Sports

James Burns: Golden Valley's Sykes making a point in new role

James Burns

John Sykes crouches in the center circle, hands at the ready, his weight balanced on his toes.

Tip-offs are sort of his thing.

Golden Valley's 6-foot-5 senior hasn't lost many of these jump balls -- maybe a handful in three seasons at the varsity level.

Then, without so much as a warning, the referee launches the ball into the air.

Game on.

Sykes springs up, as if launched from Canaveral, slapping the ball toward teammate Donte Scott in the backcourt.

A funny thing happens after that.

And if you haven't watched the Golden Valley boys basketball team play this season -- which is a real shame, because they're 10-1 -- you just wouldn't understand.

Scott, a nimble little guard, won't dribble the ball. Not once.

Instead he cradles it, shielding it from the defense, before handing it back to the big fella.

How many times do you see that?

Sykes, one of the area's dominating forces down low over the last two seasons, is now officially -- and permanently -- a point guard.

The project began during the final few weeks of the 2007-2008 season, when Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter realized Sykes was simply too good not to touch the ball on every possession.

The solution: move Sykes to the point.

The results were immediate. Golden Valley won its last three games, including a 76-63 victory over Central California Conference champion Merced.

Need more perspective?

Since the move, Golden Valley is 13-1 with Sykes at the point.

"My basic motive was simple: If I sat on the bench and didn't get him a touch every single time ... Put it this way, it would be disappointing if a player of his ability didn't get to touch the ball every time down," Hunter said. "I wouldn't be doing my job."

Sykes is hardly a polished point. At times, he looks clumsy and uncomfortable, like a big man trying to do too much.

He dribbles primarily out of his right hand and can get rattled by a full-court press defense.

His shot, though indefensible, is also erratic.

Sykes takes the ball back behind his head -- way behind his head -- releasing it somewhere near his shoulders.

Like a catapult.

In fact, Sykes probably missed more shots -- free throws included -- in four games at the Tracy Winter Holiday Classic than he made.

Hunter doesn't seem at all fazed by Sykes' shortcomings. They're temporary, he says.

"We ask an aweful lot of the young man," Hunter said. "You're right, he's not completely acclimated yet, but he can only improve."

He's right, of course.

Sykes will learn to dribble fluidly with both hands and deal with much smaller guards. Eventually, with enough time in the gym, his shot will fall on a more regular basis.

What Hunter loves is the upside and natural instincts Sykes has shown during these early stages of his development.

The Winter Holiday Classic bore witness to his evolution.

Golden Valley beat four teams in four days en route to the championship. Each game seemed to test his project player in a different way.

Sykes dazzled the way seasoned point guards do.

With passing, defense and communication.

He came up with three first-half steals in a semifinal rout of West, all of which showed up on the scoreboard. Instead of using his long arms and range to block a shot, he beat a West player to a spot on the court and drew a charge.

The other two resulted in 3s, including a 27-foot bomb by Alex Fletcher to beat the buzzer.

One night earlier, in a quarterfinal victory over Manteca, Sykes interrupted Hunter's huddle, asking the coach to hear him out.

"Put me in the post," Sykes said during a break in the action.

Hunter agreed because "sometimes, when you're a coach, you've got to listen to your players."

The change threw off Manteca, which couldn't handle Sykes' length down low and blew an 11-point lead in the second half.

With each possession, Sykes would initiate the offense, slide the ball over to Fletcher or Scott and then dive into the post.

"I'm not sure we have another guy who can do what he can do," Hunter said. "He's the perfect fit for things we like to do."

For example: How many high school point guards in this area do you see winning tip-offs?

Or covering a center?

Or leading their team in rebounding and assists?

One.

Just one.

And that's sort of the point.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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