By: Keith Raad – Sports Editor
After thundering through the lane to complete a layup and get the foul, Kendall Pollard let out a bellowing scream. Scrunching his face and squeezing his fists, Pollard’s jubilation echoed through Belk Arena.
There was only one problem.
Dayton trailed by 15 points on the road to Davidson College with around eight minutes to play in the second half Jan. 20.
“I read some tweets about that,” the sophomore forward said with a laugh. “But I play with a ‘never no hope’ attitude.”
Just 6 foot 6 on a team with no one any taller, Pollard’s bull in a china shop mentality makes up for any height deficiency. Fearless in all aspects of the game, his application for Atlantic 10 Conference Most Improved Player is running out of room for impressive games.
As a first year, Pollard scored just 2.2 points-per-game and nabbed 1.3 rebounds in just 8.5 minutes of action per game.
Knowing he would emerge on a team that lost seniors Devin Oliver and Matt Kavanaugh in his position at the power forward, his expectations coming into 2014-15 were higher than his first go around. However, when juniors Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson were dismissed from the team Dec. 16, Pollard’s minutes-per-game rose dramatically.
Pollard averaged 22-minutes-per game until the dismissals. Beginning against Boston University Dec. 20 as part of the newly-remodeled small ball seven, Pollard kick-started a campaign for the honor, now averaging 14 points-per-game in 32 minutes.
But it all started in the backyards and alleys of Chicago for Pollard. The youngest of his cousins, Pollard’s childhood game took place on pavement shooting at anything they could get their hands on.
“We never had a real rim,” Pollard recalled. “We played on anything we could find basically. We used crates and this little play set where there wasn’t even a rim. It had a little hole in it and a big hole in it. If you made it in the little hole you got three points and two points if you made it in the big hole.”
Sitting inside of the Dayton’s Cronin Athletic Center, his long legs trying to get comfortable under a petite coffee table, Pollard’s recollection of the playground ignited the same feeling that flowed through his veins when he was a child.
“We all had a dream,” he said. “They all stopped playing in high school. Nothing could stop me because I just wanted to get paid playing basketball someday.”
Growing up from the jungle gyms and the milk crates, Pollard attended Simeon High School in Chicago, a school known for its powerful rosters and numerous state championships.
Pollard joined current Milwaukee Bucks star and second-overall 2014 NBA Draft pick Jabari Parker in winning three state championships at Simeon, the same home of Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls.
“There was no way I was going to stop playing at Simeon, and we were winning,” Pollard said. “I’ve never really ever been on a losing team. My sophomore season I played on varsity and junior varsity, we went deep in the city playoffs, but we didn’t win. That was the most losses I can remember.”
Pollard’s success at Simeon drew interest from Dayton assistant coach Tom Ostrom. Pollard heard of the interest in a phone call and his next stop was meeting Archie Miller at Pollard’s favorite restaurant.
“We first met on his home visit to me,” Pollard said. “We met at Chili’s. He was a really cool dude.”
As many note when they see Miller, his stature of 5 foot 10 offers a different, more judgmental view of the coach. But running the point for Atlantic Coast Conference’s North Carolina State University takes more than looks. Miller expresses wicked tenacity seen in his demeanor. Seen standing up for the game’s 40 minutes, scrunching up his face during a priceless face-to-face teaching moment, and raised-eyebrow look of confusion at a call rip away any thoughts that he takes the game lightly.
Pollard recalled those same thoughts upon first glance at Chili’s and then the first time in Miller’s practice.
“I never expected the tone that I get in practice from him,” Pollard said. “But when I came on my visit he was going at it with Khari Price, so I knew he had it in him. He really preached talking a lot. ‘Quiet is not an option around here,’ he would say.”
The broad-chested and long-armed Pollard seems fit for the small forward or stretch power forward position. But as a member of the small ball seven, matching up with guys who seem like giants in the paint, meant a new philosophy. Coming from someone who dealt with “being undersized” at NC State, Miller lived it and now preaches it to Pollard.
“He keeps saying, ‘Don’t say you can’t guard a 7-footer,’” Pollard said. “‘You can. You can do anything.’ He tells us every day ‘you can do it, don’t tell me you can’t.’ That’s just how he is. We can go out there with four players and he’d tell us we could win. Nothing’s going to hold him back.”
Following Pollard’s 22-point performance against St. Joseph’s University Feb. 19 in a 68-64 win, Miller assessed the damage done against the Hawks, thanks to his sophomore standout.
“He is who he is,” Miller said of Pollard. “He’s a load inside. In my opinion he’s the most improved player in the Atlantic 10 … In my opinion, we don’t win without him.”
Proven in his transformation from first year to sophomore to star, Pollard’s quick transition and ability to shift with the tide makes his potential one without a ceiling. And that’s just how he likes it.
“I just have swagger about myself when I’m trying to accomplish some things,” Pollard said. “If you want to eat one day off of playing basketball, you have to produce. [I want to play in the NBA] if possible. I’ll talk to the coaches, my uncle, my mom, my brother. I don’t think it’s in the conversation right now. But if I get presented the opportunity, then yes.”
Lacing up for the A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn from Wednesday to Sunday, Pollard’s bullish bravado shoulders the weight of Dayton’s advancement through March.