Tony Wroten’s passes were spectacular.
The way the former Garfield basketball star would whip the basketball through his legs, or sling it around his back or fake everyone out with a signature no-look assist to teammates mesmerized a young Shane Nowell. The budding baller would get a seat in packed gyms to watch Garfield and his idol Friday nights.
On Saturdays, Nowell would copy the moves in his AAU games with close friend Nolan Hickman. Well, they would try.
“We were both dropping each other’s assists,” Nowell said with a chuckle.
Fast-forward nearly a decade and Nowell and Hickman are one of the smoothest backcourt duos in the Metro League. The Eastside Catholic juniors have meshed their chemistry with a roster determined to challenge for a Class 3A boys state basketball championship.
The Crusaders, who are second in The Seattle Times’ state rankings, placed sixth at state last season. Eastside’s best finish was as runner-up to Rainier Beach in 2014.
“Me and Shane, I don’t want to say Batman and Robin, but we’re something like that,” Hickman said. “We’re more equals (and) have a bond that’s unbreakable.”
The connection was instant as kids. What’s a point guard without a shooter and a shooter without someone to pass him the ball?
“He was a track star back then, so he was one of the fastest dudes I’d ever seen,” Nowell said of meeting Hickman when they were in the third grade. “He’s always been a good basketball player, and I saw the potential.”
Both are listed as four-star prospects, according 247Sports.com, which lists Hickman as the No. 3 junior in the state (No. 10 point guard in the nation) and Nowell as No. 6 (and No. 28 shooting guard in the nation).
It’s the winning on the biggest stages together that’s been the tricky part to master. After the disappointing finish at state last season — losing 49-41 to eventual champion O’Dea in the semifinals — the Crusaders figured time focused on individual development would help the team.
Eastside senior wing Chika Nduka and junior post J.T. Tuimoloau also played with Nowell and Hickman as Rotary 17U in Jamal Crawford’s The Crawsover summer basketball league played at Seattle University. Wroten, a 2012 NBA draft pick who currently plays in Poland, was among the notable opponents.
“He used to congratulate me on some of the passes I used to copy of him. He could see it,” Nowell said of past interaction with Wroten.
The 6-foot-5 Nowell, whose older brother is former Garfield and Washington star Jaylen Nowell, who is playing in the NBA G League, also used two-a-days to hone shooting and footwork to be more of a threat this season. Shane averaged 13.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season.
Hickman, who sprouted three inches in the offseason and is a slender 6-2, averaged 11.1 points and 3.2 assists.
“They both put in a lot of work this summer,” Eastside coach Brent Merritt said. “Nolan has gotten taller and stronger (and) Shane is just coming into his own now and taking coaching really well, even if he doesn’t like it. And the seniors are holding them accountable.”
Senior guard Syon Blackmon returned to the lineup after tearing his ACL in a SeaKing District playoff win against Mercer Island in February. Tuimoloau, a five-star football prospect, practiced with both teams during the Thanksgiving break to be eligible to play immediately after helping the Crusaders win the Class 3A football state championship earlier this month.
Tuimoloau, who wants to play both sports in college, averaged 13.4 points and 7.1 rebounds last season.
“The talent we have is very unique,” said Hickman, deciding that Nowell and the Crusaders are like the Avengers as long as he’s Black Panther. “Once we get it all together in the same mindset, I feel like we can take this far and win the championship.”