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May 13, 2011NEW YORK - As a middle schooler growing up in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, Omar Calhoun would often dribble to nearby playgrounds with his father, Omar Sr., to work on his jump shot and handle.
But when Calhoun wasn't repeatedly drilling 15-footers or performing in-and-outs with his father looking on, he spent a lot of his time honing his craft at another game.
"I love chess," Calhoun says. "I'm a good chess player."
Calhoun was so good, in fact, that he placed 10th out of about 1,000 participants in a national chess tournament in Pennsylvania one year and became nationally ranked.
"When you're playing chess," Calhoun says, "you're looking to attack the other side, but you're also watching what your opponent is doing and being strategic."
Five years later Calhoun, now a high school junior, is doing to point guards and wings what he did to opposing queens and rooks, and has emerged as a possible target for North Carolina in the 2012 class.
Through 10 games this spring, Calhoun leads the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, which features the best high school players and AAU teams in the country, with 27.9 points per game, seven more than the second-leading scorer.
He is shooting 48 percent from both the field and from three-point range, and is knocking down 89 percent of his attempts from the free-throw line, while having taken the second most of any player.
"What I've been doing is just staying back in the gym, working hard, improving," he says when asked what has sparked his recent surge.
"I just think I've matured and gotten my game better."
This past season, the 6-foot-5, 185-pound Calhoun averaged 20.1 points per game for Christ the King High School during conference play in the city's rigorous CHSAA 'AA,' one of the toughest high school divisions in the country, and led the Royals to the state federation championship game.
Against perennial power Mount Vernon in the federation title, he dropped 33 points.
But Calhoun can do far more than simply put the ball in the basket.
Against Westchester Country Day (N.C.) during the regular season, Calhoun went for 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
"He's the master of quiet domination," says Tom Konchalski, the publisher of High School Basketball Illustrated, who is considered one of the premier talent evaluators in the country.
"He fills the stat sheet very quietly. He's a guy who has a mature understanding of the game."
In February, Calhoun received an offer from Connecticut---where he recently took an unofficial visit---in addition to ones he has from Florida, St. John's, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Maryland and Miami, among countless others.
The Tar Heels, however, have yet to offer Calhoun, and have instead heavily targeted forward Shabazz Muhammad of Las Vegas and guard Archie Goodwin, from Little Rock, Ark.
Recently, though, TarHeelIllustrated.com reported that North Carolina has told the Muhammad camp that it will not continue to pursue the 6-foot-6 wing at the same level, which could make Calhoun a viable option for the Tar Heels.
"Growing up, I just wanted to be a part of the North Carolina tradition with all the players they've had come out of there," Calhoun says, referencing Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse. "That's always been a team that I loved to watch."
"They're up and down, quick. I like the atmosphere and the environment that North Carolina has. It's a great environment to play in," Calhoun added.
Beyond his on-court excellence, Calhoun---who took an unofficial visit to Chapel Hill this past season for the Long Beach State game in mid-December---also carries a 90+ academic average, which he takes a lot of pride in.
"My parents have always told me, 'No academics, no basketball,'" he says. "My mom's a (second grade) teacher now. She just always harps that I'm doing good in the classroom, so I just try to make sure I've got my off-the-court stuff on point as well."
Omar Sr., who played basketball at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, is his son's main advisor and handles much of his recruitment.
"He's always staying with me by my side," Calhoun says. "We fight through battles together. We work hard, stay in the gym, stay level headed, and he tells me what life is about."
Calhoun says his goals for the summer are to simply keep working on his game extensively without reaching a point of satisfaction and to remain humble, no matter who might offer.
Konchalski says his main priority on the court should be to become even more consistent with his jumper.
"What he should be working on is to bring his shot back to where it was before the season started, in August and in the fall," Konchalski says.
Omar Sr. has said he and his son would be intrigued by a Kentucky offer because of their dribble-drive offense and the number of pros Coach John Calipari has developed recently, but Calhoun says he doesn't favor a particular style of play.
Calhoun says he will look to trim his list in the coming weeks.
Whether North Carolina will still be on it remains to be seen.
By the sound of it, though, an offer from the Tar Heels would be difficult for Calhoun to turn down.
"I feel like it would be special," he says. "I've always wanted to be a North Carolina Tar Heel."