Mount Pleasant, MI and The Woodlands, TX sit about 1,100 miles apart, but a certain connection attracted A.J. Bullard to play college basketball for Central Michigan.
Keno Davis is in his fifth season as the head coach of the Chippewas. The Iowa graduate began his coaching career as an assistant for the Hawkeyes in 1991, under his father Tom Davis. But the Bullard-Davis tie extends beyond October 2016, when A.J. initially committed to Central Michigan.
A.J. Bullard, a Texas-native, is the son of former NBA champion and longtime Houston Rockets power forward Matt Bullard. Matt’s 11-year NBA career was developed in Iowa under former Hawkeye head coach Tom Davis. A.J. is now granted an opportunity to do the same under Keno Davis.
“For me being involved in the NBA for 25 years, I understand how important coaching is,” Matt said. “When I look back at my career, I see how important it was for me to play for Dr. Tom Davis and how his coaching helped me get to the highest level. I’ve known Keno since he was in high school, and I have a lot of confidence he’ll have a great influence on A.J.’s game, just like Dr. Tom Davis had on my game.”
A.J. stands 6-feet-8-inches tall, a versatile combo forward who specializes behind the three-point line. He recently finished his senior season as a four-year letter winner in basketball and academics at The Woodlands High School near Houston, where he averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks per game.
“Growing up, I was playing regular power forward and center because I was tall,” A.J. said. “Even though I was still playing power forward, I was playing a stretch-four look in high school and was still getting to play out on the wing.”
Transitioning from high school to college often involves a position adjustment as players gain size and skill. A.J. is cognizant of several adjustments Central Michigan might require of him to optimize his effect in the Chippewas’ offense.
“In college, I see myself more of a small forward as a main position with the ability to stretch the floor, spot up in the corner, or pick-and-pop with the point guard,” A.J. said.
His playing style is a mirror-image of Matt’s game. Matt, at 6-feet-10-inches, excelled as a three-point oriented stretch-four for the Rockets during the 90s.
“One of the greatest joys in my life was teaching basketball to my son,” Matt said. “I played a lot of basketball with him, and he’d just imitate me. Consequently, he looks exactly like I did when I was his age, so it’s almost surreal watching him play because it’s like watching me play back in the day.”
Matt’s NBA career concluded at the end of the 2001-02 season, but his involvement in the NBA game sustained following his playing days. He now provides color commentary for local Houston Rockets broadcasts.
Matt’s involvement exposed A.J. to the NBA game at a young age. A.J. served as the Rockets’ ballboy for a majority of his youth, closely connected to the players and staff in the Rockets organization over the years. Last summer, he trained in Rockets facilities with the team’s younger stars, including Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker.
“I’ve always loved the game because I’ve always been around it,” A.J. said. “I’ve gotten to learn from a young age of what NBA players do in and out every day and all the hard work they put in. It’s really helped my work ethic and it’s been really big for me in shaping me growing up as a basketball player.”
Despite its position as an 11-seed in the upcoming MAC Tournament Championship, Central Michigan grabbed a slew of headlines this year. The Chippewas’ highlights aired frequently on ESPN, due to featuring the nation’s leading scorer Marcus Keene. Keene is close to becoming the first player in 20 years to average 30 points per game in college basketball. Only a junior, there is a chance Keene takes the floor with A.J. in Mount Pleasant next season.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with [Keene],” A.J. said. “He knows how to score, he’s got really good court vision, he knows how to find open shooters if he penetrates in and draws the defenders into the paint. Watching Central Michigan this year, I really think that I could help the team out with my shooting with Marcus being such a high-caliber player drawing all those help defenders.”
Matt, who provides basketball analysis and commentary on nearly a nightly basis, draws several comparisons between the Rockets’ and Chippewas’ modern playing styles — fast pace, shooting threes, driving the ball, and a lot of spacing.
Central Michigan is about to embark on a journey, which is the MAC Tournament. The Chippewas are a long shot for their first March Madness appearance since 2003, but Bullard envisions the streak breaking during his future tenure in maroon and gold.
“It’s every kid’s dream growing up,” A.J. said about playing in the NCAA Tournament. “I think that there’s a lot of potential for Central Michigan in the next four years to make it to the tournament and do some damage. Who knows? Maybe make it to the championship game.”
Even beyond March Madness is the NBA, a stage well beyond the collegiate level. As a 1994 NBA champion with the Houston Rockets, Matt understands the recipe for crafting a champion.
“The only way you can make it to the highest level is to work on your skills every day and have a little luck,” Matt said. “I have hope [A.J.] can do that and I know that’s one of his goals.”