MORROW, Ga. – If you closed your eyes and walked into the Clayton State University gymnasium on Friday night, you may have thought it was late January instead of mid June.
That’s because you would’ve heard all the sounds commensurate with midseason basketball, including the bouncing of balls, the swishing of nets, the chime of the whistle – and for Newton Rams fans – the familiar sounds of coach Rick Rasmussen barking instructions and encouragement at his players.
To be sure, it’s only summer league basketball. In summer league, the full court gym is divided in half with two games running on each side at the same time.
It’s two 20-minute halves with running clocks and two-minute half times. But though the actual game play may be abbreviated, there’s nothing short about the level of competition and desire to win.
“We’re coming out here in these settings to compete,” Rasmussen said Friday night after he saw his team lose a one-point ball game to always talented Miller Grove. “We’re not just going to throw five random guys out here and five more out there and just see what happens. The scoreboard is on, so everything matters. We want to get work in, develop and get better. We’re trying to practice being successful now. If we’re not playing to win, what are we practicing for?”
The extra work is paramount, now that the high flying, nationally ranked Newton Rams of the 2016-17 season have given way to a fresh-faced starting five that consists of players who primarily sat the bench while a senior, star-studded group carried the Rams to a 28-2 mark and Elite Eight finish in the Class AAAAAAA state tournament.
But the starting five Rasmussen has mostly employed during the first part of summer ball starts with 6-foot-6 junior Armani Harris and 6-foot-5 senior DeAndre Butler anchoring the post. Then it’s juniors Colby Rogers and Tyrease Brown, and a combination of senior Eric Broadnax or junior Tre Clark at point guard.
Only Rogers and Harris saw a lot of extensive playing time last season. Butler missed his junior year due to injury and, according to Rasmussen, “is still feeling himself out and getting into shape.”
That said, the fact that this inexperienced bunch rattled off 10 straight wins in the Georgia College tournament last week and went 2-1 in three games at Clayton State – the two wins coming against Westlake and Alcovy after the Miller Grove loss, gave Rasmussen some reasons to stick his chest out a bit.
“I really was proud of those guys, just because you just don’t know what to expect when you’re starting five brand new guys,” Rasmussen said. “We’ve got six returners in all. Guys like Colby and Tyrease have been inconsistent. But both of those guys can shoot it, and Eric, Tre and Tyler (Glover) all bring different skill sets to the point guard position. It was a good outing for them. A good confidence booster.”
Newton won the Georgia College tournament championship by beating an old region foe in South Gwinnett. In those games, guys like Harris hit clutch shots and free throws, as did Rogers. In the Miller Grove loss at Clayton State on Friday, Brown drained a timely three-pointer with just a couple of seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Rasmussen says its signs that his fresh faced players have ample skill to win consistently. Now they just need some seasoning.
“It’s all about experience from here,” Rasmussen said. “They’ve played (13) games up to this point, so this is really good for them. In July they’ll play some more and get more confident. I think they’re still feeling themselves out as (college) prospects. It’s like they’re realizing that now that they’re prospects, they’ve gotta play like prospects and look like it every game.
“It’s easy when you’re coming off the bench and you’re not a starter, and you just come in and do a little bit. But now it’s your show, and if they get on the floor and can’t get the job done, who else are we going to play.”
Harris is one who feels like the challenge to lead is one worth embracing – even beyond the basketball court.
“I think this leadership role is great for me,” Harris said. “It’s a great time for me to help me grow up as a player and as a man in general. It’s really a great time for me.”
Rogers, a 6-foot-4 two-guard who’s sweet shooting stroke has drawn some looks from college recruiters, is also one who says he won’t shy away from what the spotlight is bringing him. In fact, he’s embracing it.
“This year it’s being on the floor a lot more and being depended on a lot more by your team,” Rogers said. “It means you’re gonna be asked to a lot more for your team and you’ll be counted on more. I don’t really feel more pressure, though, because I’ve put in work to get where I’m at, so I just have to keep working, and hopefully more colleges will contact me."
Despite the huge disparity in experience from his last two teams to this year’s bunch, Rasmussen says he relishes the opportunity to see how much he can pull from this emerging group.
“I think we have the pieces,” he said. “It’s all about working hard to make it come together. They’re trying. They’re attitudes are good. They’re ability to own up to mistakes and say ‘my bad,’ is there. They want to be coached hard, and their ability to do that determines how much you develop.”