You don’t have to be a history buff to understand the importance of a center in basketball.
But Mike Wall appreciates hoops history and can speak of the benefits of a capable big man. The Folsom High School boys coach has such a commodity in 6-foot-9 senior Colin Russell, a defensive-minded cog in the Bulldogs’ championship season a year ago.
“Basketball forever – from Bill Russell to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Walton – has legit game-changers,” Wall said Monday. “You can have game-changers in high school, too.”
Four such centers in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs will play prominent roles in their teams’ quest to hoist championship medals at Sleep Train Arena. The bigger the games, the bigger the performances expected from the four bigs – more rebounds, more blocked shots, more dunks – with two already having accepted college scholarships and the other two well on their way to such an offer.
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Russell averages 7.0 points and 4.8 rebounds, but it’s his defense and intelligent play that earned him a scholarship to Portland. In Wednesday’s second Division I semifinal, he’ll face Pleasant Grove’s Marquese Chriss, a Washington-bound 6-9 senior who averages 21.9 points and 11.6 rebounds.
In an earlier semifinal at Sleep Train, Woodcreek and 6-9 freshman Jordan Brown meet Sheldon, perhaps the quickest team in the field.
The tallest man on Sheldon’s bench is 6-11 Rich Manning. But he’s out of eligibility, having played at Center in the 1980s before a brief stop in the NBA. Manning is an assistant coach for Sheldon, which has won four of the past five D-I section titles. Manning helps implore Sheldon’s frontcourt players – including his 6-5 son, Matt – to play big.
“It’s always nice to have a big guy, but you can win without them, too,” Sheldon coach Joey Rollings said. “We have. You just have to help out on defense and have great guard play.”
Against Brown, Sheldon will deal with a young player already catching the attention of college recruiters for his poise and versatility, along with his 22.7 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
Sheldon, with no starter taller than 6-5, will surround Brown and attack him when he’s on defense. Brown knows this, and he invites the challenge. How good can he be?
“When he’s done, he might just be the best player to ever come out of here,” Folsom assistant coach Matt Mills said. “He’s that good.”
Brown is focused on the immediate.
“I’m still getting better, improving every day, but I’m having a lot of fun,” he said.
Solomon Young of Division II favorite Sacramento has Pacific-12 Conference recruiters on his trail. The 6-8 junior can play the high post, hit three-pointers, run the break and score with his back to the basket. He’s also a thunderous dunker. He averages 15.8 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Pleasant Grove’s Chriss and Folsom’s Russell are late bloomers. Chriss played youth football before turning to basketball as a freshman. He was the starting center on Pleasant Grove’s 2013 CIF State Division I title team. He has added a lot to his game – jumpers, high-post passing. Chriss recognizes that a lot rests on his shoulders.
“I embrace it,” he said. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m not satisfied. There’s more work to do.”
Russell didn’t make the Folsom junior varsity as a freshman but has excelled on the varsity the past two seasons, having worked on his game.
The bonus of the big four is none is a plodder. Each gets up and down the floor, starting the break or finishing it. Sleep Train, with an NBA floor, is conducive to a wide-open game.
“A big man now has got to be an active, engaged, athletic presence,” Wall said. “That’s what these big guys here can do. They’re not slowing down the pace of the rest of the team, and that’s exciting. It’s one thing to be tall, which is nice, but if you’re not quick and agile, it can be a problem.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.