Jalen Johnson started above the free throw line and set a quick screen for pick-and-roll maestro Sharife Cooper. Johnson then rolled to the left side of the basket as Cooper applied pressure to the right, diving hard to the rim. A Maine defender was in the area, but was ultimately inconsequential after Johnson exploded upward. The 2021 first-rounder from Duke absorbed the ball above the rim with his right hand and then threw it down over his green obstacle for two points.
By the end of the half, Johnson had 21 points on 9-12 shooting and the Skyhawks could do no wrong offensively.
That 72-60 lead seemed like a hazy dream 24 minutes later, when the Maine Celtics were closing out a 113-98 blowout and Johnson was sitting on the bench. He was still stuck on 21 points, but coach Steve Gansey said Johnson’s defense and effort had more to do with his benching than Johnson’s offense.
“These young guys have to understand and learn how to be better professionals,” coach Steve Gansey said. “Jalen is young and played only a few games at Duke and in summer league. I didn’t like how he was conducting himself, so I decided to sit him down. I’m trying to get these guys ready for another or better situation, whether that be with the Hawks, another team, or an overseas team.”
The Skyhawks got whatever they wanted in the first half, sporting a balanced attack headlined by the two incredible rookies Cooper and Johnson. Sharife Cooper easily drove past Maine guards Chris Clemons and Ryan Arcidiacono on the perimeter and set up teammates using a bevy of creative passes. Veteran guard Cat Barber also provided a sparkplug off the bench. He used his quickness to dart in and out of space on his way to crafty finishes around the rim.
“We’ve got some quiet guys, but you don’t want to always hear the coach,” coach Gansey said. “Empowering some of these players is something I’m going to do. The vets can say whatever they want, because I know they’re thinking the right things.”
The first half was defined by quick passes and even quicker triggers on shot attempts. Maine made shots, as evidenced by the 60 they put up in the half, but Atlanta was for the most part rotating and pressuring shots. But after Maine made adjustments, Skylar Mays (18 points) said the young Skyhawks did not react well.
“When they make adjustments, we have to react,” Mays said. “They did a much better job on switches and pushing us out of bounds. And we got lazy with our ball-movement.”
NBA veterans abounded on the Maine roster, and it showed in the second half. Ryan Arcidiacono endured a scary fall, but otherwise had a perfect night. He popped free for 17 points, and generally got wherever he wanted to go against Cooper and Barber. Sam Hauser set fire to College Park from the perimeter by hitting five triples, and swingman Theo Pinson poured in an efficient 22 while also playing great defense.
“If you look at their roster, Maine has NBA experience and their guys have played and started on NBA teams,” coach Gansey said. “Theo Pinson is a NBA player who led a team to a G-League championship. Those guys aren’t going to quit.”
The Skyhawks have almost two weeks off and will not play again until Nov. 19 against Delaware. Coach Gansey believes fans will see a different team than the one that has lost their first two games of the season.
“We would score and we’d just jog back and point, and you can’t do that in this league because the other team is going to find mismatches and pick you apart,” Gansey said. “There’s a lot to work on. We just overall have to get better as a team, and we need our entire team together to do that.”
MAINE CLETICS: 30 30 29 24 - 113
COLLEGE PARK SKYHAWKS: 34 38 14 12 - 98
CELTICS: Theo Pinson 22, Juwan Morgan 18, Sam Hauser 17, Ryan Arcidiacono 17, Luke Kornet 14, Chris Clemons 14, Jaysean Paige 7, Kenny Wooten 4, Deng Adel 2
SKYHAWKS: Jalen Johnson 21, Skylar Mays 18, Sharife Cooper 14, Ibi Watson-Boye 14, Cat Barber 11, DaQuan Jeffries 7, A.J Lawson 6, Justin Tillman 5, Johnny Hamilton 2
3FG: Celtics 16 (Hauser 5, Pinson 4, Clemons 2, Morgan 2, Paige 1, Kornet 1, Arcidiacono 1); Skyhawks 14 (Watson-Boye 3, Mays 3, Johnson 3, Lawson 2, Barber 1, Jeffries 1, Cooper 1)
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