Drexel senior forward Austin Williams, sophomore forward Alihan Demir and sophomore guard Kurk Lee trap an opponent at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
(Luke Risher/ The Empire)
Down by as many as 34 points, the Drexel University men’s basketball team (12-19) seemed finished.
Hosting the University of Delaware in an important Colonial Athletic Association game, Drexel needed the win, but it took a historic effort to make it happen. The Dragons would fight back with two double digit runs in the second half to claw away at the Fightin’ Blue Hens lead in order to achieve the largest comeback in college basketball history. With the Daskalakis Center rocking, Drexel’s head coach Zach Spiker earned one of the signature moments in his coaching career, and more specifically, his tenure in West Philadelphia.
"We always say, it's a great day to be a Dragon," Spiker said to Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com. "We said, ‘It's a great day for a comeback.’"
The victory stood, in the micro, as just another win, but in the macro, a flipped result could have shot Drexel to the CAA cellar and in a rough position to make a run in the league tournament. To be able to avoid a 19th loss (at the time) in the fashion that it occurred can give just the right boost before postseason play in what Spiker recognizes is a “one-bid league.”
With the undulations of what this season has brought, what was up next might have been a bigger challenge for Spiker’s team than being down 34 points: following up that unheard of win with another win, on Senior Day against UNC-Wilmington Seahawks, no less. On paper, that should not have been out of the realm of possibilities, as the team won two or more consecutive games three times already this season. Even with the streaky nature of this season (three sets of consecutive wins, five sets of consecutive losses), Drexel should have theoretically had the momentum on their side against UNCW, with junior Tramaine Isabell coming up one-assist-shy of a triple double as well as three other players looking to capture another double-digit point performance.
That, woefully, was not the case, as the visiting Seahawks went on a 20-7 run to start the game. In that stretch, Drexel was stuck with 3 points for almost five minutes. UNCW had a lead for the entire first half, despite only shooting 33% from the field.
At the half, it was clear Spiker would need to switch things up. Off the bench, senior Miles Overton and senior Tyshawn Myles did little in six minutes a piece and senior Sammy Mojica, one of his more reliable guards, was shooting 2-10 from the field.
“It’s hard when you want to honor your seniors … sometimes it messes with your rotations,” Spiker said in the postgame press conference.
Instead of relying on the senior starters, the focus would shift to Isabell and sophomore Alihan Demir to counter the fast pace of the Seahawks.
Drexel played the second half with a renewed vigor, outscoring their CAA foe off turnovers and 2nd chance buckets: key components in helping make it a two possession game for the last five minutes. Isabell would, in turn, go off for another impressive night: 29 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and two steals. Demir provided a spark off the bench in 28 minutes, going 7-14 from the field en route to a 16-point night.
What Drexel couldn’t stop, though, were UNCW’s fast breaks. Ever too often did UNCW’s junior Devontae Cacok either grab a missed Dragon shot and start a Seahawk sprint to the opposite basket or work it around until another teammate could drive for a score. A 16-4 advantage in that department gave the visiting team the padding they needed so when Drexel did make a comeback, there would be some room to work with.
“They were able to get out and run the floor,” Spiker said of the opposing team’s style. Admittedly, “they were more comfortable playing at that pace than we were.”
Ultimately, senior Jordon Talley’s jumper with eight seconds left sealed the deal for UNCW, but for as much as it felt like Drexel was down by early, getting back into the game showed the 1,000 or so fans at the DAC that there could be some more magic leftover from the Delaware game.
Unable to conjure up that magic again, Spiker’s team fell to 12-19 on the year and 6-12 in the conference. This defeat is not entirely terminating to the season, as there is still the CAA Tournament this week, but it did stand as a marker on Spiker’s young career at Drexel.
Coming from Army, Spiker brought with him successes that had not been seen at the Academy since Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight were coaches. He is the only coach in Army history to have four straight seasons of 15 or more wins since a run in the early 1920s. With his own triumphs, and the experience of serving under the likes of Gregg Marshall, John Beilein, and Steve Donahue, there is an expectation at Drexel for the program to be brought to the top of the league and hopefully the national spotlight.
A surge can come, as the pieces are in place. Working the transfer market to land a guy like Isabell is always a plus. Beating the #1 and #2 ranked teams in your conference at home is good. A well-aging upset like this year’s early one over Houston will do wonders if the team is in contention for a top seed in the CAA. What comes, then, is winning the conference games that need to be won, like those against Delaware, James Madison, and Elon, the league’s other bottom feeders. This year, Drexel went 3-3, a mark needing improvement. Better performance alleviates the pressures that come with the end of conference play (there were eight potential tiebreaker situations on the line this year).
What is next for this team is opportunity. Much can be made of the approaching conference tournament, but what Spiker and his staff need to have in mind, is that it is one game in a long line of games ahead and when building a program, every win counts.
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 head coach Zach Spiker at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
(Yong Kim/Philly.com Staff Photographer)
Every great team has a superhero-esque bench to support them. The bench provides the starters and coach the stability and comfort that while the best players on the team are resting, the game will not go to waste. Last year's Golden State Warriors starters were a great example of this. They had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, and Kevin Durant. Their bench consisted of Shaun Livingston, Matt Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and many more players who would no doubt start on other teams. These players were crucial in keeping their starters healthy and rested. However, in Drexel’s home opener against Bowling Green, their bench was slashed in half.
Before the start of the game, Miles Overton, Tramaine Isabell, and Alihan Demir were declared ineligible to play. Overton suffered a strained calf, Isabell failed to meet team standards, and Demir is still unable to play due to transfer rules. These absences put pressure on head coach Zach Spiker, leaving him with a meager three man bench featuring senior Tyshawn Myles, freshman Tadas Kararinas, and freshman Jarvis Doles.
In the first five minutes of the game, shooting guard Sam Green committed his first foul and was immediately subbed out for Doles. Instead of giving Green the chance to rest and avoid another foul, he was promptly subbed back into the game for Troy Harper who would go on to commit two fouls in the first half.
Doles, on the other hand, amassed three fouls in just three minutes and was quickly subbed out for Kararinas.
Kararinas didn’t play much better. While the Lithuanian native didn’t foul anyone, he only had three points and had just two rebounds despite being 6-foot-10. He also committed one of Drexel’s 9 turnovers, three of which coming from the bench. With under six minutes remaining in the half, Kararinas was subbed in for senior forward Tyshawn Myles.
Myles played for the rest of the first half and compiled a modest four points along with two rebounds of his own.
By the start of the second half, Kurk Lee had seen 20 minutes of play, Sammy Mojica had seen 18 minutes of play, and Austin Williams had seen 17 minutes of play. These players were overused due to the underwhelming amount of players on the bench and the inability of those players to give their starters a break. The bench’s ineffectivity was no doubt a contributing factor to the sudden loss of Drexel’s ten point lead in the second half.
Drexel looked and played like they were exhausted, a trait seen most clearly in their 6-foot-8 forward, Austin Williams. Williams had a tremendous first half scoring 16 points, collecting 6 rebounds, a steal, and a block all in 17 minutes of play. However his 17 minutes of play in the second half were the exact opposite. He struggled to score, dropping just two points and committed three fouls. Fellow forward and starter, Sam Green, didn’t fare well either.
Green would foul out of the game with 30 seconds remaining in the game. He scored just 5 points in 22 minutes of play, missing his only 3-three point attempt. However, the forwards weren’t the only ones who played poorly in the second half.
Philadelphia native Troy Harper, scored just 3 points in the second half, tacking on his third foul of the game 7 minutes into the half and turning the ball over just seconds later. Harper ended the game shooting 1-11 from the floor, dropping just 8 points. Some of this performance can be attributed to when late in the second half, he was subbed in for after laying on the floor, clutching his leg and wincing for a considerable amount of time.
“8 points, 26 minutes, some of those minutes weren’t healthy, but he gutted it out,” Spiker said of Harper.
Players as crucial as Harper shouldn’t be forced to ‘gut it out’ in a game that Drexel is losing in. However, when there’s no bench to replace Harper, he doesn’t get enough time to heal which could be problematic in the future. Someone who literally had no time to regroup himself was fellow guard and freshman year standout Kurk Lee.
The former CAA’s All-Rookie Team member scored just 7 points in 20 minutes of play, committed 4 turnovers and shooting 25% from the floor and was 0-3 from 3-point range.
In the second half, Kurk Lee managed to play another 20 minutes, Sammy Mojica played 20 minutes and Austin Williams played another 17 minutes. These three players got to sit a combined three times in the entire game.
If coach Spiker was able to use Tramaine Isabell at the very least, the game may have looked a lot different.
Before transferring to Drexel, Isabell played primarily off the bench for the University of Missouri. While at Missouri, Isabell racked up two 17 point performances and had 10 points or more eight times. Isabell was described by Walker Orenstein, a staff member of D1 Circuit, as a “a flash to the bucket faster than [Orenstein’s] camera shutter can keep up”.
Spiker would have had the ability to rest Lee, Mojica, or Williams more often, possibly allowing them to be rested enough to maintain their lead entering the second half, had Isabell played.
The adjustments were made however, when in their next game against Arcadia, the Dragons were much better in terms of the bench’s performance.
Tramaine Isabell, who was ineligible against Bowling Green, scored 22 points in nearly 30 minutes of play off the bench. Sam Green, who started in the Bowling Green game, scored 9 points off the bench in 20 minutes of play. The bench was responsible for nearly 35% of the points scored against Arcadia, a huge improvement from the 10 bench points (14% of the total) last game.
The Arcadia game is a testament to how effective of a team Drexel can be when they have a solid bench. Drexel’s four man bench allowed Kurk Lee to play seven less minutes than last game and Austin Williams to play six less minutes. When the starters are given the time to rest in a game, they can be more effective. For example, Troy Harper went from scoring just 8 points to scoring 17 points.
Despite their strong play, coach Spiker still wants the team to compete at a higher pace. That will come from quality bench minutes, which will provide ample time for everyone to rest, recharge, and give the opposing team different lineup looks.
“What we have to get better at is playing 40 minutes [of high level basketball] and not looking like we’re absolutely gassed and then the next thing you know, we let an offensive rebound go and then a layup,” Spiker said in the press conference. “Then we look like a team that’s not very well conditioned.”
If the bench can perform at a similar level as the Arcadia game, if not better, the starters will be able to play more productive minutes. If the team is able to do that, then the future will be bright for Drexel Basketball.
The Empire's season podcast series will cover college basketball in the City 6. We will be releasing a podcast to accompany a written report covering our outlook for the teams' seasons. Please note that the podcasts and the written season previews may differ in writers and opinion.
William Derry and Benjamin Simon
Zach Spiker enters his second year in charge of the Drexel Dragons after a disappointing 9-23 overall record last season. Despite struggling to win close games and losing 17 of their last 20 contests during the 2016-17 season, the Dragons took major steps in rebuilding their program.
Last year, freshmen Kurk Lee and Kari Jonsson had a combined usage rate of 41%, while Wake Forest transfer Miles Overton (9.5 ppg) gave the Dragons a scoring threat off the bench when healthy. Senior Rodney Williams was by far Drexel’s team MVP. Williams led the Dragons in scoring (15.6 ppg), rebounding (6.8 rpg) and double-doubles (5). His effort went beyond the boxscore, as he continued to battle even when Drexel fell behind early in games.
With Williams set to graduate, coach Spiker knew that he would have to replace the versatile forward but what he didn’t know was that he would also have to replace the team's best three-point shooter. Less than a month before Drexel’s home opener against Bowling Green, the Dragons announced that Jonsson had decided to leave the basketball program due to personal reasons and return home to Iceland. Replacing Jonsson, who is now playing professionally in Iceland, shot 44% from three last year and will not be easy shoes to fill for the Dragons. But with Overton back healthy and transfers Tramaine Isabell and Troy Harper now eligible, Spiker and company are looking at double digit wins after just missing out on it last season.
Who’s Gone? Rodney Williams (F, graduation), Mohamed Bah (F, graduation), Major Canady (G, graduation), Kari Jonsson (G, personal reasons [Returned home to Iceland]), John Moran (G, graduation), Jeremy Peck (F, transferred to UNC Asheville), Elgin Ford Jr. (G, graduation), Andrew Cartwright (F, Unknown)
As mentioned above, Rodney Williams was Drexel’s most productive player last season. Williams exemplified what it means to be a Dragon on and off the court. His stat line only told part of the story as Williams routinely made the extra pass to his teammates, tightly defended the opposing team's forwards/centers and regularly motivated his teammates. He will be greatly missed by Drexel’s basketball program.
Mohamed Bah was a key reserve big for the Dragons last season. Although Bah did not fill up the stat sheet during his four year collegiate career, he was a willing rebounder who could finish around the rim. Bah’s experience will be missed. Major Canady returned last season after missing two consecutive years due to two separate injuries. Canady made his long-awaited return to the court against Kean University on December 18th and received a standing ovation from the home crowd. Having said that, Canady saw limited minutes for the rest of the season. Drexel will miss Canady’s leadership, defense, and basketball IQ.
Kari Jonsson, who abruptly left the program last month, will certainly be missed. Many expected Jonsson to pair with backcourt teammate Kurk Lee and cause problems for teams in the Colonial Athletic Conference for the foreseeable future. Jonsson’s ability to consistently hit three-pointers will be a big loss because there may not be a player on Drexel’s roster who can fill his shoes. John Moran joined Drexel after graduating from Richmond University. Moran had a year of eligibility left due to a medical hardship waiver. Moran played in 31 of Drexel’s 32 games and served as a backup guard.
Jeremy Peck was a part of Drexel’s 2016 recruiting class and was tabbed as being a stretch 4 with refined post moves. That being said, Peck did not see a considerable amount of playing time. The Texas native decided to transfer following the season to UNC Asheville. Like Moran, Peck spent one season with the Dragons but his presence will still be missed. Elgin Ford Jr. joined Drexel’s team last season but did not play very much. It is unknown why Andrew Cartwright is no longer listed on Drexel’s active roster.
Who’s New? Tramaine Isabell (G, Jr. Transfer), Troy Harper (G, Jr. Transfer), Jarvis Doles (F, Fr.), Tim Perry Jr. (F, Fr.), Alihan Demir (F, So. Transfer), Tadas Kararinas (F, Fr.), James Butler (F, So. Transfer), Kevin Doi (G, Jr.)
Tramaine Isabell transferred from Missouri to Drexel before last season and had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. Now eligible, Isabell is primed to be an important contributor for the Dragons, especially with the sudden departure of Jonsson. Though Isabell’s numbers from when he played at Missouri are not transcendent, he has a record of playing well in high-pressure situations. For instance, Isabell drilled a three-pointer with 0.2 seconds remaining against Oklahoma State during his freshman year, which earned him a spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day. If that play was not convincing enough, Isabell came back during his sophomore year with the Tigers and had back-to-back 17-point outings against Ole Miss and #21 Texas A&M. If Isabell can bring that kind of production on a consistent basis for the Dragons then he’ll be a mainstay in coach Spiker’s starting lineup.
Philly native and Neumann Goretti alum Troy Harper transferred from Campbell University to Drexel after his sophomore year. Like Isabell, Harper sat out last season due to transfer rules and is eligible this season. Harper was second in scoring (13.5 ppg) during his sophomore campaign with the Fighting Camels and also averaged 3.3 rebounds per game. Harper will most likely come in off the bench for Drexel but should provide the Dragons with an offensive spark by driving to the basket and attacking the rim as well as knocking down open jumpers and three-pointers.
After not receiving any enticing Division 1 scholarship offers, Jarvis Doles decided to enroll at Mt. Zion Prep. Doles signed with Drexel last November and should see some playing time this season. Doles averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds per game during his senior year at Hammond High. At 6-foot-9, 215 pounds, Doles has grown an inch and gained 15 pounds since his senior year. With his height and athletic ability Doles should be a fixture in coach Spiker’s rotation off the bench.
Tim Perry Jr., the son of former Temple standout and NBA player Tim Perry, completed a prep year at the Phelps School before committing to Drexel in January. Perry averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while playing at Phelps. The Cherry Hill East graduate is 6-foot-10, 218 pounds, which is an ideal size for a big in college basketball, especially if he gained some more weight. Perry will most likely start the year on the bench but could see early playing time if he competes in practice and coach Spiker wants an athletic forward who can protect rim and run the floor.
After transferring from JUCO Central Wyoming College this past offseason Alihan Demir is eligible to play immediately. Demir, who is from Ankara, Turkey, averaged 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 29 games for Central Wyoming last season. Demir is a stretch four who can spot up, knock down a standstill jump shot, and can finish at the basket off the dribble. What might separate him from the rest of the true forwards on Drexel’s team is his ability to move without the ball and break down his defender off the dribble. Thus, Demir may see minutes off the bench early in this year and could complement forwards Austin Williams and Tyshawn Myles who like to play near the hoop.
Tadas Kararinas spent last year at well-known Findlay Prep before joining Drexel this season. Kararinas is a 6-foot-10, 210-pound forward from Silute, Lithuania and was a member of the Lithuania youth national team. Kararinas’ size at 6-foot-10 automatically gives him an advantage over most players in college basketball. Just last Wednesday Kararinas scored 16 points (6-7 FGM-A) and was perfect from three (3-3 3PM-A) in an exhibition charity game against Villanova. It was only an exhibition game but with Austin Williams out, Kararinas proved that he’s not afraid to let it fly from beyond the arc and can make it when he does. It will be interesting to see how coach Spiker uses Kararinas this season if he does at all.
Kevin Doi is a junior guard from Rolling Estates, California and attended the Chadwick School before enrolling at Drexel. Doi will most likely serve as a reserve and see limited playing time. Doi is a Dean’s list student.
James Butler transferred from the United States Naval Academy and will sit out this year due to transfer rules.
Projected Starting Lineup:
So., G: Kurk Lee (Proj. Stats: 14 PPG, 4 RPG, 6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 40 FG%)
Kurk Lee had a phenomenal freshman season, averaging almost 15 points per game (14.9), 3.9 rebounds, 5 assists and 1.6 steals. Lee was one of the lone bright spots for the Dragons last season as he scored in double-figures in all but 4 games and broke Drexel’s rookie scoring and assist record. Lee’s quick first step and overall speed while dribbling the basketball allowed him to blow past taller defenders and create fast break opportunities for Drexel. The Baltimore native’s skillset fits in perfectly with the up-tempo style of play that coach Spiker implemented last season.
Drexel guard Kurk Lee attempts a shot during practice.
(Steven M. Falk/Philly.com Staff Photographer)
Jr., G: Tramaine Isabell (Proj. Stats: 10 PPG, 2 RPG, 2 APG, 1 SPG, 35 3P%)
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Isabell should crack coach Spiker’s starting lineup due to his ability to score the basketball in a number of different ways. The Seattle native can attack the defense by driving to the basket, spot up for a three if his defender plays off of him, and get to the free-throw line where he shot 76% while at Missouri. Isabell also has the ability to make the extra pass when necessary. With Jonsson gone, look for Isabell to step up as a three-point threat this year.
Sr., F: Sammy Mojica (Proj. Stats: 12 PPG, 6 RPG, 3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 40 FG%)
Sammy Mojica has been an ironman for Drexel over the past two seasons, playing in every contest. Last year, Mojica scored in double-figures 22 times, while averaging 31.6 minutes, 11.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.2 steals. Mojica’s ability to dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, and defend allows coach Spiker to use him at a variety positions and in numerous gameday situations. One improvement that would solidify Mojica’s spot in the starting lineup would be consistency. If Mojica can be consistent night in and night out then he should remain in the starting five throughout the season.
Sr., F: Austin Williams (Proj. Stats: 10 PPG, 9 RPG, 2 BPG, 58 FG%)
Austin Williams was Drexel’s most improved player last year. Williams increased his production in every major statistical category and even led the Dragons in field goal percentage (61%). After only scoring 26 total points and grabbing 72 total rebounds in his first two seasons at Drexel, Williams scored 220 points and tallied 194 rebounds during his junior year. Williams was a force to be reckon with on boths ends of the floor, notably in the post. If last year was any indicator of what Williams could potentially be, don’t be surprised to see him average 10 points and 9 boards while protecting the basket for Drexel.
Sr., F: Tyshawn Myles (Proj. Stats: 4 PPG, 4 RPG, 48 FG%)
If Drexel faces a team with two dominant bigs then Tyshawn Myles should start alongside Williams. Myles is 6-foot-8, 250 pounds and can bang with the best of them down in the paint. Though Myles’ stats do not jump off of the page (2.2 ppg and 2.8 rpg), his ability to defend in the post and protect the rim are valuable on a team with many inexperienced bigs on the roster.
Reserves: Miles Overton (G, Sr), Troy Harper (G, Jr.), Sam Green (F, So.), Jarvis Doles (F, Fr.) Tim Perry Jr. (F, Fr.), Tadas Kararinas (F, Fr.), Alihan Demir (F, So.)
Miles Overton and Troy Harper feature to be the first guys off the bench to start the season. Overton returns for his senior year after missing the final eight games with an injury. The transfer from Wake Forest played below expectations last season. After leading the team in usage percentage at 27.6% a year ago, the guard will have to shoot the ball better. It was clear that coach Spiker had confidence in his ability to shoot, but Overton never seemed to get comfortable. Harper comes to Drexel after spending his first two years of collegiate eligibility at Campbell University. Harper is an athletic 2-guard who should see minutes as a spark plug off the bench for coach Spiker. While Overton should see minutes in the starting lineup as the year progresses, Harper will primarily be used as one of the first guys of the bench.
Sam Green returns for year two with the Dragons and he shapes up to be an interesting addition to the regular rotation. Green earned the team’s most improved award at the end of the Dragons’ 2016-17 season, an accolade that cannot be overlooked. Green is a big bodied guard/forward who can hit the three and play from the perimeter, but can also score around the rim thanks to his size. With the Dragons’ short bench, Green could certainly be pushed into a bigger role. As Spiker could very well go small-ball to play more uptempo, Green could see minutes as an undersized ‘4’. He would be perfect for that role in a small-ball lineup because his size will allow him to play solid defense in the post, but his offensive skillset will expose the mismatched ‘4’.
As big men, Tadas Kararinas, Alihan Demir, Tim Perry Jr., and Jarvis Doles will have to factor into the rotation. The Dragons will need their help with a lack of depth in the frontcourt that features only two returning bigs. Both Kararinas (3-3 from 3 against Villanova) and Demir (attempted 35 3-pointer’s at Central Wyoming) present the option as pick-and-pop bigs. They both provide experience as Kararinas has played for the Lithuanian U20 National Team and Demir has a year of collegiate basketball under his belt. Although Austin Williams did not play in their game against Villanova, they both received more than 15 minutes in the scrimmage.
Perry should factor in less than his fellow new coming bigs. While Perry will not be ruled out of the conversation, he may benefit from a year under his fellow big men and getting used the college game physically. If he does want to play, he will have to beat out one of the other bigs because Spiker’s rotation will probably only feature a maximum of four bigs. Jarvis Doles is in the same spot as Perry. If he can etch out one of the more experienced bigs, he could see minutes if the team decides to go small ball. However, the Baltimore native could use a year to get used to college play before being thrust in full throttle.
vs. Houston (Nov. 17th, 2017)
Drexel takes on arguably the toughest team of their schedule on November 17th. Houston, after being picked 6th by The American conference voters, returns Rob Gray Jr., who averaged 20 points per game. Houston also brings in Mr. Texas winner Cedrick Alley Jr., who will round a talented and powerful Houston team. Drexel will have their hands full, but it will be a good measuring stick and opportunity for the Dragons to play against big time competition.
at La Salle (Dec. 7th, 2017)
Drexel will travel across town to take on fellow City 6 foe La Salle in the first of three straight road games for the Dragons. Last season, Spiker’s squad lost a high scoring battle 89-78 to La Salle. While Drexel trailed for most the game, they battled and won the second half. But the Explorers were too much by the end and ultimately pulled away. Drexel is a year older and will look to take advantage of an Explorers squad that returns First Team All-Big 5 selection BJ Johnson. Like Houston, La Salle will be a tough matchup for the Dragons, but the opportunity at playing the local Philadelphia team will be exciting. The Explorers also have a lack of experienced big men, so it will be entertaining to watch the strong guard play.
vs. Towson (Jan. 18th, 2018)
During one of Drexel’s best games last season, the Dragons fell to Towson 104-103 in double overtime. The game came after losing four of the team’s last five games. In their next meeting, Drexel lost again 69-65 after having led with two and a half minutes left in the game. Towson, located right outside Baltimore, will be an opportunity for sophomore Kurk Lee and freshman Jarvis Doles to come home and play in front of friends and family. Lee’s father was also a standout star for Towson. It will be a meaningful game for the Baltimore natives and because of the closeness of last year’s games.
The Dragons’ schedule features many high profile teams including Houston, Temple, and La Salle. However, they will also go up against lower level teams such as Arcadia, NJIT, and Robert Morris. Spiker’s team will take a leap forward in his second year with the program. Kurk Lee is the real deal and the backcourt that surrounds him has the experience and talent to compete with the best of the CAA. The main problem will be the frontcourt and overall team chemistry. Will they find at least two reliable bigs to complement Austin Williams? How will the team work together, especially with the plethora of guards? The Dragons will show flashes of major potential throughout the season, but will struggle with the lack of consistent depth and filling the holes of Rodney Williams and Kari Jonsson.
“[Freshman point guard] Kurk Lee (St. Frances) was probably one of the biggest selling points. He was my host on my visit. I felt the love, felt welcome and felt at home when I was on the visit. Two Baltimore guys, obviously the connection is going to be there off the bat. I’ve seen him play and know how good and unselfish he is. I think together we can make a dynamic duo.” -Freshman forward Jarvis Doles in an interview with the Baltimore Sun on his commitment to Drexel last fall
"Tim will do well for Drexel, because he is a self-motivated big kid who has something to prove every time he is on the floor. I think in a few years people in the city and CAA will be impressed." -Coach Brian Shanahan on freshman forward Tim Perry Jr. in email response to Philly.com
“I don’t know if you ever have enough depth.” -Drexel head coach Zach Spiker in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News on having five guards who could all play a considerate amount of minutes.
“It just unfolded and he is returning home and I think he will have a very good professional career and I wish him the best.” -Drexel head coach Zach Spiker told Philly.com after the announcement was made about Kari Jonsson leaving the program and returning home.
“I believe that I can play at that level, and I was waiting for a coach to pick up on it. I do need to gain weight and put on some more muscle, and that's the one thing the (Drexel) coaches have told me. In high school, you can get by not being that big, but in Division I, you'll start getting tossed around if you aren't strong enough.” -Drexel commit Coletrane Washington in an interview with Tri Live
Major Canady was dropping buckets. Not only was he attacking the basket with ferocity, like he always did, but Canady was stroking the ball too. For so long Canady had been labeled as a poor shooter. Former Drexel coach Bruiser Flint would show Canady clips from his freshman year, when defenders would leave him wide open, asking him to shoot. But not any longer.
He had finally developed a sweet stroke. It wouldn’t be long before the rest of the CAA would see the new, refined, and dominant Major Canady.
He was a year removed from a season-ending ankle injury just before his sophomore year that had only motivated him more, as he worked relentlessly over the time to better his game. Canady lived in the gym, often shooting with Drexel assistant coach Matt Collier. He reaped the benefits and was starting to look like a more complete player.
In the humid Philadelphia summer before his junior year, Canady was showing off his polished stroke in a pickup game with his teammates, including Rodney Williams. Canady went up for a layup, when a teammate made slight contact.
“He was like ‘I felt something pop, I felt something pop,’” Williams remembered Canady saying. “We were like ‘why don’t you try and walk it off and see if you can deal?’ He tried to walk it off and he said it was just really bothering him.”
Over the next few weeks and months, Canady attempted to give it a go. Sitting out the year was not an option. He thought he could play and tough it out. But he re-aggravated the injury a few days before the season began and this pushed him over the edge. Three to four months after his initial injury, Canady opted to have surgery on a torn ACL.
What resulted was his second season-ending injury in a row.
Growing up in Wilson, North Carolina, a small city in the eastern part of the state, Canady was the definition of an athlete. In middle school, he was a star basketball, soccer, and football player. Soccer, however, was where Canady thrived from day one.
Many around Canady thought that soccer would eventually earn him a Division 1 scholarship. It took until the movie Like Mike came out for Canady to fall for basketball. As a kid, he would attend Fike High School’s basketball games, where his mom worked.
“I just remember watching the kids that play varsity all of the time and I would be like ‘I want to be like them one day,’” Canady said. “So I would always watch the moves they did and I would go to their practices sometimes. I learned a lot from the older guys.”
Throughout high school, Canady bounced around. He started at Fike, where he experienced some success his freshman season and was promoted to varsity after only a few junior varsity games. But he decided that he didn’t want to go to a school where his mom taught. He wanted to be “independent.” So he transferred to Hunt High School across town in Wilson. The transition wasn’t easy.
“It wasn’t the best season [after I transferred to Hunt],” Canady said. “You always have to earn your stripes.”
While Canady thought about his next steps, his father, Darryl Canady, a pastor, had received a job offer in Pittsburgh. Before they even left North Carolina, the family began to look for a new AAU team. After a few phone calls, they got in touch with Daryn Freedman, who had worked in the NBA and as a recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at Duquesne University. By then, Freeman was coaching AAU and was the head coach at a local boarding school, The Kiski School. After his workout, Canady made a good impression and Freedman offered him a spot on his AAU and Kiski team.
The thought of Canady moving out of the house was daunting to his parents. The school would be thirty minutes away and attending private school had never really been on the family’s radar. Canady, however, liked the idea of going to Kiski.
Canady was intrigued by reclassifying, the concept of repeating a grade and adding another year of basketball eligibility in high school. The family ultimately wrapped their head around the idea and Canady enrolled at Kiski as a sophomore.
Freedman was happy. He had found himself a backup to Jon Ward-Adams, a Navy commit who had transferred to Kiski as a postgraduate student after averaging 20 points per game and earning all-state honors at his previous school. With Canady coming off the bench, Freedman felt he had a solid backcourt.
Canady arrived in June, ready to play for Freedman’s AAU team. He helped lead the team to victories over many of the nation’s top AAU programs, including one led by future NBA player, T.J. Warren. It quickly became clear that Canady was much more than a role player. He wouldn’t be a backup at Kiski. Canady was ready to start.
From the very start, Canady thrived at Kiski. He was voted a captain by his teammates before he even stepped on the floor.
“A. He outworks everyone,” Freedman said of how a guy could be named captain in his first year at the school. “B. He’s vocal about it and guys follow. He’s really easy to follow.”
During his high school years, Canady’s focus shifted from soccer to basketball. While he still played on the soccer team, he did it only during the actual season. Basketball was year around. The practice paid off. On the basketball court, Canady blew up, helping Kiski become one of the country's most recognizable programs.
In his final year at the school, he helped lead Kiski to a 23-7 record and a state championship appearance while averaging 21 points per game, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. Stats didn’t show just how complete of a player he had become. He would guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player, run the offense, understand everyone’s roles and spots, and if there was a 50-50 ball, Canady would get it. According to Freedman, he was like Boston Celtics’ guard Marcus Smart.
“[Major] makes the hustle play to win you the game,” Freedman added. “He’s a winner.”
From the get-go, Drexel, and specifically assistant coach Collier, stayed glued to Canady. The Drexel staff had recruited another player from Kiski one or two years prior and were familiar with the program. They also knew that they would need a point guard to step in with star point guard Frantz Massenat set to leave the following season. The plan was for Canady to learn under Massenat in his freshman season and then take over duties as lead ball handler the next year.
Canady committed to the University of South Florida (USF) in the summer of 2012. But he quickly had second thoughts and decommitted. Drexel came calling once again.
Throughout the process, Canady formed an unbreakable bond with two people: coach Collier and fellow recruit Rodney Williams.
Collier was designated as the primary recruiter of Canady. When Canady decommitted from USF, Collier instantly messaged him. Collier and fellow assistant Bobby Jordan even went to one of Canady’s soccer games when it was close by.
Williams and Canady also created a rapport from the start. After Williams took his visit at Drexel, Canady sent him a message and introduced himself. It turns out that they were both pastor's kids.
“We kind of had this instant bond like ‘oh you’re a [pastor’s kid], so am I,’” Williams remembered from his initial conversation with Canady. “I guess the coaches plugged his ear saying ‘we just had a kid come here who was a pastor’s son as well.’”
They hit it off and soon decided that they would spend their next four years together at Drexel. Even before they got to Philadelphia, they started playing Xbox and texting each other every day.
“It was a kind of like an instant marriage once we had a similarity of religion and things we dealt with as pastor’s children,” Williams said. “And so, going into college, knowing I would have someone. That was one of the reasons I chose Drexel.”
Williams and Canady grew so close that their commitment was contingent on them rooming together. Still though, they had never even met each other in person.
“The day we had to move in [freshman year], we’re texting each other like ‘you almost there?’” Williams remembered. “We pulled up our cars next to each other and Major texts me and says, ‘I see you.’ And I just start laughing. It was funny because you have guys that have formed a bond, formed a friendship, but never met each other. Everything was smooth, it was just like I knew him, without even meeting him.”
Williams and Canady began their college career walking into their dorm together. They didn’t know just how much the next four years would hold.
When the player rolled over him, Canady’s ankle was showing through the skin.
“A lot of players were gasping and covering their eyes,” coach Collier remembered. “We had some managers that were in tears. It was tough. Maybe the only one who wasn’t crying was Major.”
Canady was coming off a promising freshman season. While he began the year as the backup point guard, just like the coaching staff had envisioned, an injury to Damion Lee forced him into the starting lineup. Canady became a stabilizing force; someone that the team could rely on to handle the ball and lock up the other team’s opposing guards.
“We felt comfortable that he could do that and that’s what he did,” Collier said. “His job was to defend and take care of the ball and kind of organize the team and things like that, which we felt for a freshman, he did very well. He was a very mature kid.”
He appeared in all 30 games his freshman year, starting in 14, while averaging 16 minutes per game, 2.1 points, 1.7 rebounds, .9 assists, and compiling only 17 total turnovers. After Massenat and Chris Fouch left the following year, Canady was expected to start and fully take over the point guard duties. He spent the entire summer getting ready. As preseason workouts came around, he was ready to go and take a big step forward. That hope vanished in a matter of seconds.
The team was doing the shell drill in a preseason practice and everyone had been broken up into three teams of four. Both Williams and Collier stood on the sideline as Canady dove for a loose ball when a teammate landed on top of him. The teammate turned over and the entire team saw the effects. The managers were instantly sent down to get the trainer. No one in the gym knew what to say. But Canady wasn’t worried about that or his ankle. He had a practice left to finish.
“I would say this is Major Canady in a nutshell,” Collier said. “He hits the ground, the person falls on top of him, the person rolls over, everyone sees that Major’s foot is not on straight anymore. Everybody is reacting to this. He looks down at it. He scoots over to the sideline...His foot is back on straight. He stood up and tried to put weight on it and walk back onto the court, saying ‘ok I’m ready to practice now.’ Coach Flint and myself were like, ‘yo yo man, go sit down...’ He didn’t cry, nothing.”
This was Canady’s first major injury. He was used to being the guy who could play a full basketball game and then run around on a soccer field for 90 minutes in one day. A sprained ankle was the only injury that had ever held him back, and that was maybe for a game or two in high school.
“I never knew what it felt like to be hurt,” Canady remembered. “So when they told me I was going to miss the season I started crying in the training room and then I went up to practice that same day and started crying all over again. It was like a weird experience. The guys know me as a serious, chill guy, they never really see me show too many emotions, definitely not sad ones. So, it was different. I was devastated honestly.”
For the next year, Canady was a man on a mission -- he was going to come back much better than he had been before. That started with shooting. Canady spent the next several months perfecting his shooting form. For a large chunk of time, jumping wasn’t an option, but that didn’t stop Canady from shooting. He would spend a lot of time doing the Curry Drill with Collier, a drill that Stephen Curry did during his warmups. Collier had read about it in Sports Illustrated and tweaked it for his own players. It required Canady to make a high percentage of shots from each of the five sections of the floor (two on the baseline, two on the wing, one on the top of the key). If he missed the mark at any point, he would have to start over.
“It definitely helped him focus and it entertained him a little bit. We would do the drill from a standstill perspective, so now you really don’t have as much room for error because you can’t jump,” Collier said. “You really have to bend your knees and follow through to get as much stretching to get the ball to the rim. It really forced him to concentrate on those details to make the shots.”
The hardest part for Collier was keeping Canady in check and making sure that he didn’t get too carried away with the progress he was making.
“We would do workouts for his rehab and I would say ‘yes we can go do some form shooting, but you’re not going to be jumping,’” Collier added. “And then if I turn my head for a second, he might try to jump and I might catch him and be like ‘what are you doing?’ and he would be like, ‘but I feel good!’”
He felt good enough to start playing pick up again. And it was in one of those summer pickup games that he went down again, tearing his ACL. This would mean another long year of sitting out and rehabbing.
If Drexel had a 7PM game, Canady would usually have two classes earlier in the day. He would pray in his room and then lie upside down with his foot against the wall and ice on his knee for twenty minutes. That would be followed by sitting in the locker room with a heating pad on his knee and then stretching for 10-15 minutes before the entire team even stretched.
During the 2016-17 season, Major Canady played 21 games and every single one required the same grueling process. After enduring two season-ending injuries, he finally found a way back on the court. But this year might have been the hardest physically.
In every game or practice that Canady featured in throughout this past season, he did so without an ACL. He had two options: it was either play without an ACL or receive surgery and miss another season. He wasn’t going to miss another season.
In the past, Canady had struggled when he was injured. They left him playing “mental gymnastics,” as Williams said. He would fall into bad states, where he would just stay in his room. Williams and the team would often go to the movies and they always encouraged Canady to come with them.
“He kind of distanced himself from the team a little, trying to be to himself, trying to figure out what’s going on,” added Williams. “And I know we tried as a team to just keep him together, rally around him. But it’s easy for us to say that.”
Canady decided that this injury was going to be different. He was going to play and he wasn’t going to let it get to him like it had before. He was going to tough this one out. Thanks to his abnormally strong lower body, he was able to make that happen.
On December 18, 2016, after three long years, Canady finally returned to the court in a game against Kean University, a D3 school that would win only one game during that year.
Canady does not like to consider this his first game, instead opting to call Drexel’s game against D1, Northeastern University on January 2, as his “real” first game back. That night, Canady logged 17 minutes and had 3 points, 4 assists, and 2 steals in a tough 5-point overtime loss. But as he played alongside Williams and his other teammates in a tight battle, he once again felt the true joy of basketball.
Canady battled his way through the entire season though most people didn’t know much of what he was going through. From the outside looking in, Canady appeared fine. He had healed and he was playing valuable minutes. No one knew he was missing an ACL and in constant pain. But everyone inside Drexel knew just how much he was going through.
“He could have just said, ‘I’m going to get the surgery and try again,’” Williams said. “But he said ‘I’m going work through this one,’ once the doctor gave him the option of wearing a brace to get through the season...He was not going to check out like before.”
On Drexel’s 2017 Senior Day, Canady walked out onto the court with Williams, Mohamed Bah, John Moran, and Elgin Ford, Jr. in his final home game at the school. Fans and sports commentators wondered why Canady was out there. What were his next steps? Did he have two more years of eligibility? Was he done wearing the Blue and Gold? What they didn’t know was that it was more complicated than that.
Canady still didn’t have an ACL and surgery would be ideal, but that would mean another entire missed season. Another year of working extremely hard through constant pain to get back on the floor. Another year of risking more injuries. He had learned from his mistakes.
On April 27 2017, Canady endured his third surgery in his four years at Drexel. The difference was that he wouldn’t be rushing back this time. Instead, Canady decided to take the next year off from basketball and focus on getting healthy. He signed up for a practicum at Villanova where he will be an “assistant’s assistant,” while using the perks of being a college athlete to earn his Master’s degree in Sports Coaching Leadership from Drexel at the same time. If his body heals and he still feels the desire to play college basketball during the time, he will transfer and play his sixth year at another school. If not, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Canady perusing the sidelines on a regular basis, especially with his degree.
Major Canady wore a white button down dress shirt with a tie as he walked into the not-so-elegant Chick-fil-A express in Drexel’s North Dining Terrace. He was thick and strong. He looked like he should be playing safety or running back somewhere, but in reality, his football dreams had ended before high school.
The West Philadelphia campus was bustling with action and energy today. Summer and graduation were right around the corner and everyone seemed anxious for the school year to be over.
It was lunchtime, but unlike the rest of the campus, the Chick-fil-A felt like an escape from frantic busyness going outside. Or maybe it was just Canady’s aura.
There was no line and Canady took his time. He flashed the smile that had earned him some votes in a Drexel athletics’ YouTube segment, “who on Drexel MBB most likely to be president?” while chatting up the workers behind the counter preparing his food. When Canady arrived at the cash register, he looked back and saw two people in line behind him.
“Those two are with me,” he said, handing the cashier his card to pay for the food.
No one in the store or in line could tell that the man with the warm persona had just had surgery a month and a half ago. They couldn’t tell that he had played an entire basketball season without an ACL. They couldn’t tell that he had gone through unimaginable bouts of sadness.
But that’s the way Canady wants it to be. He doesn’t want people to feel bad for him.
“People are battling cancer and people are losing family members,” Canady said. “You know, the guy [John Davis] from Towson was shot in the leg. It could always be a lot worse and there are people who would trade positions with you in a heartbeat.”
Photo: The Triangle
When you go to a Drexel basketball game, it’s hard not to notice a certain aspect of the Dragons’ starting lineup introductions. Most of the players run generically through the gauntlet as freshman Kris Alford awaits at the end. Kari Jonsson gives Alford a chest bump while Sammy Mojica just gives a quick high five and hug. But Rodney Williams catches most people’s eyes. After his run through the gauntlet, Williams runs five feet past Alford, turns around, and bends down, before rolling his shoulders back and forth comfortably as Alford pretends to snap a photo. This is 100% representative of how Williams has played this season: cool, creative, and mighty smooth.
The Drexel Dragons began the year as one of the bigger surprises in the Philadelphia City 6. After finishing last season 6-25 and losing six players, including four of their top six scorers, the 2016-17 season didn’t look to promising. But the Dragons have already surpassed their win total from last season at 9-20. While their record may not look good, the Dragons have competed night in and night out. It has been clear that while they might not be the best in the CAA, they are significantly in front of schedule.
A large part of their success has been thanks to Williams. The senior forward has provided instant offensive and defensive versatility in a career year. On offense, he has primarily played in the post, but has often been forced to the perimeter as a result of Drexel’s offense. It’s no problem as Williams has worked to improve his ability to attack the basket and knock down the open jump shot. In the post, Williams is one of the most polished in the CAA. His improvements as a whole over the last 4 years are hard to ignore.
While playing on a consistent basis his freshman season, Williams averaged 5.4 points per game and shot 51.8% from the field. He boasted a rebounding percentage of 13.7% and a defensive box plus/minus of 3.1 (both highs for his career). In a frontcourt without many solidified big men, Williams proved himself to be a reliable piece despite his age.
As a result, he earned himself more minutes the next year, averaging 30 minutes per game (10 more than the season before). However, in his second season, teams knew Williams’ name, and he saw his production drop. He shot a mere 43% from the field, 59% from the free throw line, and averaged less than 3 more points per game than he did his freshman season (5.4 to 8.2), despite playing 10 more minutes. Although Williams saw his rebounds jump to 7 per game, which is still the highest to this point in his career, his offensive output was not what people around the organization had anticipated.
In 2015-16, after an underwhelming year, Williams bounced back, averaging 10.5 points per game and bringing his field goal percentage up to a respectable 45.7%. However, it was towards the end of the season where Williams really came alive. After only having 8 double-digit scoring games in his first 23 games, he had 6 double-digit scoring games in the last 8 games of the season. By the end of the year, it was clear Williams was ready to lead as a senior, but his play this season has surely surpassed expectations.
After years of playing behind Damion Lee and Tavon Allen, Williams finally has the team to himself. Despite often being undersized, Williams is quick, clever, and comfortable in the post. This had led him to career high averages in points, field goal percentage, three-point percentage (made his first this season), free throw percentage, assists, and steals. At 16.2 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 52.8% Williams has been one of the best overall offensive players in the CAA. After only having 2 20-point games his first three seasons (82 games) at Drexel, the big man has compiled 10 in this season alone (29 games).
In specific, Williams’ ability to score in the post has been his bread and butter. He is quick, long, and polished, helping him shoot nearly 54% from two-point range, his highest mark of his career. More impressively, Williams has done a magnificent job getting to the free throw line. Thanks to his seasoned post moves and added game from the perimeter, Williams has shot 179 free throws this season, averaged 6.2 attempts per game, and is shooting 68.2% from the line. His total free throw attempts ranks him first in the City 6, 50 more than the next person, Villanova’s Josh Hart. Getting to the line has given him the opportunity to get easy points. His tenacity and endless attacking of the basket puts pressure on the opposing team’s big men to either foul or allow an easy basket.
Williams’ operating out of the post have also opened up scoring opportunities for the team’s guards. Opponents have to sink in on Williams, leaving open shots and driving lanes. Williams has no problem finding the open man too.
“He’s good not only as a scorer, but as a passer,” La Salle coach John Giannini acknowledged after their win over Drexel in November, “so we just tried to make it hard for him to get the ball.”
Thanks to his passing and ability to draw in the defense, two of Drexel’s starting guards, Kurk Lee and Kari Jonsson, are shooting 40% or above from three.
Additionally, what most people can’t see from the stat sheet, is Williams’ valuableness on the defensive end. Because of his combination of quick feet, lean body, and tall frame, Williams can cover the opposing team's best off-ball guards and/or big men.
Against La Salle, Williams had the tough order of sticking BJ Johnson, who is currently averaging 18 points per game. Despite struggling offensively, Williams helped hold Johnson to 12 points, his third lowest total on the season, and 5 turnovers, tied for his highest total of the season. Against Penn, Williams even went as far as sticking guards Matt MacDonald and Ryan Betley. While those two guards don’t have the offensive prowess of Johnson, it shows Zach Spiker’s, Drexel’s head coach, trust in Williams to cover the other team’s guards despite being 6-foot-7.
All in all, Rodney Williams has proved himself this season to be one of the most versatile big men in the City 6 and CAA. Thanks to his silky smooth play, he has helped Drexel play to their competition every single game. He has undoubtedly been the team’s most valuable player and his production cannot be overlooked.
Photo: Drexel University Athletics
Tim Perry Jr., the son of former Temple standout Tim Perry, verbally committed to Drexel yesterday and will join their 2017 recruiting class.
The 6-foot-10, 220 pound forward, who graduated from Cherry Hill East last June, currently attends The Phelps School in Malvern, PA and is averaging 10 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per game, according to his coach, Brian Shanahan, who spoke with Dick Jerardi of Philly.com.
Perry also had interest from Temple and La Salle but only received a scholarship offer from the Dragons. He joins Jarvis Noles in Drexel’s incoming recruiting class, who also decided to go the prep school route, attending Mt. Zion Prep (MD).
City of Basketball Love was the first to report of Perry’s commitment.
Photo: The Philadelphia Inquirer
While many people spent this year's Thanksgiving holiday morning finishing preparations for dinner, scanning the internet for Black Friday sales, or sleeping, Drexel's dynamic freshman point guard Kurk Lee was back home in Baltimore, Maryland practicing at his old high school's gym.
Mike McCormick, who is Lee's Godbrother and trainer, went with Drexel's starting point guard and another relative to St. Frances Academy's gymnasium that Thanksgiving morning but initially was hesitant.
“I didn't want to workout that day,” said McCormick. “Kurk's mom was cooking and I was in the living room. Kurk was upstairs in the shower and called down to see if I wanted to rebound.”
Silence fell over the house as McCormick thought about his response to Lee's request to go to the gym -- on Thanksgiving.
“I eventually said okay but I told [Kurk] that he had to drive,” said McCormick.
Before Lee started training with McCormick during high school, he learned from his dad, Kurk Lee Sr., who starred at Towson, scoring 1,541 career points, and eventually playing in the NBA.
“As soon as I was able to stand, my dad put a ball into my hands,” said Lee Jr. “I'm fortunate enough to have a dad that has played in the NBA and he continues to help me everyday by giving me knowledge of the game.”
Lee continued to develop his game going into high school but suffered a setback when he was 16 years old. The lefty broke his shooting arm while riding on a 4-wheeler with his friends, which left him unable to use that arm for months. Throughout the rehab process, Lee's mom, Sonya, and McCormick accompanied Lee to every physical therapy appointment. Though Lee missed a substantial amount of time due to the injury, a light bulb went off in his head during the recovery period.
One of Lee's weaknesses at the time of the injury was his shot. When he was able to get back in the gym after he fully recovered, he focused on perfecting his shooting form, since he lost the ability to shoot with his left arm after surgery. It wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
“It was like teaching a person how to shoot again,” said McCormick. “His shot got better because he had to start from scratch.”
With Lee's shooting mechanics fine-tuned, the three-year high school starter went on to help St. Frances win the 2015-16 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship, scoring 27 points and dishing out 7 assists.
He was also named to the All-Metro first team, as he averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.6 rebounds as a senior. Lee finished his prep career with 1,372 points and more than 600 assists.
Though Lee had a successful high school campaign, his commitment to work on his game and improve his skills never wavered, as he and McCormick routinely stayed after team practice to put in extra work.
“If team practice was from 4pm to 6pm, we would do strength work, but if team practice was from 6pm to 8pm, then we would stay in the gym and [Kurk] would have to make at least 250 shots before we left,” said McCormick.
St. Frances head coach Nick Myles gave the two unlimited access to the gym and saw firsthand how Lee's practice habits transferred over into live games.
“The things that you see him do on game day, are the same things that he works on at practice,” said coach Myles. “He has a great work ethic and knows what he needs to get better at.”
This past summer Lee and McCormick trained together, as they normally do, to prepare for the 2016-17 college basketball season but were joined by former Drexel guard Damion Lee for multiple workouts. Damion Lee, who currently plays for the Maine Red Claws in the NBA D-League, helped Kurk Lee transition to Drexel, since he spent four seasons with the Dragons before transferring to Louisville, by demonstrating what it takes to be a Dragon and play at the collegiate level.
“Working out with [Damion Lee] was an honor,” said Lee. “He told me to ‘push through everyday and embrace the opportunity.’”
Not only did Lee gain wisdom and continue to get stronger while training over the summer, but he specifically devoted time to work on his individual skills and mid-range jump shot.
According to McCormick, the biggest asset of any small guard is their ability to hit shots, especially if they do not play above the rim. He didn’t want Lee to miss time because of a lack of strength or undeveloped skill. He wanted Lee to get to school and contribute right away.
Drexel did their annual preseason fitness test in mid-September. With Lee waiting to complete the pull-up assessment, Drexel head coach Zach Spiker asked McCormick, who was in attendance, how often he and [Kurk] workout together. McCormick estimated that they trained together about five to six times a week, primarily working on strength and skills.
In perfect succession, Lee stepped up to the pull-up bar and began the evaluation. By the time he reached 20 repetitions, all of his new Drexel teammates had surrounded him and started cheering him on. Lee surpassed expectations on the pull-up challenge, just as he did with all of the other physical tasks that day.
Coach Spiker was so impressed by his recruit's display, that he told McCormick that he wanted to send more players to train with him.
Once Drexel began preseason practices, coach Spiker reiterated to his young guard that he wanted him to be a leader on this year's team. Despite Lee's status as a true freshman, he slowly took on more of a leadership role as the Dragons progressed through preseason workouts.
“I eased my way into things,” said Lee. “I know that I’m a freshman in the classroom, but not out on the court.”
Lee has certainly not played like a freshman through Drexel's first 12 games, as he has scored in doubles figures in all but one contest and leads the Dragons in minutes played, assists and steals.
The 5-foot-10, 150 pound guard has enjoyed coach Spiker's fact-paced practices, which complement his speed and overall game. Lee describes these workout sessions as intense with a up and down pace and he enjoys every second of it. Additionally, Lee has gained confidence from the belief that his coaches and teammates have in him.
Two teammates that have given Lee that self-assurance are senior Rodney Williams and redshirt junior Major Canady. The two upperclassmen have taken Lee under their wing and advised him that every practice is not going to be perfect but to make the most of it.
Off the court, Lee has also made an impact on Drexel's men's basketball program, as he hosted recent Drexel commit Jarivs Doles, who also trains with McCormick, for a campus visit. Lee knew Doles before the visit since he is from Baltimore as well and showed him what Drexel is all about.
“It was a great moment for [Jarvis],” said Lee of Doles’ commitment. “He enjoyed the visit and it's great that he committed to Drexel. He definitely fits the offense that coach runs.”
Even though Lee has gotten off to a hot start this year, he continues to train with McCormick, who drives up from Baltimore once or twice a week, to work with Lee on basketball skills. When he can't make games, he live streams them. If he sees that his mechanics are slipping, he always makes sure to let Lee know.
“I see all of the points and I expected that but I also see where Kurk can improve,” said McCormick. “Pound for pound, he's been playing well. The main thing is to remain consistent, limit the turnovers, and raise his free-throw percentage.”
Coach Spiker had similar comments about his leading guard after Drexel lost to Saint Joseph's earlier this month.
“In your freshman class, you're fortunate to take the floor and he needs to come in and command a presence,” said Spiker during his postgame press conference after Drexel lost to Saint Joseph's. “I think he's done that and he’ll learn. Certainly there's a lot of things we can work on with his game.”
With that being said, Lee plans to spend the upcoming Christmas holiday in a very familiar place.
“When we have Christmas break, I definitely see myself being in the gym,” said Lee. “Why not work on your craft?”
Photo: AP Photo/Mel Evans
Through the first 8 games of Drexel's new men's basketball era with Zach Spiker in charge, the Dragons are off to a 4-4 start. This may come as a surprise, as the team’s fourth victory last season came in late February.
Moving on from last year's 6-win season was not an easy task, especially after losing five players. But Spiker's system has worked.
Playing at a faster pace has led to more high percentage shots and steals. As a result, Spiker's group has been able to attempt more shots, helping them average 75.6 points per game this season.
Not only is Drexel scoring more but they are forcing opponents into lackluster mistakes due to their intense style of play. So far the Dragons have stolen the ball 55 times, contrary to last year's squad which only had 34 steals at this point of the season. A lot of the team’s early season success can be attributed to freshman standout Kurk Lee, who is the epitome of speed and leads the team with 15 steals.
Lee has flourished in this system from the start. After his collegiate debut where he led the team in scoring with 17 points, the Baltimore native scored a career-high 24 points against Hartford in Drexel's home opener. He followed that up by dropping 21 points against city rival La Salle and putting in an all-around performance against High Point with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 steals in 35 minutes of play.
The 5-foot-10 guard’s ability to impact the game by attacking the basket, nailing mid range jumpers, sticking tight defense, and distributing the ball to open teammates is essential for this team to be successful. Not to mention, his speed fits in perfectly with how coach Spiker wants this team to play. Lee plays relentlessly every time he’s out on the floor and works his tail off on both ends of the court.
Coach Spiker’s philosophy has also benefitted senior Rodney Williams. The big man went three-straight games with at least 20 points after Drexel’s season opening loss against Monmouth, where he just missed out on a double-double with 9 points and 10 boards. His contribution on the defensive end should not go unnoticed as Rodney Williams is tied with forward Austin Williams for most team blocks at 11. He also has shown the ability to cover perimeter players, showing his versatility to play defense inside and out.
Even more, Rodney Williams is Drexel's team-captain. On a night where Drexel was outrebounded by 27 and overmatched in the paint against Rutgers, the St. Christopher's School alum continued to grind on both ends of the court, modeling for his teammates what it means to be all in. He showed true leadership by not giving up and exemplified all the traits of a team-captain.
In Lee and Rodney Williams, Spiker found out early who he could rely on to lead his team moving forward. Lee showed the former Army coach that he could be a dynamic ball handler, who could make plays for teammates, while Rodney Williams displayed his offensive/defensive prowess and leadership skills.
As good as Drexel's leading duo of Lee and Rodney Williams have been, freshman guard Kari Jonsson has stepped up to become the team's most potent three-point threat.
Jonsson is shooting 48% from three and has hit a team-high 22 threes. The Iceland native drained 5 three-pointers when the Dragons defeated North Texas in their first appearance in the Lone Star State since the 1987-88 season and nailed a career-high 7 threes against High Point. Jonsson has taken advantage of additional playing time as his lethal shooting performance versus the Panthers came in a career-high 35 minutes of action.
Though Drexel has been playing at a high tempo, scoring more baskets and picking others teams’ pockets, the Dragons have struggled to consistently defend shots from beyond the arc and limit their own turnovers. Opposing teams are shooting 43% from the three, which gives Drexel the 348th ranking in the nation according to Sports-Reference.com.
The Dragons allowed a below .500 Niagara squad to shoot 83% (10-12 3PM-A) from three as sophomore forward Marvin Prochet and freshman guard James Towns combined for 8 threes to help the Purple Eagles win. Four days later, La Salle came into the Daskalakis Athletic Center and shot almost 62% (13-21 3PM-A) from three as senior swingman Cleon Roberts went 6-7 from deep.
Turnovers have also been a problem for Drexel. They have committed 13 or more turnovers in 7 out of their 8 games. Though High Point forced the Dragons into a season-high 21 turnovers last weekend, Drexel came away with the win but that contest was an outlier. Monmouth and La Salle stole the ball away from Drexel 16 and 17 times, respectively, and both teams won by double-digits.
If Drexel wants to remain competitive throughout non-conference play and into CAA play, they have to close out on three-point shooters quicker and limit their turnovers. They cannot expect to continue to win close games giving up almost 9 three-pointers and 15 turnovers per game. They have gotten away with it thus far but as the season progresses they may not be so fortunate.
All in all, through 8 games the team has exceed expectations. Coach Spiker has began to implement his system, found the players to lead his team, and has Drexel at a .500 winning percentage. After a disappointing 2015-16 season, Spiker has reenergized the Dragons, who are currently on a 2-game winning streak. There is still a lot for the Dragons to improve on but they are better off now than they were a year ago.
Photo: Benjamin Simon/ Philly Empire
-Drexel loses to Charleston in the quarterfinal of the CAA tournament