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BASKETBALL: Arrival of Caleb Byrd signals the beginning of the Charlemagne Gibbons era
Byrd to Newton could give Gibbons fast start in first year
Caleb Byrd
Rising senior Caleb Byrd will look to bolster Newton's backcourt in the 2019-20 basketball season. -Submitted Photo


The Measureables: 5-foot-11, 165-pound combo guard whose considered a 3-star prospect by 

The Stats & Accolades: He averaged close to 35 points per game last year during his junior season for the Rome Wolves after putting up 22 per game as a sophomore. He was a Class AAAAA first team all state selection after the 2018-19 season. 

The Offers: He’s currently sitting at around 20, with overtures from the likes of Navy, East Carolina, Appalachian State, Kennesaw State and Middle Tennessee State, among others. 

The Outlook: Like his new coach, Charlamagne Gibbons, Byrd is no stranger to the NewRock area. He played middle school ball in Rockdale County and is well acquainted with Newton senior guard Shawn Smith. His addition and pairing with Smith should, once again, give the Rams one of the state’s most dangerous backcourts, as has been the case over the last three or four seasons.

COVINGTON, GA -- The Newton High basketball team got its first significant win with the transfer of Caleb Byrd from Rome, Georgia to freshly hired Charlemagne Gibbon’s program.

Byrd, a rising senior, is coming off of a junior year where he averaged over 30 points per game for Rome – complete with a game where he poured in 51 against Forest Park during the War Eagle Classic at Woodward Academy last December. The decision to come back to his home family came just days before the start of school.

The son of two basketball players -- his mom Felisha Jackson played collegiately at Georgia Southern -- Byrd is quickly becoming a star in Georgia. Growing up, Mom made sure Byrd studied old Allen Iverson videos to learn the game.

"[My parents] are basketball oriented,” Byrd said. "They all played, and my mom and my dad, they were the ones who put me into basketball. Making me dribble the ball until I got tired when I was about four or five -- three or four or five years old. So It [was] just them pushing me into it. And they were the ones that got me to love the game as much as I do."

It was Byrd and his mother who made the decision together to complete his senior year at Newton.

What the move signals now is that Gibbons' role as head coach is officially on watch. Since being hired in May – usually considered high school basketball dead months – the former Morgan County coach has coasted through the summer with relative obscurity.

Byrd knew of Gibbons from afar but had no previous personal relationship with the coach. Gibbons' hire, though, stands as one of the more quietly significant moves in Newton County athletics.

For Bryd, his decision to leave Rome had nothing to do with anything his former school did wrong. Rather, it had everything to do with what he felt Newton could do right.

Gibbons also insists that it was nothing of his doing that wooed Byrd to Covington. The program's pedigree and history kind of does that on its own.

Playing at Newton offers the prolific scorer the chance to compete for a state championship at the highest level in Georgia and the ability to raise his already rising profile in one of the top high school basketball classifications (Class AAAAAAA) the nation. The appeal of playing at home for his senior season in front of his close family drove the decision.

Charlamagne Gibbons
Newton boys basketball coach Charlamagne Gibbons will be hoping his championship pedigree rubs off in Covington. -photo by Daniel Richardson

"[Byrd] coming to [Newton] gives him a chance to play against the top competition in the state, and really throughout the country, if you look at Georgia basketball with 7A,” Gibbons said. “I think that was the attraction of him wanting to come and finish his last year.”

Gibbons received high reviews in his May meeting with a select group of Rams players' parents after he laid out his vision for the team and program.

In the coming months and into the season, Gibbons said he will spend time working to “get everybody back on board and doing the same stuff.” Gibbons has D-1 college experience from four seasons coaching at Florida Atlantic University under former NBA player Michael Curry. He coached both girls and boys high school teams at Morgan. He lead the boys to Morgan’s first state championship in 2014 and coached the girl's team to deep playoff runs and a region championship in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

The pedigree and results are there for Gibbons, who is used to coaching highly talented players like former Georgia Southern standout Tookie Brown.

What remains to be seen is whether he can live up to the – possibly unfair -- high expectations of the upcoming season. Having a player like Byrd on his roster does nothing to quell those expectations, but it does give him more tools to potentially live up to them.

For Byrd, he's already picked up on Gibbons' vibe and energy toward Newton basketball.

"[Coach] wants the best out of all of us,” Byrd said. "He pushes us to the limit. He tells us what expectations he has for us and what we need to work on. He gives us constructive criticism that we have to take, and he pushes us on and off the court. So, he’s great – a very high-class guy.”

Byrd’s addition only adds more intrigue to a roster that was already talented with rising senior Shawn Smith slated to be the premier scorer. Maxwell Calloway, TJ Clark, and Jordan Marshall are all slated to be major contributors come November – all players who are talented but largely unheralded to this point.

For Smith, his summer work with the team was primarily focused on preparing for a year where he was going to see multiple double-teams and trapping situations. That may still happen, but with Byrd joining him in the backcourt, it'll give opposing defenses a little something extra to think about.

"My coaches told me to I was probably going to get a lot of double-teams thrown at me this year," Smith said. "But since [Byrd] came, they're going to have to choose wisely on who they want to double and how to defend us, and that makes us more dangerous on offense."

Considered to be a slasher, Smith has also worked on the finer details of his jump shot and focused on gaining more explosiveness in his legs.

Now armed with both Smith and Byrd in the backcourt, Gibbons' preferred fast-paced style of offense instantly becomes more dynamic.

“Well, if we were going to play fast before, we're going play even faster now,” Gibbons said. “I mean, you put two quality point guards on the floor, like Shawn and Caleb, and you're going to be good. And the way college basketball  is these days, most schools are playing two, ‘combo guards’ or two point guards at the same time.

"So I think it helps both of them in their transition getting ready for college. I think it helps the younger players to take some of the pressure off those guys, that they can get adjusted at this level to know what it's going to take for them to be really really good players as well.”

Smith's full potential, however, still largely remains a question mark for most in Covington.

The 6-foot-2 guard had a summer that saw his profile and game get somewhat of a boost while playing with his AAU team, Team Strap -- a squad made up of local ballers.

Spending his first three years at Newton playing behind talent like Ashton Hagans, Armani Harris, Tre Clark and Tyrease Brown -- all current D-1 players -- Smith hasn’t had a chance yet to put his game on full display. Gibbons recognized his point guard’s talent almost immediately.

Shawn Smith
Newton guard Shawn Smith has used a strong summer to prepare for a breakthrough senior season on the basketball court next winter. Pairing up with fellow senior guard and Rome High transfer Caleb Byrd should help. -photo by Sydney Chacon

 “Shawn has more of an opportunity that people can actually see who he really is,” Gibbons said. "Because he's more of a marquee guy now than he was on last year’s team, but he was really good last year. He's improved on his leadership, trying to show these guys how hard you got to work, because he’s an extremely hard worker."

The potential of the new Rams backcourt has those who have seen Byrd practice since his arrival excited. Both Byrd and Smith speak highly of one another and have a sky-is-the-limit outlook on their pairing.

“I don’t even see a ceiling, honestly," Byrd said. "We believe we can win a region championship first and go ahead and take it all the way to state,” Byrd said. “I believe we can go all the way and win a state championship, especially with the backcourt we have, and we got a great team overall, so I believe we can do some great things this year.”

This year’s schedule, under Gibbons and his coaching staff, is slated to feature the level of talent that would warrant the visit of fans and scouts alike.

Having a schedule loaded with marque opponents increases the already cemented Newton brand but also shrinks the margin of error and places more attention on the starting point guard and his backcourt mate – but also on the rest of the team.

“I feel like those harder games during the season are going to prepare us to get deeper in the playoffs,” Smith said.

Teaming up with a familiar face in Smith also has its benefits for Byrd as well. The two played against each other during their time playing middle school basketball -- Byrd at Edwards with Smith at Clements --  and travel ball and have continued their relationship up to this point.

Smith was, in fact, one of the first people Byrd told of his transferring decision.

After a workout a few days before it became public, Byrd told an immediately excited Smith that he was coming to join him in Newton. Knowing Clark since they were in the second grade and having a previous relationship with players, has given Byrd a head start in integrating into the Gibbons culture at Newton.

[Shawn] was very shocked. He was shocked, but he was excited. And then I told all the other players also they were very excited also.  I've known a couple of players there for a while also. So to be able to get back with my friends that I grew up with is very great.”

Gibbons is looking to develop a college-like program at Newton High. The relatively quiet circumstances around the arrival of Byrd shows that he is already implementing his plan. He also has the vision to make Newton High basketball games the top to-do event in the city.

With basic chemistry between his two top players and the rest of the team, the job of instilling his culture may have gotten easier.

The talent he now possesses in the emergence of Smith and the addition has fast-tracked that vision and simultaneously raised the stakes for a season of basketball that already slated to be pressure-packed.

“There's a lot of other guys that are going to come out and show that they could be in the category to help this duo in the backcourt so we can have one of the best perimeters in the state,” Gibbons said. “And so I would rank us right there with anybody else. There's no other backcourt I trade these guys for right now.”