In a move that had been reported on social media for several days, Winthrop University has officially signed Australian men’s basketball player Xavier Cooks.
Cooks, a 6-foot-8, 200-pound swing-man with a mop of curly brown hair, played this past season with Basketball Australia’s Center of Excellence team. He averaged around 13 points and shot over 50 percent from the field, including 42 percent from beyond the arc. Cooks is eligible to play this coming season.
“We are excited to welcome Xavier to the Winthrop community,” said Eagles coach Pat Kelsey, who will begin his third season at the helm this year. “His father played in college, professionally and is now a coach. A basketball was in his crib from day one and his basketball I.Q. reflects that. More importantly to me than coming from a basketball family, however, is that he comes from a supportive, loving family. They have raised a fine young man that I will be proud to coach.”
Cooks is the youngest son in a family of ball players. His father, Eric Cooks, played at St. Mary’s College, in the NBL (Australian pro league) and is currently an assistant coach with the NBL’s Wollongong Hawks. Cooks’ brother, Dominique, enjoyed a successful college career at Division II powerhouse Chaminade University in Hawaii.
“They always talk about coaches’ kids, they just have that basketball gene in them,” said Kelsey. “The more we got to know the kid, the family and his background, the type of player he was, it turned out to be a perfect fit.”
Last summer, Dominique Cooks told an Australian newspaper that he’d been away from his home country for about two years. His brother stood about six feet when Dominique left, but topped out at 6-foot-7 when he returned two years later. The late growth spurt may explain Xavier Cooks’ relative sleeper status in the 2014 recruiting class.
“You have guard skills because you’ve been playing a certain position and a certain way because of your size and now all of a sudden you sprout. Now you’re 6-7, 6-8 and you still have those guard skills, which is what is really intriguing about him,” said Kelsey. “He can dribble, pass and shoot. I think there’s going to be an adjustment to the physicality of the American game, but he has a chance to be a very good player here.”
According to Ausahoops.com, Cooks also had offers from Iowa, Wake Forest, LSU and Cleveland State, among others. His decision narrowed to Hartford, Winthrop and Iowa, and the Eagles won out. Ausahoops.com ranked Cooks as the seventh-best Australian prospect in this year’s class, and he’ll be a welcome addition to the Winthrop roster after 6-foot-9 senior James Bourne recently tore his ACL, ruling him out for the 2014-15 season as a redshirt.
“Xavier Cooks gives us some depth. He’s a different player than James, who is a wide-body, but he gives us position flexibility because Xavier can play so many different positions,” said Kelsey. “He’s just that versatile hybrid forward.”
While playing basketball at Xavier University, Kelsey traveled to Australia in 1996 with Athletes in Action, a faith-based sports touring group, and has maintained contacts in the country ever since. As he said, “In our business, we recruit; it’s what we do.” Working those contacts helped Kelsey land a player he has yet to meet in person. Interaction with Cooks, who lives in a time zone 14 hours ahead of Rock Hill’s, has thus far been limited to the Internet and Skype.
“In this day and age there’s a lot of ways to communicate with people that you couldn’t do 15 to 20 years ago,” said Kelsey. “When the recruitment really got hot and heavy, my sleep patterns were really messed up.”
Despite the difference in time and the lack of in-person meetings, Kelsey credited an immediate personal connection with Cooks for helping him land the player. The Aussie becomes the third from “Down Under” to play basketball for Winthrop. The other two include former standout Craig Bradshaw from New Zealand, who was a member of the New Zealand Olympic team and helped lead Winthrop to three straight Big South Conference championships (2005-07) and an NCAA Tournament first round victory over Notre Dame in 2007. The other was Aussie product Shola Diop, who played for the Eagles for two years, graduating in 2013.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T