High School Sports

Commentary | Revitalization of Bradenton-area boys basketball not an easy task; lack of freshman teams hurts

When Floyd Watkins was at Southeast, he played on the same basketball team as Clifford Rozier and then LeRon Williams and later coached Adrian McPherson.

That's rubbing shoulders with the gold standard for boys basketball in the state.

All three were named Florida's Mr. Basketball, making Southeast the only high school in state history to have three different players win that honor.

Now in his second year as head coach at Southeast, Watkins is trying to make Manatee County the basketball hotbed it once was.

It's not easy. A lot has changed since McPherson last won Mr. Basketball in 2001. Williams won in 1994, and in 1990 the award went to Rozier, the only Manatee County first-round NBA draft pick and a first team All-American at Louisville.

The landscape has changed, but Watkins is trying to reshape the territory with a few new ideas. Palmetto head coach Reggie Bellamy and Bayshore's Wilmore Fowler, who carved out their own unique playing careers, have joined in, along with some new faces.

The lure of football and the lack of a freshman basketball program in the public schools have proven to be formidable obstacles.

"If you are not doing anything to improve your game during the offseason, you are going to fall behind and not many kids here are investing in basketball," Watkins said. "Basketball is a sport where you can get better on your own working on fundamentals, but cutting out freshman basketball hurt. A lot of kids are late bloomers, and we shut them out."

A prime example is Lakewood Ranch's Cameron Darby. As a 5-foot-9, 130-pound freshman, he was cut from the junior varsity. Now he is a 6-5, 195-pound senior on the varsity only because he stayed with the program in a manager's role that first year.

"Cameron is a perfect example of why I wish we had freshman basketball," Lakewood Ranch head coach Jeremy Schiller said. "He could've quit, but stayed on as a student assistant, carrying water and doing stats and stuff like that. He couldn't dress out or play in games, but he practiced and got better."

Unfortunately, not many kids are going to stick it out like Darby, who is now one of the key players on the varsity, averaging 7.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

"Not having a freshman team hurts our ability to keep freshmen in our program who haven't hit a growth spurt because at the end of the day we can only keep a certain number of players," Schiller said.

Work ethic also is part of the problem, according to Watkins, who saw Rozier, Williams and McPherson turn themselves into great players, though they were gifted.

"None of them got better without working on their game," Watkins said. "McPherson was a good football player and worked hard in the weight room, which improved his shooting. A lot of athletic kids who could develop into basketball players don't start playing until their freshman year and then we shut them out with no freshman program."

Not having elite players has a trickle-down effect because elite players want to play against elite players.

Alex Owens (Southeast) and Antonio Blakeney (Cardinal Mooney), the top players to come out of Manatee and Sarasota counties the past four years, are now playing in Orlando.

"If those guys had stayed, the landscape here for boys basketball might be different because the best want to play against the best," Watkins said.

In building a program that has been grounded in mediocrity at best, Schiller is doing something that might have been considered impossible when he took over Lakewood Ranch four years ago. But now he has the best team in the county with victories over traditional strongholds Palmetto and Southeast.

"The biggest thing was changing the culture and getting kids involved in basketball year round," Schiller said. "Between AAU and USSSA (travel programs), our kids play about 100 games a year. When I got here, they were not doing much during the offseason. One thing that helped was hosting AAU tournaments here and having a strong coaching staff that is committed. We have three coaches who coached at the collegiate level, and we leave the gym open as much as we can."

What you often have in the area are athletes playing basketball instead of basketball players playing basketball. The former are easy to spot. They don't see the open man, don't share the basketball enough, dribble too much and lack court vision.

What the county needs is more players like Palmetto's Tre Clark, a 6-4 junior with speed and athleticism. Though his father (Palmetto principal Willie Clark) was a standout football player at Notre Dame, Tre decided to stick with basketball and appears to have good chance of signing with a Division I school.

Southeast junior Ronald Taylor is another who falls into that category. If you are a basketball junkie, Cardinal Mooney sharpshooter Ryan McMahon will warm your heart.

We just need more of them.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, writes a weekly prep sports column. He can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.