By Raj Sagar, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
In the highly competitive Catholic High School Athletic Association, choosing what high school a player attends can be as important as what collegiate uniform each up-and-coming standout chooses to don. At the ripe age of 14, many eighth graders have to make the same kind of choices that await them on the other side of high school. For almost all youngsters in the New York City area, the opportunity to play at a basketball powerhouse such as Christ the King or Rice would make that decision a foregone conclusion.
The fact that Holy Cross had not won the CHSAA title in almost 40 years didn't scare Sylven Landesberg away, but rather attracted him to the Queens high school. He embraced the notion of returning a program to prosperity, while accepting the fact that he would be the centerpiece of the team. He is the kind of player who has an uncanny love for the game, and an undying dedication that thrust him to the forefront of the national prep basketball scene when he was named a McDonald's All-American following his senior year.
Having gotten his Virginia career off to a scorching start, Landesberg again finds himself as the center of attention.
To be considered a go-to scorer, a young player must have an eagerness to have the ball in his hands to make big spots in clutch situations. An incredible amount of responsibility comes with the onus of taking big shots, and to that Landesberg is no stranger.
After sophomore and junior seasons in which he led the CHSAA in scoring, his senior season at Holy Cross saw him averaged 29.6 points (again the leader), 11.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists culminated with a trip to the championship game against Christ the King. With a shot at Holy Cross’ second ever city championship on the line, Landesberg repeatedly came up big in crunch time as he scored 10 of his 24 points in the last 5:30 of the game, including 6-6 from the free throw line. Holy Cross won the title, 56-48 and Landesburg, who had already won the regular season MVP, was named playoff MVP as well.
“Having the ball in your hands late in the game is something everyone pretends when they’re younger,” said Landesberg. “Whether it’s by yourself at the gym, or even just shooting around at your hoop at home, everyone envisions the clock running down and themselves with a chance to make a play. Not much has changed since then for me.”
After deciding on Virginia over his hometown St. Johns, Landesberg began his career as a Cavalier in record-breaking fashion. Against VMI, Landesberg scored 28 points, the most by a Cavalier freshman in his debut. His immediate success at the collegiate level can mostly be attributed to being a prolific scorer around the basket. At 6-6, 205 pounds, Landesberg is a rare combination of size and strength at the guard position. His ability to finish with both hands coupled with his exceptional body control in the lane makes him a scoring threat every time he touches the ball.
Landesberg leads Virginia in scoring at 18.0 points per game, the second highest scoring average by a freshman nationally. He has won ACC Rookie of the Week accolades six times, tied for the third most in the history of the league.
Landesberg acknowledges the fact that he is in the process of a transition from playing in a place where he was physically overpowering and thus an unstoppable scorer to the next level, where he often has to be both more selective and creative to be successful.
“The guys defending me are a lot bigger and stronger now,” said Landesberg. “You understand immediately why a good level of physical preparation is necessary.”
Coach Dave Leitao emphasizes the fact that his innate abilities and basketball intuition as a scorer have been the driving force for his quick adjustment.
"Sylven hasn't changed his mindset,” said Leitao. “A scorer has a certain mentality and a certain creativity in knowing how to get his shots off. Sylven has had that most of his life. He obviously had that before he got here and he's just continued to have that mentality. He has however made adjustments to the physicality of the game as the competition has gotten greater from high school to college."
Early in his young career, the freshman leader of the Cavaliers has demonstrated that he will not get caught up in the hype surrounding such a fast starting career. His demeanor suggests nothing but humility, as he often evaluates his performance solely in relation to the teams.
"It's probably his best or one of his best assets,” said Leitao. “Sylven doesn't look at himself and take himself too seriously. I've told people publicly, imagine a freshman coming in and leading a team in scoring, taking more shots than anybody else and having the ball in his hands a lot. You have to have humility, a great personality and you have to get along with people well. People have to accept you in order for them to accept what's happening on the court and he's been more than special in that category. He just wants to fit in as a member of the team.”
Virginia fans would agree - he’s been a good fit.