Winthrop University

Winthrop’s ‘Ausspicious’ rookie settling into American college basketball well

Xavier Cooks’ first views of the Winthrop campus came through an iPad screen.

Cooks and his family had just wrapped up a recruiting visit to Hartford University from their native Australia last summer. They wanted to visit Winthrop, but didn’t have the time to make it to Rock Hill. Instead, they fired up a Skype call with Eagles coach Pat Kelsey and he gave them a personal virtual tour.

“I think it might have been (assistant coach Mark) Prosser holding the camera and Kelsey was walking around campus commentating,” said Cooks, who committed to play for Winthrop without physically visiting the campus. “It was really great. That really helped me see the campus and that appealed to me.”

It also showed the effort Kelsey and his staff put in to make sure Cooks became an Eagle.

“I felt like I was like Jimmy Kimmel hosting a visit,” said Kelsey. “My jokes are 1/1,000 as funny as Jimmy Kimmel’s. I think I had one or two zingers that got it done.”

Mismatch of frame and game

Twenty-six games into Cooks’ freshman year of American college basketball the effort looks worthwhile. The long-limbed, 6-foot-7, floppy-haired Australian has been an instant contributor, starting 21 games, and leading the team in rebounding (5.9) and blocked shots (41), while also averaging 7.1 points per contest.

Cooks has a game that doesn’t match his body, in large part because his physical form is new. Sitting in one of the Coliseum’s seats earlier this week, he plops down and unfurls his legs and his 82-inch wingspan. A stringy figure, Cooks was only about 6-feet tall as a 16-year-old.

“I was really goofy,” he said. “I hadn’t grown in to my limbs yet. I was just awkward back then.”

As far as physical movement, Cooks, who had recruiting interest from LSU, Iowa, Boston College and others, is easing out of that phase. But after growing about seven inches in two years he still needs to add muscle and meat to his frame.

“I wasn’t much of a lifter back in Australia, as you can really tell,” said Cooks, who carries less than 200 pounds.

His 6-foot-6 father, Eric, and 6-foot-3 brother, Dominique, both played American college basketball and now coach and play for the Wollongong Hawks in the National Basketball League, Australia’s pro basketball league. Cooks grew up around hoops, and he quickly got used to the idea of having seven extra inches of height as a player.

“When I was a guard I used to drive into the lane but I couldn’t really see as well because I wasn’t as tall as everyone,” he said. “But coming over here, when I drive I can see the floor a lot better.”

Cooks’ versatile skill set and ability to defend multiple positions are what Australia Under-19 national team coach Adam Caporn termed “valuable characteristics for modern international basketball.” The best advertisement of Cooks’ versatility so far, a 74-61 win over Liberty Feb. 4, prompted Kelsey to say afterward, “he’s so multidimensional. You can’t paint his game into a corner.”

Cooks’ stats from that night were printed on sheets of paper in black and white, but the less tangible aspects of his game were absent from the scoreline.

“Coaches we play against have an appreciation for his floor game, his sense, his feel, his body movement on the floor, his ability to pass off the move, off the dribble, and find guys,” Kelsey said. “He’s a unique basketball player because of his size and his skill, and he sure is fun to watch.”

Worlds away from Wollongong

This has been a big week for Cooks. He experienced ice for the first time.

“I really don’t deal with the cold at all,” he said.

The icy weather blanketing Rock Hill earlier this week underscores how different of an environment Cooks is in now. He hails from Wollongong, a large urban area in southeast Australia. The city, which is separated from Sydney by 45 minutes, houses a pair of nature reserves full of the koalas and kangaroos (which most Americans suspect are on every corner in Australia). Cooks compared Wollongong to Hawaii, and said he used to make the three-minute skateboard ride down to the beach every day in the summer to escape temperatures that climbed over 100 degrees.

Cooks might miss the sand, sun and waves, but he said he’s done pretty well managing any homesickness. He credited his teammates, especially roommate Roderick Perkins, with immersing him into the group and keeping his mind from wondering overseas. They enjoy him as well, especially his accent and unique Australian sayings.

“Xavier is a funny guy,” said Perkins, an Atlanta, native. “He has a lot of phrases that we’ve never heard. McDonald’s, he calls it ‘Macca’s.’ It was funny because when I went back home, I actually said to a friend, ‘you trying to go to Macca’s?’ And he said, ‘what is that?’”

Walking around the school, it’s hard for Cooks to go unnoticed. His mop of curly black hair bounces on his head – he said he doesn’t do anything special to treat it – and of course being 6-foot-7 with an Australian accent makes it difficult to blend in. Initially he was surprised by the friendliness of strangers on Winthrop’s campus.

“Back at home we don’t really walk by people and say hi,” Cooks said. “I guess it’s a Southern thing. I’m still getting used to it, but it makes it a lot easier to make friends down here, which I really needed.”

Kelsey would argue that making friends isn’t hard for Cooks.

“It’s kind of cool to see him get in his comfort zone,” Kelsey said in early February. “The first three or four months that he’s here, he’s just trying to adapt to the culture and things like that. Now he’s sort of a rock star on campus with his crazy locks. The guys love him and girls love to hear his accent.”

Boomer future?

Cooks’ increasing level of comfort should enable him to continue his basketball development at a rapid pace.

He arrived in Rock Hill with a cultured basketball pedigree, in part because of his hooping family. He played for Caporn at the Australian Institute for Sport, which has produced multiple NBA players, and also played with his brother and for his dad as an unpaid – and definitely out-muscled – development prospect for the Wollongong Hawks. Those experiences and sprouting seven inches in two years have made pro basketball and representing his country internationally a more realistic proposition for Cooks.

“Playing professionally has always been a dream,” he said in a thick Australian accent. “I couldn’t think of anything better to do, like, ever.”

Cooks’ brother and father know what he’s going through. Like many Australians, Dominique came to the States to play, starting at Utah State before transferring to Chaminade. Eric did the reverse. Born in Gary, Ind., he played at St. Mary’s College in California during the mid-1980s, before a pro career in Australia where he married a native Aussie, Josie, got his citizenship and helped raise their three kids while coaching in the NBL.

Basketball has moved the Cooks family all over the globe with Xavier the latest to join the odyssey. Only a freshman, it’s apparent that he’s beginning to grasp what could be possible with his unique combination of size and ability. His teammates already see the potential.

“He’s what I call a cerebral player,” said Perkins. “He has a fundamental skill set and I’d like to see where he’s at later on in his career.”

Cook’s potential is dawning on others too. He needs to improve his strength and his jump shot, but representing Australia’s national team, nicknamed the Boomers, is not out of the question in the coming years. Australia’s national team coach, Andrej Lemanis, has contacted Cooks about trying out for the country’s World University Games team this summer, which Caporn said “is because he is identified as a potential Boomer going forward.”

While Winthrop will undoubtedly benefit from Cooks’ talents in the years to come, it’s clear that playing college basketball in America can enable Cooks to brighten his future, whether it’s from the free education he’ll receive, or growing his game in a way that enhances his professional and national team prospects. Sometime in the near future, it might be Kelsey watching Cooks on an iPad screen.

“Everybody has a dream of playing in the NBA, but I think where he comes from and what he’s all about, one of the greatest things he could do in his basketball life would be to represent his country,” said Kelsey. “That’s a long way off and it’s hard to put those expectations on a young man, but I think that’s definitely something that really, really drives him.”