Connor Vanover’s basketball ambitions were pretty modest in the beginning.
“I wanted to be better than my brothers,” Cal’s freshman center said. “That’s how it always is.”
As a grade-school kid, Connor would pester his older twin brothers, Brandon and Justin, to join him on the driveway of their Little Rock, Ark., home to play one-on-one.
“It just pushed me really hard,” he said the sibling competition.
Vanover’s hoop dreams are a bit loftier these days.
“The NBA,” he said. “That’s just the first goal, to get to the NBA, and then try to go up as far as I can.”
You’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, right. This guy, who averages 6.2 points and 2.3 rebounds for a team that hasn’t won a game since before Christmas is going to play in the NBA.”
Vanover understands he is nowhere on future NBA mock drafts. He knows he has much work to do to even get a sniff.
But he has two things going for him:
— He is 7-foot-3
— He can shoot the basketball
Connor finds inspiration in his boyhood hero, Dirk Nowitzki.
“I always looked to him. He was way taller than everyone else and he could shoot,” Vanover said of the 7-footer from Germany, who ranks seventh on the all-time NBA scoring list after making nearly 2,000 career 3-pointers.
“He changed the game. He definitely set a standard for tall guys.”
Vanover, with wavy blonde hair, even looks a bit like Nowitzki.
“I’ve heard that a lot,” he said.
Always tall for his age, Vanover shot up six inches in the seventh grade, and hit 7 feet a year later. He is now taller than his 7-foot big brothers.
“It all happened so fast,” Vanover said of his growth spurt. “I went to school wearing shorts because it was too big of a hassle to find something my length.”
The challenges were special for Robyn, a former center at Arkansas, and Chris Vanover, parents to three 7-footers. A trip to the grocery story meant picking up eight gallons of milk. And at some point, squeezing the family into Dad’s Toyota Avalon just didn’t work.
The boys are all making their own way now.
Justin Vanover walked away from basketball in middle school and played saxophone in the Alabama marching band through last year. Brandon Vanover is a reserve center at Central Arkansas.
And Connor, after a slow start, is beginning to figure things out with Cal. He has scored in double figures each of the past four games, averaging 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over that span while shooting 55 percent from the field and nearly 39 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
“He’s starting to give us a presence on the inside, which is what we don’t have and haven’t had all season,” said coach Wyking Jones, whose Bears (5-19, 0-12) will try to break a 13-game losing skid on Saturday at home against USC.
“He continues to be a bright spot. He continues to grow before our eyes. I think he has a chance to be special when it’s all said and done.”
What’s potentially special is the combination of size and skill. Vanover’s 15 3-point baskets equal the total made by the 12 other 7-footers on Pac-12 rosters. He’s also able to flush alley-oop passes, and against UCLA on Wednesday he scored on a 15-foot, two-handed volley tap off an inbounds pass with one-tenth of a second left on the shot clock.
Jones says Vanover’s teammates are beginning to believe in him as a versatile option on offense.
“I think they’re starting to see he can score in more ways than just a trailing three,” he said.
At the other end of the court, Vanover is just beginning to get his bearings against mostly quicker and stronger athletes. He had a season-high four blocks against Oregon State last week, then a season-best six rebounds against UCLA.
“I’m definitely feeling a lot more confident,” Vanover said this week. “I have the skills, I’ve just got to show it. Having more confidence in my body really helps.”
His growing confidence is the result of a more comprehensive collegiate weight-training regimen. “It’s like I was doing kiddie weights (in high school) and now I’m with the big boys,” he said. “I’m feeling a difference, definitely.”
Adding strength remains one of Vanover’s biggest challenges.
Robyn Vanover says Connor has always struggled to add weight. “We were always shoving food down him,” she said. And yet, his listed weight of 225 pounds practically disappears on his long frame.
Asked what Vanover needs next in his development, Jones was quick to answer.
“Get older,” he said. “It just comes down to reps. Experience and reps.”
Vanover is encouraged by his improvement, but nowhere near satisfied. He wants to average 10 rebounds a game and be enough of a defensive force to deter opponents from coming into the lane.
He is coping with school perhaps more easily than the losses his team has piled up.
“Every game we come in thinking it’s a winnable game. After a loss, it’s just kind of devastating,” he said. “Then we come together, pick each other up and say we’ll get the next one.”
At 19, Vanover is trying to be patient with everything that’s coming at him.
“I want everything now, but it just takes time.” he said. “I see a progression. Every time I think about it, as I get better and better, I feel like it’s out there and I’m just a step closer.”
Closer to . . . the NBA?
“Some people are shocked when I tell them,” he said of his ultimate goal. “Some people are, ‘Well, you should because you’re that tall.’
“It’s always encouraging when I tell people that because I can follow my dreams and have a real possibility.”