ATLANTA, Ga. — If, by chance, you needed proof that Newton’s boys basketball team still had Class AAAAAAA top 10 chops, and if, by chance, you needed further proof of the elite-level talent Ashton Hagans has, then the Holiday Hoopsgiving Showcase would’ve been a 2-for-1 deal for you.
Newton went 2-0 in the annual event that showcases some of the state’s top hoops teams, beating Class AAAAA No. 5 Columbia Friday, 94-64 and Class AAAAAAA No. 10 Pebblebrook, 87-78 on Saturday. And Hagans, the junior point guard widely considered the top Class of 2019 player at his position, went 2-for-2 on triple-doubles.
It all left Newton boys coach, Rick Rasmussen with a much clearer picture of the kind of squad his young Rams — with Hagans as the lone returning starter from last year — can become.
“It was a great Thanksgiving event,” Rasmussen said. “One of the best in the country. We knew coming in that the competition would give us an early idea of where we were as a team, and I think we learned a lot about ourselves in those two days.”
What the Rams have learned so far is that even inexperience can be fairly easily overcome when one of the best players in the country is your floor general.
Hagans lit up the stat sheet in both games, tallying 14 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds in the Columbia win, but then he wowed spectators Saturday while pouring in 27 points, dishing out 10 dimes and grabbing 10 boards as Newton held off a stubborn Pebblebrook squad that also had to replace a ton of graduated talent from last season.
“Ashton had a great two-game slate, earning his first back-to-back triple-doubles at Newton,” Rasmussen said. “We’re really sharing the ball extremely well, and Ashton, Dre (Butler), Armani (Harris) and Tre (Clark) played particularly well, especially on offense.”
Clark led the team in scoring with career high 26 points against Columbia and 16 against Pebblebrook, while the front line of Butler and Harris showed flashes of potential dominance.
Butler had 21 points and five boards and 18 and nine rebounds against Pebblebrook. Harris grabbed a total of 13 rebounds in both games.
“Dre had several grown man dunks in there, and Armani was also a force down low,” Rasmussen said.
But the coach doesn’t want to rest on early-season laurels or have an over-confident bunch as the team inches closer to the region grind.
“The areas we still need to work on are giving up uncontested shots and offensive rebounds,” he said. “We aren’t rebounding as we should, and this is going to cost us in a close game if we don’t improve soon.”
Don’t mistake his assessment for nitpicking, however. With the loss of big-time scorers such as Isaiah Miller (UNC-Greensboro) and J.D. Notae, and the departure of savvy veterans such as Darvin Jones (University of Mobile) and Josh Tukes (Georgia Tech football), it’s hard for Rasmussen to be more pleased at the kind of ball his Rams have played early on against some stiff competition.
“We passed the first tests of the season,” he said. “Against Pebblebrook, we had to dig in and go to work. We did that and showed a new level of toughness that we had not seen yet this season. That is why we play a tough schedule. We want to be tested early and often to be prepared for the region schedule and state playoffs.”
Newton will next host Walnut Grove (2-2) on Tuesday and then travel Friday to South Gwinnett for its first Region 8-AAAAAAA contest. The month of December will bring more tournaments and showcases, including travels to Memphis, Tenn. and Spartanburg, SC.
For Rasmussen, it simply means more chances for his now fourth-ranked squad to grow up and get better.
“This should give us momentum going into Walnut Grove and South Gwinnett,” he said. “We have work to do, but overall we are pleased with where we are, especially considering we lost seven seniors and only have one returning starter.”