When Eastside boys basketball coach Brent Wren talks about his 2016-17 team in general, his voice glides with the ease of one well-versed in coach speak.
He alludes to cautious optimism, mentions that his 3-0 start to the season has him pleased, but knowing that “we got a lot more growth to do.” You know, all of the safe things coaches say about their teams.
But mention the name Keiodre Perry, and suddenly you can detect a lilt of excitement in his voice. Wren almost seems as if he’s been chomping at the bit to talk about how special his 6-foot-3 senior combo guard is to the team, and even to himself as his coach.
“Oh, Keiodre’s impact is huge,” Wren said Wednesday during the team’s last practice before the Thanksgiving break. “He knows that his role on this team has increased. He knows it and he’s accepting that role. He knows he has to play big for us every night now.”
Not that Perry hadn’t already carved out a reputation for making big plays and being a clutch contributor with a knack of making players around him better. After all, Perry is coming off a 2015-16 campaign wherein he averaged 15.8 points six boards and four assists per game for a Class AAAA state tournament qualifier.
But that was when Perry had the benefit of being a part of a big three of sorts that included guards Isaiah Miller and Joshua Cammon.
Both Miller and Cammon transferred during the offseason. Cammon went to Tucker, while Miller ended up at cross-town rival Newton. And while most typically try to downplay the impact of talented players leaving a program, make no mistake about it — it does leave some impact.
Wren mentioned how those three came into Eastside together as freshmen, perhaps with visions of becoming a vaunted “big three” for the Eagles. Perry, himself, will tell you that it was hard to see the duo portion of their trio go.
“We lost some key guys who I was very close to,” Perry said. “It hurt to see them leave, but it made me wanna work harder. I feel like we’ve got something to prove to everyone, that’s all.”
Thus, Perry has found himself getting acclimated to the new role of being the team’s go to player — the one coaches plan their defenses around every night. It’s something that presents a bit of a challenge for him, only because Perry is the kind of player who innately wants to see others get the shine before himself.
“The thing about Keio is he’s one of the biggest cheerleaders you can have on a team,” Wren said. “When the other guys were around, he kinda sat back a bit. He would sometimes put himself on the second burner to make sure he could support everyone else. He’s the biggest, most unselfish kid you’ll find.”
But when over half of last season’s point production departed, Wren said he didn’t have to spend much time telling Perry what he needed from him.
“I’ve seen him grow in that ability to accept that leadership,” Wren said. “He really accepts it. He pushes these guys and gets after these guys pretty tough, but he’s also very tough on him self. He’s had a lot of growing pains and gotten past them to help him be a better leader.”
Perhaps the most painful of the growing pains came during Perry’s sophomore year.
According to Wren, every time Perry touched the court — whether as the junior varsity’s leading scorer while a freshman, or during the first part of his sophomore season on varsity — Perry has been a top playmaker. But he never got the chance to play a full season until his junior year, due to some early academic struggles that ultimately led to him being dismissed from the varsity squad as a sophomore.
“Ever since I got kicked off the team in the 10th grade, it made me grow up a lot,” Perry said. “It hurt. It hurt a lot. I’d see my teammates play, and then they’d come to school every day and talk about the games. I was hurt that I wasn’t there, and I felt like I hurt some of them for not being there. I decided that I don’t ever want to go through that again.”
Since that point, Wren said, Perry has been a hard worker, both in the classroom and on the court. It’s common for him to stay after practice for up to an hour getting in individual work with assistant coaches, and so far it’s paid off.
Perry has helped the Eagles get off to their first 3-0 start since the 2012-13 season by putting in a double-double per game. His 23.5 points and 10 rebounds per game leads the team by far. But even in a new scoring role, Perry has not lost the art of trying to make others better around him.
He’s still the first guy to pass out high fives in practice huddles, as well as the first to deflect praise to other teammates.
“I’ve been like that since I was younger,” Perry said. “I’m not a selfish guy. I always look for my teammates and try to find ways to make them better.”
And even despite the departure of some of Eastside’s best and more seasoned players, Perry feels the team’s chemistry has improved.
“I feel like we’re all closer,” he said. “Ever since the breakup, everyone is closer. This is like family. This is really family. I love all these guys, and I love playing with these guys.”
Yet, Perry knows that a game Friday with Newton means his first time facing one of his former teammates, Miller, in a different jersey. And while both Wren and Perry call the in-county rival a competitive, but friendly one, Perry won’t try to downplay the importance of playing well against his former backcourt partner.
“Nah, we’ve gotta go at them,” Perry said. “I’ve been looking forward to it since the summer. I’m ready for it. We’re all ready for it and we’re looking forward to it. It should be a fun and exciting game.”
It’s also a game that, for Perry, could prove that the hard work he’s put in to grow as a player and a leader during this offseason won’t have gone for naught.
“Like I said, it’s a chance for us to kind of prove something to everyone,” he said. “I think we can make a deep playoff run. Once we get everything figured out, we can really make a deep playoff run, and I think this year we’re going to shock a lot of people.”