Theoretically, every high school basketball team starts the season aiming to win a state championship. But with only four returning players, two of them starters a year ago, Northwest girls’ basketball intends to focus on laying the foundation and gaining the experience necessary to make a substantial leap forward by the end of the winter and looking ahead to next year, second-year coach Lawrence Leonard said.
“One thing I realized from last season is that we’re going to wind up in a much better place at the end of the season than at the beginning,” said Leonard, who is the Jaguars’ first repeat coach in four years. “In our first game last year, we lost to Wootton by 35 points. Then we played them in playoffs and we lost by five points—and we were tied with a minute left with the ball at the free throw line. We were the same exact team, and it just showed our progression.”
Northwest opened 2017-18 with another 35-point loss—to Damascus on Dec. 5—but had the Jaguars emphasized “some of the little things,” the margin would not have been nearly as dramatic, Leonard said.
So, what are these “little things?” Sharpening fundamentals, for one. The hope, Leonard continued, is that if individuals develop into better basketball players and become more comfortable playing the game, the team with improve collectively. Other areas of focus include boxing out on rebounds—important given that the Jaguars do not have a true post player, attacking the rim with heads up and efficient execution of help defense.
“(Against Damascus) we got thoroughly out-rebounded,” Leonard said. “We really want to emphasize rebounding. Most kids think they can jump higher than they actually can, they think they can just get the ball and not box out. But if you box out, if the ball hits the ground, that’s fine.”
Senior point guard Khienya Benjamin, and sophomores Laurel Cotton and Jordyn Herwood are among returning players Northwest will lean on this season. Leonard deemed Benjamin one of the quickest players in the county, and someone the Jaguars will rely on to lead the offense. Herwood started as a freshman last season and surfaced as a reliable shooter. She’s worked hard in the offseason to expand her game to become much more than a good shot. Her experience should pay dividends this season as well, Leonard said. Cotton worked her way into the starting lineup last year and is poised for a breakout season now that she’s become more comfortable with the speed and physicality of varsity basketball.
Teams that don’t have size—Northwest’s tallest player is 5-foot-10 and most of the team averages about 5-7—are typically quicker and can use pace to try and counter any size mismatches. But the Jaguars don’t have the overall team speed to apply a full-court pressure defense. Instead, they’ll look to move the ball more side-to-side on offense, rather than north to south, Leonard said. Northwest will look to attack and keep the ball moving to the next open person.
Help defense will allow the Jaguars to cover more ground—and appear faster. If positioned well, players can close out whomever they’re guarding but be ready to step in and cover the ball if a teammate has been beaten.
“My goal is to make sure we are fundamentally better than we were last year,” Leonard said. “We’ve gotten a lot of raw players and if I do the right thing, they can become great ball players. If everyone becomes a better player, then down the road, we will become a better team.
“But I always emphasize that success is not defined by wins and losses but when you look back in March, can you say this season was worth playing. And it’s worth something different to everyone, whether it’s points scored or playing time or you’ve gotten better or just enjoyed being part of the team.”