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Angel on the rise

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The trip took much longer than planned, but when Angel Nunez finally stepped onto the court at Baruch College Saturday, the Harlem native looked vastly different than he did when he played his final game at Cardinal Hayes last year.

Nunez, the highly-touted 6-foot-7 junior swingman, has bulked up a bit after hitting the weights for the first time, but the Harlem native’s transformation is more than just physical.

“His family has commented on the maturation process, even off the basketball floor, in the dormitory, in the classroom, his vocabulary, the fact he feels more comfortable speaking with people, the fact he has no problem articulating his feelings without going too far,” Winchendon School (Ma.) coach Michael Byrnes said. “He can sit in a room with adults and co-exist and doesn’t always have to be an immature clown. He’s done a lot better job controlling his emotions and that’s obviously going to carry over to the floor.”

Byrne said the structure the prep school provides is what Nunez needed the most.

“He didn’t have a lot of that in his life and unfortunately his emotions got the best of him,” Byrnes said. “Thank goodness he had the opportunity to come to summer school because it started the breakdown process.”

While Nunez has adjusted to his daily regimen (“It’s the same thing every day, wake up, go to class, do your homework, practice, eat,” he said), it was a culture shock when he arrived in Winchendon, a small town in north-central Massachusetts.

“It was hard,” Nunez said. “I didn’t want to be up there in the beginning. I was calling home all the time, I wasn’t feeling comfortable. Growing up in the city everything is fast, everything is fun. You do what you want, but it’s strict up there.”

Nunez, whose stock blew up on the AAU circuit during the spring and has offers from Arkansas, Indiana, West Virginia, Louisville, Connecticut, St. John’s, Rutgers and Providence, was humbled as soon as he stepped onto the court at Winchendon.

“When Angel came in everyone told him he was the cat’s meow and told him he was going to this school and that school is recruiting him and unfortunately, like a lot of these young kids, he got a swelled head,” Byrnes said. “His focus was a bit off when he came to us and he’s been broken down.”

Part of that has been accepting his role as Eric Ferguson’s backup. Ferguson is Winchendon’s 6-foot-8 athletic forward, a steal for Georgia Southern. He’s a senior at the prep school and has taken Nunez under his wing.

“He came in a New York kid and just being there with him, showing him the ropes, he has changed from a little boy to a grown man,” Ferguson said. “Me and Angel play the same position and we go at it every day. I just have to beat up on him to show him the ropes…He’s like my little brother.”

Nunez said he harbors no ill feelings toward anyone at Cardinal Hayes, preferring to remember the good times. He struggled in the classroom and, at times, clashed with his teammtes. Sometimes, he said, he thinks about what could have been if he stayed at the Bronx Catholic school.

“We probably would have been better this year, we would have been able to win more games,” Nunez said. “But it doesn’t matter. I don’t hold any grudges and don’t remember anything that was wrong. I just forget about it and move on.”

Nunez was looking forward to his return to New York City for a while and that chance finally came Saturday when Winchendon was scheduled to face Las Vegas-based Impact Academy as part of the Big Apple Basketball High School Invitational.

Several Division I coaches were at Baruch, including Villanova’s Jay Wright, but the only problem was that Winchendon wasn’t there. An accident in Connecticut had the team delayed and the simple three-and-a-half hour drive took six hours. Winchendon didn’t step onto the court until nearly 4 p.m., an hour and 15 minutes after the scheduled tip.

“It was crazy,” Nunez said of the trip. “But as soon as we got to New York City and I looked at the buildings, I just smiled.”

Winchendon didn’t have time to warm up, but that didn’t matter. Led by Ferguson (18 points), Davon Saddler (13 points), Marvin Dominique (12 points) and Nunez (10 points), Winchendon jumped out to a 27-7 lead and cruised to an 84-53 win.

After, Nunez was swarmed by reporters, many trying to figure out his next move, if he’s cut down his list of schools, which also includes Kentucky and Wake Forest. Nunez smiled, confidently and maturely answering each and every question.

Byrnes, standing down the hallway, smiled.

“He’s really come a long way,” Byrnes said. “Now, a long way to go, but he’s definitely making steps in the right direction.”

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