Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Antwon Jackson caught a pass just above the free-throw line at a recent scrimmage, and saw defenders retreat toward the basket.
The Clark High center-forward used the space to drain a jump shot.
A few minutes later, the same situation played out. Jackson squared up, the defense backed down and he produced another two points.
“It actually helped us progress through the game because now they’re crowding him and he’s able to go by them,” Clark coach Chad Beeten explained.
Opponents tend to make assumptions about the 6-foot-7 post player. Those assumptions get them into trouble.
It’s always been that way to an extent, but Jackson has amplified his abilities to create matchup problems going into his senior season. He’s expanded his game out of an insatiable desire to leave high school the same way he came in as a freshman — with a state championship.
Jackson’s evolution makes him an even more deserving honoree of the most prestigious local preseason basketball honor — he’s a member of the Sun’s annual Super Seven team.
“I just have to get ready to transition from a high school player to a Division 1 basketball player,” Jackson said.
A four-year varsity player, Jackson wasn’t receiving the recruiting attention he felt he deserved a few months before his senior year. That quickly changed as the school year drew closer.
Jackson caught the eyes of some college coaches in the final AAU tournaments of the summer and lined up a few official visits. He would only need one in the end, as Arkansas State was Jackson’s first stop and a place where he immediately felt comfortable.
He committed to the Red Wolves in September only a couple days after coming home to Las Vegas.
For a lot of high school athletes, that would be a cause for celebration. But for Jackson, it was a prompt to bear down and improve his game.
He started a meal plan sent over by Arkansas State’s coaching staff, replacing cheeseburgers, chicken fingers and sugary foods with fruits, vegetables, salmon and grilled chicken.
Jackson has already lost more than 25 pounds, getting below 260. He also recently added morning practice sessions, as he goes to the gym at 5:30 a.m. daily with a few teammates to take extra shots.
“I feel a lot lighter and more confident,” Jackson said. “I know all the things inside are going to come, but my jump shot is something I’m very proud of, very confident in and something I can feel changing.”
Jackson could potentially average a double-double in points and rebounds for the Chargers, which come into the season ranked as the No. 2 team in town. That would be a big increase, as he’s averaged about eight points and six rebounds per game through his first three seasons.
Clark has always been loaded with scorers, forcing Jackson to be a secondary offensive option. The Chargers figure to run through him more often this year.
“It was always in the back of my mind knowing I’m able to score but knowing that not every night I’m going to be able to get my shots off,” he said.
Jackson already has a target in mind for his first year at Arkansas State — he wants to average eight points and eight rebounds. He knows there’s much to accomplish at Clark first, but also wants to dream big.
Jackson got his desired Division 1 scholarship, and hasn’t looked back.
“Antwon has always worked hard,” Beeten said. “He was in all summer with me when he wasn’t playing AAU ball or practicing with his AAU team, and we spent a lot of time this summer working on his individual stuff and his conditioning. But sometimes when you don’t see the results, the fruits of your labor so to speak, you get a little frustrated and I think toward the end of the summer he was starting to get that.”
“Since he committed to Arkansas State, he’s worked religiously.”
Jalen Hill, Clark
At the same time Jackson was on his visit to Arkansas State, his teammate was on a recruiting trip that would also ultimately prove decisive. Hill was in Norman, Okla., getting to know University of Oklahoma, which the senior later picked to attend over UNLV and TCU.
“They were both communicating back and forth with each other whole visit,” said Beeten, who was on the Arkansas State trip with Jackson. “They really are like brothers and there’s almost weird stuff — not weird in a bad way, but in a good way — that you see when they’re together that shows you how close they are.”
Hill and Jackson have been best friends since middle school, and will fully lead the Chargers this season. Hill has helped Jackson diversify his game for good reason — the swingman is one of the most versatile players in the valley himself.
He blew up on the AAU circuit this summer, becoming a four-star recruit before picking the Sooners. There’s little doubt he’ll boost his numbers across the board for the Chargers this year after averaging 16 points, six rebounds and two assists per game as a junior.
“Win state this year,” Hill said when asked his goals on the day he committed to Oklahoma. “High school basketball, get better as a player and win state.”
Isaiah Cottrell, Bishop Gorman
Cottrell couldn’t help but crack a faint smile when Bishop Gorman coach Grant Rice did his best to describe this year’s Gaels in short.
“We’ll play a lot of uptempo style with a lot of guards out there around the big fella here, Isaiah,” Rice said.
Gorman has gradually moved to a more modern, small-ball approach after producing a parade of McDonald’s All-American and/or NBA-drafted big men — Zach Collins, Stephen Zimmerman and Chase Jeter — but there’s no question as to the identity of its centerpiece in a quest for an eighth consecutive state championship. That would be the junior Cottrell, who was a terror on opponents in his first varsity season.
Cottrell, a four-star recruiting prospect with a load of scholarship offers, averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game.
“I’ve been working a lot on my athleticism, and defensively-wise, I’m really homing in on defense,” Cottrell said on his improvements this year.
Noah Taitz, Bishop Gorman
Ask anyone intimately familiar with the junior’s game to describe it in two words, and chances are they’ll come up with the same phrase — knockdown shooter.
Taitz rained three-pointers and jump shots on opponents all throughout last year’s state tournament, arguably emerging as the Gaels’ most valuable postseason player and enabling a seventh straight title in a year when most thought the streak would end.
But this year, he plans to do a whole lot more.
“Your handle can always get better, so I’m always working on that,” Taitz said, “and just always being a consistently good shooter and always making plays to win the game.”
Taitz is another four-star recruiting prospect with colleges across the country vying for his services in two years after he averaged 17 points per game last season. Even with all the attention and accolades, he refuses to be complacent — a characteristic he also applies to his team.
“We always find a way to be motivated because there’s a lot of talent in the city,” he said.
Jaden Hardy, Coronado
It’s no exaggeration to suggest Hardy may have put together the best freshman season in state history last year.
The younger brother of UNLV guard Amauri Hardy averaged 24 points per game and had the Cougars one upset loss away from reaching their third straight state tournament. Coach Jeff Kaufman knows Hardy is the type of player to build a whole approach around, which is why he said this year's Cougars want to “get out and run, and let him do his thing.”
“He’s getting better and better,” Kaufman said. “He’s bigger this year. He’s stronger this year. Everything in the preseason, he’s getting to the rim and throwing it down. I don’t think there’s a better shooter, period. Not just Las Vegas. I’ve never seen anybody shoot the ball like he shoots the ball.”
In a city flush with blue-chip prospects, Hardy might be the best of the bunch. Rivals.com currently not only has him a five-star recruit, but the No. 6 player in the nation in the class of 2021.
“Our biggest goal is to win a state championship,” Hardy said. “I really want to win one and our team wants to win one. We’re all coming together, we all talk about it. We’re just waiting for that moment to come. We know it’s going to come when it’s our time.”
Jace Roquemore, Foothill
The local basketball community still raves over the senior season of Evan Roquemore, one of the best players in Foothill history, eight years later.
That puts quite the pressure on younger brother Jace going into his senior season, but he’s not burdened by it. In fact, he’s so used to it that he welcomes it.
“I’m just trying to leave my legacy on Foothill and leave my legacy as a person,” Roquemore said. “Growing up, people have compared me to my brother … I’m just trying to outshine him and do my own thing.”
Roquemore is the rare four-year starter, having helped keep the Falcons near the top of the high school basketball rankings for an extended period of time. Last year was his finest campaign as he averaged 14 points, five rebounds and four assists per game as Foothill won its second straight league championship.
“From the time he’s been a little kid, everyone has expected him to do big things at Foothill,” coach Paul DeSantis said. “He has delivered, and I think you’ll see some big things from Jace this year.”
Julian Strawther, Liberty
There may have been one glaring omission from last year’s Super Seven team.
Don’t think Liberty’s bona fide superstar didn’t notice he failed to make the team going into his sophomore season.
“I was disappointed I didn’t get into it so I just played with a chip on my shoulder,” Strawther said.
Strawther made it impossible to be left off again with arguably the most impressive season of any player in the valley. He averaged 24 points and eight rebounds per game, elevating a traditionally underachieving Liberty program to one of the best seasons in school history.
Strawther turned that campaign into a tryout spot with USA Basketball’s under-17 national team and a number of scholarship offers.
This season, he’s got a new motivation and wants to take Liberty to new heights.
“We’re slept on and it’s about time we wake people up,” Strawther said. “We’ve never been to state in school history, so that’s something we’re striving for on a daily basis and I think we have the team to do that."