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Comets' Bittle a rising recruit

CENTRAL POINT — Nate Bittle isn’t a track star but he’s definitely been hard to catch up with this whirlwind of a summer.

After making his mark as a freshman this past high school season at Crater High as a key figure in the boys basketball team’s best season in recent history, the 6-foot-10 Bittle has taken to the postseason circuit and emerged as one of the front runners in Oregon basketball recruits for the Class of 2021.

In the past two months, the lanky sharp-shooter with a shot-blocking knack has received scholarship offers, in order, from Portland, Tulane, Oregon, USC and California — with more expected as Bittle continues to develop.

“In the month of July I’ve only been home four days so I’ve been on the go, for sure,” said Bittle when reached during a tournament in Las Vegas. “I kind of like it, but you kind of start missing home a little.”

When you consider Bittle only turned 15 on June 3, it’s completely understandable to feel like a fish out of water at some points. Playing with the Nor Cal West Coast Elite program and head coach Ryan Silver, Bittle began the summer on the bench playing up on the 16U team but settled in quick enough that he soon was turning heads in the starting rotation and earned a late-summer run with the 17U squad that features elite recruits Nico Mannion and Josh Green.

“It’s a lot different because I’m playing under a different age group so I’m playing 16U instead of 15U,” said the 175-pounder. “Most of the kids are 17 with arm sleeve tattoos and stuff, it’s different. But it’s been fun, mostly because I know it will pay off in the end.”

As Bittle’s comfort level built, so did his results on the court. After averaging 10 points, eight rebounds and four blocks per game last spring for Crater, he found himself as the third-leading player for blocked shots in the 16U Under Armour Association (UAA) Circuit at nearly four per game to go with around 15 points and 10 boards per contest.

“It’s been cool playing against the high-level recruits and the 16U and 17U kids just because you get to see how they play and what they do,” said Bittle. “I’ve been able to guard some of the best guys in the country, going back and forth blocking each others shots and things like that. It’s been fun.”

That Bittle has been able to excite college recruiters throughout the summer is no suprise to his Crater head coach, Chris Schmerbach.

“His talent more than anything is kind of getting him the recognition that he deserves,” said Schmerbach of the incoming sophomore. “And the (West Coast Elite) program that he’s with is getting him tons of exposure. Ryan Silver does a good job of putting kids in front of coaches and letting them showcase their talent.”

Seeing that Bittle has been playing well beyond his age level — and thriving — is nothing new for Schmerbach. Bittle fit in perfectly with his senior-heavy lineup in the spring and has a knack for rising to the occasion.

“The cool thing about Nate is every challenge you put in front of him, he just keeps meeting that bar,” said Schmerbach. “He’s such a good basketball player with a high IQ, he can just fit with any level and play. When his strength and speed meet his size and basketball IQ, the sky’s going to be the limit for him.”

Bittle has a ways to go physically, and he’s working on that, but his pure touch from 3-point range, ability to handle the basketball with both hands and keen passing ability are next-level tools. Defensively, he exhibits great timing in being able to get off the floor to block or at least alter shots as he patrols the paint.

“He’s got a tremendous upside,” added Schmerbach. “He’s a 6-10 player that’s a sharpshooter, there’s not a lot of 6-10 players in the world that can do all the things he can at his age. The great thing is Nate’s worked really hard at it. I’ve known him since he was a sixth grader and he just keeps growing, both literally and physically, and it’s pretty awesome to watch. We’re all really, really excited to be a part of it and do what we can to help him reach his goals.”

When his first offer rolled in from Portland, Bittle said he was shocked and didn’t know what to say. He was taken over the top during his first phone call with Oregon head coach Dana Altman, and the feeling remains the same with every increasing contact as his name has gotten out beyond the Pacific Northwest.

To make all this possible, Bittle and his family have endured long drives to Oakland, California, for West Coast Elite practices — he was underage at 14 when the process began so it would cost more for him to fly as an unaccompanied minor — and he’s also learned how to squeeze his lanky frame into business class seats when he does take to the air. Bittle has played in tournaments in Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Nevada (twice) and California this summer.

“I’ve kind of gotten used to it all,” he said of the travel. “I usually get an aisle seat or something so I can stretch my legs out.”

Most recently, Bittle has been in Spokane, Washington, for a 50-player NBC College Prep Camp to continue his skill development.

When he was able to be home during June to compete with his Crater teammates, Schmerbach could already tell a difference in the blossoming player.

“This summer he played out of his mind for our high school squad,” said the coach. “He just went to a totally different level, and a lot of that is due to the confidence he’s gotten playing with other groups. Last year he was really good and a factor, but he led us in all phases this summer, which is really cool for him to do that as a sophomore.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Crater's Nathan Bittle (33) and Cade Weaver block a shot during a game against Hermiston. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]