Tuesday, February 14, 2006 | The high school basketball season is winding down on a special time in San Diego sports. Watch Chase Budinger play now, and sometime in the future you’ll be able to say, “I saw him when … “

La Costa Canyon High’s 6-foot-8 guard/forward is bound for big things at Arizona, his college destination, and beyond.

Hey, anybody can fork over money for overpriced pro sport tickets or flip on a television. But the moments you sit on a bleacher seat and catch a rising star is what makes following high school sports pure and enduring.

Some of us can say we saw the budding talent of Reggie Bush’s speed and open-field moves at Helix, Junior Seau’s power and athleticism at Oceanside or Gail Devers’ speed and acceleration at Sweetwater.

I don’t describe many high school athletes as bound for big things in college or the pros, largely because it’s hard to determine how most athletes will respond when forced to work harder against a higher level of competition.

But like a Reggie Bush, Junior Seau or Gail Devers, Budinger isn’t afraid of a challenge.

Budinger is ranked the No. 10 basketball player in the nation and No. 1 in California by Student Sports, a leading source in such rankings. He’ll likely be named to the McDonald’s All-American High School All-Star Game on March 29 at San Diego State’s Cox Arena.

But actually Budinger is a higher ranked volleyball player as a veteran of USA Junior National teams. He could have taken the clearer path to stardom in volleyball, but he wants to find out how good he can be in basketball if he takes a break in college from volleyball and concentrates on one sport.

Last Friday night before the usual 3,000-plus fans at La Costa Canyon’s gym, Budinger set the CIF San Diego Section career scoring record with 2,635 points and counting. He scored 38 for the No. 1-ranked Mavericks in a win over Westview.

It was his 28th 30-point performance in 109 varsity games since his freshman year, but the scoring record isn’t what’s fun about watching Budinger play. Amazingly, just about all of his 30-point games have been “a quiet” 30 – the sports definition for a smooth, seamless performance.

That’s because you won’t see Budinger force shots. When he’s double- and triple-covered and a teammate comes open, he snaps off quick passes to them.

“I can count on my hand the few times when I’ve thought, ‘That wasn’t a good shot, Chase,’ ” said La Costa Canyon coach David Cassaw. “You’ll see some guys who score a lot of points, but they take some very bad shots.”

Budinger’s points quickly add up because he converts offensive rebounds and free throws, including 3-point plays. When he scored 51 in a Feb. 3 against Rancho Bernardo, he hit 17 of 18 free throws and converted three 3-point plays.

“People in San Diego don’t know what they’re missing,” said Palomar College Coach John O’Neill when I sat next to him at the Rancho Bernardo game.

Budinger averages 32.9 points a game shooting 63-percent from the field, 51-percent from 3-point range and 74 percent from the free-throw line. He averages 9.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

“He’ll get up at 6 a.m. to work on his jump shot,” said Jim Brogan, the former San Diego Clippers guard who has worked with Budinger.

As good as Budinger has been in high school, don’t be surprised if he’s a better college player. At Arizona, he won’t have to be his team’s big man. He’ll be free to use more of his guard skills – running the court and slashing to the basket. He’s too big for guards to defend and too quick for forwards.

“It will be more of an up-tempo game in college, which he wants,” Brogan said. “I think it’s the style of game he’s used to – the open floor, get the ball and throw it up for alley-oop dunks. I think that will help him tremendously.”

Cassaw, recognizing Budinger’s court savvy, simplified La Costa Canyon’s offense for his senior year.

“We’ve given him more freedom because he’s so good at making the right decisions,” Cassaw said. “Last year we ran the triangle offense, which made it harder to get inside. This year there might be only one pass before a shot.”

One week remains in the regular season, with Mavericks playing Wednesday at Mt. Carmel and Friday at Torrey Pines. The playoffs begin Feb. 24 and finish with the Division I championship at the University of San Diego’s Jenny Craig Pavilion. There might be one final game in San Diego in the first round of the state playoffs, but only if the Mavericks win the San Diego Section title.

Watch Budinger now and when you see him on television at Arizona converting 3-point plays, hitting 3-point field goals, putting down monster dunks and leading fastbreaks with deft passes, you’ll recognize the performance and be able to say “I saw him when … “

Tom Shanahan is Voice’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at

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