There are many reasons why the Independence boys basketball team went from a two-win cellar-dweller in 2011-12 to a conference champion and legitimate state title contender the very next season.
While credit for the Patriot revival could go to many, one of the biggest factors in the turnaround was the emergence of then-junior forward Deion Lane, who was the only new addition to the team’s starting five.
Lane was third on the team with 11.8 points per game in his first varsity season after playing JV as a sophomore and led the Patriots with 7.4 rebounds, while averaging 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals and shooting 50 percent from the field.
“It was different; the tempo of the game and everything was really different,” Lane said of playing on varsity for the first time. “I felt like I adapted pretty well as the year went on. It was fun for me.”
Lane’s debut season with the Patriots essentially amounted to a dress rehearsal for what was about to come as Lane’ senior season – powered by an offseason he dedicated to working on his game – has been his coming out party.
“He’s a (stat sheet) filler and we use him in a lot of different ways,” said coach Preston Davis. “Defensively, he’s very versatile for us. He can play perimeter guys and post guys and he’s athletic enough to score in the post. Offensively, he can step out, his perimeter game is more consistent and he’s always been a good rebounder, against bigger people and in traffic.”
Lane’s first game this season – a 69-51 win over South Meck – showed that the 6-foot-4 forward was inline for an uptick in production as Lane poured in 20 points and added 10 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and six steals.
The monster debut had been in the making since the final nine games of last year, when Lane scored in double figures eight times and recorded five double-doubles while averaging nearly 10 rebounds per game.
Following Lane’s strong finish to last year, he played AAU for the first time this summer, teaming with Patriot guard Tayon Gleaves on the Charlotte Nets. In addition, Lane worked tirelessly on improving his jump shot this offseason, something that’s evident watching his improved range and confidence stepping behind the 3-point line.
“I’ve been really in control of my game this season,” Lane said. “I think I’ve been able to help my teammates out and help us win. I’ve found myself getting better as the year has gone on. My shot has improved and I can sense that I’m just a better player than last year.”
Lane has markedly improved his already impressive stats – he leads the Patriots with 17.6 points and 9.9 rebounds and averages 3.1 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocked shots through Jan. 20. But it’s another facet of his game that’s helped hold the Patriots together through a brutal non-conference schedule.
“Last season, the leadership was more distributed throughout. But this year, I’ve taken on more of it,” Lane said. “I’ve tried to come out and be more vocal and help the younger guys learn the plays and learn our system and everything. I think we’re getting better and it’s showing up.”
Unlike the Patriots’ turnaround last season, this year’s team hardly resembles that bunch which went 24-6, winning the Southwestern 4A regular season and tournament titles and advancing to the third round of the playoffs.
Other than Lane, Gleaves, senior forward Workpeh Kofa and senior guard Herbert Bowen Jr., this team is nearly totally revamped.
Davis said he knew it would take time for sophomore Marcus Thomas and a host of other newcomers with little or no varsity experience to get on track, especially with an out-of-conference schedule featuring Hough, Providence Day, Shelby, Olympic, North Mecklenburg, Mount Tabor and Concord – teams that are a combined 94-16 through Jan. 20.
Davis’ intuition was right: it did take time. The Patriots were sitting just 6-8 when the new year rolled around, but have since reeled off three consecutive wins to go 5-0 and once again sit atop the Southwestern 4A, a place Lane figured this team would be even after a sluggish start.
“We were told our schedule was going to be tough before the season began, so we kind of expected this,” Lane said. “Most of the games were close games where we had a chance to win, so it only has gotten us ready for conference. We’re battle tested. We’re able to go into the fourth quarter of close games and not get rattled and know what we need to do.”
Lane has scored in double figures in 15 of the Patriots’ 17 games so far and his all-around play is beginning to attract a lot of attention from recruiters who marvel at Lane’s versatility and athleticism. Although not playing AAU until this past summer, he’s garnering interest from a number of schools, and Queen’s University of Charlotte and Belmont Abbey have already offered him scholarships.
Davis said there would be more suitors if Lane had played AAU ball sooner, but he’s confident Lane will be on a college roster next season making a similar impact to what he’s had at Independence.
“Nobody knew who he was coming into AAU season,” Davis said. “People around this area knew him, but many of the college scouts didn’t. He’s working hard and I told him it’s going to pay off. He’s got a couple schools and he’s weighing his options. He’s a kid that whatever school gets him will get a special kid and a special person.”
Lane said he’s excited for the chance to play in college, something he never expected entering last season.
“I never pictured it even happening, but once it started happening it’s gone pretty fast. It’s a new experience for me, but it’s fun,” Lane said of his recruiting interest.
Even with the offers he’s already generating, it’s hard to believe more have not jumped at the chance to recruit an athletic 6-foot-4 guard/forward with 3-point range, ball-handling skills and the inside game of a post player.
“Size-wise, I’ve never had a problem banging inside. It’s always come natural to me,” Lane said. “I don’t feel like there’s much more that I can do (to help my recruiting stock), but when the time comes to make the decision, I feel like it will work itself out.
“I want somewhere I can go and get better learning the game of basketball. I also want a place where I can figure out what I’m going to do when the ball stops
Luckily for Independence, Lane still has a lot left in his tank for this season, as he hopes to lead the Patriots even further than the third round they got to last year. And as the season wears on and the young players gain experience, Lane thinks this team can do just that.
“I want to finish the season strong, win the conference, win the conference tournament and take it to the playoffs,” Lane said.
While his team has taken some expected lumps this season, Davis said he feels the Patriots are in for another banner season with Lane helping lead the way.
“He’s not really a limelight-type of guy,” Davis said. “He’s aware what’s going on and that he’s getting some attention, but he’s not one of those guys that talks about it or needs it. He’s not a flashy guy.
“He just wants to win and he just wants to be successful. He’s continuing to work on getting better, but he’s all about whatever he can do to win.”