Photo by Ted Melton.
Spain Park Basketball 2014
Spain Park's Malik Blanchard goes up for a shot in a game against Pelham last season.
Spain Park High boys basketball coach Neal Barker always has high expectations for his team.
But this season, those expectations have been ratcheted up a notch, and not just by Barker.
“This summer when I’ve gone to clinics, other coaches are saying stuff about how good we’re going to be,” the 33-year-old Barker said. “So I guess that’s pressure, but nobody’s going to critique me more than me. With the experience we have coming back and the young talent, our expectations for ourselves are pretty high. I’m excited and anxious to get started.”
The Jaguars, 20-11 a year ago, return eight seniors and three starters, including 6-foot-10, 220-pound sophomore center Austin Wiley, who averaged around 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks a game. But it’s a newcomer who’s been added to the mix that has drawn most of the attention, at least statewide and even nationally, who’s pushed the Jaguars from the expected solid season to a state championship contender.
Jamal Johnson, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Sparkman High, where he averaged around 16 points a game as a freshman, will now wear the black and blue of the Jags. He’s the son of former Alabama great Buck Johnson.
He transferred in after the summer, so Barker hadn’t seen him play much prior to practice starting on Oct. 13.
“From watching him play pickup ball, though, you can tell he’s a very skilled player with great vision on the court,” Barker said. “He’ll add to our ability to score, and I think he’ll make everybody else around him better.”
Senior teammate Malik Blanchard, a returning starter and the team’s best perimeter defender, said although Johnson is clearly an outstanding scorer, there’s a lot more to his game from what he’s seen in pickup play.
“He has pretty good ball control, and he’s explosive and he can see the court very well,” Blanchard said. “He has a scorer’s mentality but if you’re open he’ll get the ball to you. He’s not selfish. He just wants to win.”
He should give a Spain Park a potent inside-outside punch with his fellow soph Wiley, who was invited to attend USA Basketball’s Junior National Team mini-camp, the only player from Alabama invited.
“Over the summer, he’s gotten bigger and stronger, and I think he might have grown a couple of inches,” said Barker. “He’s a true center, plays with his back to the basket and scores in the post. For a big kid, he’s got great hands. He mostly scores down low for us, but he’s got a great touch, though his stats from last year wouldn’t show it. By the time he’s done, he’s going to be a great shooter, maybe with range all the way out to the 3-point line. And he’s a big defensive presence in the middle.”
Barker couldn’t name a starting five yet, but it likely will include Johnson, Wiley, Blanchard and AJ Smiley, who plays safety on the football team. Smiley is another player with Alabama bloodlines — his father, Anthony, played football for the Crimson Tide. Wiley is the son of former Auburn basketball players Aubrey Wiley and Vicki Orr, a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
In the Jags’ four-out, one-in offense, Johnson could play the point or it could be senior Garrett McGuffie — or even eighth-grader Parker Boswell.
“He’s just a gym rat,” Barker said of Boswell. “His parents will drive him anywhere he wants to go to find a game. He’s very skilled, handles the ball well and has great vision.”
But Barker’s favorite player is the ringleader in the Jags’ man-to-man defense.
“Malik is probably my favorite player,” Barker said of Blanchard. “That’s because he does exactly what you tell him to do exactly the way you tell him to do it. Works as hard as anybody we’ve ever had. In the weight room, he’s got perfect technique.
“He’s just a nightmare on defense. He’s tough to get by, just has a knack for playing defense. Some players have a scorer’s mentality; he’s got a defender’s mentality.”
Blanchard smiled when he heard his coach’s assessment.
“I try to be hard-nosed. I think my footwork is my biggest asset and my ability to anticipate and make steals,” said Blanchard, who had nine steals in a game against Wetumpka. “I try to study a player’s strengths and weaknesses before the game or if I’m on the bench, and I make them play to their weakness. I always want to guard their best player, make him earn his baskets.”