Jersey Shore Warriors head coach Tony Sagona has been around the game of basketball for quite some time, having spent the past 37 years molding collections of individual talent into formidable teams on the AAU circuit.
So when Sagona breaks down the skill set of one of his current troops and says that the player is one of the best he's ever coached, odds are that he's not just blowing smoke. With that in mind, know that Sagona had this to say about 2009 WVU commitment Dalton Pepper.
"He's one of the best five or six players that I've had."
Translation: he's nothing to sneeze at.
Pepper, a 6-5 swingman from Pennsbury (Pa.) High School, cast his lot with the Mountaineers earlier this month. With senior-to-be Alex Ruoff set to leave Morgantown in May of 2009, Pepper's well-documented shooting ability will fill a much-needed void when he sets foot on the WVU campus a few months later. While Pepper's prowess on the perimeter is what garners the most attention, Sagona says that there is much more to his prized pupil's game than the three-point shot.
"Without a doubt, he's an excellent shooter, but he has great athletic ability," Sagona explained. "He gets to the basket consistently and once he gets there, he finishes. He's very strong and has a great work ethic as well because he loves to play. That's what makes him so great at the AAU level.
"I think that he can take people off the dribble," the coach continued. "He seems to get to the basket with ease, and has a tremendously quick first step. That penetration ability is something that will be great for him in college ball."
Though his size, shooting ability and recent commitment to the Mountaineers has understandably led many fans to make comparisons with Ruoff, Sagona favorably compares Pepper with a pair of other notable Big East players, one past and one present.
"I've had Matt Carroll and Kyle McAlarney, and he's right up there with both of those guys," Sagona said. Carroll starred at Notre Dame under Matt Doherty and Mike Brey, garnering first-team all-Big East honors as a senior. He now plays for the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. McAlarney will be a senior for the Irish next season, and is coming off a first-team all-conference selection as a junior. "(Pepper's) more athletic than either Matt or Kyle, but that same type of player who can shoot but also get to the rim."
Like virtually every other college-bound player his age, Pepper still has plenty to work on. At 215 pounds, it's likely that he'll need to put on at least a few extra pounds of muscle before jumping into the rigors of Big East play at West Virginia.
On the defensive end of the court, the physical ability is certainly there, but the mindset of looking to shut down an opponent on each possession is something that is learned and acquired over time. Sagona has no doubt that over the next couple of years, Pepper will continue to improve his defense, especially under the watchful eye of Bob Huggins.
"He just has to work on it," Sagona said. "I've explained to him that he's going to be a Big East player covering the best players from each class when he gets to that league. It's more concentration than anything at this age. You don't see as many great players that you really have to guard, and you tend to hang out a little bit.
"Sometimes you're so much better than some of the kids that you're playing against that you can just steal the ball and go the other way," he continued. "But when you get to college and you go against better players, you can't always do that. He just has to work at it, and I think he will."
One thing Pepper won't have to refine before coming to WVU is his attitude. Despite living more than an hour away from the Jersey Shore Warriors' practice site, the Philadelphia-area product has been nothing if not dedicated to Sagona's program.
"He's a tremendous kid and loves to play," the coach said proudly. "We're about an hour and forty minutes from him, but he's never missed a single practice.
"He's a tremendous teammate. They love him to death, and I'm not just saying that. We've been doing this a long time and he is a great teammate."
With his commitment out of the way, Pepper can focus on his senior season of high school and getting ready for year one at WVU. Having been through the recruiting process dozens of times over the years with several of his players, Sagona feels that Pepper and the Mountaineers will be a great fit.
"That's a perfect style for him," he said. "He likes to get up and down, and he's going to be around the rim. He loves Coach Huggins and Coach Hahn."
If Pepper's future coaches feel the same way about him that Sagona does, then all indications are that this is a great get for the Mountaineers