Confidence wasn't a problem for Xavier Talton during his career as a three-sport athlete at Sterling High School. Nor was it an obstacle playing AAU basketball (and playing it well) for Denver's Tru-Playaz.
But when Talton showed up on the University of Colorado campus last summer on a basketball scholarship, it took a while for his confidence to be revived. The owner of his high school's records for points, assists, steals, games played and won had taken one small step - at least distance-wise - to a new school, but it was one giant leap in competition.
No knock on Sterling or its athletes, but 4A hoops in Colorado typically isn't the feeder system for major colleges that California, Texas, Florida and other more populous states tend to be. That's not to say large-school recruiters can afford to ignore high school basketball in Colorado anymore. The Buffs' roster offers a strong in-state case, and chasing prospects in the Denver Metro area is becoming commonplace.
A muscular 6-1 guard who also lettered in football and track at Sterling, Talton arrived in Boulder with impressive high school hoops cred but also some uncertainty about the assimilation process.
"My mindset in coming from a small place and in a state where basketball really isn't that recognized on a national level was kind of expecting the worst, hoping for the best - that kind of mentality," he said. "But I also had to prepare myself for it. I'm trying to adjust now, which is a good thing for me. It's been beneficial."
Talton's initial doubts weren't unlike any exhibited by his fellow freshmen, and they didn't go unnoticed by some returning CU players. Said sophomore guard Spencer Dinwiddie: "I think everybody on the team noticed it and saw some hesitation in most of the freshmen. Everybody didn't come in and just do their whole 'Josh Scott' and just start killing it. It was nothing that was terrible (with Talton) by any stretch . . . but he definitely had some hesitation in his game that you could see."
That hesitation - at least the biggest part of it - has disappeared. Talton has played in 12 of the Buffs' 13 Pac-12 Conference games, with his efficiency improving dramatically this month. He called the Pac-12 "an unbelievable conference . . . I just had to adjust to it."
Another less imposing adjustment: Talton isn't the only Xavier on CU's roster. The freshman class also included Xavier Johnson, a 6-6 forward from Los Angeles. Talton is "Little X" or "XT" while Johnson answers to "Big X" or "XJ."
In the past several games, said coach Tad Boyle, Talton has "played well and with confidence. He's doing what ask him to do when he comes in off the bench - and that's give us energy and defend. And he's made open shots, which is really nice. I've got a lot of confidence in both him and Eli (Stalzer, fellow freshman guard)."
In his 12 Pac-12 games, Talton has hit six of seven field goal attempts - including both of his three-point tries - for a 1.3 point average. He has three rebounds, four assists, three steals and five turnovers - the latter statistic underscoring Boyle's goals for Talton becoming more adept at handling the ball and taking care of it. Defensively, Talton said he needs to improve his lateral quickness to help his on-ball pressure and prevent quicker guards from blowing past him.
"Those are the biggest things," Boyle said. "If he comes in for 'Ski' (Askia Booker), we move Spencer to the two spot and get Spencer off the ball a little. Spencer is playing the point and handling the ball. Xavier has to handle the ball and run the team. He's done a good job of that the last couple of weeks. His confidence level is up, too."
That, said Talton, trickles down from his teammates and coach: "The guys are giving me a lot of confidence and so is coach Boyle. He trusts me and puts me in there and it definitely helps."
One reason Talton is earning Boyle's trust is his demeanor. "The thing I've appreciated about him," said Boyle, "is he's wanted more minutes (but) he hasn't complained about it. He's come out to practice every day and worked and earned it. He hasn't gotten his head down; he's come every day with a great attitude and kind of fought through. You really appreciate and respect players like that."
Plus, Talton's work ethic is among the Buffs' best. His 85.7 field goal percentage (six-of-seven) and two-of-two from beyond the arc are the results of nearly nightly visits to the Coors Events Center, where he tries to make at least 300 shots from various ranges. Using the "gun" that feeds him shots, some nights he doubles his workload and doesn't leave until he hits 300 treys.
How long does that take him?
"It depends on the night," he said with a grin, adding that he averages an 11/2 or 2 hours of extra shooting per after-hours visit. The results are obvious.
"I definitely feel more comfortable now shooting," he said. "We go through a lot of shooting drills in practice and that helps my confidence, and just being able to have the right muscle memory about my shot . . . I worked out on my own in preseason, but it's been most beneficial during the season to come in and get those shots up and work on my game."
Talton's early development and game were most influenced by his father, John, whom Xavier said moved to New Jersey when Xavier was in kindergarten but remained in contact with him and his three siblings.
In the summers, Xavier visited his father. "We had a good relationship," Xavier said. "He taught me to be a man, not taking anything from anybody but also treating people right."
John Talton played basketball at St. Joseph's before transferring to Virginia Union and saw that Xavier was introduced to the game. "He really pushed me to play basketball and taught me most of what I know," Xavier said. "I just ran with it."
As a senior at Sterling High School, Talton averaged 18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.2 steals and 1.3 blocks a game. He was first-team all-state (4A) his junior and senior seasons, and playing at CU was an ideal situation for him "because it felt right and was close to home."
Talton's biggest hurdle would be adjusting and reviving the confidence in his game that Dinwiddie says now is surfacing. Talton is confirming if the talent is there, a guy from Northeastern Colorado can hold his own with guys from Southern California - which Dinwiddie acknowledges.
"If you have the talent to play at a certain level, you're going to succeed," said Dinwiddie, who was the LA City Section Player of the Year as a senior at Taft High School. "You're going to end up playing against those types of guys all day. You're going to adjust to that level if you have the talent to rise to the occasion. And I think that's what you're seeing from Talton. He's got the talent to play at this level and he's played with us consistently since August and you're starting to see him make him strides on the court.
"He's got a lot of potential . . . you're only now starting to see a little peek into what he can do and his confidence. Once he gains traction, some more footing and gains that type of confidence that he can compete with everybody and doesn't need like me or 'Ski' (Askia Booker) on the floor with him, then it's going to totally change what you see and he's going to continue to make great strides."
Talton remembers "a couple of times" when it first clicked for him and he realized that, yeah, the new kid from Sterling could ball with these guys. "It wasn't so much over the summer, but more toward the preseason practices we had," he recalled. "It started coming to me. My AAU coach (Antonio "Tree" Adams) always told me he realized my potential and that I could play with the best. It took long enough for me to realize it."
The good news is that the realization has been made. The better news is the Buffs believe Talton's improvement is barely underway.