WARSAW — Two years ago the even distribution of basketball talent in Duplin County led to the elimination of the Mr. Basketball honor.
And when no one stands out that is a good decision.
A good argument could have been made for each of the five-first team selections.
This season there was a rise in talent across the board.
While postseason selections were the biggest honor, it came down to James Kenan’s Kavel Donaldson and Eric Smith.
Donaldson, the East Central 2A Conference’s Player of the Year, adds Duplin’s Elite Mr. Basketball to his high school highlights.
Coach of the Year was an even more difficult decision.
In a season that truly needed a conference or holiday tournament, JK’s Taylor Jones and Wallace-Rose Hill’s Ervin Murray both deserved a trophy as Coach of the Year.
They will share the award as both coaches guided their teams to 11-3 overall and 10-2 ECC marks, tying for the league crown.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCHSAA to trim the regular season to a maximum of 14 games, all but eliminating traditional nonconference matchups to prepare teams for league play.
Players and coaches also wore face masks, and there were few fans in the stands.
Some watched by live-streaming games, but on the whole, a whole lot of great basketball was played by Duplin teams.
Every school had virus outbreaks to postpone games, two such incidents forced East Duplin to play three games per week during the final three weeks of the regular season.
Many players were also coming off the spring football season. Some took weeks to get into basketball shape. Some never reached their potential.
Coaches also complained about a lack of practice time and they were justified for their reactions.
Four seniors and a sophomore comprise the first team.
Here’s a quick look at Duplin’s Elite in a virtual game.
James Kenan first-teamers Donaldson and Smith bring a familiarity with one another to the court.
So do WRH’s Jalen James and Jahon Owens.
These four light up the scoreboard.
The fifth starter is ED’s towering center Logan Brown.
That’s the first team. Although ED’s Jalen Hall and JK’s Andrew Pender could be penciled in as starters, they will be the first two off the bench.
Both had stellar seasons, as did the next three to hit the floor — North Duplin’s Dujan Armwood, with WRH’s Alonzo Pickett and Jahiem Faison.
That’s the second team and there are 10 other players who made significant contributions.
It was a new and different season. Some players who made the first or second team a season ago did not reach that bar this time around.
At least one player came out of the woodwork of all four county gymnasiums to mark their arrival.
OF THE YEAR
Ervin Murray, WRH
Taylor Jones, JK
Duplin’s 2A teams often play one another too many times during a season.
Not this winter, when it was badly needed to settle the ECC and its No. 1 seed for the state playoffs.
Second-year coach Murray, a former WRH and Wake Forest star, and Taylor, in his first season at JK after more than a decade at Spring Creek, had nearly identical resumés.
WRH beat ED 69-66 in Beulaville, but the Tigers tripped the Bulldogs 75-69 in Teachey.
JK’s other league loss was to rival ED, while WRH fell to Goldsboro at home, but beat the Cougars in the final regular-season game. The comeback win tied the Bulldogs and Tigers for the top spot.
JK won a coin flip and got a higher seed. The Tigers beat Trinity 58-45 in the first round, while the Bulldogs lost to Washington by 18 points — 79-61.
In the second round, JK was upended by the Pam Pack by 19 points — 76-57.
Both JK-WRH contests were nail-bitters and as good a pair of prep games as could be asked for.
Three losses in the space of five days wrecked East Duplin. Yet the Panthers had two wins over both Goldsboro and Clinton, and one against JK in the previous seven days.
ED’s Blake Lanier, the county coach of the year in 2019, lost to WRH 51-50 and 39-36. But the Panthers (7-5) did not make the state playoff field, which was reduced by one round by the NCHSAA.
Jones was the ECC’s COY, yet with all due respect, it was simply too close a race to call for the Duplin’s Elite honor, even after watching multiple TV monitor replays.
JK, Senior, Guard
Donaldson was very good early in the season, then took over from the midway point to carry the Tigers.
He averaged an area-high 20.5 points, dished out 4.2 assists, with 4.1 steals and 3.8 rebounds.
He was a consistent scorer, but could also take over a game, particularly when sensing JK needed a lift from its leader.
His game worked well with Smith, forward Andrew Pender, a good spot-up jump shooter, Jaquon Leak and sophomore forwards Mason Brown and Jamaury Coe.
Donaldson was the lead singer and band leader on a run-and-gun JK team that made basketball fun.
WRH, Sophomore, G
James was the second biggest surprise to come from the campaign.
He is a guard who can shoot, handle the rock and set up teammates, and is the kind of player who will dive on the floor or jump into the stands for the ball.
The sophomore averaged 12.2 points, and much like Donaldson, his play with teammate Jahon Owens created sparks for WRH.
James has a high basketball IQ and had few turnovers even while handling the ball extensively in the Bulldog’s offense.
WRH will be his team to run for the next two years.
JK, Senior, G
Smith was slicker than an oil spill around the basket, slithering and slicing his body until he reached the rim.
He averaged 17.8 points, 3.2 assists, 3.7 steals and 3.1 rebounds.
He showed potential as a junior, yet picked up his game a level this past winter.
WRH, Senior, G
Owens did not play his junior season, but had been a starter as a sophomore with another young Bulldog, Tyrone Barbee. The latter transferred to Harrells Christian before the start of this season after being on the all-county first team.
Owens hit for 12.5 points in his comeback season.
ED, Senior, C/F
Brown is the lone returnee from last season’s first team.
He averaged 12.1 points and always had a harvest of rebounds, blocked and altered shots.
The 6-foot-4 Brown, who led the ED baseball team in hitting and RBI, was a rock-solid competitor in the post and had a nice mid-range shooting touch.
JK, Junior, F
Pender, who plays quarterback in the fall and shortstop in the spring, is arguably the best all-around athlete in the county.
But some people see his talent best in basketball, where he averaged 10.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists playing along ide Smith and Donaldson.
That gave JK three high-powered scorers and too much all over the court for the opposition to hound all three.
ED, Senior, G/F
Hall averaged 13 points and could play big or handle the ball like a guard, often putting his head down for power drives to the rim.
He had a nice combination of strength and speed.
ND, Freshman, G
The third-biggest surprise of the season was the emergence of Armwood, a freshman who averaged 18.6 points for the Rebels.
He also was ND’s leading rusher in football over the next few months.
WRH, Soph, G
Faison was a first-team selection last season but slipped to the second team for a combination of reasons. They included the play of Owens and James, but also other Bulldogs — and Murray’s coaching style of sharing the ball.
WRH, Junior, F
Roberts provided many jolts of energy on offense and defense for the Bulldogs.
He averaged 6.5 points, but that by no means explained his importance to WRH.
The junior’s leaping ability and hustle was productive and at times inspiring to teammates.
WRH, Soph., F
A second-team pick in 2019 who got better in spite of growing pains, Cave averaged 8.6 points.
And it wasn’t so much that Cave dropped as it was that others rose up.
ED, Senior, G
No player was more affected by the pandemic than McClarin, who struggled in football before peaking at the end, which was just before the beginning of basketball season.
McClarin never got the footing that made him a first-team pick in 2019. He had a number of flashes, but was nowhere near the form he displayed a season previous.
WRH, Soph., G
Murray likes the game of Pickett (4.4) and rewarded the sophomore with playing time.
Pickett will play a key role for WRH in the next two seasons.
JK, Senior, G/F
Leak was an unsung player for the Tigers, yet one who Jones knew JK needed on the court.
WRH, Senior, F/C
Murphy averaged 5.8 points and was a solid rebounder and defender in the paint area.
AJ Faison (WRH), Eli Morrisey (ND), Mason Brown (JK), Daunte Hall (ED), Caleb Dail (ND).