basketball,” the younger Cusworth said. “If you came to our house and you saw literature and the videos we have on basketball, you would think that he is a coach or that he’s working to be one, but he just loves the game and he’s always had the desire to just learn more about it.”
Perhaps it’s that love for the game that inspires Cusworth’s own work ethic.
At the end of the summer, knowing he hadn’t filled out after his growth spurt, he spent a month at HammerBodies Custom Fitness Clinic in St. Louis. There, he went on a diet of seven meals a day that he still follows and gained over 15 pounds while decreasing his body fat.
The new muscle is just one more thing working in Cusworth’s favor.
Now, all he has to do is wait for his foot to heal, get his timing back and follow through on all that potential.
If that happens, who knows how high Cusworth’s ceiling is?
“There’s no secret that he’s probably the best young center in the Ivy League,” Sullivan said. “There’s no doubt about that. The coaches in the league unanimously feel that way.”
With that kind of upside, Cusworth might even one day become one of those guys that transcends scorecards and renders them useless.
—Staff writer Alan G. Ginsberg can be reached at email@example.com.