The Rock Hill Bearcats break their huddles this season with an in-unison family!
Eric Rollings talented boys basketball team has painstakingly worked to foster a familial environment after poisoned team chemistry ran their promising campaign off a cliff last year. Rock Hill won its first eight, but a one-point loss to Northwestern on Jan. 20 sparked a seven-game losing streak, leaving what could have been a banner year in shredded tatters.
Several players talked to after Wednesdays practice werent really sure what prompted the tailspin after a 15-2 start. Guard Malik Crawford, one of eight seniors back for the Bearcats, seemed to know.
Probably everybody wanting to be the star, he said, a knowing grimace overtaking his expression. Everybody wanting to get their shine.
For a Rock Hill team with a lot of shine, a seven-game slide to miss out on the playoffs just didnt cut it. Rollings knows that. This season he scheduled a difficult non-region slate to toughen up the Bearcats, including home-and-away series with Gaffney and Blythewood, an effort to try and avoid a second straight stretch run swoon.
Our kids have gotta learn how to win those close ones, he said after a vigorous practice. Weve taken some steps to fix those problems from last year, and hopefully youll see a different result this year.
A defensive mismatch
As the players hustle through drills, Rollings stalks the court, stopping only occasionally to crouch down for a different look. He shouts, I dont need 24 minutes out of you, I need 32!
Rollings is talking to the whole team, but he might as well be talking to one of the most talented Bearcats, senior Jaylen Reid. The 6-foot-7 enigma is a hopeless defensive matchup for opposing teams, not least because of the slam dunk gene pool from which he emerged. His father, J.R. Reid, rattled rims collegiately at North Carolina, before becoming the Charlotte Hornets first round pick in 1989.
Though they share an inimitable father-son bond, the younger Reid is quite a different player from his famous father. Where J.R. was powerful, Jaylen is slinky; J.R. made his living rooting around in the paint, but Jaylen is an inside-out amphibian with a perimeter skill set. The father was well known for a forceful posterior that polished off more than a few box-outs; the son is, well, a good deal slimmer.
As he says, Im Jaylen; that was my dad. I gotta make my own approach. We play two different styles of the game.
Being the son of a former NBA player and local celebrity is rarely easy, especially when J.R. is an assistant basketball coach at a community college in Virginia and isnt around much. Equally difficult is shaking off message board-branding. Labeled as having bad attitude by some anonymous screen name somewhere in the online hinterlands, Reids coach said that at times he didnt have the best attitude, but added that the reputation was largely unwarranted.
People get on these message boards but until youre around a kid and understand what that kids about, people shouldnt make judgments, said Rollings. Hes a good kid. Im glad hes in our program, and we have a great relationship. All of our kids do with our coaches.
Reid has narrowed his focus. After averaging 15 points and 10 boards last year, he has scholarship offers from Winthrop, High Point and Kent State, while larger schools are sniffing around. The college interest appears to have kicked Reids backside.
Jaylen has a lot better attitude than what I think he had last year, said Rollings. Hes grown up a whole lot more as a kid and as a player, and hes really worked to get better as a basketball player. I think his work ethic will show this year on the floor.
Wednesday, Reid hit six or seven jumpers in a row during one drill, shouting to his teammates, lets work! Even after a long day of school he had a positive bounce in his step throughout, especially when tickling the twine with smooth jump shots.
Thats a big change, Rollings said about Reids increased volume in practice this year. Weve got eight seniors and these seniors know that this is their last year and they want to make the most of it.
Reid is hardly the only college-level talent on the team. Fellow senior Roderick Howell has already signed a scholarship offer from Newberry College, and the sturdily built, 6-foot-6 post man figures to pair with Reid in a nightmarish combo.
Jaylen can play the post or he can play the wing and Roderick is the same way, said Rollings.
Howell averaged 10 points and eight rebounds last year, and should post double figures in both categories this season with regularity. Howell ended his recruitment early, cementing his future so that he could focus on school and hoops. Where Howell willfully bangs inside, changing the game with his shot-blocking and rebounding, Reid causes defensive mismatches with guard-like skill and his post-like size.
Hes a really big mismatch because mostly guards are guarding him, Howell explained. We can switch him in the post and post him up and get easy baskets.
6-foot-3 linebacker Deante Fleming should start up front with Howell and Reid, giving the Bearcats another tough, physical rebounder in the paint, while 6-foot-7 Jaleel Scott will return once his North-South All-Star game football obligations are complete. Rock Hill lost standout swingman Jamel Jones for the year when he tore his ACL during football season but does have a pair of talented guards in Warren Vinson and transfer Nate Motley (Virginia). Motley scored 23 in the Bearcats seven-point loss to defending state champs Gaffney on Tuesday, and could be the unselfish floor leader Rollings team needed last year.
I think thats another change for our team this year, theyve got more defined roles, Rollings said. Our kids have a better understanding of what we need them to do.
Embodiment of new mindset
Defining roles within the team framework and getting players to accept those positions is not an easy accomplishment, especially with the blossoming egos of teenage males. For an example, look no further than last years squad.
Our chemistry fell off, Reid said. But this year, I feel a totally different vibe from all the players. Everybody is hungry, everybody knows we got nine seniors, we gotta do what we gotta do. Everybody knows we need each other to win the game.
Perhaps no player on the Bearcats roster represents that transformation from last year better than Reid. As his teammate and buddy Howell said: I see more of a force in him. Its his last year; nothings really like high school basketball so I know he wants to finish on a good note.
The same could be said for the whole of a senior-driven bunch of Bearcats.
Theres been a bad taste in our mouth since last year, Rollings said. Its been good to get back on the basketball court.
Bret McCormick 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T