by ANDREW GARDA
Competition and hunger.
Watch a few minutes of any Lions boys basketball practice at Immaculate Conception and you’ll quickly learn that is what head coach Jimmy Salmon and his coaching staff are looking for out of the players. This is a staff — both at the varsity and junior varsity level — looking to build a winning tradition and to do that, they need players who want it, too. Players who will run every sprint, work every drill and absorb every play as if their lives depended on it.
If you listen, you’ll hear coaches talking about building greatness and a winning mentality.
It makes for an intense practice, and at times, the players definitely are pushed right to — and perhaps a little beyond — their limits. Which is how some teams find greatness.
“Last year we were a .500 team,” Salmon said as he watched his team run through two-on-two drills. “I think our talent is better than that, and we want to compete for every championship we have an opportunity to play for. I think we’re good enough to do that and that’s the goal.”
They certainly have the talent on paper.
The Lions bring back a veteran team, led by senior guard Jalen Carey, which has the size and speed to give any opposition fits. Carey, who has committed to Syracuse University, works at both the point and shooting guard positions and will be critical to keeping the ball moving and finding an open shooter.
“I think Jalen is the best guard in the state,” Salmon said. “We need from him, on a daily basis, to prove that to be true.”
That said, Salmon knows that the whole team can’t revolve around just Carey, though as the best player on the team, there will be times he needs to step up.
Most of the time he shouldn’t have to, Salmon said.
“We return three other starters in Justin Winston, Rae Figures and Dejourn Cook. From an experience standpoint and probably even from a size standpoint on a local basis, we’re probably going to be one of the bigger teams.”
Salmon laughs and smiles.
“I don’t know if that makes us one of the better teams, but I like our size and our length.”
That size allows the Lions to change up how they approach the game. While Salmon and the team are guard-oriented by nature, they know when you have size, it behooves you to use it.
“Now we can we can throw it inside a little more,” Salmon pointed out. “We don’t expect to get beat on the boards anymore, I’m still a guard coach, I like to run and press. But you’ve got to coach the kids that you have.”
Cook especially seems to factor into what looks to be a very potent inside game. As the team worked to install a new offense during a recent practice, the combination small and power forward often set up near the basket, moving from side to side until a defender stepped out of place. Then the ball would come in to Cook and he’d put it up for a basket,
“He’s a high IQ player — very high IQ player,” Salmon said of the 6-6 junior.
Salmon is also looking for several other players to step up.
He says Elijah Hutchins-Everett can be the best sophomore big in the state and has been a tremendous rebounder in the preseason. The Lions will also get Zion Bethea (DePaul) and Nick Jourdain (Passaic Tech) in 30 days once the two transfers sit out as required by state rules.
“We also have a surprise sophomore, a kid by the name of Zaire Rogers who is extremely athletic,” Salmon said. “6-5 and can jump out the gym.”
Whoever is on the floor, the Lions want the ball in motion and the more movement, the better. Both offenses the Lions have been running have the floor constantly in motion, making it tough for defenses to pin down a player. They’re still working on getting the nuances down, and there has been some confusion since the two designs are similar, but when it works, the Lions look tough to stop.
At some point the ball has to stop moving and end up in the basket, though, so Salmon has to make sure his players don’t get so caught up in passing they forget to find the basket.
“We want to search for the best shot we can get early,” he said. “We like to press. That’s been who we’ve been and it will continue to be who we are.”
Again, the difference this season is the length they have and how it lets them change up things on the floor.
“Sometimes we may have to slow it down and let people have to compete against that length,” Salmon said.
The only piece Salmon is still looking for is overall aggression.
“We’ve got a lot of Type B guys,” he said. “We usually have some Type A personaities or even Type A pretenders. You’ve got a whole staff who are Type A guys while the players are primarily Type B guys. I really believe we’ve got great talent and it’s our job to figure it out. You can’t always blame the kids. Sometimes we’ve got to figure it out, and what we’re doing maybe isn’t working, so we try something different.”
If the staff can get someone to step up and be that Alpha player a great team usually has, Salmon said, the sky is the limit.
“We get that and we’ll be good.”