In December of 2009, Nigel Hayes of Whitmer and Vitto Brown of Bowling Green were each starters for their respective varsity basketball teams.
That’s kind of where the similarities ended.
Hayes came to the Panthers already carrying the hype as one of Ohio’s top freshman talents. Brown arrived in the shadow his brother, Xavier, and Chauncey Orr (currently playing at Bowling Green State University).
Hayes and Brown are now on the same track as two members of this area’s elite class of 2013, and as future teammates at the University of Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Hayes, and the 6-8, 230-pound Brown, will each join coach Bo Ryan’s Badgers next season.
“We decided independently to go to Wisconsin,” Hayes said, “but it’s always good to go to college with someone you know from your town, and you’ve been playing basketball with for a lot of years.”
Added Brown: “I’m really excited Nigel is going to Wisconsin. When we were younger in AAU ball I played against them all the time, and they usually got the best of us. So, we weren’t really best friends back then.
“We started to become closer once this recruiting started to pick up, and I was ecstatic when he picked Wisconsin. He’s a great player, and I know he’ll really help the team out. We’ll have a good time there together.”
Both players accepting scholarships to the same Big Ten school was much more destiny than design.
When Hayes came to Brown’s home in Bowling Green last Sunday to watch Wisconsin play Illinois on TV, it was the first time the pair had actually hung out together as friends.
Hayes and Brown had known each other only as AAU basketball opponents.
“We’ve had a lot of games we’ve played against each other,” Hayes said. “But, with him being in Bowling Green, we haven’t really been able to hang out.”
Although they progressed at different paces, both Hayes and Brown prepare for their college careers as tall, strong, versatile players. Both also have solid academic records, and are articulate and well-spoken.
Hayes, who seemed born for the media interview upon his arrival at Whitmer, is a student of the game with a higher understanding of the team concept than most players his age.
With a grade-point average above 4.1, Hayes ranks in the top 10 of a Whitmer senior class of more than 500. He scored 26 on his ACT and plans to major in business.
“I’ve become more mature and I adjust to the way teams are guarding me,” said Hayes, who often draws multiple defenders. “If I’ve got three people on me, I can rely on my teammates. We can still play well as a team without me having to score 30 or 40 points.
“At the end of the day, it’s always going to be a team game, and that’s the best way to win.”
Whitmer coach Bruce Smith tries to quantify Hayes’ impact on the program.
“Before he’s done here, he’s going to mean about 80 wins in four years,” Smith said. “Obviously he didn’t do that by himself, but he’s been the face of the program since he was a freshman.
“The fact that he’s charismatic, and has a heck of a personality, contributes to that. We’ve been very successful the last four years. He hasn’t been the entire reason, but he’s been a big part of it.”
Brown is equally adept as the interviewee, and may someday be just as comfortable as the interviewer. He plans to major in broadcast journalism with a goal of someday working for the Big Ten Network. He has a 3.8 GPA and scored 28 on his ACT.
On the court, their careers are not mirror images.
Hayes began with a lofty reputation that may have been difficult for others to live up to. Brown flew under the radar for the first two years of his high school career before making up for lost time.
“I wouldn’t say it was too much pressure,” Hayes said of living up to the hype. “I just wanted to make sure I made myself into a tremendously better player by my junior and senior to give our team a better chance to win a state championship.
“I still need to work on my 3-point shooting. I’ve improved leaps and bounds from my junior year, but you can never stop working and improving.”
In 82 career games through last Friday, Hayes had 1,232 points (15.0 career average) and 712 rebounds (8.7), and added 257 assists (3.1) and 143 blocked shots (1.7). The Panthers are 72-15 in Hayes’ three-plus seasons. Last year they reached the Division I state championship game.
This season, Hayes is averaging 15.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.0 blocks. Tenth-ranked Whitmer is 13-5 overall, 8-2 in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference.
Brown’s 78 career games have produced 1,020 points (13.1 average), 720 rebounds (9.2), and 309 blocked shots (3.9). Much of the scoring output has come after a sophomore season in which he averaged 5.3 points per game.
“My freshman year I was mainly a rebounder and a shot blocker,” Brown said. “My sophomore year — that was our 14-0 [NLL title] league team — I really didn’t need to score that year either. That kind of set me back on the [career] points, but I continued to step up on the defense and rebounding.
“Then my junior year came around. I had always had the skill but never the aggressiveness to take the shots. But I was in a leadership position, and I really needed to step up and score more.”
As a junior Brown exploded to 19.2 points and 11.9 rebounds. After a career-high 39-point effort (plus 16 rebounds) in a win over Medina last Saturday, Brown is averaging Northern Lakes League-best marks of 23.7 points and 13.1 rebounds for the Bobcats (9-9, 6-4 NLL), whose league title hopes have given way to the quest for a deep Division II tourney run.
“I don’t really try to overcomplicate the game,” Brown said. “You’ve got to let it come to you. But, you also have to take what’s yours at the same time. So, it’s a delicate balance. I’m just trying to figure it out a little more each game.”
Added BG coach Von Graffin: “Vitto had no idea how good he could be when he was a freshman and sophomore. In the last 18 months, he’s starting to understand that, and his work ethic has improved 100 percent.
“With his skill set, and the way he’s shooting the 3 now at over 40 percent — those things are going to help him at the next level. The two things he needs to improve are becoming more explosive, and enjoying contact more than he does now.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.