Free State boys basketball bringing competition, leadership to summer workouts

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

Free State head boys basketball coach Dwayne Paul during a game on January 11, 2024, at Free State High School.

Comfortable is rarely a positive word when a coach uses it to describe a team. Typically, comfort means players aren’t pushing each other, and starters aren’t worried about their spots. However, for Free State boys basketball, the team is becoming comfortable in the best sense of the word and familiar with each other and the coaching staff.

Before this year, the Firebirds had three boys basketball coaches in three seasons. That meant different philosophies, different schemes and different practices every summer. For the new coaches, it meant not knowing who or what was on the roster. Players had to learn where they fit, while coaches had to learn what they had. Continuity — a rich commodity in the high school sports world — was much more precious.

That’s a thing of the past, as the Firebirds are taking advantage of their upcoming second year under coach Dwayne Paul.

Comfortable, in this sense, doesn’t mean relaxed or carefree, but competitive in practices with a greater understanding from coaches and players on what this team is working toward. Paul doesn’t have to test things out with his group — he knows what does and doesn’t work with his team, which leads to greater confidence from his boys. Their relationships are strong, and they have already completed a year of basketball.

“I think our energy is better because my energy is better,” Paul said. “You come into a situation, and you really don’t know what you don’t know. I have a better base of what certain guys can do (and) what they can’t do. That helps my energy, which helps their energy.”

The Firebirds want to play fast. The winning formula is playing fast, disrupting passing lanes and getting transition buckets. That starts in the summer with conditioning and practicing with urgency, beginning with the team’s leadership group.

Rising senior Korbin Dowdell and rising junior Ethan Prescott are two varsity returners who will continue to expand their leadership roles. Prescott said the team is more structured this season, with players knowing their roles and how to play for Paul.

Prescott is leading the charge at practice in encouraging teammates and celebrating makes and misses. In drills, the varsity returners set the pace. They put teammates in the right spots on the court. Paul credits that communication for their success as leaders.

“I’m happy with the returners and the leadership they’re showing,” Paul said, “because this is going to be different for them and a complete 180 compared to how we played last year.”

Paul tells his team there’s a difference between competing and playing hard. Competing is more than effort on a drill; it’s about winning each rep. The result of a drill matters as much as the drill itself. The goal is to create a competitive team to make a playoff push the team hasn’t had in a few years.

“It’s good to have everyone competing because that just makes everyone else better,” Prescott said. “It’s always good to have everyone go at it every day.”

Free State will participate in several tournaments and camps through the summer, with the official start of the basketball season looming in November. Dowdell said that the first thing the Firebirds must do to prepare for the season is get in shape. In a fast-paced system, conditioning is an early step to success. That’s something that the team has to be committed to, but Prescott said he’s confident the team is.

The Firebirds don’t expect the basketball season to look much like the last one, regardless of returning players. The team is comfortable with each other, which means it is ahead of schedule compared to the previous year. There are a lot of milestones to choose from that would be an improvement on the team’s 6-15 record last year, but Prescott said there’s only one on the team’s mind: a state championship.

“I like the mismatches we have when we’re at full strength,” Paul said. “As a high school guy, you have to think down the line. You get a couple guys from football, you get everybody in basketball shape, and I think we have a chance to do some good things and shock some people.”

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