“I’m not sure about wingspan,” the Chicago State’s sophomore swingman said. “They’ve got me listed at 6-5. Wingspan, I’m not sure.”
Actually, they’ve got him listed at 6-4, 185 pounds. Point of comparison: The only three Western Athletic Conference players pulling in more rebounds than Palmer’s 7.7 boards per game average out at a meatier 6-6, 230.
Credit a wide receiver’s mentality. A wide receiver’s want-to.
“That desire really comes from football,” said Palmer, whose seventh-seeded Cougars open WAC Tournament action Thursday against No. 2 seed CSU-Bakersfield in Las Vegas. “When you see the ball go up in the air, the natural wide receiver instinct is, ‘It’s mine.’ It’s the same thing as going up for the catch.”
Palmer used to walk in that world, of course. And by ‘walk,’ we mean he ran. As a prep at Brown Deer (Wis.) High School, the Chicago State forward was a first team all-conference selection as a wideout and a defensive back, a dual-sport standout with options. Also, one very big question:
Football or hoops?
“I had a partial (offer) from Illinois State,” Palmer said of his gridiron dalliances. “I had a couple of walk-on offers, including Northern Illinois, and had a couple of junior colleges (interested) as well. I played a little bit of everything growing up — I went from safety to linebacker to tight end to quarterback to wide receiver. I played it all.”
Basketball was a later discovery, a later interest, a later passion, embraced midway through high school. A growth spurt shot Palmer up to 6-3 by the middle of his sophomore year at Brown Deer, which got him drawing longer looks from hoops eyes as well. The light really came on during club ball with Wisconsin Playground Elite the summers before his junior and senior years.
“There were a couple (options with) basketball, but I had my mind set on football,” Palmer explained. “I was letting everybody know I wasn’t going to play basketball. At the last second, I kind of changed my mind. And had a change of heart.”
Alas, he’d wavered long enough though that basketball coaches had sort of moved on, and suddenly a two-sport talent found himself scrambling a bit to find a landing spot in one or the other. Wisconsin-Milwaukee hoops coach Rob Jeter showed some interest, but no offer came of it. Despite being academically qualified, Palmer elected to go the JUCO route first, casting his lot with North Dakota State College of Science in tiny Wahpeton, N.D., just over the Minnesota border.
After averaging 13.3 points and 10.1 boards as a freshman in the upper plains, Cougars assistant Sean Pryor roped him to the South Side, roughly an hour and forty minutes from where home, give or take Windy City traffic.
“That’s all football instinct out there that I’m used to,” said Palmer, who went into the final weekend of the regular season among the WAC top 10 in rebounds (fourth), steals (fifth), and blocks (fifth). “It’s about just being out there and being an athlete, pretty much.”
It’s about balance, too: A business management major, Palmer was an Academic All-WAC selection in 2014-‘15 and posted a 4.0 GPA over the first semester of 2015-16.
“That comes from my parents,” he said. “They always pushed that books were first, and that always landed on top. So they’re not letting that slip at all.”
The Wisconsin native noted that he’s on track to repeat a perfect GPA this semester, too, despite the rigors of a WAC travel schedule — the nearest league foe, UMKC, is a seven hours away via car — and general campus angst over the future of the university as a whole.
Long story short: Illinois has been operating without a budget since last July, effectively cutting off any public funding for state colleges and universities. Chicago State, home to 4,000 undergraduates, has felt the pinch of the political impasse worse than many peers, leaving some to worry that the school could be forced to shut its doors entirely before the fall if a compromise isn’t reached. Inside and outside Jones Convocation Center, rallies have become the new normal, and Cougars coaches wore these shirts during a 14-point setback to New Mexico State on Feb. 13:
“It’s on our end to try and keep it out of our minds,” Palmer said. “But Coach (Tracy) Dildy and the coaching staff, they do a good job of easing our tensions and focusing on what’s important, which is school and basketball.”School, basketball and finishing strong. When you haven’t won a game in 10 weeks, there’s nowhere to go but up. And west.