PAWTUCKET — If you’ve attended either a Tolman or Shea game this winter, chances are you’ve noticed a young man sitting on the bench of each team dressed in street clothes. Starting this week, the wondering will cease and answers pertaining to whom these hoopsters-in-question are will be revealed.
Given the circumstances, it seems appropriate to say that the anticipated addition of Napoleon Johnson to the Tiger lineup and Michael Neal likewise to the Raiders dovetails quite nicely with the particulars surrounding a waiver wire/trade deadline pickup. At the high school level, the opportunity to add quality during the heat of the season doesn’t come around too often. With Johnson and Neal, we’re referring to two players ready to jump into the flow now that their penance of sitting out has just about been carried out.
Neal’s debut takes place Tuesday night when 7-2 Shea visits league unbeaten West Warwick. The two met Dec. 29 with the Raiders recording a 68-65 win in the finals of the West Warwick Holiday Tournament. In the case of Johnson, Tolman head coach Mike Kayata plans to save him until Friday night at home against West Warwick. Tuesday night sees Tolman traveling to Chariho.
Johnson and Neal might be joined at the hip in the sense that both are bound by similar hour-of-reckoning timetables, but that’s where the similarities end. Each player is defined by particular strengths that figures to augment the already-assembled nucleus in place.
The fact that Neal measures 6-foot-6 screams mismatch, which is probably the first thought that crept into the mind of Shea head coach Matt Pita’s mind the first time he laid eyes on him. Upon closer inspection, Neal is a more accomplished and skilled big man than his height suggests. Not only does this transfer from Connecticut’s Marianapolis Prep possess the ability to dominate down low, but he’s athletic and crafty enough to step away from the low blocks and beat his man off the dribble and/or shoot over him.
Above all else, Pita is looking forward to see what kind of impact Neal, a senior, can register defensively. “His best asset will be his rebounding and defensive presence. He’s going to change the game,” the coach stated.
With the 5-7 Johnson the Tigers finally have their sought-after point guard. The onetime understudy to St. Raphael’s Charles Correa at Jenks Middle School, Johnson’s best attribute is his speed, something Kayata can’t wait to unleash.
“He’s got a really quick burst, an unbelievable first step,” Kayata pointed out. “He has a lot of ability to do things that are natural that you can’t teach. He will help us.”
The presence of Johnson, a sophomore, figures to shift Juan Velez to his more natural two-guard position, which Kayata notes should have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the guard/small forward rotation. From a defensive standpoint, Johnson’s quick-as-lightning tendencies will come in handy when Tolman unleashes a full-court press or three-quarter court trap.
“Velez has brought the ball up and he’s been our best ball handler and shooter. We haven’t been able to run Velez off screens because we have no one to pass him the ball,” Kayata said. “Napoleon knows how to run the plays and he can see the floor. He knows how to swing the ball and can find guys coming off screens because he knows that the ball is supposed to be coming to the guy coming off the screen. He knows when to attack and when to dribble drive and dish; he can read the defense.”
Both players have been practicing yet not to the point where Kayata could let Johnson run with the first team. Even while the games have gone on, Pita has noticed Neal serving as an invaluable asset rather than plopped down on the bench all glum while in his mind crossing off another contest that brings him closer to becoming eligible.
“He’s a mature player and is almost like an additional coach for us on the bench,” the second-year Shea coach said. “He knows the X’s and O’s and has been a positive influence for the rest of the guys.”
The Raiders have more than managed to survive without Neal, meaning he’s not stepping into a situation where the fate of the season rests in his hands. “It’s going to be interesting but it’s going to take him some time to fit in,” was the caution flag Pita threw up. “He’s ready to get out there.”
Kayata views Johnson as the missing link, someone who could go a long way in bringing an end to the Tigers’ erratic on-court ways. Tolman has dropped three of four since beginning the 2012 portion of the schedule on a three-game winning streak.
“We’re looking at this as a whole new season for us,” Kayata said. “This is how we’re approaching it.”
The main criteria for the season-ending open state tournament reads that teams must win at least 40 percent of its league games. At the season’s midway point, a quick glance of the newfangled Power Point Standings reveals that not all of the intended 32 slots would be accounted for if the playoffs were to start this week.
Mike Lunney, assistant director of the Interscholastic League, was asked how the brackets would shake out if the same pattern holds true upon the conclusion of the regular season.
“If 32 teams make it, they’ll be 16 first-round games. If 31 teams qualify, they’ll be 15 games with one team getting a bye and so on depending on how it goes,” Lunney explained. “If more than 32 teams qualify, we’re certainly not going to shut them out, but if we end up with fewer teams, then you adjust the seedings accordingly.”
Four teams have already reached the eight-win plateau that automatically triggers inclusion in Rhode Island’s version of March Madness, the fortunate being St. Raphael (9-0), Central (8-1), West Warwick (9-0) and The Prout School (9-0). All teams in all divisions are adhering to the same 18-game schedule in order to somewhat level the playing field despite there being a difference between how the points are distributed.
In Division I, a win is worth one full point with a Division II team receiving 0.8 and a Division III team awarded 0.6. Lunney pointed out that the regular season champ in Division II and III will receive a bonus of one additional point that could come in handy when jostling for seeding.
In the event of a tie involving teams from different divisions, Lunney says, “If one of them was a Division I team, they would get the nod for the higher seed because they’ve technically played a tougher schedule.”