Ahmad Williams (above) and his twin brother Ahmin are back for their senior seasons at P-W. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
With a locker room flush with talent and all sorts of big-game experience, Jim Donofrio is in the process of preparing his Plymouth-Whitemarsh basketball team for what might be construed as a college entrance exam overflowing with all sorts of difficult questions.
All one needs to take a look at the Colonials’ nonleague slate, and you’ll find a group of southeastern Pennsylvania and statewide heavyweights all swinging oversized sledge hammers.
Toss in the night-in and night-out grind needed in the Suburban One League’s American Conference — especially when you’re the hunted such as P-W typically is — and you’ll find 14 more evaluations that will force Donofrio’s Colonials to be plugged in whenever they lace up their sneakers.
Hence, the season-long exam that Donofrio has concocted — a long-running exercise that will consistently test his players, showcase them in front of curious college coaches and, if all things go as planned, have them ready to compete for a series of memorable championships.
Not only Suburban One League and District 1 Class 6A titles, but also the biggie that’s awarded in late March at Hershey’s Giant Center along with a huge chocolate bar — a PIAA Class 6A crown.
“I have an obligation to showcase Naheem [McLeod] and the twins and Ish [Horn] and all the other guys that want to go on and play college basketball, so when you have this kind of team let’s enjoy the journey,” said Donofrio, who is entering his 20th season at the end of the P-W bench. “We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good teams over the years — and it’s nice to say that — but this one with Ahmad and Ahmin [the Williams twins] has knocked on the door.
“They won the district as sophomores with Xzavier Malone, who’s now at Fairleigh Dickinson, by beating Chester on the floor at Temple and then we lost to [eventual champion] Roman [Catholic] in the state semis,” continued Donofrio, who piloted a P-W club featuring C.J. Aiken and Jaylen Bond to the 2010 PIAA Class AAAA championship at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
“They then went to the district semis at Temple again [last season] and lost to Abington, and then went to the state quarters and lost to [eventual champion] Reading on the floor at Temple in what was an opportunity that I remind them of all the time. To me, that was an opportunity that they blinked on. This is not about looking back and saying it was fun to get that far, this is about do you think you can get over a hump — and I’m putting a heck of a hump in your way.”
And while Donofrio’s assembled nonleague hump involves clearing formidable opponents such as Bishop Shanahan, Archbishop Carroll, Archbishop Wood, Bonner-Prendergast, Neumann-Goretti, Haverford School, Sankofa Freedom and Neshaminy, league play means home-and-home backyard scraps with longtime rivals such as Cheltenham, Wissahickon, Hatboro-Horsham and Upper Dublin.
Of course, one doesn’t assemble such a demanding slate if he doesn’t have the players in place to attack so many dangerous adversaries — in league play or whatever. And the Colonials (25-6) return a seven-man nucleus that’s been substantially supplemented by several promising big people.
Let’s start with identical 6-2 senior twins Ahmad Williams and Ahmin Williams, aggressive youngsters who have been on-court defensive demons since they landed on Donofrio’s varsity roster.
Ahmin Williams broke his foot on the final day of the regular season — a 63-56 win in overtime at Upper Moreland — yet the Colonials still managed to be a postseason factor with him on the bench in civilian clothes and playing the role of cheerleader for his determined teammates.
Senior Ish Horn, a 6-1 slasher, also returns to the P-W backcourt. After checking into the Colonials program prior to last season from Martin Luther King, Horn produced his way into the P-W lineup by the time postseason play arrived. He even buried a half-court heave at the end of the third quarter — Horn scored 18 of his 20 points after the break in the 66-63 success — as P-W edged Pocono Mountain West in the state tournament’s second round.
The last of the four seniors returning to P-W’s starting lineup is 6-4 forward Alan Glover, who was idled for much of last season by a knee injury yet returned in time for the playoffs.
Junior forward Naheem McLeod (above) is the tallest player in the region at seven feet (and maybe a bit more). (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
All four of those players will surround junior Naheem McLeod, the Division I prospect who since last season has grown two more inches to 7-2 and through hard work in the weight room has added some 35 pounds. The 230-pounder also has tacked on several dimensions to his intriguing game.
South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Seton Hall, Villanova, La Salle, Penn State and Virginia Commonwealth were some of the Division I programs that Donofrio said were recently in to see McLeod.
“The kids just laugh and smile and just get out of his way in practice when he gets serious, when he’s really moving,” Donofrio revealed. “He’s a hard body to move around and he’s so long; we’re working on his perimeter skills now. Trying to evolve him for the next level, whatever that’s going to be. He obviously knows his bread and butter is two feet from the rim, but don’t be surprised over time and the next two seasons if you see this kid squaring up from the [3-point] line as well. He’s got skills.
“They’re still in progress, but you can see that two years from now, as long as Nay keeps plugging away and doesn’t get comfortable with all the attention kind of stuff [he could be something really special]. Once people start talking about you the way they talk about him — and given his personality — it’s very easy to just think, ‘OK, I’ve arrived.’ When you get that kind of kid, you’ve got to stay on him, like, ‘Yo, keep pushing here.’”
Lead guard Danny Cooper, a 6-0 senior, and 6-1 deep threat Jason Paul round out the rest of P-W’s returning rotation. Donofrio said Cooper really had a productive offseason.
Junior bigs Jordan Evans (6-7, 175) and Jason Cherry (6-8, 235), both of whom lean on McLeod during practice sessions, also are in the mix for playing time. Cherry transferred in from Norristown.
“He competes and he’s got good potential and he listens and he’s very coachable,” Donofrio said of the hard-working Cherry. “We have Jordan Evans, another guy who can go up against Naheem and not many can go up against that 7-2 frame. Jason, at 6-8 and 235 and being a fighter, has been a nice little addition, a nice gift that walked in the door.”
So, Donofrio has plenty of chess pieces he can maneuver all over the basketball floor.
“We do. Compared to our other teams that you want to set major goals with, this team’s physical strength is what stands out to me. They’re really strong,” Donofrio admitted. “Our best performance is still going to be cranking up the energy and try to impose our strength and experience.
“I think we can learn how to play. My biggest issue with us now is going to be — have the twins evolved into thinkers instead of intimidators. The schedule is set in a very competitive way and we’re playing some great programs. They could go either way those games. I don’t know how many people you’re going to bowl over there,” Donofrio continued. “So a lot of this could come down to a minute to go and where are we at? How are we handling that?”
If they handle things well, then the Colonials will be among those teams swinging a super-sized hammer at or near the end of the 2017-18 season.
If they don’t handle things as well as Donofrio hopes, they’ll still be a problem for lots of teams.
Navigating past some of those aforementioned sharks — Archbishop Carroll, Archbishop Wood, Neumann-Goretti, Bonner-Prendergast, Haverford School, Cheltenham, Wissahickon — will tell P-W where it stands and what needs to happen to achieve its collective goals.
“I don’t do that lightly,” Donofrio said of his scheduling philosophy. “I did that because of the [team’s] character. I know the twins and Ish feel they have something to prove. They love the game and they’ve put everything in their life into the game, and they don’t really have any full offers on the table.
“I wanted to almost put these guys in a corner. Instead of having an ego and a whole lot of swag walking into this, why don’t we have a chip on our shoulder?” Donofrio wondered. “Because if you really feel you’re worthy of high-level attention, we’re going to put you on a stage to prove it. Let’s go prove it. So if you do what we advise you to do and you play the way you’re capable of playing, how hard you play with such heart, you have an opportunity to send a message to a whole lot of people.
“You’ve got to put yourself in a challenging situation, so obviously I believe like crazy in this team’s ability to win games and be successful. I don’t know that they needed to go with opponents where you’re a 10-point favorite every night.”