At a certain stage in his athletic development, Tremont Waters, like so many others, had to make an important decision about his future.
A gifted two-sport star in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, his was a dilemma that actually wasn’t — and therefore might not have been as tough as it is for most kids involved in multiple sports.
Football, or basketball?
Basketball, or football?
Before entering high school, Waters was a standout running back and linebacker who turned more than a few heads with his ability on the field.
Long before that, however, basketball had been his first love. He was a student of the game almost before he was a student of anything.
While his new classmates in kindergarten were learning the alphabet and how to color inside the lines, Waters was being introduced to basketball — first by his family as a toddler, later when the 5-year-old began practicing with a fourth-grade AAU team his father, Ed, was helping coach.
A year later, after working on his game with the assistance of his dad, little Tremont was the starting point guard for Tarrol Stafford’s fourth-grade team and competing with players as much as five years older than he was.
“I was a dad that was good at teaching a work ethic and skill set so Tremont could get good really quick,” Ed Waters said. “Tarrol put him on the team as a kindergartener, which allowed me to push Tremont because the other boys were older by four or five years.”
A budding career was born then, which, in a roundabout way a decade later help fill a major void on new LSU coach Will Wade’s first team.
Wade, who had accepted the LSU job in late March, was in dire need of a point guard when he started rebuilding a program that went 10-21 overall last year, posting its worst Southeastern Conference record (2-16) in a half-century.
About the same time, Waters, a four-star recruit who signed with Georgetown in November 2016, asked for and received his release from his national letter of intent after Hoyas coach John Thompson III was fired.
Wade remembered Waters, who was coveted by Syracuse and Indiana after his release, from recruiting trips to the northeast when he was the head coach at VCU. Wade began his pursuit.
“Our pitch to Tre was, ‘We need a point guard,’ ” Wade said last fall. “I told him, ‘If you want to do something special, come to a place where you can turn around a program that hasn’t been winning.’ ”
For the second year in a row, the LSU and Mississippi State men’s basketball teams played on the final day of the Southeastern Conference’s 18…
The pitch was perfect for Waters, who spurned the more-established programs that sought him and signed with LSU just before the start of summer school.
“Coach Wade came into the picture, and he reminded me of my father,” Waters said. “He forces you to be accountable. He makes sure everything’s all set in place for you. Overall, he just reminded me of my dad.
“I knew who he was. I knew he coached at Chattanooga and VCU,” he added. “Other than that, I just knew he was a guru of basketball. He knew what he was doing.”
Wade has shown him the way, putting trust in Waters early and during a stretch midway through the season when the point guard struggled a bit with fatigue.
After a slow start in an exhibition game at Tulane, Waters has been the catalyst for a big LSU turnaround. The Tigers are 17-13 overall and 8-10 in the SEC going into its opening game in the conference tournament on Thursday night.
Wade’s team, picked to finish dead last in the conference back in October, tied for ninth place and is seeded 10th for a second-round game with No. 7 seed Mississippi State.
During the Tigers’ four-month journey to this point, Waters — who was named Tuesday to the SEC all-freshman team by league coaches — has wowed with his dazzling passing, penetrating moves to the rim against much-taller players, defensive ability, and, of course, long, high-arcing 3-point baskets.
“He’s awesome. I told y’all he would be a fan favorite,” teammate and fellow guard Skylar Mays gushed in November, after Waters helped LSU to an improbable win over Michigan in the Maui Invitational and had a career-high 39 points in a loss to Marquette.
“I’ve been in college basketball over 20 years, and I was a freshman guard once,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said after Waters dissected his team. “In my wildest dreams, I wish I could have played like that kid because he’s something special.”
In a two-point win against Michigan, which won the Big Ten tournament title Sunday, Waters led his team back from a nine-point deficit with two plays that wound up at the top of ESPN’s Top Plays.
There was a bank shot off the glass while almost flat on his face after being fouled on the way to the rim, then a steal at midcourt and no-look, over-his-head pass that somehow found Mays’ hands for a game-clinching dunk.
Three weeks later, Waters was at it again.
Even though he’s probably a couple inches shorter than his listed height (5-foot-11), he soared to block a potential game-tying 3-point shot by 6-2 Houston guard Corey Davis with 6 seconds left to preserve an 80-77 win.
In what wasn’t exactly a surprise, LSU point guard Tremont Waters was named Tuesday to the Southeastern Conference coaches’ all-freshman team.
“He’s such a competitor. He wants to win so bad,” Wade said. “He wants to get this thing turned around and be part of turning it around. Sometimes you have to dial him back a little bit, but he makes winning plays.”
Because of those plays, the comparisons were already being drawn.
Depending on whom you listened to, and after which mesmerizing performance they had seen, Waters compares to (fill in the blank here).
It’s mostly been Chris Jackson, naturally, because Jackson played for LSU in the late 1980s before going on to an NBA career as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Others are Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson and current stars Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.
For now, Waters is just happy being himself and doing his own thing while starring for the Tigers.
It’s nothing new for Vanessa and Ed Waters, who were there in College Station, Texas, on Jan. 6 when their son, four days shy of his 20th birthday, buried two lengthy 3-point field goals in the final 12 seconds to knock out Texas A&M 69-68.
“Yes, I’ve seen this before when he was in high school,” Vanessa Waters said in the courtside celebration that ensued. “Tre’s just very calm. ... He just does what he has to do.”
Ed Waters added: “He’s used to those moments because we’ve prepared for that opportunity to be successful. I know that it was possible. … I love that he has that blood flowing in him where he’s not rattled, he’s not nervous. He’s confident in being able to make those shots.
“When he was very young, he was told that you always practice shots that you’re going to take in a game. Those are important, so we would spend time stepping back from the 3-point line ... just in case.”
LSU needed it that day — even though it was hard to tell from listening to the quiet, unassuming Waters.
“I’ve done it over the course of my life: middle school, high school, just moving up to college,” he calmly said. “Hopefully, I can do it over and over and over again if we need it.”
Wade will take whatever he can from Waters. The Tigers’ offense flows through him, and, like with most stars, goes as Waters goes. He has averaged 15.6 points and 5.9 assists per game. He ranks second in the SEC in assists.
“He’s a good player, an electric player, with the ball in his hands,” Wade said before the season started. “It’s like he has five eyes. He’s passing the ball all over the place and he sees guys all over the place.
“He’s mature, wise beyond his years,” he said. “He’s the best. We ride with him. He makes mistakes, but he usually makes up for them with big plays.”