Texas High School Boys Basketball

Panthers find right mix for playoffs in 2nd varsity season

By DENNIS SILVA II, Times Sports Editor
Posted 2/14/20

Defense, depth and energy. Perhaps not necessarily in that order, but those are the not-so-secret ingredients to the rise of Paetow’s boys basketball team in just its second year of varsity play.

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Texas High School Boys Basketball

Panthers find right mix for playoffs in 2nd varsity season

Posted

Defense, depth and energy. Perhaps not necessarily in that order, but those are the not-so-secret ingredients to the rise of Paetow’s boys basketball team in just its second year of varsity play.

After missing the playoffs by one game last season, the Panthers welcomed a new head coach in Michael Niemi, who spent the previous two seasons at Kempner High. Niemi brought discipline and a needed semblance of fun.

“We can be ourselves,” senior Joel Delva Jr. said. “We can laugh and joke and have fun on the court. It’s a relief. Basketball is supposed to be fun, enjoyable. Coach makes the game fun.”

Two head coaches in two years of varsity is not a simple acclimation for young players hungry to establish a winning program. Fortunately, they bought in quickly.

“A lot of hard work. A lot of dedication. A lot of discipline,” Delva Jr. said. “We adjusted fast to a new coach. We processed a lot of new information and we learned off of him. He came off the right way and we accepted him fast.”

Very fast. The Panthers are 25-7 overall, recently ran off 16 consecutive wins, are in the playoffs for the first time, and will likely end up with at least a share of the District 19-5A championship.

At 12-1 in district play, they close the regular season Tuesday at 1-12 Magnolia West.

“We’re trying to set a standard around here, so the younger guys can see what it means to take care of each other, play as a team and continue to get better,” senior D’Aundrey Guest said. “It’s a lot of trust and belief in one another.”

The Panthers are not different in identity. They still want to press defensively, force turnovers and play an open game offensively. What Niemi did was emphasize a sense of accountability and professionalism in the way players went about things.

It all starts with defense, where Niemi encouraged tighter man-to-man principles to help his team generate pace in that scheme. It’s worked. In district play, the Panthers are surrendering just 51.8 points per game.

“It was about discipline defensively,” Niemi said. “Last year, they got up and they pressured, and they did a lot of zone trapping and they tried to make people play fast. For us, the mentality was to do some of those things, but get them incorporated into a more disciplined man-to-man with some traps. Pick up the activity and see if we can create pace off our man defense. That was our focus.”

The Panthers can play that way that because of their depth. Niemi can sub five-in, five-out and not skip a beat.

For instance, in Paetow’s 53-36 win over College Station on Feb. 14, the Panthers’ second unit sparked the rout. After a sluggish first few minutes by the starting lineup, sophomores Elijah Roberts, Trevor Frank and Charles Chuckwu, and junior Jayden McCullough, among others, came off the bench a little more than halfway into the first quarter and made a discernible impact with their energy, athleticism and length.

“When you come off the bench, you’ve got a responsibility to pick up the team,” said Roberts, generally a starter. “We have a lot of depth, and we know we’ve got to pick up the slack and get the team going. We can’t afford to have a drop-off when the starters are out.”

Roberts led the Panthers’ scoring with 11 points. Frank added nine on a trio of 3-pointers in the third quarter.

“We have a lot of guys who know our roles,” Frank said. “We do our jobs and we execute once we get into a game, play the way we know how to play.”

In all, 29 of Paetow’s 53 points came from reserves.

“It’s great to have,” Niemi said. “For them, it starts with their energy. When we don’t start well, that group that comes off the bench, including a couple of sophomores and a couple of juniors, they kind of turn the corner for us and pick things up for us. It’s a terrific luxury. A lot of coaches probably wish they could play eight guys, let alone 10 or 11.”

Another key for Paetow this season is the revelation that the little things matter, off and on the court.

Players clean up the locker room when they’re done. They pick up the basketballs and put them away after practice. On the court, they are fundamental in their close-outs defensively—high hands, active feet. They talk and communicate. Offensively, they pass and move with or without the ball.

It’s a culture initiated by Niemi and put into action by the seven seniors: Davion Sargent, David Bradley, Bryce Luster, Norris Ben, Ethan Barnes, Guest and Delva Jr.

“This hasn’t been easy, but you can see it working,” Sargent said. “We’re setting the path for everybody that follows this team. I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

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