Drexel forward Austin Williams attempts to block Charleston guard Grant Riller's shot at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
(Luke Risher/The Empire)
Alihan Demir was throwing back door passes. Austin Williams was pinning shots and cleaning up the boards. Tadas Kararinas was coming off the bench and scoring. The Drexel Dragons were rolling to their seventh win of the season over one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s top teams, the College of Charleston. Things were going right.
The Dragon’s 87-82 overtime win was arguably their best of the season. It was a pure representation of how important the production of their big men would be heading forward.
Last year, Drexel head coach Zach Spiker fixated his offense around big man Rodney Williams. Williams established himself as one of the CAA’s best players, using his multifaceted playmaking ability at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ to average 15.6 points per game, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. Dragons’ fans knew that they had some big shoes to fill in the years to come with Williams’ departure. The senior could finish, attack the rim, and play in the post. In addition, he added a three-point shot along with a passing ability that opened up opportunities for everyone around him.
Many looked to Austin Williams to help fill Rodney’s shoes. The senior had averaged 7 points per game, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks after posting only 26 total points in the two years prior. He showed an ability to hit a little baby hook shot and protect the rim. This year, as a senior, many fans thought he would be relied to score upon even more, but they wondered if he would have any help in the frontcourt. With Spiker’s desire to play an uptempo offense, there was an expectation that the Dragons’ may go small without a proven entity in the frontcourt next to Austin Williams. That’s until Alihan Demir arrived.
The transfer from Central Wyoming College had to sit out the first five games of the season per NCAA rules, but he was quickly thrust into the starting lineup. Despite receiving 30-plus minutes in three of his first five games, it took some time for the sophomore to grow accustomed to Division 1 basketball. During that five game span, he averaged a mere 7.8 points per game and 4.6 rebounds while never taking more than 9 shots. That changed quickly, as Demir would put up 13.5 points per game and 5.5 rebounds while taking 10.5 shots a contest over the last 12 games, establishing himself as a major part of the Drexel offense.
Austin Williams has seen the recent development in Demir’s game as well.
“He is definitely still growing every game and getting better and better,” Williams said following the Charleston game. “It started in practice and now it’s transitioning into the game.”
Demir has showed a lot of the same versatility that had made Rodney Williams so successful in his time at Drexel. Demir has played in and out of the paint, while also attacking the basket off the dribble and knocking down 44% of his three-point attempts. A large part of his success has also come from his ability to pass from the high and low post. Demir, who played point guard in high school, has tallied an assist in all but two games, notched 3 or more assists six times, and places third on the team in assist percentage. Whether it’s scoring for himself or creating for others, Demir’s success on the offensive end has had a ripple effect on the team, placing him second of regular minutes receivers in offensive box plus-minus.
“I think he adds another element to us,” Spiker said after their win over La Salle earlier in the season. “Offensively, he’s got a great IQ and feel...He adds the ability to make good, simple IQ plays. He can shoot and he will shoot. And he’s just getting more and more comfortable.”
Demir’s game has perfectly complemented Austin Williams’ game, who plays exclusively in the paint on the offensive end. Even though Williams hasn’t scored as much as he did before Demir’s entrance, Williams has seen more opportunities to score, specifically in the last eleven games, when Demir has stepped up his game. While he hasn’t converted at his usual rate during the span, Williams has averaged 7.8 shots per game, up from the 6.7 shots per game he was taking in the games prior. One can’t help but think that given his career field goal percentage of 57.8, he will begin to convert more as the year progresses.
Defensively, Williams’ strengths have also complemented Demir’s. While Williams is primarily a rim protector and shot-blocker on the defensive end, Demir’s quickness and perimeter instincts have allowed him to cover the opposing team’s ‘4’ man, even in small ball situations. This has given Demir some of the toughest matchups in the CAA, including College of Charleston forward Jarrell Brantley (17.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.3 spg) and William & Mary forward Nathan Knight (19.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.5 bpg). As a result, Williams has been able to exclusively defend the basket, averaging 2.7 blocks per game, first in the CAA. In turn, Williams has compiled a defensive box-plus minus of 2.4, third in the CAA, and a block percentage of 9.3, also the best in the CAA by 1.3 percentage points. Spiker has raved about Williams’ defensive prowess saying, “We feel as though for every shot he blocks, he probably alters twice that much,” Spiker added.
Williams has also attacked the boards as well as anyone in the CAA on both ends of the floor. He is third in the CAA in total rebounds with 183, while compiling an offensive rebounding percentage of 11.7, fourth in CAA and a defensive rebounding percentage of 21.0, fifth in the CAA. His all around ability to score, defend, and protect the rim has made him one of the most effective players in the CAA.
“I’m so proud of Austin and the progress he’s made,” Spiker said after their win over Lafayette. “It has nothing to do with our coaching staff and everything to do with his work ethic. He would text me pictures to say he’s going to [run to] Penn’s Landing during the summer time -- Penn’s Landing is nowhere close to here… He put the work in in the summertime and now you’re seeing the fruits of his labor.”
Off the bench, Spiker has turned to Tadas Kararinas, Tyshawn Myles, and even Sam Green in small-ball situations. While Green’s sample size is limited due to injury, Kararinas and Myles have had more substantial roles. Kararinas has extensively been used as a reserve big man when Demir and, more often, Williams needs a blow. Kararinas has been tough and has shown an ability to shoot and compete. As a player with strong defensive abilities, Myles, who is second to Williams in the top defensive box-plus minus and first on the team in defensive rating, is the more seasoned option. Spiker has praised the improvements he has made, especially prior to his recent injury.
“Tyshawn Myles was playing probably the best basketball of his career before he got hurt,” Spiker added following the Charleston game. “He [was willing] to just do whatever was asked as a ‘4’ man or a ‘5’ man. He was guarding guys on the perimeter and bringing energy.”
The Drexel big man core has often been overlooked throughout the transgression of the season by a studded backcourt, headlined by sophomore Kurk Lee and transfer Tramaine Isabell. The frontcourt’s showing against a team like Charleston has exemplified just how important it is for Drexel to have their big men producing as a unit. If Drexel wants to be successful, they’re going to need to play through them as the year progresses and Spiker has noticed that, especially after a game against Lafayette.
“In the first half, we were 1-12 when the ball did not go in the paint. We took 30 shots [in the first half]. I think we had down that we were 12-18 when we had a paint touch,” he said.
Right now, the highest usage rate of any Drexel big man is Austin Williams, fifth on the team at 18.2%, a number the team will ideally want much higher as the year progresses. While there are many other aspects that will help lead the Dragons to wins, using the big men as playmakers on the offensive end and versatile moving pieces on the defensive end will just open up more opportunities for the talented guards to continue producing. But that success is all going to start with consistent contributions from the whole Drexel frontcourt unit.
Coletrane Washington is averaging 26 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists, while shooting 54% from the field and 45% from three for Quaker Valley.
(Photo courtesy of Varsity Views)
That’s what Coletrane Washington had to write about.
It was his junior year of high school at Quaker Valley and Washington was enrolled in a journalism elective. For his final assignment in the class, he had to submit an article for the student newspaper, the Quaker Quill. Among the many options, the basketball star decided to write about Quaker Valley’s lunch program, which was swapping out unhealthy food options for healthier alternatives. The changes to Quaker Valley’s lunch program did not stop in the cafeteria as the vending machines throughout the high school were also revamped with fresh choices. As a journalist, it was Washington’s job to highlight this change.
Washington said that “the school was trying to turn over a new leaf,” but in writing the story, Washington himself was not turning over a new leaf. Writing and journalism have always been a big part of his life. His father, Jesse Washington, a senior author for ESPN’s The Undefeated, writes about a combination of sports, race and American culture.
“I look up to him and his job. He said he loves his job and what he does,” Coletrane said. “I enjoy writing and English is definitely my strong suit in school. [English] always just came easy to me so I’m definitely attracted to journalism. It’s interesting to me.”
At the same time that Washington’s article was published, he was already considered one of the top basketball players in Western Pennsylvania and now he is Drexel basketball’s lone commit for the 2018 season. His ability to handle the ball and shoot threes has turned the heads of many heading into his senior season, earning himself WPIAL Class 4A boys basketball preseason Player of the Year.
Washington has impressed other people as well. He turned a topic like school lunches into one of the most interesting articles in the class. The school newspaper noticed, selecting his story for the Quaker Quill’s final print edition, an honor that not everyone in the class received.
Both on and off the court, the athletic, yet intelligent Coletrane Washington is attracting people’s attention.
On a winter day in the mid 2000s, Washington and his father went to a Penn Quakers game at the historic Palestra. Washington’s father would occasionally take him to Penn games but this game was different.
Penn was playing Yale, Jesse’s alma mater, where he had met Coletrane’s mother, Alaina James, who is also a Yale alum. But, at the time of this contest between Penn and Yale, James was doing her residency at Penn and the game created “a little family rivalry.”
The opportunity for the Washingtons to attend this game at the Palestra was a result of the family’s value for education. They had traveled around the country as James pursued her educational goals. After receiving her undergraduate degree in Molecular Biophysics from Yale, James simultaneously earned her medical degree and PhD at the Baylor College of Medicine.
Before the family moved to New Jersey for James to complete an internship at Morristown Memorial Hospital about a year and a half later, Coletrane James Washington was born on December 12th, 1999. The oldest of four children, Washington’s parents wanted all of their kids to have unique names. They liked the sound of famous jazz musician John Coltrane’s last name, in addition to his music, so they decided to name their first born after him.
(Photo courtesy of Washington family)
James, Washington’s middle name, was given to him in honor of his grandfather judge George James. James had been Beaver County’s first African-American judge, serving on the Court of Common Pleas for nine years.
They wouldn’t stay in New Jersey long however, as this time, they would settle in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, a small suburb outside of Philadelphia, three or four years later. They remained there for an extended period of time during James’ residency at Penn.
Jesse Washington had bumped around as well, working at the Associated Press before becoming the managing editor of Vibe. It wasn’t long before he became the founding editor-in-chief of Blaze. Years later, he would return to the AP once again.
As Jesse worked at the AP and Alaina was at Penn, Coletrane and his father would attend these Palestra games. It was one of Coletrane’s first tastes of college basketball, but it wasn’t his only one. While his family valued education, basketball was just as much a part of Coletrane’s life as well.
Washington flip-flopped between Friends’ Central and Aronimink Elementary during elementary school, both of which were close to his house, but ended up at Friends’ Central. While attending Friends’ Central, Washington came in contact with Amile Jefferson, who, at the time, was on his way to becoming one of the top recruits in the country, eventually on his way to Duke. Jefferson was a student in the high school while Washington was in middle school and Washington was immediately drawn to the lanky, highly ranked big man.
“I remember seeing everyone gravitate to him because he was going to Duke [University] and was the main guy,” Washington said. “I looked up to him as a player and thought he was a cool guy.”
Washington even had multiple conversations with Jefferson who he said was approachable despite his status.
Washington was not only surrounded by the McDonald’s All American Jefferson, but he also lived with his father, who had walked on to Yale’s basketball team in the late 1980s. From a young age, Division 1 basketball was a reality for Washington, illuminated by the people around him.
To play, Washington would go to the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center (JCC), which was about a half-mile from Friends’ Central, and Ardmore Park. He would watch his dad play in 35 and older basketball leagues at these locations. It was his father who initially introduced him to the game.
“My dad definitely put a ball in my hand at a young age,” Washington said. “I’ve always been around it and watched it. My dad played a lot of sports in high school but basketball was his main sport. It’s what he’s always loved and he’s still playing it today.”
(Photo courtesy of Washington family)
His love for basketball however developed over time. Growing up, Washington didn’t just play basketball. He was a striker out on the soccer pitch and a pitcher/centerfielder on the baseball field. Washington actually picked baseball over basketball during his younger years.
Washington played with a specific group of kids from his neighborhood in Drexel Hill for 6 to 7 years. The baseball team based out of Drexel Hill would travel and play in tournaments against other township teams from the local area. He changed his mind once again when he moved from Drexel Hill to Pittsburgh.
“When I moved I kind of fell out of love with baseball because I was so used to playing with those same guys,” Washington said. “There’s plenty of great two-sport and three-sport athletes but I felt that it would be best for me to fully focus on basketball.”
The Washington family moved to the Sewickley area of Pittsburgh after Washington finished sixth grade at Friends’ Central so that his mother could be closer to her parents. The transition from Drexel Hill to Sewickley was “tough” on Washington. While he was “accustomed to moving around and making new friends,” Washington added that the move from Drexel Hill to Western Pennsylvania was tougher than usual.
“It was definitely difficult to move away...because it was the first time that I had been living in a place for a long time and got really really really comfortable,” Washington said. “I lived there for probably eight or nine years of my life and then we had to leave. I really didn’t want to move, it was difficult but in the end I think it was definitely a good decision.”
When Washington arrived in the Pittsburgh area, he went to Sewickley Academy. The Washingtons primary focus was on their son going to Quaker Valley, but he did not live in the zoning area, so he waited a year before transferring there.
Fast forward five years and Washington is still at Quaker Valley, where he has fit right at home.
On December 7, 2017, the day before the Quaker Valley basketball season opener, Washington, now a senior and star of the team, had on a black team issued Nike elite sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, and white and red jordans when he sat down midday in the library. He would have never been able to wear that outfit on a normal school day at Sewickley Academy where students are required to dress in khakis and a button down shirt. Unlike Quaker Valley, Sewickley Academy has a dress code.
Walking by Quaker Valley high school’s main office, past the half size gray steel colored lockers that lined the hallway, the stairwell was congested with students who had just gotten out of class. Sewickley Academy, which consists of grades Pre-K through 12th, only has 617 students. Quaker Valley’s enrollment, in its high school alone, has 645 students. Washington had to adjust to larger class sizes and the number of people. Despite those differences, both institutions were academically rigorous which forced him to create new studying habits.
When Washington had went to school at Friends’ Central he could take tests and do fine without studying. However Washington could not do the same at Sewickley Academy and Quaker Valley in the years to follow.
“I had to learn that you have to study, you have to take a lot of time out of your day to do the work,” Washington said. “I would just go into a test and get an easy A but it just changes when you move up from sixth grade to seventh grade to eighth grade and then high school.”
While he faced challenges in school, he similarly had to overcome obstacles in basketball as well.
Going into the summer before his senior year, Washington did not have any Division 1 offers.
The guard, who was primarily known for his shooting ability, averaged about 16 points per game on a 25-4 Quaker Valley team that appeared in the WPIAL 4A championship and PIAA Class 4A state semifinals his junior year. Washington had also broke Quaker Valley’s all-time three-point record, notching his 191st career three-pointer that same season.
Still, Washington had not received a single Division 1 offer.
Washington considered taking a prep year and reclassifying for the class of 2019, going as far as joining the U16 team of his AAU program, Bridge City. That all changed when Drexel’s coaching staff saw him play for Bridge City on the AAU circuit.
“I think AAU put me on the map for schools to look at me and I really give them gratitude for taking that chance on me as a player and having me play with them,” Washington said of his Bridge City coaches Nate Perry and Tom Droney and his opportunity to play in the program.
Bridge City’s U16 team traveled around the country over the summer, participating in AAU tournaments in Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Atlanta, and Pennsylvania's own Spooky Nook, among other U.S. towns. The team had a successful run, taking the circuit by storm and going 16-2 in the month of July and 27-5 overall, winning 3 tournament championships.
In his first summer playing with the U16 team, Washington formed a quick bond with his new Bridge City teammates. He was fortunate to already know center Brandon Stone, who he had played AAU with for about three years. Stone, a growing 6-foot-11 versatile big with multiple Division 1 offers, originally starred at Southmoreland High School in Alverton, Pennsylvania but reclassified to the class of 2019 and is currently completing a prep year at The Christ School in Arden, North Carolina.
While Washington had known Stone since Bridge City’s AAU program was called Train To Game (TTG), that was not the case with class of 2019 guard Maceo Austin. Austin goes to Kennedy Catholic in Hermitage, Pennsylvania and like Stone, has numerous offers from Division 1 schools. Washington had played against Austin a couple of times in the past in AAU, but strengthened his relationship with him playing for Bridge City.
Washington, however, didn’t have Division 1 offers like them at the time. That is, until Drexel came calling.
Drexel head coach Zach Spiker and his staff observed the young man from Quaker Valley this summer on the circuit and were intrigued, specifically by Washington’s role on Bridge City. They envisioned Washington fitting in well with Drexel’s team.
“[Drexel’s] playstyle is similar to the way I play at Quaker Valley and Bridge City,” Washington said. “Fast paced and not scared to take shots early in the shot clock. [Drexel] wants to play in transition. They don’t want to hold the ball or run a play. If they can get a shot in transition that’s what they’ll take. That’s definitely similar to the way [Quaker Valley head] coach [Mike Mastroianni] has us play here at Quaker Valley.”
The staff provided Washington with an invitation to their elite camp last summer, his first time in a while being back in Philadelphia. A few months later they would pull the trigger and on October 8th, 2017, Coletrane Washington received his much anticipated first Division 1 offer. 12 days later he would make the trek from Western Pennsylvania to Philadelphia for an official visit.
Washington and his father stayed at the Sheraton Hotel during their visit, which included a tour of Drexel’s campus, an opportunity to watch the Dragons’ practice, and the chance to talk with current players. They were even taken to visit the 76ers’ new practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, where they watched the NBA team workout. Coletrane and his father also went out to dinner with the entire Drexel coaching staff and a couple of players at The Capital Grille. One of the players at the dinner, redshirt junior guard Tramaine Isabell, instantly clicked with the younger Washington. He saw a future for Washington in Drexel’s new program.
“He’s a shooter with length who can space out the floor and has a lot of tools offensively,” Isabell said. “We have some senior guards who will be leaving so I feel like he will definitely be able to help us.”
Washington and Isabell have continued to keep in contact through social media retweeting each others’ tweets and congratulating one another on their accomplishments.
A week after his visit, Washington announced his decision via Twitter. He would be a Dragon.
Robert Morris, Lafayette, and Mount St. Mary’s also showed interest, along with multiple Division 2 schools who made offers to Washington but he ultimately picked Drexel. His familiarity with the city of Philadelphia, proximity to family and friends, Drexel’s playing style, and the school’s academics, all played a part in his decision. Now he heads into his senior season with the team to himself and the comfort of a Division 1 commitment under his belt.
Before there was Coletrane Washington, Amos Luptak starred at point guard for the Quakers.
Luptak was destined to play basketball for Quaker Valley. He was a ball boy for Quaker Valley’s basketball team in the third grade as he watched his older brothers play for the Quakers. Once Luptak entered middle school at Quaker Valley, he was coached by Mastroianni, who would become his high school coach years later. Luptak finished his high school career with an 88-22 record.
Luptak graduated last year from Quaker Valley and currently attends Washington & Jefferson where he is a two-sport athlete, playing football and basketball. With Luptak gone, it was Washington who Mastroianni looked to to step up for Quaker Valley.
“I knew I was going to have to step into the main ball handler role on this team losing Amos. He was a great ball handler,” Washington said. “From his sophomore year on, he had ran the point for us, so I worked on my one skill, distributing, and setting up my teammates.”
If replacing Luptak increased Washington’s expectations this year, then Quaker Valley’s men’s soccer and football team winning state championships raised the bar even higher.
“We talked about that as a team,” coach Mastroianni said, who also serves as Quaker Valley’s Director of Athletics and Student Activities. “I think what’s ironic is we’ve been talking about having a good season because of our last season. The great school spirit generated by the championship soccer team and football team, that our guys are all friends, has generated even more excitement.”
The expectation for Washington and his teammates is to win the WPIAL 4A championship and return to the PIAA Class 4A playoffs.
In addition to Washington's preseason Player of the Year honor, the Quakers were placed first in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s preseason rankings of Class 4A.
“A lot of people are going to be focused on me,” Washington said, a day before Quaker Valley’s season-opening win against Sto-Rox. “I have a lot of great teammates that’ll take pressure of me and we have a lot of different weapons so if they decide to double me or box and one me, we have other guys who can score.”
In Quaker Valley's first seven games, Washington recorded his first in-game dunk, scored his 1,000 career point on his 18th birthday, and defeated highly touted New Castle high school in a rematch of last season's WPIAL 4A championship. The Quakers are now 7-0 overall, 3-0 in-conference, and in their most recent contest against Thomas Jefferson high school, Washington broke Quaker Valley’s record for most threes in a game with 10.
With that performance (35 points) against Thomas Jefferson, Washington moved into sixth place on Quaker Valley’s all-time scoring list with 1,131 career points and has a legitimate chance to finish in the top 3.
Now he’ll head to West Philadelphia in search of the same success.
While Washington flew under the radar due to a lack of exposure and size, weighing in at around 170 pounds coming into his senior year, that hasn’t gotten in the way of being one of the best players in Western Pennsylvania.
Drexel has already told Washington that they want him to get stronger so that he does not get pushed around at the next level. They plan on putting him in their team’s fitness program when he arrives on campus.
Though Washington currently plays point guard at Quaker Valley, he will most likely switch to shooting guard for the Dragons. That may change in the future depending on how Drexel’s roster shapes out in the next few years, but it should not affect Washington, who has played both positions in the past.
Regardless of what position he plays at Drexel, his high school track record indicates that his work ethic will allow him to adapt.
“He has actually matured as a high school student first then that maturity has carried over into his game. He just has such a tremendous work ethic. I think people take it for granted when they see him out there and he shoots the ball well,” Mastroianni said. “He puts in a lot of time and earns it. He really is committed and loves being in the gym. When he’s in the gym he’s working. He’s figured out really key items that get you better at a young age and with his skillset and his talent, he’s a combination of both. Put him where he is today.”
Washington is also a creature of habit.
He has formed a daily routine over the years which he especially relies upon during the basketball season. His dad taught him time management and reemphasized it when Washington went to high school.
“Managing your time and setting yourself a schedule makes it easier on you,” said the younger Washington. “Planning out when and how your going to do your work. How you’re gonna eat, take care of your body and especially get enough rest is real important.”
On a typical weekday during the season, Washington wakes up around 6:30 am followed by stretches and push-ups to help himself wake-up. Since he has study hall first period, Washington will sometimes get shots up at the gym before going through all his classes. After school if he doesn’t have practice, he’ll get shots up on the shooting gun. If he does have practice then he’ll workout with the team for about two hours. Following practice, Washington will pay a visit to Quaker Valley head athletic trainer Derek Clark if he requires ice before returning home.
“I like repetition in my schedule. I do the same thing everyday, same order,” Washington said.
He offered similar advice about time management to his younger sister Corinne, a freshman at Quaker Valley who also plays basketball.
“High school is when it really starts to count, especially academics wise,” Washington said, who also has 10 year old twin siblings named Zack and Zora. “This is what colleges are going to look at for your grades so really emphasizing that to her.”
Washington is interested in majoring in business and minoring in either communications or journalism when he heads to Drexel in the fall. School work has always been important in the Washington family. The son of two Ivy League alums and the grandson of Beaver County’s first judge, it is an expectation that Washington do well. At Quaker Valley, he has kept his plate full, AP english, statistics, sports literature, economics, and gym this year. He also took a one term honors research science course where he conducted a research project.
Students in the course were allowed to come up with their own experiment, submitting a two-page paper with their findings. Washington researched the effect that high-caffeine drinks and water have on plants.
“I fed one plant water, I think it was a string bean plant,” Washington said. “And then I gave them different drinks ranging in the levels of caffeine that was in them. Mountain Dew was the highest amount of caffeine that I used and that beanstalk was the tallest one out of all the other ones. I did two six-week experiments growing them and it was a huge difference in water mixed with mountain dew. It was really interesting”
Coletrane Washington isn’t your typical Division 1 athlete. From journalism articles on school lunches to research projects about beanstalk plants to averaging 20-plus points per game, Washington’s reach won’t stop on the basketball court, but will bleed into the Drexel basketball program, academic classrooms, and the overall community around him.
“I can tell he was raised really well and those are the kind of guys I think [coach] Spiker is looking for,” said the current Drexel player, Isabell. “The guys who can fit in the program and be what we’re trying to be here in this new era at Drexel.”
-Drexel loses to Charleston in the quarterfinal of the CAA tournament