Jeff Bush, Southern Oregon's rock — both in terms of consistency and physical stature — of a point guard, two months ago received by text an old team photo, one of those stacked-row, smile-for-the-camera shots every team has to sit through.
Bush himself was in the frame, his image circled, and though the likeness (plus some facial hair) is still there, few who know SOU's muscle-bound senior only through his time with the Raiders would connect the boy in that team photo with the man who guides one of the most powerful offenses in NAIA Division II men's basketball. That's because the picture was taken about five years ago, when Bush was a scrawny prep standout at West Linn High School. Then, he weighed no more than 170 pounds "soaking wet," as he put it. Now, Bush, who stands 6-foot-2, is a ripped 205 pounds, bone dry.
Which explains the rhetorical nature of the question that accompanied the picture: "Who is that guy?"
"I got a good laugh out of that," Bush said.
He transformed his body in the weight room and his game on the court and, thanks to all that hard work, the question posed by a former high school buddy now draws an impressive answer: Bush is the all-time leading assist man for a basketball program that's currently 16-4 and ranked No. 7 in the nation.
The Raiders enter Saturday's game against Oregon Tech at 5-3 in Cascade Conference play, a half-game behind Northwest and College of Idaho, which are tied atop the standings at 5-2.
Cerebral and versatile, Bush is a big reason why the Raiders were picked to win the conference in the CCC's preseason coaches' poll, and his development has served to balance out a roster that's loaded in the frontcourt with honorable mention All-American big men Eric Thompson and David Sturner.
Heading into Saturday's rivalry game against the Owls (11-9, 4-4), Bush leads the nation in assists per game (6.9), ranks second in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.3-to-1) and sets the tone for an offense that's hitting 51.6 percent of its field goal attempts, the sixth-best clip in the country. He's also a beast on defense, savvy enough to keep the league's quicker point guards in check and strong enough to guard most opposing big men, allowing the Raiders to switch on pick and roll screens without losing muscle inside.
"He's actually one of our better post defenders," SOU head coach Brian McDermott said.
As an added bonus, Bush also happens to be one of the smartest players on a team loaded with academic stalwarts. A business management major, Bush is carrying a 3.8 grade point average and, at seasons' end, will likely pocket his second Daktronics-NAIA Scholar Athlete award.
"He's not afraid to get into people," McDermott said, "and part of the reason he can do that is, during games when he brings something up (his teammates) realize that he's smart enough to understand what he's talking about. He has suggestions all the time during games and the players respect that about him. They know he understands the game."
The physical transformation didn't happen overnight. Bush credits Thompson, a former minor league pitcher, with sharing his knowledge of the weight room and providing, in living color, unmistakable proof of its benefits — the 6-7, 245-pound Thompson is a two-time CCC all-star and enters Saturday's game as the nation's ninth-leading scorer (21.2 ppg). The added muscle has boosted Bush's game on both ends of the court, but probably more so on the defensive side, where the Raiders rank fifth nationally and first in the conference in defensive field goal percentage (.401).
Now, Bush only wishes he would have started lifting sooner.
"Going through high school my dad was always on me about it, but I was lazy and I thought more about working on my shot, working on my game rather than working in the weight room," Bush said. "Then, really, when (Thompson) got here he really taught me a lot — coming from playing professional baseball and having trainers around every day, he really taught me that it's so much about what you eat, but getting in there and spending your time in there, too. That really changed my game."
And has provided McDermott with more options, both on offense and defense. It's a luxury to have a point guard who can hold his own against opposing forwards on one end, then post up on the other. Many of Bush's assists, in fact, come out of the post, a unique weapon for a point guard executing a motion offense. Indeed, Bush estimates that about half his buckets last Saturday at Northwest came on post-up plays — he finished with 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
"I'm like a big guy in disguise," he said.
Except for the assist record (455 and counting), that is, for which Bush only reluctantly accepts credit. His teammates are the ones hitting all those shots, he points out. But while it's true that Bush's timing could not have been much better — the inside-outside combination of Thompson, Sturner and Kyle Tedder, the most prolific 3-point shooter in program history, makes SOU almost impossible to defend — he's proven to be a natural floor leader.
"My number one responsibility is to try to get the ball to guys in their strength spots," Bush said. "Guys like (Thompson), he likes to get the ball in the post, and Tim (Weber), and Sturner's more of a slasher, and Tedder's a shooter. My job's to get it to them where they can succeed. My scoring? If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org