Anthony Tarke was in his hotel room in Phoenix the evening of July 6. He wasn’t necessarily pinching himself, but he did have time to think about being on the cusp of making a dream come true.

The Coppin State standout was at his fourth NBA team workout in anticipation of the July 29 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound swingman is still a long shot to be drafted but maybe not quite as long a shot to end up in the NBA. That same assessment also applies to Morgan State senior Troy Baxter. Loyola’s 6-foot-11 Santi Aldama, a sophomore from Spain, is the sleeper du draft on many mockups as the big night nears.

“It’s a blessing,” said Tarke, who was the MEAC Player of the Year and also the Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s like everything in life, though, you have to work hard. That’s the process, work really hard if you want to make your dream a reality.”

Gaithersburg, Md., product Tarke is generating big basketball buzz from that defensive prowess and the Swiss-Army-Knife nature of his game. One independent scout, who can talk more freely about player evaluations, said Tarke’s versatility, particularly at the defensive end, is what separates him.

Massachusetts-based Mark Argenziano, who previously served as the USBL’s Director of Scouting and has consulted with many professional teams, said Tarke’s “multi-positional” abilities to play and “defend one through three or four” on the court will get him a legitimate shot in the league. It doesn’t hurt that he’s left-handed, too, often an advantage on the hardwoods offensively, much like at the plate on a baseball diamond.

For his part, Tarke said he can guard “one through five” (point guard to center post) on the court, and it’s hard to dispute him following that brilliant one season at Coppin after transferring from UTEP. He led the Eagles with 16.1 points, MEAC-bests of 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, in addition to ranking in the top 10 in seven other statistical categories.

The Euro-gamed Aldama had a similarly remarkable season, averaging 21.1 points, a Patriot League-leading 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 blocked shots and shooting 51 percent from the field. Baxter, a 6-foot-9 jumping jack, was also sterling at Morgan State. He earned first-team All-MEAC honors with 15.5 points, 35 percent shooting from three, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks for the 14-8 Bears. It was a great final college season for the well-traveled Baxter, the Tallahassee, Fla., native who also suited up for UNLV and Florida Gulf Coast.

“This is a sign of fresh air,” he smiled through a sigh after working out with the Washington Wizards July 7. “I’ve been through a lot. Now that I’m here I’m proud of myself that I didn’t give up because there have been a lot of times where I could have given up on my dream and settled for being average. I didn’t settle.”

Baxter’s focus has become sharper, playing his final college season as a father to daughter Cataleya.

“That pretty much put me in another mentality,” Baxter said. “I realized it’s not about me anymore. I’m the provider now so I have to do what I have to do. Not just as a basketball player and a person, but as a father.”

The Wizards were Baxter’s third workout. He had previously strutted his game for the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets and showed the New York Knicks what he could do on July 9. Argenziano sees a lot of apt comparisons to Baxter in past pros.

“He reminds me of [former Wizard and Florida Gator] Devin Robinson, and he has some Paul George to him,” Argenziano said. “I like his high release point, bouncy legs and when he finishes, he reminds me a little of Kenyon Martin back at Cincinnati or even Donyell Marshall. Kind of a long body. I think he’ll get a legitimate look.”

“I’m a typical ‘3-and-D’ guy,” Baxter said of his game. “A freak athlete with a jump shot that can definitely play lock-up defense. I feel like any team that has me, I can bring an immediate impact. I’m an older guy so I have a ton of knowledge about the game.”

And Baxter is happy to share his bushel of basketball knowledge with younger aspirants. Tarke will tell you the same thing about his MEAC rival. He has picked Baxter’s basketball chalkboard of a mind since they both began their process to play at the highest level.

“We’re cool, we talk a little bit,” Tarke said. “He’s given me some good advice on what to expect and the things teams ask you to do.”

“I just told him that as long as your confidence is high you won’t get frustrated or worried about missing shots,” Baxter added. “Confidence beats anything. [Tarke] is a helluva player. Me and him had some battles in the MEAC, and he definitely deserved that Player of the Year. He’s one of the best players I’ve played against throughout my college career.”

Still, Tarke had to shake off some jitters at his first team workout with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I didn’t know what to expect but the more I do [NBA workouts] the more comfortable I get,” Tarke said. “You just have to rely on the work you’ve put in and then the nervousness goes away.”

Baxter should know about confidence. He won the 2021 College Basketball Dunk Championship, immediately raising eyebrows around The Association. He may not have all the versatility Tarke displays, but Baxter can leave an impression headed to the hoop.

Likewise, Aldama has an inside-outside game that has flourished in his two seasons at Loyola and boy, do the draftniks love him. He first showed up in NBA scouts’ files playing for the Spanish National Team on the FIBA circuit. He was MVP of the 2019 U18 European Championship.

USA Today had him going with the 48th overall pick to the Atlanta Hawks in an early mock draft, and he was tabbed the No. 57 prospect in the ESPN 100 NBA Draft rankings.

NBA Draft Room loves his shooting stroke and skill level at 6-foot-11. He can handle, they say, but is still “too turnover prone. Doesn’t have great strength [but] has good, but not great mobility/agility.” Argenziano expressed the same ball-handling concerns. Aldama can certainly create on the offensive end, but there are many Euro-style players available who have competed at a higher level. Aldama is also young enough to keep improving some of his deficiencies and the allure of a big with ball-handling potential is exciting.

Aldama, who isn’t talking publicly about his pursuit of the pros, didn’t take his name out of the Draft July 7, the deadline to do so and retain eligibility. Tarke and Baxter are in for the long haul, too, and they all hope to hear their name read from behind the NBA podium on draft night.

“There’s nothing like hearing your name called,” Tarke said.

But for he and the others, though, not hearing their name that night isn’t the end of their dream. Agents will match them up with teams looking for their skills and certainly where they have an even better chance of sticking around after signing free-agent deals.

“The average amount of a career is about 4.5 years,” Tarke said. “When you think about the guys who have been around 10-12 years, they’re very rare. Sometimes when they get drafted the situation isn’t the best for them. I want to be on a team that wants me right away and then be in the league 12 years. That’s the dream.”

Photo Credits: Troy Queen/Coppin State Athletics and Lawrence Johnson

Mike Ashley

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