Davidson’s Stephen Curry arrives at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night with all the hype, and deservedly so.
But Texas guard A.J. Abrams is hardly an understudy.
They won’t be on the court at the same time during the Jimmy V Classic, as Davidson plays West Virginia in the first game while Texas plays Villanova in the later affair.
But there are some striking similarities between the two players.
Neither was highly recruited. Both have had to prove plenty of people wrong about their ability to succeed at the college level. Curry is a scoring guard; so too, is Abrams.
Both saw their point guard — Davidson’s Jason Richards and Texas’ D.J. Augustin — depart from last season’s Elite Eight teams. Both players were supposed to have switched to the point, but instead they just have the ball in their hands a bit more. They are ballplayers, scoring guards, not pigeon-holed into a specific position.
Curry’s prolific scoring in the NCAA tournament and his continued run to 30-plus point games this season make him a national player of the year candidate. But Curry is the one nationally known commodity on his team.
Abrams has two of the nation’s more undervalued studs on his team in wing Damion James and guard Justin Mason, both capable of putting up significant numbers or stealing headlines. And that’s what makes Abrams’ performances of late even more impressive. He has more help and yet he continues to stand tall, despite being one of the shortest players on the court.
“I don’t think A.J. has ever gotten the attention,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “Some of it has to do with that he was on a team with LaMarcus Aldridge [as a freshman], Kevin Durant [as a sophomore] and D.J. Augustin [as a junior]. But he’s been a factor every year he’s been here.”
Barnes said the perception has long been that the 5-foot-11 senior guard is just another role player. If that’s the case, he’s been one of the most productive role players in Texas history. Abrams entered the season as Texas’ all-time leading 3-point maker (284) and was in the top 15 on the school’s scoring list (1,389). His numbers climbed from an average of 6.4 points as a freshman, to 15.5 as a sophomore to 16.5 as a junior before taking a minor dip as a senior to 15.8. But that was before he poured in 31 points in a four-point win over UCLA on Thursday night. Abrams made five of nine 3s against the Bruins and took his body inside, as well as drawing contact on the perimeter, to get to the free throw line, where he was 8-for-9.
“He’s as confident as any player we’ve ever coached,” Barnes said. “People look at him and underestimate his ability. He’s not going to flinch. I’ve seen him during timeouts and been around him. When the game is on the line, he wants it some way, somehow and he’s worked on his defense, too.”
Abrams has a calm on-court demeanor that he maintains off the court. He may look serious, but he insists he’s having the time of his life. He declared for the NBA draft last spring, something Curry didn’t do, and did work out for two teams — Sacramento and Golden State. But he didn’t go to the Orlando pre-draft camp in late May and it was clear he wasn’t going to be selected in the first round. It’s hard to predict whether he would have been a second-round pick.
He said he was told he needed to work on being a floor leader. But NBA personnel watching the Longhorns-Bruins game Thursday said he’s not a point guard in the NBA. He didn’t have an assist against the Bruins. The consensus was that if Abrams was on the right team, in the right system, he could be a spot-up scorer from the perimeter. The question would be whether he could he defend an opposing point guard, since he wouldn’t be asked to defend an NBA shooting guard.
Those questions will dog him in the spring, but like everything else he has dealt with nothing will discourage him in basketball.
“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder,” Abrams said. “People have always said that with my height I can’t do it. I come out trying to prove people wrong every day. People didn’t think I could succeed at the college level and I think I’m doing all right. I want to win a national championship and get to the next level.”
Abrams’ best attribute is his ability to get his shot off quickly. He said he never noticed how fast his release is, it’s simply something he worked on with his father while he was growing up: shooting the ball right when he received the pass. But it doesn’t go unnoticed.
“He has the ability to shoot the ball quickly with as little space to hit the shot,” said UCLA senior guard Darren Collison. “You’ve always got to be aware of where he’s at. You can’t lose sight of him.”
Barnes, who said Abrams is deft at moving without the ball, added that his release enables him to get his shot off over just about anybody.
“You could see it against Notre Dame [a one-point semifinal loss in the Maui Invitational], he would just come down, dribble right at them and rise up,” Barnes said. “He gets up and into his shot quickly. He’s worked very well at driving the ball and getting fouled to get to the free throw line.”
Abrams, with his Longhorns shorts so long that they nearly meet his ankles, continues to defy anyone who would question whether he can take over a game. Sound familiar? Curry went through the same things his first two seasons at Davidson prior to the NCAA tournament run to the Elite Eight. Curry is expected to star now for the Wildcats. So, too, is Abrams, but with just a little less national pub and fewer headlines.
The assumption was that without Augustin the Longhorns would not go as far in the NCAAs. But Abrams’ productivity, James’ double-double performances and Mason’s defense and floor leadership aren’t allowing much of a dip, if at all, from a potential national title contender.
“I would say [Abrams] deserves to be known,” Mason said. “He goes out and performs every night. I think what’s so good about A.J. is that he doesn’t care what people say about him. He’s team oriented. He just wants the W’s.”
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Also see: Hoops Notes: Texas vs. Villanova