The assistant coach under Brandon Roy, who is taking the season off, saw most of his expected returnees from last year's undefeated, state title-winning squad, transfer or move.
Brandon Roy was never shy about how duties were distributed among his boys basketball coaching staffs at Nathan Hale and Garfield.
“I’ve got Xs and Os guys,” said the Bulldogs alum, who went on to star at Washington and in the NBA.
Peek inside Garfield’s huddle during timeouts last season and assistant JayVon Nickens was one of the guys drawing up plays on a clipboard or demonstrating fundamentals. His creativity helped Roy post a 57-2 record and Class 3A state championships at Hale and Garfield in two years as a first-time high-school coach.
But Garfield’s 2018-19 season might be the toughest game-plan Nickens has ever had to design.
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Roy was granted a yearlong sabbatical from his coaching position for personal reasons and six expected varsity returnees transferred to other programs or out of state. Nickens was tapped in September to replace Roy and format a strategy to retain the program’s success with a roster of unknowns.
“Sometimes the unknown is the best story,” Nickens said. “Going into this, I knew I had to do my homework. The last two years being fortunate of coaching with Brandon and the other (staff), we had to do our homework because these other coaches have been in the game a lot longer than us. … Pressure? I don’t know what that is. We don’t talk about it.”
Nickens’ imprint is apparent in the sounds at practice. The coaches are the only voices you hear.
It’s a tradition Nickens returned from his days as the point guard on Garfield’s 1998 state championship team. The senior class were the only players who could speak as a way to teach respect for veterans and the importance of learning by watching.
With four underclassmen and the projected best player being a freshman in guard Koren Johnson in the lineup, Nickens took the philosophy a step further, banning players from interviews with media. Senior forward Micah Jessie and junior forward Justin White provide the vocal leadership.
“Everybody else is new,” Nickens said. “It’s actually kind of fun because I don’t know what to expect from them, and they don’t know what to expect from me. We’re making it work. They’re showing up every day and doing what I ask them to do and that’s all you can ask as a coach. They hold me accountable, too.”
Garfield (2-1) has already lost. It was a one-point defeat (66-65) in the season-opener to Cleveland, which is coached by Nickens’ former Garfield teammate Jerry Petty, who was the state tournament MVP.
“They’re a young, energetic group like us,” said Petty, who graduated seven seniors, including Washington State freshmen CJ Elleby. “Once he gets them to play his style of basketball, they’re going to be pretty good.”
It’s difficult to not wonder what the Bulldogs would’ve been like had the bulk of the championship team returned.
Senior guard Pierre Crockrell Jr., who scored a team-high-tying 19 points to help defeat Rainier Beach for the title, transferred to Federal Way along with junior forward Tari Eason. Senior forward Jamon Kemp, son of Sonics legend Shawn, and junior guard MarJon Beauchamp are at Beach. Senior guard PJ Fuller is playing for a prep school in Nevada, and senior forward Jorell Saterfield moved to New Mexico.
“We were loaded,” Nickens said of the roster that included current USC freshman J’Raan Brooks. “To manage all of those egos and personalities and feelings — remember, they’re still boys at the end of the day. This is not a Division I basketball program where they should already know, so there was a lot of coddling and trying to get them to do the right thing and buy-in. … I thought Brandon, myself, Jamaal Williams and the rest of the coaching staff did a hell of a job managing all of that personality and talent. It’s not easy.”
Even during the 2017-18 season there was talk of trouble accepting roles and sharing the ball. Nickens said he tried to keep the players together.
“I was heavily involved,” he said. “You can’t do much about it if a family makes up their mind in saying, ‘Hey, we’re moving our kid.’ You wish them the best of luck and say, ‘Call me if you need me.’ That’s what coaches do. You don’t give up on kids because of parents’ decisions.”
And Roy is still around. He will join in on the pickup games. He was present for tryouts in November to offer words of encouragement and tips. Roy drops by practice and expects to attend a few games, reportedly looking forward to a return next season.
For now, Garfield believes it’s under good leadership with Nickens.
“We’re still pretty talented,” he said. “It’s scary. Once we start clicking and get a few games under our belt, it’s going to be something to see.”
5 Other Teams to Watch
Federal Way: The Class 4A state runners-up are already showing off their potent offense, twice scoring 90 points or more to open the season.
Rainier Beach: Franklin transfer Javion Garrett, a 6-foot-6 senior forward, could be the X-factor in returning Beach to the Class 3A state title game.
O’Dea: Senior guard Noah Williams scored a TD in the Class 3A state football title game and aims to lead the hoops team to the Tacoma Dome too.
Mount Si: The Wildcats are looking for the backcourt duo of Jabe Mullins and Tyler Patterson to lead them to their first state appearance since 2006.
Eastside Catholic: If the Crusaders are going to challenge for the Metro League crown, it’s going to take some stellar play from sophomore guard Shane Nowell.
5 Other Players to Watch
Jaden McDaniels, Federal Way (6-11, Sr., PF)
Prolific scorer is one of the highly touted recruits in the nation, but his focus is on getting back to the Tacoma Dome.
MarJon Beauchamp, Rainier Beach (6-6, Jr., SG)
Ready to take the lead after serving as a reserve on two Class 3A state championship teams at Nathan Hale and Garfield.
Pierre Crockrell Jr., Federal Way (5-11, Jr., PG)
The Garfield transfer scored a team-high-tying 19 points to help the Bulldogs win the Class 3A state championship in March.
RaeQuan Battle, Marysville-Pilchuck (6-4, Sr., SG)
The Washington-commit is the sole senior for the Tomahawks and will have to provide leadership along with scoring to make his team successful.
Mitchell Saxen, Ingraham (6-10, Jr., C)
The four-star prospect is hopeful he can lead the Rams to their first state tournament appearance since 1975.