There was a time when high school basketball coaches used to toss and turn in bed, dreaming that a center would show up on campus, perhaps the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal.
Size mattered. Blocking shots mattered. Dunking mattered.
Centers are still in demand, but basketball is changing. Call it revenge of the guards.
Two seasons ago, Chino Hills High went 35-0 while running and shooting from anywhere and everywhere. Last season, Torrance Bishop Montgomery, a team with no starter taller than 6-foot-6, toppled teams with centers who were 6-11, 6-9, 7-2 and 6-11 en route to winning the Southern Section and state Open Division championships.
Players with guard skills are taking over the sport.
“It’s definitely the way basketball is going,” said Fairfax coach Steve Baik, who was the architect of Chino Hills’ 35-0 season. “It’s a lot of fun because basketball is about speed and skill. The kids are practicing and training a lot on the skills of shooting, dribbling and scoring, like the Golden State Warriors. It’s fun basketball. It allows us to pressure and play hard-nosed defense.”
The rise of the guards will be visible to anyone who attends high school games this season. There are more than a dozen outstanding guard duos and others with skills capable of lifting their schools to prominence.
Following the example set by the NBA’s Warriors in developing players who are interchangeable and versatile, teams have players who are as comfortable being the passer as being the scorer. That creates the kind of chemistry and unselfishness needed for success.
Setting the standard is the Bishop Montgomery duo of 6-5 David Singleton, a UCLA signee, and 6-3 Gianni Hunt, who might be the best junior point guard in the region.
“We’re like brothers on and off the court,” Hunt said. “Our chemistry is really good. We complement each other. He knows what I can do, and I know what he can do.”
Said Singleton: “I feel we mesh, and a big thing is we trust each other.”
It’s the third season the two have been together, and much was learned en route to winning the Open Division title in 2016-17.
“What I learned is you need to trust your teammates,” Singleton said. “Sometimes you might have to give the ball up. I learned being a good teammate and helping each other will take you a long way. It was amazing to win the Open Division. The competition was fierce. We had hard practices. We didn’t take anything for granted. We proved we didn’t need any big-time transfers to win it all.”
Hunt won’t be available until next month after suffering a broken ankle during practice on Oct. 30.
One reason the guard group keeps getting stronger is the arrival of newcomers. Duane Washington arrives from Grand Rapids, Mich., to join Cassius Stanley at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon. Washington is a big-time shooter who signed with Ohio State.
Perhaps the closest guard duo is at Oak Park, where brothers Wes and Clark Slajchert will use their family ties and backyard battles to try to push the Eagles to success. Wes, a senior, signed with Dartmouth. Clark is a sophomore.
“We both believe us as a duo are underrated,” Wes said. “We’re always on the same page. The chemistry is always going to be there no matter the situation.”
Said Clark: “I couldn’t imagine a better place for me playing high school. I definitely think we’ve got some noise to make this season.”
The City Section is loaded with outstanding guard tandems. There’s the Taft duo of Virginia-bound Kihei Clark and Bellflower St. John Bosco transfer Makani Whiteside. At Fairfax, there’s Ethan Anderson and Jamal Hartwell, both returning All-City players. Westchester has Jordan Brinson and Jeremiah Turley.
Defending champion Birmingham believes it can compete against the best with returning All-City player Devonaire Doutrive and Tyjae Medley. And don’t forget about Narbonne guard Kendal Frey.
In the Southern Section, Pasadena has Darius Brown and Bryce Hamilton, a Nevada Las Vegas commit. Crespi has Arizona-bound Brandon Williams, who is returning from knee surgery, and Taj Regans. They already have helped Crespi win state titles.
Long Beach Poly is a team of guards, led by Darryl Polk and Justin Rene. La Verne Damien has Cameron Shelton, a Northern Arizona signee, and Elijah McCullough, a Sacramento State signee. Mission Hills Alemany has UC Riverside signee D.J. McDonald, plus highly regarded sophomore Brandon Whitney.
There’s also UCLA signee Jules Bernard of Windward; Harvard signee Spencer Freedman of Santa Ana Mater Dei; Lamont Butler of Riverside Poly; Julien Franklin of Villa Park; Josh Christopher of Lakewood Mayfair; Drake London of Moorpark; Johnny Juzang of Studio City Harvard-Westlake; Miles Oliver of Etiwanda; Jaime Jaquez of Camarillo; D.J. Davis of Corona Centennial; Payton Moore of Santa Monica and Jarod Lucas of Hacienda Heights Los Altos.