Imagine that: Baker’s high-flying Labaron Philon is one of the nation’s top recruits; will announce college choice Friday
By ARTHUR L. MACK
Baker junior guard Labaron Philon has become one of the nation’s leading scorers with an imagination which first conquers imaginary opponents before carving up flesh-and-blood players.
Philon (6-4, 175), who started playing basketball when he was 3 years old, gave Hornets coach David Armstrong a glimpse of the future when he was a freshman.
“I gave him a basketball in the gym,” Armstrong said. “I just let him go to see what he would do. I watched him. He was just being in the gym, being him, and he’s pointing and he’s almost creating a game in his own mind and a scenario in his own mind where he can work through it before he sees the game. I think when he’s trying to work on a new move or perfect it, he’s literally seeing defenders and creating them in his mind. When he goes into a game, he’s seen the play — he executes what he knows he can execute and things go his way usually.”
Philon has learned to trust his instincts and incredible ball-handling skills.
“Developing the moves was like a pattern in my head,” he said. “I already know what kind of moves I’m going to do before I do them. It just comes up in my head. I guess I’ve just got a great ability to see stuff before it happens. I realize where the defense is going to be and tell our guys what to do before they get frustrated and get down on themselves.”
Former University of South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow said Philon can be a great player if he gains weight.
“I truly believe if he gains 15-20 pounds he can be as good as any player that has come out of this state,” Arrow said.
Armstrong said Philon will meet that challenge as he has all the others.
“The thing he’s going to have to do is put on some muscle,” Armstrong said. “At some point, the weight room is going to have to be his new best friend and I think that’ll come before too long.”
What’s coming next is announcing on Friday where he’ll play college basketball. He will choose between Alabama, Auburn, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Eyes on the prize
Philon has showed incredible individual scoring skills in leading Baker to a 21-5 record, a No. 2 statewide ranking in Class 7A and the Area 1 title.
Philon — who has been among the nation’s leading prep scorers all season — is averaging 36.7 points per game, shooting 51% from the field and 83% from the free-throw line (210 of 252 attempts). He’s also averaging 3.8 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game and shooting 36% from 3-point range (68 of 189).
“Once Labaron proves he can consistently hit the 3-point shot, he’ll be impossible to guard,” Arrow said.
Philon said college coaches have told him he also needs to improve his board work.
“Ever since I’ve heard that from my coach, I’ve been averaging 7-8 rebounds a game to even the stats off a little bit,” he said. “I’ve been improving on weight workouts, working every day and getting stronger.”
But Philon wants much more now that the Hornets have recovered from a rough early stretch where they were plagued by illness and injury.
“We were missing three starters at the start of the season but we played some great games,” Philon said. “But I feel now that we’re healthy, we’re going to make a good run, make it to the final four and win the whole thing.”
Arrow — who does color commentary for local high school games televised by the Mobile County Public School System — said the return of Josh Flowers to the lineup after an injury has taken some of the pressure off Philon.
“Before Josh Flowers came back, Labaron was scoring 45 points a game,” Arrow said. “With Flowers back in the lineup, it takes the pressure off Labaron because (Flowers) brings speed, scoring ability and defensive ability. Their team is going to get better and better because they had other kids getting playing time. When the injured players came back, it gave them more depth.”
Armstrong said Philon’s strengths, aside from his ability to score from anywhere on the court, are his size, length and devotion to getting better.
“He’s such a special talent, he’s such a special kid,” Armstrong said. “He plays a lot of basketball and works very hard at his craft. Nothing really surprises him.”
Philon has been at or near the top of the leading scorers in the country this season, topping out at 42 points a game. He scored more than 40 points twice against Theodore — once while playing on a twisted ankle and the other time when he scored 23 points in the fourth period alone. He scored 30 straight points and finished with 46 against LeFlore in the Bridge Builder Classic. He scored 45 points against McGill-Toolen, including the winning basket with 15 seconds to go.
“Labaron really has a high basketball IQ,” Armstrong said. “He’s the kind of kid you can point in the right direction and then let him kind of take control and let him do some things. I always wanted to teach him the game of basketball outside of the skill that he has, let him learn the game, to see the game and be able to dictate the game the way he wants it played. That way, he’s comfortable, then he can let his IQ take over and you don’t have to coach a lot. That’s the ultimate goal of a coach — not to coach very much and let the guys do it themselves.”
‘The ball’s going in’
While one player can’t do everything, Philon’s teammates — including Lovalle Nelson, a good shooter himself, and Charles Taylor — are comfortable letting him get most of the shots.
“It’s really great because he opens up the court more than what everybody thinks about him,” Nelson said. “He knows how the play’s going to develop. He’ll bring the ball down the court and everything will go through the flow to him. He’s like the sparkplug to the game. If he’s not on, the rest of the team is not on. He just brings that fire to the team.”
Taylor said it’s like having Michael Jordan on the team.
“You want Labaron to take all those shots,” he said. “As a matter of fact, you can’t get mad because I can just play my role and lock players up and then — boom! — just give it to Labaron and he does his role.”
Arrow said that role is obvious.
“When it gets down to the end of the game, you want the ball in his hands,” Arrow said.
Philon has tremendous confidence he will deliver in the clutch.
“Those guys know if I get a one-on-one opportunity, the ball’s going to go in the goal,” Philon said. “They spread around me and do things that they can do to win the game. When you’re in the gym by yourself and you’re practicing those shots, they’re going to come easy in the game.”
His teammates said having Philon on the floor also helps the defense.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the offensive end but defensively we have to stop the other team from scoring that many points,” Nelson said. “On the offensive end, you know Labaron’s going to score most of the points.”
Taylor said Philon’s long wingspan and burst of speed aids the defense.
“If I put pressure on the top and if an opponent is trying to pass to his teammate, Labaron’s going to be there most of the time so he might get that steal,” Taylor said. “Labaron can rebound but we don’t like Labaron putting any pressure on (himself on) defense because we don’t want him getting in foul trouble.”
Colleges come courting
Arrow compared Philon favorably to former LSU star Chris Jackson, now known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who went on a nine-year NBA career.
“He’s not only a great player, he’s also a great young man,” Arrow said of Philon. “Whoever gets him will get everything you want in a player. It doesn’t matter if he’s scoring 45 points or 25 points, he just wants to win. He’s a good, talented kid and a great team player.
“I’ve seen some really talented ballplayers and one who comes to mind is Chris Jackson. Chris was stronger but Philon’s just as talented.”
Armstrong said almost every major college program has shown interest in Philon.
“Almost every school in the SEC has offered him,” Armstrong said. “He talks to Auburn a good bit. Alabama has given him offers and you got Ole Miss talking to him a good bit. There was someone from Tennessee at a game. LSU came to a game we played during the Christmas break.”
The top six schools expressing the biggest interest in Philon are Alabama, Auburn, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Ole Miss.
“It’s hard to keep up with,” said Philon, who most recently got an offer from Louisville.
Armstrong said all the attention hasn’t distracted Philon.
“He doesn’t let it get to him,” Armstrong said. “He just plays at a high level and does the things he needs to do. It’s a lot because he’s constantly talking to somebody and people are constantly talking to him about their school. He seems to handle it pretty well; you always worry about how teenagers handle it.
“He’s gradually becoming a better leader — he’s made leaps and bounds in that. He’s gotten so much poise. He understands who he is and what he is, not only on the court but off of it. He’s starting to see how the guys he plays with look at him as a role model. He’s starting to grow into a mature leader.”