Tales of a Zag: GJ Vilarino's Wild Ride to Gonzaga

Pictured here in 2008 at the Boo Williams Invitational, GJ Vilarino looks to be one of the next great Gonzaga point guards.

There's something special about players that come out of recruiting hubs like Texas, California, and Florida.  Each state dominates prep sports in their own way and carry specific connotations with them.  Kids from California are smooth and outgoing.  The ones from Florida are often described as ridiculous athletes and intuitive on the field or court.  Prep athletes from Texas are usually described as gamers; tough kids that have spent hours upon end working to perfect their game.  Kids from these three states are also so appealing because they have been playing high level competition probably since they were in sixth grade, and they have to battle every day to keep their name from being forgotten in states where it is easy to fall out of fortune.  For Gonzaga's GJ Vilarino, the spotlight was quick to locate him in the star-studded state of Texas and he made sure that it never left.

GJ Vilarino attended McKinney (TX) High School, located in a suburb of Dallas/Fort Worth.  He was anything but a late bloomer from the get-go in high school.  He wasted no time standing out in the state of Texas and really impressed scouts right away in AAU ball.  Typically high school players make their way up through the ranks in AAU ball going from the 15s, to the 16s, before finally arriving at the Elite 17's.  GJ's skill set brought him to the top right away and in 2006, when he was just finishing up his freshman year at McKinney, he was already drawing attention at the highest level.  From a piece done by Scout.com in March of '06:

While playing up two levels in terms of age, G.J. Valarino averaged 11 points in two outings. He’s already been to the adidas SuperStar Camp and showed well. "He had like 11 points every game and that’s consistent for a freshman making his debut against the 17s and top guards,

Taking part in this tournament as well were current NBAers DeAndre Jordan and Hasheem Thabeet and star Oklahoma Sooner Willie Warren.

continue reading after the jump for more on GJ Vilarino...

The recruiting process has obviously gotten extremely in depth with the various team-specific sites on Rivals and Scout seemingly covering every AAU tournament and high school game they come across.  The SuperStar camp was just the beginning of what became an outstanding summer for GJ.  He received praise at every tournament he played in.  He stood out at the Pangos Camp and was one of shining stars at the Nike Hoops Jamboree.  The summer led into his sophomore season where he already had a laundry list of high-majors showing interest.  In a March 2007 post from Rivals.com, GJ's father, Gerry outlined his sons suitors:

"Right now we have A&M and Baylor's obviously offered him and those are the one's that have said they've offered him already," said GJ's father Gerry Vilarino. "I know Kansas is pretty close to offering but they haven't, and Connecticut is really interested and so is UCLA.

The Texas A&M offer and interest came when Billy Gillispie was the head man there and GJ had always been attracted to Gillispie so when he accepted the job at Kentucky, the combination of a coach he loved and a program with the prestige of Kentucky was too much to ignore.  So, at the end of his sophomore year and before his recruitment really heated up, GJ called off his recruitment and committed to Kentucky and Coach Billy Clyde Gillispie.  With his commitment, the pressure was off GJ but a nasty ankle injury suffered at the end of his sophomore season at McKinney sidelined him for a while before his second go around at an AAU summer.

You can't discount GJ's desire to play with and against the best talent in the nation.  In 2008, he played for the adidas national team with some of the best prospects in the nation including Lance Stephenson (Cincy), Derrick Favors (Georgia Tech), and Renardo Sidney (Mississippi St.).  He also played a full slate of AAU games with Team Texas but he kind of became the forgotten man among the Kentucky 2009 recruiting class which was to be expected with such an early commitment.  He impressed the scouts at ESPN however in this August of 2008 writeup:

This quick lefty has good speed and quickness with the ball. Although thin and wiry, Vilarino is fearless and competes at all times. He pushes the ball in transition and can finish with speed to the rim with his left hand. He runs the offense in the half court and has a pass first mentality. A good athlete for his size that can penetrate and kick but has trouble finishing against the trees inside. He is a good decision maker and puts pressure on the defense by always probing and looking for an opportunity to create.

GJ's senior season was a great capper to a wonderful prep and AAU career.  He average nearly 20 points a game and earned all-state honors in Texas.  Things weren't going so great for Billy Gillispie.  There are few jobs in sports that demand as much as the head man at Kentucky, whether warranted or not and after a few years, Billy Clyde was no longer wanted by the Kentucky faithful.  Inconsistent play on the court leading to some terrible home losses alienated the Kentucky fanbase and by the end of the 2009 season, Gillispie was out.  GJ was poised to remain committed to Kentucky as long as the new coach expressed interest in keeping him in the plans.  When John Calipari was introduced as the new head man at Kentucky, it became clear that GJ was not his brand of point guard.  In a story from Kentucky's Rivals.com affiliate:

"Last night, I had a chance to speak with coach Cal, and he told me that he thought GJ was a really good player but he hadn't seen him play in almost two years," said the player's father, Gerry Vilarino. "He went on to say that he typically, in his system, likes bigger guards and that GJ was definitely welcome to come to Kentucky, but he didn't want him to feel like -- and I don't remember the exact words -- but it was something to the effect of not wanting him to feel like he was misled and didn't know that he'd likely get covered up by bigger guards.

An admirable move by Coach Calipari (oxymoron?) to tell Gerry Sr. what kind of guard he preferred meant that young GJ was back on the open market.  This news attracted teams from all over the country.  The Vilarino's were forced to make a quick decision being that the 2009 cycle was nearly complete.  Teams of interest in GJ's case were Cincinnati, VCU, Oregon, Georgia, and Gonzaga.  The rise of the Bulldogs recruitment was quite interesting as Coach Ray Giacoletti outlined in an exclusive interview with The Slipper Still Fits:

Well, with GJ, he was born in Spokane so he was a guy that had spent a year in Spokane, his mom was a big Gonzaga person and obviously with this being his place of birth, it's a place he has followed over the years.  And then they contacted us when he got out of his LOI at Kentucky.  He had four or five different people he wanted to talk to.  He committed so early that sometimes it's not good, and I'm not saying it was the case with GJ, but the process has gotten so moved along nowadays that it is nearly impossible to project how kids are going to be three years from now when they commit as freshman

Seemingly a match made in heaven, GJ decided to take a visit to Gonzaga and committed immediately afterwards.  In an interview with Scout.com, Gerry's enthusiasm for his sons decision was obvious.

"I think that ultimately he made the decision way too fast and ultimately he needed to probably make a better, informed decision than he made the first decision. Nobody would have ever thought Coach G would have lost his job after two years. Maybe he couldn’t have done anything differently. This has worked out for the best."

GJ has been working out with Mark Few and the rest of the Gonzaga roster this summer and has shown quite well thus far.  In our interview with Coach Leon Rice, he noted that GJ was a heady guard with outstanding athleticism.  For some reason his lanky build reminds me of a Rajon Rondo type player.  He is a smooth driver and penetrates the lane with remarkable ease.  His shot needs plenty of work but granted he takes the time to add strength and improve his jumper, GJ's career at Gonzaga will be ridiculously successful.

With everything he has gone through and as battled-tested as he is, I can't imagine it being anything but a wonderful marriage between Gonzaga and GJ.

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