The turnaround of the Independence boys basketball program has been swift and remarkable, as the Patriots have ascended from a two-win team to the toast of the Southwestern 4A conference in just one season. And while there are many factors that have contributed to the Patriots’ breakout year, the steadying force behind their rapid improvement is point guard Tayon Gleaves.
The 5-foot-11 junior is the Patriots’ leading scorer, but that suggests only a small percentage of his value. He’s the point man on the Patriots’ smothering press defense and the primary ball handler for what’s quickly become one of the area’s best teams.
Gleaves leads the team with an average of 13.5 points per game while also contributing three assists and two steals and connecting on 82 percent of his free throws, something that’s helped the Patriots close out games they might have lost a season ago.
Gleaves said that as tough as last season was on the team, it’s made him a better and more complete player this season.
“I learned that we need to stick with our game plan,” Gleaves said. “The game plans worked last year, but at the end of the game, for whatever reason, we’d lose sight of that. This year, we’ve been making sure we stick to the plan. And once we started winning games, we started to build on that success we were having.”
As a result, when the Patriots find themselves in close games, especially with the calm and collected Gleaves at the helm, they feel they’ll walk away with the win. That’s been evident in the
Patriots’ 10 single-digit victories on the season, many of which are come-from-behind nailbiters.
“When we’re down, we know that we can always come back and make it a tough game for whoever we’re playing,” Gleaves said. “We stay composed because we know we can come back.”
As the Patriots continue to accumulate wins and as their confidence grows, the question of just how good they can be this year – and beyond – has to be asked.
Entering this season, merely returning to the playoffs for first time since the 2006-07 campaign seemed to be a good starting point for the Patriots. But as this season’s progressed, their horizon has expanded. In fact, the Patriots now have their eyes set on winning a regular-season conference crown, something they haven’t accomplished since the 2001-02 season when they finished 22-9.
After defeating South Mecklenburg on Feb. 5, the Patriots (16-5, 9-2) sit one game ahead of Ardrey Kell for first place in the league. Gleaves said the Patriots aren’t looking ahead. But if they can win the conference tournament, he said, it would be a great momentum-builder entering the Class 4A state playoffs.
“I’m not looking past it or anything, but I think we’ve already done enough to make the playoffs,” Gleaves said. “We haven’t ever won the conference tournament so we’re really pushing for that because that would be the biggest thing that’s happened to Independence basketball since the 1996-97 team won the state championship.”
Gleaves added that the Patriots would ultimately love to help Independence coach Preston Davis, who was a member of that championship squad, get the program back to prominence.
“With the players we have and the way that we play, we’ve sort of gone further than we thought we would,” Gleaves said. “Now we knew we were going to be good, but I don’t know if we thought we’d be where we are. But since we’re here, we want to keep it going.”
And as good as the Patriots are now, they have good reason to believe this is just the beginning of their turnaround. Gleaves headlines a junior class that also houses fellow starters Workpeh Kofa, Marcus Graves and Deion Lane, and reserve guard Herbert Bowen, Jr.
“To be honest, we’re probably a little ahead of the curve,” Davis said. “I’m not complaining, but I know we still have to finish strong this year. We’re enjoying the moment right now, but we want to reach a couple more of our goals and then build on this.”
In order to achieve, if not exceed, those goals, Independence needs consistent play from Gleaves and his backcourt mates.
And when times get tough, games get tight and competition gets more intense, having a savvy point guard such as Gleaves to lean on typically pays dividends for a team. Gleaves embraces that challenge.
“I just try to play my game,” Gleaves said. “I try to play the same way I’ve been playing since I was young. I try to get other people involved first and look for my shots when I can find them.”
Gleaves points to Los Angeles Clippers point man Chris Paul as his basketball hero and said he tries to emulate the way Paul sets up his teammates first but can still be a scoring threat when necessary.
“He always seems to be in control,” Gleaves said of Paul. “He seems to never make any bad decisions.”
On the court, Gleaves presents the same sure-handedness and confidence, whether he’s leading the offense or spearheading the vaunted trap defense that often turns into offensive chances.
“We love playing fast,” Gleaves said. “(Davis) can sense it or something when it’s time to get us into that trap. And whenever he calls it, we’re ready to execute it, and it usually turns the momentum for us.”
And as daunting as the trap is for Independence opponents, when times get tough for the Patriots, the ball will inevitably be in Gleaves’ hands. It’s a responsibility that he relishes.
“I try to be a player that knows the mental side of the game, too,” Gleaves said. “I know what to do and when to do it. I try to get my shot when we need it, but if I can spot a mismatch down low, then I’ll give it to my big man.
“We have so much talent and have had seven or eight guys be the leading scorer for a game this year, so we have guys who’ll step up every game.”
As deep as the Patriots are, Davis believes they only can go as far as Gleaves leads them.
“He’s taking steps and working on how to become a leader on this team, and he understands his importance,” Davis said. “As this season has gone on, I’ve seen a growth in him, as far as being more vocal and leading by example.
“I also think sometimes Tayon gets on himself, too, because he wants to be really good and wants to be a big-time player. He’s close, and he works hard and pushes himself all of the time, so he can get there.”