Newton High School has never been short on basketball talent or tradition.
Go back to the days of legendary coaches Ron Bradley and Billy Hendricks, and you’re talking about a long legacy of high quality high school basketball that can’t easily be matched by most programs.
So when current Newton Rams coach Rick Rasmussen says that he can’t recall a better or more athletic trio of players than seniors J.D. Notae and Isaiah Miller and sophomore Ashton Hagans on one team during his 12 years as Newton’s head coach and several others as an assistant, it’s not just convenient coach-speak or hyperbole.
“I believe we have the best backcourt in Newton County history in Ashton, Isaiah and J.D.,” Rasmussen said. “They play so well together. They’re so good in transition. They’re averaging eight dunks per game, and I can’t remember, at any other time, a set of guards who dunk like this and score like they do.”
But it isn’t just the dunks that make them so special. After all, anyone with explosive leaping ability can grab the rim. And Rasmussen has had athletic trios on his squads before – think back to 2011-2012, Derrick Henry (Winthrop), Stephen Croone (Furman) and Shane Henry (Virginia Tech, by way of Georgia Perimeter College).
Rasmussen says it’s about how they get their transition buckets, and how they play overall that makes this “big three” so unique.
“Our big three – our triple threat – they’re such a matchup nightmare for opposing teams,” he said. “They not only make themselves and each other better, but they make their teammates better.”
And while a lengthy debate could ensue on whether or not Notae, Miller and Hagans are in the midst of establishing a new “best ever” standard at Newton, Rasmussen feels almost certain about where this group ranks right now in Georgia.
“I think we have, arguably, the best backcourt in the state this season,” he said. “Especially when you factor in our other guards who are playing well, like Darvin Jones and Colby Rogers. Those guys are also college prospects.”
But make no mistake about it, it’s Hagans, Miller and Notae who make the machine run.
The No. 2 Rams have raced out to a 7-0 start after Friday’s Region 8-AAAAAAA opener win at South Gwinnett (at press time Newton’s Saturday game at No. 9 Duluth had not been played). Through seven games, Rasmussen’s bunch is averaging 85 points per game, and the Newton Three have accounted for almost 75 percent of the team’s scoring offense – not including the way they help create for their non-big three teammates.
It sounds like pretty serious stuff, considering the Rams are inching closer to becoming a favorite state championship contender. But according to Notae, the secret to their success is their ability to not take themselves or each other too seriously.
“I would say that yes, by far, this is the most talented group I’ve played with,” Notae said. “I mean, it’s just fun and exciting. Any time there could be a spectacular play. It’s very fun playing with these guys.”
Notae will get no arguments from Miller.
“They bring me more fun and excitement,” Miller said. “They know what to do with the ball. They know how to put it exactly in the place where it needs to be.”
For Miller, at least early on, that preferred place is one where he can unleash his own barrage of devastating dunks. Miller has become a local social media sensation, as several of his dunks have made been caught on video and made the rounds through Twitter.
One example is last Friday when Newton visited rival Eastside, and Miller got the ball out on a break in transition, gathered himself and executed a flawless two-handed windmill slam off of a drop step.
It was enough to electrify the crowd, regardless of who they were cheering for. And it’s the kind of play both Notae and Hagans say they try to set their teammate up with as much as possible.
“It’s amazing to watch, man,” said Notae regarding Miller’s athleticism. “I already knew he had it in him before the season started. It’s like, now when we’re in a game we tell him, ‘Man, you gotta catch the windmill.’”
And it’s not about showboating either. Both Miller and Notae say the highlight reel style plays do a lot to bump up the team’s intensity.
“It gets us hyped and pumped up,” Miller said. “It gets everybody up to get back and play better on defense.”
Such plays also give incentive to Hagans, a sophomore point guard who already has more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers.
“They make me look better,” Hagans said, drawing a chuckle from his two teammates and coach. “I know I can put it in either one of their hands and we can get a big bucket.”
But lest someone thinks it’s all about showboating, Rasmussen is quick to point out how fundamentally sound his trio is, and that the “extra” is just icing on the cake after they’ve performed their most rudimentary tasks well.
“It takes tremendous chemistry and selflessness for them to play this way,” he said. “They each have different strengths and basketball skills that compliment each other. They love playing together, sharing the ball and setting each other up. They know the importance of playing selflessly, making the extra pass, playing defense and playing team ball. And they’re best friends on the court.”
Perhaps most crucial to Newton’s title hopes is that they want to win. To a man, Miller, Notae and Hagans all agree that it’s not just enough for them to be known as good, crowd pleasing players.
They’re gunning for Georgia high school basketball’s highest prize in the state’s largest classification.
“We want state,” said Notae, while both Hagans and Miller nodded in agreement. “Not just state playoffs. State champions. The sky’s the limit”
Said Miller: “We want to best. We want to be the greatest.”
And their coach believes they can be.
“They are really fun to watch,” Rasmussen said. “And when they are focused and at their best, they are unstoppable.”