Averaging 12.6 points per game, Wayne Blackshear is the third-leading scorer on the No. 5 college basketball team in the country. He also ranks as the third-leading rebounder and the senior co-captain of said team. He has been a starter on Louisville's first national championship team since 1986, and when he leaves U of L in a few months, he's likely to do so with more wins to his name than any Cardinal player who has gone before him.
Still, Wayne Blackshear has a problem. A big one. One which has left a player who owns the previously listed set of accomplishments as perhaps the most oft-criticized Cardinal in recent memory.
You see, few years ago when he was still a teenager, a lot of people who get paid to assess the strengths and weaknesses of high school basketball players believed Wayne Blackshear was a lock to play in the NBA. Typically that's a good thing. Typically, not always.
Blackshear arrived at Louisville with as stellar a resume as any Cardinal freshman during the Rick Pitino era. He had been a McDonald's All-American and was a two-time Player of the Year in the city of Chicago, twice beating out a young man named Anthony Davis.
"This is a big-time score for Rick Pitino," Rick Bolus, director of High Potential Basketball Recruiting in Shepherdsville, Ky. said at the time of Blackshear's commitment. "He's an athletic player who can literally do it all. He's a coast-to-coast player."
Adversity struck Blackshear's college career right away. First it was the NCAA Clearinghouse delaying a decision to declare the freshman eligible to compete for seemingly no reason. Next it was a shoulder injury that kept Blackshear from seeing the floor until February.
When that day came, however, Wayne proved to be worth the wait.
In a game where he was expected to dress but not play, Blackshear came off the bench and scored 13 points to lead Louisville to a hard-fought 77-74 victory at West Virginia. Expectations only got higher when Blackshear appeared to be the only Cardinal not intimidated by Kentucky in the 2012 Final Four, throwing down a pair of highlight-reel dunks and scoring 9 points off the bench.
With the graduation of Kyle Kuric opening up a starting spot at the small forward position, college basketball outlets across the country tabbed Blackshear as one of the "breakout stars" for the 2012-13 season. It was a logical jump, only it never happened.
Blackshear started and was a solid contributor on Louisville's national title team, but by the end of the season it was George Mason transfer Luke Hancock who was seeing the majority of minutes at the three. A season later, Blackshear improved his scoring average from 7.6 ppg to 8.2 ppg, but again deferred to Hancock in most of U of L's big games.
The problem with recruiting rankings, just like lottery picks in the NBA Draft, is that often fans simply refuse to believe that these people who get paid to assess talent for a living could be so wrong. That can't be the case, it has to be that the player just isn't working hard enough or is still on the brink of "realizing his potential."
What if Wayne Blackshear had arrived at Louisville as a 2-star recruit like Russ Smith or Preston Knowles? What if he hadn't been built up as some type of savior during a time when U of L desperately needed one? If that were the case we'd be talking about a beloved overachiever who has improved his scoring, rebounding and assist averages in all four of his college seasons. We'd be talking about a guy who is the type of player and person that we'd like all Cardinals to be.
Instead, Blackshear was a 5-star prospect with offers from nearly every major program in the country when he committed to U of L on Christmas Eve in 2009. Over the course of the next four months, he watched the Cards struggle through a season that ended with a first round loss to California, he saw the recruiting class he was joining fall apart, and he had to listen to constant talk that the head coach he had committed to play for was on the downslope of his career and that he was not coming back up anytime soon.
Rick Pitino lost Michael Chandler to a decommitment, he lost Ryan Taylor to grades, and he lost Marquis Teague to Kentucky. People began to whisper in Blackshear's ear that he needed to re-think things. Rumors began to circulate that the 5-star forward's commitment was "soft." But the young man at the center of all the talk never wavered.
"When I made that commitment, I knew I was coming," Blackshear said in 2012. "As far as all that other stuff, I don't know where it came from. They were just rumors, but it was never true. I was always coming here after the first day I committed."
Blackshear played for one of the top Nike AAU programs in the country (Chicago's Mac Irvin Fire), and there were more than a handful of reports of people close to him and the program urging him to re-think his commitment to an adidas school. Wayne's mother, Carol Blackshear, was simply not having it.
"That recruiting process gets out of hand because people don't take control over their household and their children," she said. "I'm the boss. Period. I don't need anybody to come in after 19-20 years and tell me what's best for me or him. The rumors that were put out there were put out there by people who wanted to be in control. And in the end people saw who was in control."
Despite being a McDonald's All-American and a consensus top 15 recruit, Blackshear was not invited to participate in Nike's most prestigious all-star event, the Jordan Brand Classic game. He didn't seem to mind. He was going to become a Cardinal, and that was all that mattered.
Never forget this: Wayne Blackshear stuck with Louisville when sticking with Louisville wasn't cool.
None of this is to say that Blackshear is above criticism. His lack of both production and aggression in big games over the course of the last three seasons has been equally frustrating and puzzling. Pointing that out is understandable. What isn't understandable is using Blackshear's on-court play as justification for insulting him as a person. There seems to be a small faction of fans who don't like Blacksher as a human being solely because he hasn't developed into the All-American they predicted he'd be. That's not okay.
The reality is that if you value things like character, loyalty and actions, there should be no bigger fan-favorite this season than Wayne Blackshear.
All that said, there's still time for Blackshear to make the type of impact on the court that Cardinal fans have been waiting for. In February and March of 2005, Larry O'Bannon went from an oft-mocked chronic underachiever perpetually in Pitino's doghouse for three and-a-half seasons to a guy who will always be remembered for a two-month scoring outburst that helped guide U of L to the Final Four.
Pitino himself compared the pair earlier this week.
"Those two are the two most similar personalities that I've encountered at the University of Louisville," Pitino said. "They are unbelievable young men, great guys, respectful. They have this personality when they step on the court that's mild-mannered. I told Larry, 'Your personality is what's stopping you from being a good basketball player. You have to be an intense competitor.' Larry got it at the end of his junior year and had an unbelievable senior year. I think Wayne will get it too."
Maybe he's right. Maybe similar heroics are in store for Blackshear over the course of the next three months. Or maybe Wayne is just always going to be a good, but not great, college basketball player. And maybe that's okay.
A season ago, Blackshear was named to the Capital One District 2 Academic All-District men's basketball first team, an honor which recognizes the nation's top student-athletes for their combined performances athletically and in the classroom. In 2013, Blackshear earned the NCAA Elite 89 Award, which is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA's championships. Talk to anyone, legitimately anyone, associated with Louisville basketball and they'll tell you that there have been few, if any, nicer young men to wear the red and black.
If we're not celebrating the college career of Wayne Blackshear, what does that say about us?
An abbreviated version of this column is running in this week's Voice-Tribune