Staff photo by Troy Stolt / McCallie's David Craig (44) drives to the basket during a road game against Chattanooga Christian on Feb. 7, 2020.

McCallie's David Craig and East Hamilton's Cade Pendleton took very different paths to becoming big guys contributing in big ways for Chattanooga-area high school basketball programs.

Craig grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Soccer, rugby and cricket are the most popular sports there, but it was the allure of the hardwood that caught his attention at the age of 12.

A point guard at first, Craig quickly fell in love with the game. He couldn't put the basketball down and started dreaming of playing in college. Those dreams became a reality this month when McCallie's 7-foot-2, 265-pound center signed his letter of intent to play Division I basketball for Mercer University, a Southern Conference program in Macon, Georgia.

"Coming from South Africa, basketball is a rapidly growing sport with good talent but hardly any places for development," Craig said. "McCallie put me in a position to model for people back home that if you devote yourself to a dream and put the work in, that it will eventually work itself out. To earn a full-ride scholarship is everything I could ask for. All the trials and tribulations I have been through are worth it."

McCallie coach David Conrady has seen exceptional growth in a year's time from Craig, whose rigorous work this past summer turned him into a much stronger and conditioned player who can do a lot more on the court.

Craig was tough to handle as a junior last season — he averaged nine points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game for the Blue Tornado — but now he presents an even stronger presence with improved footwork, balance and physicality.

"At first teams would be extra physical with him, and it would knock him off his mark a little bit, especially because officials didn't know how to referee such a big player," Conrady said. "Through his hard work and dedication to self-improvement, he has learned to handle that physicality and can finish tough plays. He also has gotten in great shape where he can play in big stretches for us to where we can run our offense around him."

During McCallie's 4-0 start to the season, Craig averaged 11 points on 86% shooting from the field while not missing a free throw in double-digit trips to the foul line.

While his time with the Blue Tornado has sharpened his skills, Craig credits his father for helping him build a foundation of toughness and intensity that still helps on the court.

"I am so thankful for my dad," Craig said. "Growing up, he was really tough on me and always made sure I was working hard. He modeled what it takes to be a man and provided a great example of staying strong through adversity and remaining true to yourself. Without those traits, I wouldn't be where I am today."

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McCallie's David Craig, East Hamilton's Cade Pendleton

Pendleton's path

Watching as LeBron James starred in the NBA Finals tipped off a love of basketball for East Hamilton's Pendleton (6-10, 205), who doesn't fit the mold of most players approaching 7 feet.

The senior forward displays pure form from 3-point range, where he is a threat to knock down anywhere from three to five long-range shots a game for the Hurricanes. That's on top of his ability to soar over helpless defenders for driving dunks, putback basket and reverse layups. Sometimes he even backs them down for a fadeaway mid-range shot that brings former Dallas Mavericks great Dirk Nowitzki to mind.

Pendleton has also enjoyed success on the AAU circuit, where he first realized his potential by putting up 28 points and 25 rebounds in a single game for Chattanooga Elite the summer before his sophomore season. He has also played for Team Curry, a select basketball program sponsored by Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry.

"As a 6-foot-5 freshman, I realized my perimeter game was solid, and if I wanted to separate myself, that was an area I could do it," Pendleton said. "Being a solid passer, along with being a more aggressive scorer inside now, I feel like has helped make me a much more complete player who can impact the game in more ways."

Pendleton is off to a stellar start in his final prep season. He already has a 21-point, 12-rebound performance, along with a 19-point, 11-rebound showing in which he drained a trio of 3-pointers against Knoxville Christian in a 60-58 victory Monday.

He has college offers from Morehead State, Northeastern and Stetson, and the versatile player is excited to see what the future holds.

Although the Hurricanes lost star guards Jordan Harris, Marcus Long and Darwin Randolph from last season's state-ranked team, Pendleton believes big things are still to come for East Hamilton.

"I have loved being a part of this program, and there are many memories still to be made," he said. "There is a big gap in scoring and playmaking lost from last year, but I know we have players who can step up and make big-time plays. We have to play harder than other teams and go out there with the intent to prove people wrong."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.