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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nashua player finds basketball home at Cushing

ASHBURNHAM, Mass. – No matter how famous he becomes – and make no mistake, Cushing Academy junior Kaleb Joseph intends to become a very famous basketball player – he’ll never forget his roots in Nashua.

Joseph returns home just about every weekend. It’s only a 45-minute drive from the Cushing campus, set on a hillside overlooking bucolic downtown Ashburnham in rural central Massachusetts. ...

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ASHBURNHAM, Mass. – No matter how famous he becomes – and make no mistake, Cushing Academy junior Kaleb Joseph intends to become a very famous basketball player – he’ll never forget his roots in Nashua.

Joseph returns home just about every weekend. It’s only a 45-minute drive from the Cushing campus, set on a hillside overlooking bucolic downtown Ashburnham in rural central Massachusetts.

Joseph still keeps in nearly daily touch with some of his former middle school and high school teammates, including Nashua High School South seniors Jack Preston and Dan Auger.

He does one-on-one weekend workouts with Bishop Guertin girls basketball coach Scott Hazelton, who reached basketball fame himself more than a decade ago as a McDonald’s All-American and Division I player at Connecticut and Rhode Island.

But if Joseph – who has already reached celebrity status on the websites and blogs that detail college recruiting – ever does forget where he comes from, all he has to do is look at his shoes.

Written in small numbers on those sneakers is “603,” the one and only area code of a small New England state rarely known as a breeding ground of top basketball talent.

Those who might remember the skinny kid with goggles and silky moves at Fairgrounds Middle School or during his freshman year as a sometime starter at Nashua South three years ago might have a hard time recognizing Joseph now.

But many of the top coaches in college basketball know exactly who he is. Joseph, who said he dreamed of playing basketball at Syracuse University as a fifth-grader, was invited to do just that two weeks ago, when coach Jim Boeheim called and offered a scholarship.

About a dozen other schools, including Boston College, Providence, West Virginia and Purdue, have offered the same four years of free education. If Joseph wanted to go somewhere warm and exciting, Miami is also on the list.

Joseph has even spoken to a coach whose point guard position has become a direct path to the NBA lottery, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Depending on what website you believe, a formal offer from the Blue Devils is a distinct possibility.

Why have so many coaches fallen head over heels for a skinny kid from Nashua? Well, once again, you have to witness the transformation.

“He’s light years away from what he was when he first came here,’’ Cushing Academy coach Barry Connors said. “He’s 6-2, maybe 6-3, with long arms, and he’s really started to fill out. He’s still lean, but he’s so much stronger.’’

And did we mention his athleticism? One witness at Wednesday’s home game against Phillips Academy recalled a tomahawk jam earlier this season that brought even seasoned prep school watchers out of their seats.

But Joseph is a point guard at heart, and the most spectacular part of his game is his ability to find teammates, finding microscopic fissures in opposing defenses to deliver a pinpoint, often no-look, pass.

In Wednesday’s 70-50 win over Andover, Joseph found teammate Andrew Chrabascz for many of his 12 assists. The 6-7 Chrabascz, from Portsmouth, R.I., is headed for Butler University in the fall.

“He really understands the game, and we’ve developed a great chemistry,’’ Joseph said of Chrabascz. “He knows that if he runs with me, he’ll get the ball.’’

And there is plenty of chemistry and running ability in a backcourt that rivals any in the country. Jalen Rose, of Melrose, Mass., just a sophomore, has already received offers from Providence, Connecticut and Kansas State.

“We play AAU together, too,’’ Joseph said, “and a lot of people say we have the best backcourt in the country, which gives us a lot of confidence.’’

While basketball remains priority No. 1 for Joseph, he has improved as a student at Cushing. Small classes and fewer distractions have certainly helped.

Joseph still has another year at the school. He repeated his sophomore year after enrolling just after Thanksgiving two years ago. And while he says he isn’t close to making a college decision, the future is definitely coming into focus.

“It’s a business,’’ Joseph said. “If these schools don’t know you’re really interested in them, if you don’t lead them on a little, it’s their job to move on to somebody else because their job is to win.’’

The AAU season following the junior year of school competition is often a pivotal decision time for top recruits, and will likely be for Joseph. And while Joseph says he’s just an average student in most academic subjects, he does his homework when it comes to his basketball future.

Joseph watches plenty of college basketball, and he says it’s easy to figure out which schools, such as Duke, seems to crank out NBA lottery-level point guards year after year.

“I need to go to a program where the big men are versatile,’’ Joseph said. “If they can stretch the floor, it creates a lot more space in the paint for me.’’

Joseph has the quickness and ball-handling skills to get there, and when he does, defenses are hard pressed to stop him.

“If I score three or four times, then the defenders drop off to take me and I lob it up for an open teammate,’’ Joseph said. “But I don’t really care about scoring. I care about winning and keeping my teammates happy. ‘’

While spot-up shooting might not be his game, Connors said Joseph’s shooting range has improved dramatically, as well as many other facets of his game.

“His ability as an on-the-ball defender is off the charts,’’ Connors said. “And in terms of his maturity on the court and his decision making, he’s come a long way.

“He has that ability to control the tempo of the game.’’

But there is always room for improvement, which is why Joseph is scheduling Sunday sessions with Hazelton, his AAU coach with the Rivals Basketball Club.

“He’s going to help me a lot because he knows what it takes to play big-time basketball,’’ Joseph said. “He’ll definitely make me tougher as a player because he’s very physical.

“We do a lot of drills where you have to create contact to create space.’’

Joseph seeks advice from everyone, including the father of teammate Chris Mullin Jr., the former St. John’s and NBA star who is now an ESPN analyst.

“He helps me out, telling me just what it takes to get there,’’ Joseph said. “Chris Herren, too, his nephew plays on the team.’’

Joseph is looking to perform on the national stage, but he’ll always be a kid from Nashua, he says.

“I get a lot of love when I get back home,’’ Joseph said. “And every night I seem to get 15 or so messages from kids on my Facebook page, saying how proud they are that I’m from New Hampshire.’’