After meeting ultra-high expectations at Indiana, motivated point guard willing to put in the work to take his game to the next level
POSTED: May 27, 2016 11:54 AM ET
Yogi Ferrell was the only guard in the country to average 17 points, 5.5 assists and shoot better than 40 percent on 3s.
The good people of Indiana love their basketball, and they love their schoolboy heroes, young men who are anointed legends, sometimes before they even play their first high school game.
Such status is both a blessing and a curse. The notoriety is special, but the pressure of living up to the hype can be intense. Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell, Jr., who grew up in Indianapolis, knows this as well as anyone.
Ferrell, the 6-foot point guard who last March completed an exemplary career at the mighty Indiana University and has dedicated every day since to proving he belongs on an NBA roster, had it tougher than most, through no fault of his own. When, in 2004, a recruiting service declared he was the No. 1 fourth grade basketball player in the country, the recognition practically painted a bulls-eye on his back, swelled his head a hat size or two and forced his father to institute some tough love.
I'm a fighter. I like to be the dog.
– Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell, Jr.
There's something fundamentally wrong about ranking players that young (Ferrell was 10 at the time), given how much maturation is still ahead, both physical and mental. Ten is an age where kids are supposed to be watching cartoons and drinking juice boxes, not trying to defend some imaginary ranking that may well have no bearing on their future. What if they don't grow up to be tall, fast or strong? What if they decide they'd rather play tennis, or soccer, or join the chess club or try out for school plays?
"I think it's ridiculous," the late coach and television analyst Rick Majerus once told the Indianapolis Star. "What it does is sell books, recruiting publications and magazines at the expense of someone's loss of innocence. I've never heard of [ranking fourth-graders]. I think it's sad. It's just sad, almost reprehensible."
Kevin Ferrell, Sr. thought much the same thing. Evidence that his son had changed came one day when Yogi's brother Kaleb was teasing him about the ranking.
"You're not that good," Kaleb said.
"Not that good, huh?" Yogi responded. "Google me."
Que the sound of an 18-wheeler screeching to dead stop. The elder Ferrell had seen and heard enough.
"It was time to sit back," he told the New York Times. "It was time to get away from this."
That was an easy decision for the elder Ferrell to make; he just happened to be his son's summer AAU coach. He banned Yogi from AAU basketball for two years -- through seventh and eighth grade -- and encouraged less stressful pursuits. A ping-pong table was purchased. Camping trips replaced daylong basketball tournaments.
"And I hated it," Ferrell said. "Me being a kid, I wanted to get back out there and play basketball. I remember fighting with my dad to get back. And he wouldn't let me do it. But looking back on it, that was a good decision for my dad to do that."
It wasn't as though Kevin Ferrell took basketball completely away from his son. They worked out together, played in pick-up games, worked with a trainer. Out of the white-hot spotlight, Yogi Ferrell began to hone his chops, and when he returned to the AAU scene, it was obvious to all that he had lived up to those lofty predictions that someone else had unfairly placed on him. But he'd done it on his terms.
By the time Ferrell left Park Tudor High School, he had led the Panthers to consecutive Indiana Class 2A championships, and along with fellow Indiana high school hoops hero Cody Zeller, had made plans to play college ball for Indiana.
"We were sold on him during his sophomore year [even before he led Park Tudor to those two state titles]," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "The key was we were going to need a person to help put the final touches on a potentially great team, with people like Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. We thought Yogi could have an Isiah Thomas-type impact on us and have a great future here."
That much was apparent during the summer of 2012, when Ferrell first stepped on campus. And after the season began, he began proving it on a regular basis.
Talk to Crean or a member of his staff about their favorite Yogi Ferrell Freshman Moment, and you are likely to get several different answers. Associate head coach Tim Buckley fondly recalls a game at Minnesota, when Ferrell found himself guarding the Gophers' Rodney Williams, who at 6-foot-7 towered over Ferrell.
GameTime: Yogi Ferrell and Isiah Thomas
Former Hoosier Isiah Thomas interviews current Indiana star Yogi Ferrell about the team's tournament success.
"He got caught on a switch," Buckley said. "So he fronted [Williams]. Fronted him. Then he went up and got the steal when they tried to throw it in there to him, pushed it up the floor and scored on the other end."
Ferrell remembers that play.
"I think maybe Cody Zeller was guarding [Williams]," Ferrell said. "I got caught on the switch, and I realized he was trying to post me up. I just tried to root him out. They ended up lobbing it to him, but I got the steal, I gave it to someone else and they gave it back to me and I scored.
"That play kind of sums me up. I'm a fighter. I like to be the dog. When I get put on bigger guys, my mind is not to let them score."
Then there was Indiana's final regular-season game in Ferrell's freshman season, at Michigan, the Big Ten title on the line. The Hoosiers trailed by five points with 52 seconds left.
"We never called a timeout," Buckley said. "Yogi had to get us into a play three straight times for us to score. On the road at Michigan to win the Big Ten championship outright. Talk about poise under pressure."
The things that will stand out when teams really look deep into him are incredible physical and mental toughness with tremendous durability.
– Indiana coach Tom Crean on Ferrell
Indiana won 72-71 and Ferrell's legend grew. The Hoosiers finished 30-7 that season and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Even Ferrell couldn't help the Hoosiers offset the loss of his friend Zeller and Oladipo the following season. Indiana finished 19-15 and 7-11 in the Big Ten, then improved slightly to 20-14 and 9-9 in Ferrell's junior season and returned to the NCAA tournament. Ferrell thought about entering the NBA Draft, but after considerable soul searching, he returned to Indiana.
"I felt like we could do great things my final year," Ferrell said. "And the coaches, it was like they were re-recruiting me. One of our assistants showed me a list of guys that thought about entering the draft after their junior year and decided to come back. And he showed me their success rate; how that final year propelled them into the NBA.
"We also talked about the accolades I could get and the records I could break. And then there was Hoosier Nation. All I can say about that was that it was just pure joy to play for the fans there. I wanted that experience one more time."
Ferrell's coaches were mostly correct in their pitch to get Ferrell to stay. The Hoosiers won another Big Ten regular-season championship and went on another Sweet 16 NCAA run that including bouncing rival Kentucky from the tournament.
As for Ferrell, he turned up on several All-America teams, was a unanimous All-Big Ten pick, and wound up Indiana's career record holder in assists (633). Ferrell was the only guard in the country to average at least 17 points and 5.5 assists and shoot better than 40 percent from the 3-point line.
As for the coaches' pitch about his senior year propelling him into the NBA, well, when Ferrell didn't get invited to the league's Chicago Combine, suffice it to say the Indiana staff was surprised.
"In today's age, kids who meet expectations kind of get overlooked sometimes," IU assistant Chuck Martin said. "Yogi is one of them. He was supposed to be good, he is good, he's going to continue to be good. There's no shock value in that. He gets hurt for it."
Ferrell was disappointed about not getting to go to Chicago, but he understood. And he's used it as motivation.
"I understand that they wanted to evaluate some of the younger guys, guys they haven't seen as much," Ferrell said. "So yes, that's a little bit of extra motivation for me. I want to show NBA teams my ability, and show them I was definitely one of the guys who deserved to go to the combine."
His name hasn't turned up in any mock drafts, but Ferrell hasn't been forgotten. NBA teams have constantly checked up on him, through his agent and his former IU coaches.
"I've talked to a lot of teams," Buckley said. "And while nobody's been specific with me, like 'we're going to take him with this pick,' almost to a man that I've talked with, they think he's going to make it in the NBA. I would agree with that."
Ferrell learned from his father, and later Crean and his staff, how to correct weaknesses. Self-awareness, self-analysis, is always the first step. Since his final college game, Ferrell has put in a lot of work on switching up his pace of play and being able to control tempo.
"Not going 100 miles an hour all the time," he said. "Going from 40 to 60 to 80, back down to 40. I've also been working on different reads on ball screens. The NBA is a ball screen league. I've been getting a lot of shots up, and of course conditioning. You've got to be in the best shape of your life to play at the highest level."
The last word on Ferrell should go to Crean. To get an idea of what Crean meant to Ferrell and vice versa, check out YouTube, which is full of videos from Indiana's Senior Night on March 6. There was nary a dry eye in Assembly Hall after both men shared their feelings about one another.
Crean has no doubt about Ferrell's NBA worthiness, and offers a preview to the teams that are considering drafting his former point guard.
"The things that will stand out when teams really look deep into him are incredible physical and mental toughness with tremendous durability," Crean said. "He is so dependable in so many areas. He is also one of the absolute smartest people I've ever coached. He knows the game inside and out."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.