Basketball preview: Spain Park Jaguars
Published 5:11 pm Thursday, October 8, 2015
By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor
Wait. What? Basketball? How is this possible? How are we already here? High school basketball season officially kicks off in just over a week on Oct. 19. In the midst of a football season that could see as many as eight Shelby County teams make the playoffs, it’s easy to forget, or at least look past, the reality that basketball is approaching quickly. Objects in the mirror are always closer than they appear.
With that in mind, we’re going to get a lay of the land before the regular season sneaks up and smacks us all in the face. To do this, we’re going to preview a number of county teams to get familiar with the product they will be rolling onto the hardwood this winter. First up, the Spain Park Jaguars.
First year head coach Donnie Quinn takes over one of the hottest, most talented rosters in the state, if not the most talented roster in the state. With top junior prospects Austin Wiley and Jamal Johnson and skilled senior transfer Justin Brown coming over from Briarwood, Spain Park will be one of the 7A front-runners all year.
However, this was also the case a season ago. Spain Park was one of the top teams in the state all season and carried a No. 2 7A ranking and a 24-5 record into the area tournament before being upset by Vestavia Hills in the first round of the area tournament. In a game where Wiley did not play, his Jaguars fell on a last-second, four-point play to the Rebels, which ended the Jaguars’ season and subsequently led to the exit of then-head coach Neal Barker and paved the way for Quinn, an assistant coach at the time, to take the job. Now, a year later with a roster just as tantalizingly talented, Quinn won’t soon forget how last year ended.
“You don’t ever move past something like that,” Quinn said in an Oct. 8 phone interview. “When you lose a player, it doesn’t mean you lose the game, but that’s what happened. I’ll never let that moment die.”
While Spain Park has the talent, and the motivation, to make this season special, there is still a plethora of talent in the Birmingham area, specifically in Hoover and Mountain Brook, who met in the 7A state championship a season ago.
“This is a pretty unique situation with some guys we have and some guys (Mountain Brook) has,” Quinn said. “There are some of not just the top players in the state but top players nationally right here.”
One of those top players is Johnson, Spain Park’s point guard. Johnson is a 6-foot-four-inch prospect whose father, Buck Johnson, was an NBA first round draft pick in 1986 who spent seven years in the league. Johnson can fill it up from deep and get to the rim with ease as well, and will be the field general for this loaded roster. He currently has college offers from nine Division I programs, including Alabama, Auburn and Georgia, according to 247sports.com.
The new guy, Brown, was the Shelby County Co-Player of the Year last year along with Wiley and was the only player to average over 20 points per game in the county. He is another elite wing player with a six-foot-five-inch frame who is a high riser but also has a soft touch to match. Brown is one of just three seniors on this team and will take over the senior leadership role left behind by AJ Smiley and Malik Blanchard.
The star of this team however is Wiley. The 6-foot-10-inch junior is one of the top big men prospects in the nation and has already committed to play college basketball at Auburn in two years. Wiley is a mammoth in the middle, but even so Quinn wants his team to push the ball in transition as much as possible.
“We’ll definitely be full transition,” he said. “Austin is very good in transition. He’s one of the faster big kids in the country. He can block a shot on one end then dunk it on the other. And Jamal is such a good perimeter shooter, he’s been coached very well since an early age. We want to push the ball.”
The way to make sure last season does not repeat itself again, however, Quinn said, is not in the big names, but rather the role players.
“My focus is the ones who round off the team,” Quinn said. “If everyone else contributes that makes it tough to beat you. We’re trying to change the identity and the focus in that regard.”
Spain Park tips off on Nov. 16 with a home matchup against Minor.