On the eve of the high school basketball season, at the District 8-5A media luncheon at Schoepf’s Barbeque in Belton, Ellison coach Alberto Jones stood up and began his introduction of the 2013 Eagles by saying it was the type of team that can get a coach fired.
Two days after his Eagles toppled No. 6 Harker Heights at home to open league play, Jones rehashed that point while watching his team begin practice with ball handling drills.
“I thought we were going to have to take steps,” Jones said. “But I thought at best, talent-wise, this team would have more talent than last year’s team.”
That’s high praise after Ellison came within a point of upsetting state runner-up South Grand Prairie in the regional quarterfinals last year.
In between answers, not one but two balls roll to Jones’ feet, lost by ball handlers being defended by air.
Yet even as the Eagles turn the ball over and short-arm layups, it is easy to see what Jones meant in his introduction — Ellison passes the eye test when it steps off the bus.
The key for Jones is getting the Eagles to pass the rest of the tests.
“(I want) consistency and playing hard and bringing it every day no matter what,” Jones said. “As you can see, they’re not really bringing it right now. “
A slow start to a 7 a.m. practice is understandable, but Jones has seen it in games, most notably a 54-47 loss to Austin High — just four days before his team led Heights from start to finish.
“I try to tell them all the time that we’re pretty good when we’re playing hard,” Jones said, “but I’ve seen us play games, and if I didn’t know them, I would say this team is terrible.”
Not hurting for talent
The key part of the statement is if Jones didn’t know them.
While Jones has seen the lulls of the Austin High loss, he has also seen the highs of a 70-39 win against Round Rock, where Ellison overpowered the Dragons with a 17-0 run in the first quarter.
Ellison lost District 8-5A MVP Ojai Black to graduation, so the Eagles lack the familiar faces of last year.
But if anyone didn’t know the Eagles before Tuesday, they certainly do after the Heights game, which began with an 8-0 Eagle run.
Junior Malik Malone hit two 3-pointers to fuel that opening run, begging the memory of last season, when the 6-foot-5 wing scored nine straight points, all from downtown, to give Ellison a lead it never relinquished in a playoff-opening win against Duncanville.
“(I like to) go out there and put on a show,” Malone said with a smile.
While the smooth scorer Malone provides the theatrics, backcourt mates Knigel Key and Isaiah Stevenson provide the steadiness.
Key has smoothly transitioned from backup to starter at point guard, giving the Eagles a floor general and a cool customer as he hit the two free throws late to ice the win against Heights.
“He only had one turnover (against Heights),” Jones pointed out. “That’s what I was most proud of.”
Stevenson, meanwhile, leads the team in rebounding — he had a game-high nine Tuesday — and toughness as Jones called him and forward Shaqur Martin the heart and soul of the team.
All this from a sophomore guard starting in his first season on varsity.
“He has a mentality of like a 19- or 20-year-old, and he’s a sophomore on varsity,” Jones said.
Then there are the lone returning starters, seniors Fred Jackson and Ronnie Edwards, down low.
Jackson is a rangy 6-foot-8 presence who injects life into his teammates with each of his thunderous slams.
“It’s great,” Stevenson said, voice rising. “He goes up into the air and he holds on to the rim with two hands and lifts his legs up and he starts yelling? Yep, that’s him.”
Edwards, meanwhile, brings the muscle inside along with a lunch pail mentality at 6-foot-4. He also has the athleticism to complete a full windmill slam.
“I think Ronnie might be one of the most underrated players I’ve ever coached,” Jones said.
Off the bench, Ellison brings 6-foot-8 freshman phenom Isiah Jasey and the aforementioned Martin, not to mention Antonio Martin, who essentially led Ellison to a victory against Buda Hays with 15 points.
So, even without Black and All-8-5A first-teamer Malik Hawkins, Ellison isn’t hurting for talent.
“Everybody’s a star on our team,” Jackson said.
If anything, the Eagles’ chemistry is their best asset, according to Jones.
“We don’t have anybody who’s a ‘me’ guy who wants minutes,” Jones said. “So, I think that’s the most important thing that we don’t have any ‘me’ guys on the team.”
So, while no one else knew what the Eagles had to offer this season, they never wavered. Even now, they feel they know exactly what it’ll take to get back to where the season ended last year.
“Playing hard like (last year’s team) did,” Key said.
“Execution,” added Edwards.
After praising his team while also pointing out what he needs from it, Jones completes his interview and stops his team mid-drill.
“Do ball handling again,” Jones said, essentially starting practice over, “we just wasted 12 minutes.”
Almost instantly, the Eagles snap into the same drills they butchered just minutes earlier. Players clap and the energy in the gym is transformed.
Moments later, Jackson is finishing with two-handed jams and the varsity is overwhelming the junior varsity the way it has opponents at times this season.
This is the standard to which Jones holds the 2013 Eagles.
“I’ve seen it in spurts,” he said. “I just need to see a little more consistency.”