The first thing that sticks out about Oklahoma State freshman point guard Ray Penn is his height -- or, rather, the lack thereof.
Penn is listed at 5 feet 9, and that might be stretching it. That makes him the shortest Rivals.com top-50 prospect since 5-9 guard Devan Downey -- now an All-SEC performer at South Carolina -- originally signed with Cincinnati as the No. 36 recruit in the 2005 class.
"When I'm out there, I don't see myself as 5-8," said Penn, indirectly acknowledging that the height published on his Oklahoma State bio may be a tad generous. "People probably look at me as the smallest dude on the court, but when I'm out there, I think of myself as the biggest man, the toughest. I have a lot of heart and a lot of dedication to go out there and do my best."
He often is the toughest player on the court. And he always is the fastest.
Penn possesses the type of speed that makes him extremely difficult to guard. Penn is so fast that his AAU coach compares him to a much better-known undersized point guard.
"Ray has the same kind of speed as T.J. Ford," said John Eurey, who coached both players with the Houston Superstars. "The only difference between Ray and T.J. Ford is that Ray can shoot that jumper from deep."
Nobody realistically expects Penn to come in and perform as well as Ford, who led Texas to a Final Four berth and now plays for the NBA's Indiana Pacers. But the Cowboys' chances of reaching the NCAA tournament could depend on whether Penn makes some kind of immediate impact.
The Cowboys return three starters from a team that went 23-12 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, but they have only three other returning lettermen. Their chief concern is finding a point guard to replace Byron Eaton, who led the Big 12 in steals (2.2 per game), and ranked second in assists (5.7) and 15th in scoring (14.3) in his senior season.
That vacancy could allow Penn to step right into the starting lineup.
As the nation's No. 44 prospect, Penn was the highest-rated recruit in an Oklahoma State signing class that also included 6-1 point guard Reger Dowell of Duncanville, Texas, and 6-2 point guard Fred Gulley of Fayetteville, Ark. Sophomore shooting guard Keiton Page also can play the point if necessary.
"It's not my call," Penn said, "but I feel confident."
Penn believes he has the maturity to handle running the offense. He hasn't even begun his college career, but he already has withstood an emotional beating.
He had to grow up in a hurry last year after losing the man who helped raise him. Penn's stepfather, Elmore Downing, died in April 2008 after being diagnosed with lung cancer nine months earlier.
The long and short of it
Oklahoma State freshman Ray Penn, a 5-foot-9 guard, is the shortest player ranked as a top-150 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Here's a look at all the former top-150 prospects who were 5-9 or shorter since Rivals.com began covering college basketball recruiting in 2003.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 26th in 2003. Signed with Oklahoma.
BUZZ: Lavender transferred from Oklahoma to Xavier, where he earned second-team All-Atlantic 10 honors and helped Xavier advance to a regional final in 2008.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 118th in 2003. Signed with Richmond.
BUZZ: Merritt eventually transferred to South Alabama, where he earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors and helped the Jaguars earn an NCAA tournament bid in 2008.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 36th in 2005. Signed with Cincinnati.
BUZZ: Downey spent one season at Cincinnati before transferring to South Carolina. He was a first-team All-SEC selection last season, averaged 19.8 points per game and ranked sixth in the nation with 2.9 steals per game.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 106th in 2007. Signed with Michigan.
BUZZ: Grady spent two seasons with Michigan's basketball team before switching sports. He now is a slot receiver with the Michigan football team, and he caught his first touchdown pass Saturday in a 63-6 rout of Delaware State.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 92nd in 2008. Signed with Washington.
BUZZ: Thomas was named the Pac-10's freshman of the year last season. He averaged a team-high 15.5 points per game and helped the Huskies reach the second round of the NCAA tournament.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 102nd in 2008. Signed with Florida.
BUZZ: Walker made the SEC all-freshman team last season and averaged 10.1 points per game while shooting 70-of-167 (41.9 percent) from 3-point range.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 121st in 2008. Signed with Purdue.
BUZZ: Jackson made 30 starts and led the Boilers with 118 assists -- the second-highest freshman total in school history -- on his way to making the Big Ten's all-freshman team last season.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 142nd in 2008. Signed with Clemson.
BUZZ: Young averaged 4.4 points and 2.1 assists per game last season as a reserve point guard. His 2.87-1 assist-turnover ratio last season was the second-best in school history for anyone with at least 50 assists.
PARTICULARS: Ranked 44th in 2009. Signed with Oklahoma State.
BUZZ: Penn has a legitimate opportunity to open his freshman season as the Cowboys' starting point guard.
Penn was 2 years old when his mother met Downing, a Chicago Bulls fan who loved cheering for Michael Jordan. Downing would go on to serve as Penn's chief male role model. Downing regularly attended Penn's games and would drive him to various camps and AAU events.
The summer after Downing's death, Penn faced the emotional upheaval of attending the Reebok Summer Championships in Las Vegas without the man who had guided him for much of his life.
"When you have to watch someone slowly die, it's more difficult than sudden death," said Penn's mother, Gina Penn. "It took a toll on the entire family. To this day, it still takes a toll on the entire family.
"When Raymond did go to Las Vegas shortly after my husband passed away, he stated that everything he did in Las Vegas was for my husband. He said, 'These games I'm playing, what I'm going to do in Las Vegas, it's all for Downing.' "
Penn responded by averaging an event-high 35.8 points per game, and Rivals.com labeled Penn the biggest surprise to come out of the various AAU events that bring the nation's top high school players to Las Vegas each summer.
His remarkable performance in Las Vegas showed that Penn had enough speed, strength and shooting ability to compensate for his lack of height.
"That was his coming-out party," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He's extremely fast. He's got that compact build where he can get beneath a defense and beat them both with strength and speed. He's very difficult to keep in front of you. And what makes him such a high-powered scorer is he's got deep range as well."
Penn averaged 21.7 points and 4.2 assists as a senior at Travis High in the Houston suburb of Richmond before arriving at Oklahoma State this summer. That's when he received another round of bad news.
Although he fell on his left shoulder as a high school sophomore and felt occasional pain there ever since, Penn never thought too much of it. He hurt the shoulder again shortly before he reported to Oklahoma State, then dislocated it during a pickup game on campus. That's when an MRI exam and X-ray revealed that Penn had a torn labrum that required surgery.
"I was very surprised," Penn said. "When someone says you tore something, you'd think the thing would be a lot worse than how it was feeling."
Penn wasn't the only one caught by surprise. His mother and his former coach also were stunned. Penn never really had complained about the shoulder in the past. Penn indicated the wear and tear of playing with a hurt shoulder so long eventually caused the labrum to tear.
"I didn't think it was that serious,'' Gina Penn said. "Raymond's had physicals and checkups since [his sophomore year of high school]. Nobody ever had indicated he needed to have surgery. I thought maybe it was just a little bruised. I was actually devastated."
The surgery initially worried Penn because he never had been seriously injured before and didn't know what to expect. He now feels much better about the situation.
Penn has completed his rehabilitation and is back at 100 percent. He doesn't expect the shoulder to give him any problems this season.
"I feel like me again," he said. "I feel like I did when I first got here, if not better."
As a freshman, Penn could need time to adjust to Big 12 competition. He must establish a comfort level with his new teammates, and his lack of height could cause problems on defense. But his speed and shooting ability should allow him to contribute immediately.
His breakneck pace makes him a natural fit for Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford's up-tempo style.
"Nobody on this planet can guard him baseline to baseline," Eurey said. "He's just too fast."
That speed eventually could help Penn make the same kind of statement that Ford delivered to the Big 12 several years ago: A point guard doesn't necessarily need extraordinary height to lift his team to extraordinary heights.
"You don't have to be tall to play this game," Penn said. "You just have to have heart and keep on striving."