Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
To high school boys basketball players, coaches and fans in the modern era, the game being played at the prep level looks quite a bit different than it did just a few years ago.
The influence of contemporary NBA and college paradigms, rules changes, analytics, redefined player archetypes, emphasizing the 3-point shot and other trends are permeating the prep game in Colorado so rapidly that it changes significantly in even the four-year cycle it takes for a freshman to graduate. In particular, these emerging changes to Colorado prep basketball’s form and style are at least in part leading to bigger numbers in individual stat lines and higher scoring games.
In the BoCoPreps.com area, where several of the state’s top scorers currently reside, the increased scoring output is as visible as anywhere in the state. And the explanation for it is far from singular.
“First, I think the way the game is being called does favor the offensive player with the hand-checking rules and things like that,” Skyline head coach Tyler Cerveny said. “Kids nowadays are also practicing all year long with weightlifting and skill work. Also, you see the (Golden State) Warriors’ run and teams like San Antonio’s free-flowing offenses, spreading the floor and things like that have trickled down to the high school level.
“We aren’t too deep into the analytics at Skyline, but we definitely try to get our higher-percentage shooters as many shots as we can. Our guys accept their roles, and we’re brutally honest with our guys and tell them, ‘Look, if you want us to run more stuff through you, you have to hit more shots.’ It also seems like kids are more skilled and you have to make your style fun for kids to play. Plus, three (points) is definitely more than two.”
In Colorado, last season’s top 20 scorers who played in at least 13 games averaged a combined 24.6 points per game, according to MaxPreps.com. So far in 2017-18, the state’s top 20 scorers who played in at least four games through the month of December are averaging 25.6 points a game, a full point higher. There are also nearly 10 percent more players scoring in double digits right now than at the end of last season.
Two of Colorado’s top eight scorers at this point in the season play at schools in Longmont.
Skyline sharpshooter Brayden Blick scored over 30 points in each of the Falcons’ first four games and is currently sixth in the state, averaging 27.5 points while attempting 13 3-pointers a game. Silver Creek’s Trent Dykema opened the season with a 35-point performance against Evergreen and is eighth at 26.8 points per game while still shooting 48 percent from the field. At the end of the 2016-17 season, Mead’s Michael Ward was the only BoCoPreps.com player to finish among the state’s top 30 scorers. He was 25th with a 21.4-point average.
It’s not unusual for the area to have outstanding scorers, and trends are not necessarily required to explain performances from top-tier scorers like Blick and Dykema. During his time coaching at Niwot, current Silver Creek head coach Bob Banning remembers a one-week period during the 2005-06 season in which elite guards in Longmont’s Travess Armenta, Centaurus’ Devon Beitzel, Fairview’s Nicholas Anastas and Silver Creek’s Kendall Banning all had 40-plus scoring games. But especially through the use of analytics and applicable information that is more readily available than ever, it seems to Banning as though coaches are having to adapt to recent trends and find new ways to put more and more players in positions to score.
“I think some of it is cyclical,” Banning said. “I was lucky enough to coach some really good teams at Niwot that averaged close to 90 points a game and we had seasons when we scored over 100 points multiple times. So I’ve seen seasons where teams and guys have scored more, and teams that liked to get out and run and get up a lot of shots. I do think analytics and systems like Hudl that can present coaches with more and more stats and information that are changing our approaches.
“For example, the data might show that even though it’s further away, a 3-point shot from a few feet back might be a higher percentage look than a 3-pointer right behind the line because uncovered. I’ve always thought that my biggest job as a coach is to put kids in positions where they are confident and successful and sometimes that data can help with that, especially when you share the data with the players and you’re on the same page.”
In the smaller classifications, Shining Mountain’s Nathan Fairmont is 18th in the state at 22.6 points per game, Longmont Christian’s Dominic Puchino is 20th at 22.3 points per game and Dawson’s Gavyn Pure is 32nd at 21.2 points per game. Longmont Christian also has Michael Voigt averaging 21.0 points per game, which is 35th best in the state.
Given their schools’ lower enrollment numbers and the resulting smaller talent pools from which they can field their teams, small-school coaches are often even more incentivized to allow their star players more freedom and to push the tempo. At school’s like Dawson where the Mustangs have formed winning rosters almost exclusively out of multi-sport athletes, a run-and-gun style of play has worked, and increased shooting volume and the 3-point shot have proven to be effective equalizers.
“At the 1A and 2A levels, you have to have one or two players who can carry your team to the state tournament,” Dawson head coach Tobin Skenandore said. “It’s tough, because you want to have a four- or five-tool team like in 4A or 5A, but we just don’t have enough guys at our school that just play basketball in order to do that. A lot of our guys are multi-sport guys, athletes, and we have build our teams that way.
“To me, the biggest thing that has changed in today’s game is the athlete. You don’t have your traditional five or your traditional two. You have guys big enough to be a five that can play like a two. The game has changed and the 3-point shot is the thing. They all play on traveling teams and AAU now, and there’s an emphasis to score in order to win and to get you to the next level.”
The increasing influence of club basketball, which often places a higher emphasis on scoring in order to facilitate players’ recruitment and exposure, is also affecting the high school game. With open enrollment systems in districts like the St. Vrain Valley and Boulder Valley, as well as so many available options for activities, prep players and parents have more agency and decision-making power than ever when it comes to where they want to play. Perhaps the most famous athlete parent of all time, LaVar Ball and his flamboyant approach to managing and promoting the careers of his three sons has made national headlines and sparked the reality television show Ball in the Family on Facebook.
Though not long ago it was unheard-of even to attempt it, the step-back jump shot has become commonplace in prep basketball and coaches are having to learn how to properly teach this and similar contemporary skills. Making the necessary adjustments to adhere to modern players’ interests, coaches all over also are forgoing traditional practice drills to dedicate a higher percentage of each practice to shooting. Of course traditional coaches still exist but the days of securing a narrow lead and holding the ball for the final four minutes in order to win a low-40s game appear to be fading into memory.
Longmont head coach Jeff Kloster has won nearly 400 games in close to a quarter century coaching the Trojans. While he knows some players may take exception to his traditional style, Kloster remains old school, emphasizing defense and lengthy possessions that aim to catch the defense out of position and result in an open look close to the rim. With more and more teams racing the ball down the floor, making a pass or two and hoisting a 3-point shot in a matter of seconds, Kloster knows he is in the minority.
“Everything kind of moves down from the upper levels to the high school level and one thing I see is a lot of dribble-drive now,” Kloster said. “A lot of coaches allow their kids to run it down as fast as possible and you don’t see as many possessions of three and four and five passes anymore. We played a team the other day and I watched the film from their previous game, which they won something like 96-78. I wondered what kind of defense was being played but then I realized that it wasn’t that they were playing bad defense, both teams were just firing up shots as quick as possible once the crossed midcourt and a lot of the shots were 3-pointers. And they were making a lot of those shots.
“Our program has a great track record through the years doing things the way we do them and I’ve grown more acceptable to new trends but this is a new era, it truthfully is.”