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Finding His Voice

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tony Snell is ready to become more of a vocal leader for UNM

Tony Snell is an anomaly.

In an era of chest-thumping athletes seeking attention and taking to Twitter or Facebook for self-promotion and trash talk, the 6-foot-7 junior guard for the UNM Lobos doesn’t fit the mold.

He’s quiet. He’s reserved. He’s not trying to draw any attention to himself.

It’s not so much a shyness controlling Snell’s demeanor, and he’s certainly not trying to be rude. He just genuinely prefers to shut up and play some basketball.

But that’s about to change.

“This year, I’ve got to step my game up. I’ve got to rebound more, and I really need to be more vocal on the court,” Snell says. “I need to try to be a leader.”

And not simply by example. He’ll have to take charge at times with his teammates on this year’s team in the absence of last year’s senior starters Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman.

It’s a transition head coach Steve Alford isn’t worried about.

“Tony is one of our leaders, and we are looking for him to be more vocal for us this season,” Alford said.

Snell knows it won’t come easy for him. He’s never been much of a talker.

“Ever since kindergarten his report cards have always said, ‘Tony is a real nice, quiet kid,’ ” said his mother, Sherika Brown, who said her son is like a “silent assassin” on the court.

“He’s always been that way. He’s the same kid now, just older. He’s like his father, who didn’t talk much. And my father didn’t talk much. It was their demeanor, and it’s his now.”

Still, even with outspoken, talkative teammates like Kendall Williams, Demetrius Walker and Jamal Fenton, Snell is convinced his words are needed for the Lobos to return to its championship level.

“It’s something I have to work on because it’s just not me,” said Snell. “I like being quiet. I don’t like talking much, but I know if I want to get my team better and get some wins, I have to be more vocal.”

According to Alford, there wasn’t a Lobo who saw more of an improvement – on the stat sheet or otherwise – between his freshman season (2010-11) and his sophomore season (2011-12) than Snell. The Riverside, Calif., native saw his scoring jump from 4.4 points per game to 10.5 last year and his minutes bump from 17.5 to 25.6 per game.

Despite the increase in production, there were games Snell’s scoring dropped significantly last year. That, possibly coupled with Snell’s quiet demeanor, led some to surmise that he was at times too passive.

Alford disagrees and seemed to take exception to a reporter’s insinuation that it was sometimes hard to tell if Snell even “got off the bus” for some games.

“Tony got off the bus,” Alford told the group of reporters. “He may not have scored 20 points a game, but we didn’t win 28 games and two championships with Tony not getting off the bus. In games where he didn’t score or he had two or four or six points, he still had the opposition’s best defender guarding him. That freed up things for Kendall. That freed up things for Demetrius and Hugh (Greenwood).”

This season, the biggest question marks for the Lobos are about who will man the post.

The team has two big men expected to see plenty of minutes in 7-foot sophomore Alex Kirk and 6-9 junior Cameron Bairstow, with 6-8 true freshman Nick Banyard likely to get an opportunity to play some quality minutes, as well. Still, Alford knows his team’s strength comes from the backcourt, and he’ll go to a four-guard rotation most of the season.

That means players like the 6-2 Walker and Snell will at times have to play the four position (power forward) on the court, meaning they will be expected to grab more rebounds and also draw the defensive assignment on what is expected to be a much larger player.

“I’m fine with that,” Snell said. “I’ve been in the weight room and I feel a lot stronger. I don’t have a problem playing the four.”

Snell has packed on some muscle this offseason working with new strength and conditioning coach Diego Baca. But while it’s apparent his shoulders have filled out some on his slender frame, Snell still weighs in at just 200 pounds – considerably lighter than the classic power forward.

Neither Snell’s frame, nor his game, is that of a power forward. Instead, he’s more of a glider, a slasher with a long wingspan who can defend multiple positions well. His versatility, coupled with Alford saying this year’s guard-heavy lineup may be similar to that of the program’s 2009-10 NCAA Tournament team, have drawn natural comparisons between Snell and former Lobo star Darington Hobson.

“We’re not telling him he’s got to be a Darington Hobson,” Alford said. “Darington Hobson was a very special player here. I think Tony is going to be a very special player through his four years, but Tony is a better shooter. Tony can extend defenses that way. He’s learning how to drive the ball. He’s much stronger. He’s gained some strength this summer, and we see him playing with a lot more confidence.”

That appeared evident during last Friday’s Lobo Howl event in which Snell, an obvious crowd favorite, drained four 3-pointers and finished the 20-plus minute scrimmage with a team-high 18 points.

It was anything but a passive performance. Yet it was his improved leadership, not that stat line, that seemed most encouraging for the Lobos coaching staff.

“Everyone knows that I’m a quiet person,” Snell said. “But this year needs to be different. I just have to be a lot more vocal on the court and I’ll be fine.”

— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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