Friday Night Lights Checks Out Hoops

Rarely does a metro Birmingham regular season basketball game attract this type hype and attention. This one did, and Friday Night Lights got there 90 minutes early (and three days before Friday) to be sure of getting a seat. In a game featuring at least three Division I prospects, Spain Park downed Pelham, 73-51. To the categories:

TOP PROSPECTS: Yes, this is plural. Three 2017 players in the game – Jamal Johnson and Austin Wiley of Spain Park, along with Alex Reese of Pelham – are high D-1 guys. High enough that the likes of Head Coaches Avery Johnson of Alabama, Bruce Pearl of Auburn and Jerod Haase of UAB all saw fit to attend. They had company, as assistants showed up from Auburn, Vanderbilt, Samford and Tennessee. It was a big deal.

Johnson (6-4, 170) is a guard who can play the point or the two, and hurt you in several ways. “He’s an unbelievably good shooter,” said Spain Park Coach Don Quinn. “His size creates matchup problems for other guards. He’s a pretty good rebounder, as well. Those are significant plusses in his favor.

“He can play a little bit of combo (one or two guard), but he’s probably more of a two (shooting guard at the next level).”

Said Pelham Coach Joel Floyd: “Watching on film and watching (Johnson) play this year, his jumper on the pull-up side of things is just really difficult (to guard). He’s 100 miles an hour, stops on a dime and pulls up for a 3 right in your face. That’s tough to defend, and he’s hit several of those this year. That’s something we scouted and have a game plan for, but that’s tough to defend when you’re 6-4 and you’re pulling up for a jumper right in somebody’s face.”

Johnson scored 15 points, and behind the arc he was 0-for-5 with several rim-outs Tuesday. He had six boards and dished out six assists. He plays hard. He’s quick. His normally reliable 3-point jumper was a tad off, but that’s rarely the case.

Reese (6-9, 210) got to match up against Auburn commitment Wiley (6-10, 250) on a few occasions. Trust me when I say this: guarding Wiley is the hoops equivalent of tackling Derrick Henry of Alabama’s football team. And few venture into the lane confidently when he’s on defense.

Said Floyd of Wiley: “He is the best shot blocker in high school that I’ve seen. He does a great job of anticipating, he keeps his hands up, and he’s so stinking long. He’s a big dude, and he’s just a load inside.”

Wiley, whose parents both played at Auburn, had 20 points, 11 boards, and six blocks unofficially. He is a beast in the paint, at both ends. He is verbally committed to the Tigers.

Reese is not chopped liver. Far from it. He didn’t mind challenging Wiley, and only was blocked once. He scored once and drew a foul another time. He has a LOT of D-1 interest, as evidenced by Tuesday night’s attendees. Quinn is impressed by Reese’s “athleticism, his ability to shoot, his ability to dribble, his competitiveness, and he rebounds well. He blocks shots very well. He’s like a full package. He’s one of the true ‘stretch fours’ that I’ve seen.”

By “stretch four,” Quinn means a power forward equally adept on the block or the wing. That’s Reese.

“Alex (Reese) is just a tremendous all-around basketball player,” said Floyd. “He’s really worked on his perimeter game, and being that ‘stretch four’ guy that can shoot the 3 and take you off the bounce a little bit. For us, of course, being a big guy, he’s going to go down inside, and he’s going to do things inside, as well. He’s done a tremendous job this year on the boards, and being a rim protector. He’s been a little bit of everything for us.”

Reese had 31 points and eight boards on the night. He needs to add muscle, and play a little tougher, but when he wants to score, he usually does. Think high school Robert Horry.

CRIMSON CONNECTION: Avery and Jamal weren’t the only Johnsons in the house. Jamal’s dad, Alphonso “Buck” Johnson, played for Wimp Sanderson at Alabama before a professional career that included the NBA and overseas tours. The reason Jamal is now at Spain Park is that Buck took a job over a year ago as athletics director for Birmingham City Schools. Otherwise, Jamal would still be at Ardmore, where he began his high school career.

As info, the afore-mentioned Auburn assistant was Chuck “The Rifleman” Person, who had some intense battles with Buck Johnson in some Alabama-Auburn basketball battles in the 80s.

HOW ‘BOUT THEM ‘DOGS: Okay, when pressed with a concession stand choice of hot dog or Papa John’s pizza, it was an easy call, since the latter was Saturday’s half time snack at the Georgia Dome. That said, they were okay. Boiled and not grilled (like in football) only goes so far. Condiments were handy, and service was quick.

It was pretty funny when I asked the probably 15-year old behind the counter if you could take food into the gym. Nodding, she said, “If you keep it clean.” Does she KNOW me? Apparently.

NEXT UP: FNL Hoops will be making more appearances than usual as recruiting has again become a hot topic with the advent of the Avery Johnson era. As other intriguing matchups occur, look for announcements on One player we hope to see is ninth grade 6-7 phenom Trendon Watford, formerly of Shades Valley, who now plays for Mountain Brook. The Jan. 8 Mountain Brook at Spain Park game is a good possibility. Won’t be surprised if at least one Bama staffer is at that one, too.

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