Before the critical road contest at Central tipped off, Northeast High School first-year boys basketball coach Ira Stern offered an updated scouting report on his team.
“Before the season, I didn’t know I had a superstar player,” he said. “Things are a little bit different now.”
Indeed they are.
The superstar in question is 5-foot-10 senior guard DeAndre Williams, who didn’t quite play up to Stern’s billing in a sloppy first half in which the first-year varsity player had seven points and missed more shots than he made. However, Williams flipped a switch at halftime, depositing 22 of his team-high 29 points in the second half and overtime. When the Vikings let a double-digit lead slip away in the fourth quarter, Williams never flinched in helping deliver a crucial 75-71 OT victory last Thursday that kept Northeast (10-3, 7-3 Division C) a game behind the Lancers in the standings.
The win was Northeast’s sixth in a row, and Williams has continued to be a revelation in all of them. In 13 games, the lightning-quick guard is averaging 20.2 points per game, a mark good for seventh in the city when the Northeast Times went to press.
Not too shabby for a guy who wasn’t even on the team last year.
“In the summer I worked hard every day … all the years I tried out I never made it,” Williams said. “I just said to myself that this year would be different.
“This has been a lot of fun. I love running with this team. We just want to keep going up and down the floor, running and running and running …”
Running certainly has been Northeast’s mantra, as well as the main key to their recent success. Before the season, Stern said he wanted his team to employ an up tempo, run-and-gun offense; if the Vikings could score between 70 and 80 points per game, he said, they would win a lot of games.
Currently, Northeast is scoring a shade under 70 per game. In order to win, the undersized Vikings place more of an emphasis on boxing out; once they grab a defensive rebound, the task is simple: look up court and run. With the ball in Williams’ hands leading the fast break — either taking the ball into the lane for one of his patented, no-backboard floaters or finding wide-open teammates on the perimeter — it’s hard for any opponent to guard these Vikings.
“Nobody can guard him man-to-man,” Stern said of Williams. “In all of my years of coaching, I’ve never seen a guy dribbling the ball be faster than the defender running without it, but that’s DeAndre. It’s crazy.”
And while many teams boast enviable speed, what sets Northeast apart is selflessness. Williams may be doing the bulk of the scoring, but he also deftly gets his teammates involved. For example, senior shooting guard Daquan Bohannon (16 points) connected on three first quarter three-pointers when Williams and the rest of the team moved the ball around until they found the open shooter in the corner. Despite a slow half from Williams, the Vikings still led by seven at the break.
“This team loves passing the ball,” Williams said. “We get on the break and we aren’t a one-man show. We love to get the assists as much as we do the points.”
As Williams’ coach said, “ ‘Dre’ is a leader and a shooter, but he’s not a (ball) hog.” The key to the Vikings’ success has been just that — spreading the ball around to their several capable scorers (additionally Tony Nayan, Greg Mickens and Kyree Simpson, to name a few). Aside from the Central nail-biter, the other five wins during the streak came by an average margin of 27 points.
Point is, Northeast is riding a wave of its best basketball this season as the playoffs rapidly approach. They are comfortable playing with each other within Stern’s high-flying system, which could spell bad news for any perspective postseason opponent. (Northeast closes out its regular season on Thursday at Ben Franklin.)
“This win boosted our confidence, but we know we still have to stay focused,” Williams said. “We can’t let our confidence get too high or else we’ll be in over our heads. All we can do is keep working hard and look forward to that next game.”
Stern couldn’t be happier with his best player’s maturation. Not only is this Williams’ first year on varsity, but he didn’t even start the team’s first three games. The Vikings lost two of those three contests; since Williams took over as a starter, the team is 9-1. He’s gone from an unknown commodity to receiving interest from Mercer County Community College, according to Stern. The coach said he believes Williams can latch on to a four-year Division II or III program if he improves his grades.
“The moment he became a starter he became our leader, our heart and soul,” Stern said. “He changes the whole game by creating mismatches. He’s propelled us to where we are. He’s calm, cool, collected and just having fun out there.”
Right now, there are few teams playing better basketball than Northeast. On the court, they’ve loved playing together, be it in games or during Stern’s grueling, daily three-hour practices. That’s translated to a close bond off the court, which will include a Super Bowl party at Stern’s house for the entire team and coaching staff.
Williams knows this year will be his only shot at high school basketball glory, so he and his team want to make it count.
“I’m already thinking about how tough of a loss he’ll be next year,” Stern said. “But right now, we’re tremendously confident and we know if we execute then there’s a chance we can beat everyone. We’re hitting our stride and playing together, and ‘Dre is in charge of that.”
“I just love this team,” Williams said. “It’s my first and last year, so I want to enjoy it. I want to have fun and I want to win. I’m just going to go out there, play my game and be unselfish. Hopefully, we keep winning.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or email@example.com