Smart, Watson guide young Vikings back to playoffs

  • Senior smarts: Will Smart’s (pictured) football toughness and Elmange Watson’s scoring ability has Northeast basketball back in the postseason. ED MORRONE / TIMES PHOTO

  • Elmange Watson (center) will be back from head coach Ira Stern as a senior after emerging as a dominant scorer in his junior campaign. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Ed­it­or’s note: North­east was elim­in­ated from post­season play by South­ern on Tues­day after this story went to press.

Roughly one year ago fol­low­ing a tight post­season loss to Frank­ford, North­east first-year head bas­ket­ball coach Ira Stern vowed to be back on this stage. But with his en­tire start­ing five set to gradu­ate, where would he find the act­ors for his next pro­duc­tion?

The an­swer, as it usu­ally does when it per­tains to high school ath­let­ics, came from with­in. Now, with the Pub­lic League boys bas­ket­ball post­season ar­riv­ing once more be­gin­ning this week, Stern will lean on two play­ers a bit more than oth­ers.

First, on a team rife with in­ex­per­i­ence, Stern hoped one of the few seni­ors he did have would step up and fill the lead­er­ship role. Then, he had to fig­ure out where his points would come from, namely how to re­place ex­plos­ive guard DeAndre Wil­li­ams in the ro­ta­tion (Wil­li­ams, in his only varsity sea­son, was second in Di­vi­sion C with a 21.3 points per game av­er­age; his over­all av­er­age of 19.7 was tied for sev­enth in the en­tire city). So while Stern’s op­tim­ism was ad­mir­able, it was hard to see the Vik­ings mak­ing it back to the post­season so fast.

Try telling that to Will Smart and El­mange Wat­son, the emer­ging duo that’s kept North­east afloat after some early bumps and bruises.

Smart, a seni­or, played lim­ited minutes for Stern as a ju­ni­or for­ward, but is most known for his work on the grid­iron as a Vik­ings foot­ball cap­tain, where he is a two-way line­man. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Smart’s goal, more than any­thing else, was to bring a foot­ball play­er’s tough­ness and men­tal­ity to the hard­wood this winter, which would come in handy on such a young team.

Then there’s Wat­son, whose po­ten­tial Stern praised early on, des­pite the ju­ni­or guard’s still raw tal­ent and af­fin­ity for some­times try­ing to do too much. Des­pite early grow­ing pains, Wat­son has picked up where Wil­li­ams left off. Like Wil­li­ams, Wat­son is the second-lead­ing scorer in Di­vi­sion C (23.0 PPG) and a top-10 over­all scorer in Phil­adelphia. In North­east’s 12 di­vi­sion games (the Vik­ings fin­ished with an even 6-6 split), Wat­son tal­lied 24 points or more in half of them, in­clud­ing 31-, 34- and 38-point per­form­ances. The 31-point ef­fort in an over­time de­feat to un­defeated Cent­ral is the only one of those six North­east didn’t win. 

Trans­la­tion: when Wat­son’s shot is fall­ing, the Vik­ings are usu­ally win­ning.

“Wheth­er I take five shots or 20 shots, it’s just about win­ning,” Wat­son said fol­low­ing last Thursday’s 75-59 reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale vic­tory over vis­it­ing Ben Frank­lin. “I have a fire burn­ing in­side of me where all I want to do is win for my team. Those points, they don’t mat­ter to me. If I have to run through a wall, if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’m go­ing to do. If I have to take 50 shots and that’s how we win, then that’s how we win.”

Through his coach and his own ad­mis­sion, Wat­son main­tained he had a long way to go in be­com­ing a com­plete play­er. His bad shot and turnover quo­tients are still too high, and he shot just 5-for-20 from the field en route to 18 points (his 18th straight game scor­ing in double fig­ures). But he also ad­ded five re­bounds, three steals and four as­sists, two of which came on con­sec­ut­ive fourth-quarter pos­ses­sions when Wat­son drew mul­tiple de­fend­ers in trans­ition and found re­serve Drew Heller (11 points) for two wide-open three-point­ers.

“My men­tal­ity is that some­times I have to turn in­to Kobe Bry­ant, be­cause this team is gonna bite or be bit, snatch or be snatched, eat the prey or be the prey” said Wat­son, who briefly trans­ferred to Phila. Elec­tric­al & Tech­nic­al Charter be­fore Stern per­suaded him to come lead North­east’s pro­gram. “Be­ing a shoot­er, you have to stay fo­cused and have a short memory. But he’s (Stern) right, some­times I force it be­cause I’m used to tak­ing a lot of shots and car­ry­ing my team. I’m learn­ing how to be­come a point guard, which has al­lowed me to be­come un­selfish quick­er.”

Surely, play­ing with a ma­ture seni­or like Smart helps in that de­part­ment. Smart knows a suc­cess­ful Stern of­fense is one that runs the floor and gets a lot of looks in trans­ition, so he has to pick and choose his spots wisely on the floor. More of­ten than not, that in­volves him post­ing up an of­ten big­ger de­fend­er in the lane, or clean­ing up the of­fens­ive glass with high-per­cent­age put­backs. After a 13-point, 11-re­bound ef­fort over Frank­lin, that role suits Smart just fine.

“We’re young, so a lot of our guys are bas­ket­ball-smart without be­ing bas­ket­ball-wise yet, if that makes sense,” Smart said. “Last year, we wer­en’t very big, so we had to out­run teams, and as a big man, you learn to do the little things right or you’re al­ways go­ing to get out­re­boun­ded. That in­cludes box­ing out, diving for loose balls and mak­ing our free throws. I just try to be tough as nails and keep re­mind­ing the young­er guys that little things make big things hap­pen.”

Des­pite be­ing a year apart in class stand­ing, Smart and Wat­son rose through the ranks to­geth­er, so be­com­ing co-cap­tains has been fit­ting.

“I love Will, I really do,” Wat­son said. “We help each oth­er stay on track. The team looks to us, so we have to be men. If we fall, they fall. Will nev­er has a neg­at­ive mind­set. I rarely see too many people like him on this Earth.”

Countered Smart: “Some­times, he feels like he has to take the en­tire bur­den of the team upon him­self, but he can find his team­mates. He’s already a great scorer, but he has the po­ten­tial to be a great team play­er, too.”

As far as be­ing such a big con­trib­ut­or on the team goes, Smart is just en­joy­ing the ride.

“When we break the huddle, we say, ‘North­east on three, fam­ily on six,’ ” he said. “We mean that. It was bumpy in the be­gin­ning, but it’s pro­gressed and come to­geth­er. We re­spect each oth­er as men, and we’re just hav­ing a lot of fun.” ••

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