In the opening month of the 2013-14 season, Dalton High School boys basketball coach Mike Duffie learned his dreary predictions about his team shouldn’t have been quite so dreary. Still, something was not quite right. With post Emier Bowman and guard Braxton Thomas pacing them offensively, the Catamounts were scoring points and winning games — but not as many as Duffie would have liked.
Defensively, something was missing.
“The first five or six games of the season, our pressure wasn’t getting us anywhere,” Duffie said. “(Assistant coach Josh Goss) made the suggestion of putting Emier out front on the ball, and when we did that, it changed our entire pressure game.”
Before the move, Bowman was the “free safety” of the press, using his speed and length to pick off any passes down the court. The problem was that teams were able to get past the first line and Bowman was looking at three-on-two situations on the other end.
But the move to the top of the press changed the season for Dalton and pushed Bowman to the top of this year’s class of basketball players in Murray and Whitfield counties. His height and wingspan created havoc for other teams. When he wasn’t stealing the ball, he was tipping passes away so other players could get steals. In transition, he could finish with raw power.
The 6-foot-4 junior quite simply became the area’s most complete player, leading the Cats to a share of the Sub-region 7B-4A regular-season title, a third-place finish Region 7-4A and another trip to the state playoffs.
He averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and three assists per game, showing a versatility most high school players are unable to exhibit.
For his efforts, Bowman has been selected as The Daily Citizen’s 2013-14 All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He is joined on the All-Area Team by Thomas, Murray County’s Cesar Romero, Northwest Whitfield’s Caleb Storey and Southeast Whitfield’s Rhett Harper. Selections are made by newspaper’s sports staff based on nominations and input from area coaches.
Bowman had been the sixth man on Dalton’s team as a sophomore — athletic and lean with good skills but an unpolished game. As the team went through offseason drills and summer league games, the shine on his game started to show.
This past season might have reasonably been expected to be a down year for the Cats. After losing all five starters from the previous season’s Sub-region 7B-4A runners-up, Duffie was not the most optimistic man when talking about his team publicly.
“We were just sort of throwing caution to the wind and putting what we thought was the best group out there,” Duffie said, “and needed someone to emerge as a player and as a go-to guy.”
Bowman knew what was expected of him.
“Coming into the year, I knew I would have to step up after we lost our entire starting five,” Bowman said. “I was coming off of the bench, but coach Duffie told me that I was going to have to find another level. I tried to fill the void. I knew I would have to score more and be a better rebounder.”
He did both of those things well, averaging more than 20 points per game with double-digit rebounding throughout December. But the Cats still needed more from Bowman.
That was when the defensive change was made.
“That changed the equation and raised all kinds of Cain with people,” Duffie said. “Rather than having him in the middle of the floor or deep, teams had to deal with him from the start. They thought they were throwing a cross pass, and next thing he is laying it up. Even though he played at the top, if you made it past him, here he comes flying down the floor to block the shot on the other end. It was definitely a game-changer as far as we were concerned.”
Privately, Duffie had a feeling the Cats would be all right all along. Those feelings were because of what he had coming back and not what he lost. Plus, he just had a feeling about the team and Bowman.
“We could call them ‘relaxed,’ let me say that,” Duffie said with a laugh, considering relaxed is not something he usually becomes on the bench during a game. “That was good for them. They never really let things bother them. Part of that is the personality of Emier. He is pretty emotionless. He is a quiet guy who goes about his business.”
It was that team dynamic that Bowman enjoyed the most about this past season. The Cats were friends off the court as well as on, with their bonding coming from a lot of XBox 360 video games — plenty of Madden and NBA 2K — team dinners and trips to the bowling alley.
“I think our entire success this year came from our bonding outside of school and over the summer,” Bowman said. “We did a lot of team chemistry things, and we were determined to be the best team we could possibly be. We knew we were the underdogs coming into this season, and we embraced it.”
That underdog label didn’t stick, though, and especially not for Bowman. Eventually, other teams realized how good he had become and were gearing their defenses around him.
“I think the high point of the season for me was probably about midseason,” he said. “The whole team was getting involved, and as teams were starting to focus a little more on me, I was fine with that because I got a lot more assists in the second half of the year, and I was fine with that.
“It made things harder for me, but my teammates stepped up. I feel like other teams concentrated on me more than we did. We always tried to be balanced, and Braxton Thomas stepped up and a lot of different people had big games when we needed someone else to score. Other teams started double-teaming me and running box-and-ones and putting a lot more pressure on me when I got in the middle. It was a little frustrating. I had gotten used to scoring in the middle, and it took a little something away from my game. But it helped out the rest of our team, and we kept winning.”
That made Duffie relax a little.
“Our whole offense isn’t based on one person,” Duffie said. “We had to have balance, and that was the great thing is that a great player doesn’t have to do all the scoring. His presence creates opportunities for other. Other teams had to game plan for him. He does affect the other team’s plan, and when they do that, it opens things up for other players to step into that spotlight.”
After his success this season, Bowman knows that his senior year will be a bigger challenge. The Cats are moving up to Class 5A as part of the next Georgia High School Association reclassification cycle and expect to face better athletes and more overall basketball talent in their new region, which stretches down to the Atlanta suburbs.
“I feel like I need to improve my ball-handling skills most of all,” Bowman said. “Next year, I will have to step up and do a little more on the perimeter. There will probably be times where I have to play guard and others where I will sometimes be a post. Either way, my ball-handling has to improve before next season.”
Here’s a glance at the rest of this year’s all-area lineup:
• Rhett Harper, guard, Southeast: This Raiders standout will likely go down as one of the most complete athletes the area has produced in recent memory. Harper is a four-time selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Football Team and was named to the All-Area Baseball Team as a sophomore.
He returned to action as a senior after suffering a knee injury at the end of the 2012 football season — which caused him to miss the entire basketball season and most of the baseball season as a junior — and now adds a spot on the All-Area Boys Basketball Team after earning honorable mention for that sport as a sophomore.
Harper is a strong possibility for another baseball selection this season, and that would give the three-sport, 12-letter winner seven all-area selections and two honorable mentions over his four years with the Raiders. In an age of specialization in one sport by the time a student athlete leaves middle school, Harper and players like him are becoming more and more of a rarity.
In his final season on the hardwood, Harper was Southeast’s most versatile player, averaging 12.8 points, 4 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. He shot better than 42 percent from the field and is a 4.0 student in the classroom as well.
Harper has verbally committed to play baseball at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
• Cesar Romero, post, Murray County: The Indians struggled this season, but there was nothing off about the play of this senior.
Romero was a key piece of the Indians’ puzzle in the post as a junior, but he was asked to do a lot more this season. He responded by leading the team in scoring (11.8 points per game), re-bounds (six per game) and blocked shots (35 total).
He also did that by basically playing two positions. As more and more teams used pressure against the Indians, Romero took over most of the ball-handling responsibilities, essentially becoming a guard when needed.
“By mid-year he was not only the centerpiece to our defense, but was also our go-to guy scoring and ball handling,” Murray County coach Greg Linder said. “He did a great job handling pressure and helping us reduce our turnovers. Not bad for a guy who is a traditional post player asked to play a guard role and then go post up and score and was the focus of our opponent’s defense every game.”
But all the Indians’ opponents could ever do was just slow him down — never fully stop him. This is Romero’s first all-area selection.
• Caleb Storey, guard, Northwest: If other teams had been able to stop Storey, Northwest coach Ryan Richards was confident other players could have handled the scoring burden for the Bruins.
Richards hardly ever had anything to be concerned about, though, because opponents rarely slowed the senior down.
Storey was the area’s leading scorer, averaging 20 points per game with the skills and mentality to either take opponents off of the dribble with penetration or drain shot from the perimeter.
While helping guide the Bruins to a share of the Sub-region 7B-4A championship, Storey made 60 3-pointers this season, including eight in one game. Eight times he had scoring performances of 20 or more points, including a season-high 33 against Class 5A’s Rome.
“The best thing about him was that he could score from all over the floor,” Richards said. “Most high school kids are one-dimensional, and he had a pretty complete game. The night he put up 33 was against Rome, and I knew he could play. Those types of teams will shut down your best player.
“He did it more and more against some of the best competition. You can shut down a one-dimensional kid, but it is hard to shut him down.”
This is Storey’s first selection after earning honorable mention last season.
• Braxton Thomas, guard, Dalton: As more and more teams turned their attention to trying to stop Bow-man, his classmate filled the scoring void to keep the Cats in the running for a sub-region title and then the state playoffs.
Quick off the dribble and with a good shooting touch — whether it was on the perimeter or driving to the basket — Thomas averaged 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals per game. He shot better than 50 percent from the field and made a third of his 3-point attempts.
All of this from a player that Duffie thought was going to be either hit or miss.
“We thought he could do all of those things, but we just didn’t know because he had never been in that situation before,” Duffie said. “He is a basketball player and a basketball junkie. He knew what to do, we just didn’t know if he could get there. He got going and just did a great job. He is quicker than you think he is, and he gets to the basket. Pickens is playing us in a man, and he still beat them off the dribble and scored 13 in the third quarter alone.”
• HONORABLE MENTION: Christian Heritage — Cameron Locke (Sr., G); Jake Porter (Sr., P); Coahulla Creek — Darius Miller (Sr., G); Morris Innovative — Justin Scott (So., G); North Murray — Noah Allen (Fr., G), Hinton McConkey (Jr., G/P), Drake McCowan (So., P); Northwest — Cyrus Addison (So., P), Tanner Bailey (Sr., P); Southeast — Ty Pendley (So., G), Noah Ramsey (So., P).