PULLMAN — Washington State point guard Royce Woolridge grew up among basketball royalty, and he has every intention of adding his own chapter to the family’s hoops history book.
Woolridge’s father, Orlando, was a high-flying dunk machine who averaged 16 points per game in 13 NBA seasons. Great-uncle Willis Reed starred for the New York Knicks and is enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. His godfather is Negele Knight, who played six seasons in the NBA.
Woolridge is a long way from being in the Hall of Fame, but he seems headed in the right direction as a point guard while learning how to play the position at the NCAA Division I level. Woolridge, a redshirt sophomore, had a career-high 20 points and no turnovers in WSU’s most recent game, a 72-60 win over Portland on Saturday.
“I’m starting to get more and more comfortable,” Woolridge said while preparing for tonight’s home game with 10th-ranked Gonzaga (8 p.m., ESPNU). “It’s a thing that takes time, especially since I haven’t played basketball in two years.”
Woolridge, who averaged 30.2 points a game as a shooting guard his senior year in high school in Phoenix, redshirted at WSU last season after seeing little action at powerful Kansas as a freshman in 2010-11. He played the point for the 35-3 Jayhawks (an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 team), but Kansas and the Cougars view him as a combo guard more than a “pure” point guard.
“It’s still going to take me time before I really get a feel for the game,” Woolridge said in his personable manner. “But I’m starting to definitely get more of a better feel for it, and in time it’ll be perfect.”
The Cougars are 5-3 with three consecutive wins, but they’re underdogs against 8-0 Gonzaga. In WSU’s only game against a ranked opponent, the Cougars were blown out, 78-41, by then-12th-ranked Kansas.
Woolridge remains close with some of his former Kansas teammates, so he enjoyed seeing his friends off the court prior to the Nov. 19 game in Kansas City, Mo. Things were not as fun on the court, where Woolridge scored five points and had five turnovers.
Since then, Woolridge has made only three turnovers in four games. He credits Mike Ladd, another natural shooting guard forced to play some point after three-year starter Reggie Moore was kicked of the team for violating team rules, for helping share some of the point guard’s duties.
Ladd returned the compliment, saying Woolridge is “a big factor on this squad. I feel like he’s a playmaker and a scorer.”
Woolridge left Kansas (where he verbally committed at age 15) in search of more playing time. He’s getting that at Washington State, where he averages 31.1 minutes, 8.5 points, 2.6 assists and 2.1 turnovers per game and makes 43.3 percent of his 3-pointers.
“Progressing every day,” said Woolridge, a three-star recruit out of high school on Scout.com’s 1-5 scale.
Woolridge’s early commitment to Kansas discouraged schools from recruiting him. He does recall receiving early letters from such schools as Gonzaga, UCLA and Arizona.
Woolridge said he appreciated that Washington State (via assistant coach Curtis Allen, a Curtis High graduate and former Washington Huskies guard) was the first school to contact him after he decided to leave Kansas. Other schools showing interest included Arizona State, Marquette and Pepperdine, but Woolridge said he was quickly sold on Washington State.
“As soon as I came here on my (official recruiting) visit, I knew I wanted to come here,” he said. “I just really liked it here.
‘I liked the vibe that I got here. The coaches were really cool. The players, I felt like they were part of my family on my visit.”
Woolridge’s own family is somewhat disjointed. His father, who dealt with a cocaine problem during his NBA career, was not a major factor in his life after his parents split up when he was in grade school. Orlando died of a heart ailment on May 31 at age 52.
“I’d see him every once in a while, because I took a lot of time to visit my grandparents — his mother and father,” Woolridge said.
“He’d be there some times. I mean, we’d talk and we were cordial to each other. It was nothing bad.”
WSU coach Ken Bone, a devoted family man, said Woolridge is a welcome addition to the Cougars family.
“He’s a great kid,” Bone said. “He’s a good student. He works hard. He’s very coachable. He’s really been a pleasure to coach.”
NO. 10 GONZAGA (8-0) AT WASHINGTON STATE (5-3)
8 p.m., Beasley Coliseum, Pullman
TV: ESPNU. Radio: 710-AM, 104.3-FM.
All-time series: WSU leads, 98-48. The teams have split the past six games, with Gonzaga winning 89-81 last year in Spokane.
Gary Bell Jr.G188.8.131.524.325.0
Guy Landry EdiG184.108.40.2063.968.8
Royce Woolridge PG220.127.116.119.373.3
Scouting report: WSU coach Ken Bone has been delighted with his team’s defensive play and work ethic, but he adds, “We don’t have a bunch of future NBA guys like some teams.” Bone says Gonzaga might be one of those teams, but he’s more concerned about the manner in which the Bulldogs are destroying college opponents. In the latest official NCAA Division I statistics (through Sunday), Gonzaga ranked in the top five in field-goal percentage (first, 53.3), scoring margin (third, plus-27.8), rebounding margin (third, plus-14.4) and points per game (fifth, 85.2). The Cougars hope starting wing DaVonte Lacy returns from a knee injury to deal with Gonzaga’s talented backcourt. Up front, the Bulldogs feature Harris (6-foot-8, 239 pounds), Olynyk (7-0, 238), Sam Dower (6-9, 255) and Przemek Karnowsi (7-1, 305). The Bulldogs are bidding for their first-ever 9-0 start. The Cougars have won three in a row, but they lost 78-41 to No. 12 Kansas in their only game against a Top 25 opponent. More than 10,000 fans may be on hand — a handful taking advantage of a new $5 section introduced this season — when Brian Quinnett is saluted at halftime at the inaugural Honor the Past Night for former WSU basketball stars.
Next: Fresno State visits WSU on Sunday (noon, Pac-12 Networks).Howie Stalwick, contributing writer