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.” ••