KATY—Seven Lakes’ boys basketball team was tested this week.
Were the Spartans really worthy of a state ranking? Was their talent legit or mere hype? Were they really as good as their gaudy record attested?
This week asked. And answered: Yes, it’s legit, and heck yes.
Seven Lakes routed Mayde Creek, 81-55, on Tuesday. The Rams were 3-0 in District 19-6A entering the game. Then, in a battle for sole possession of first place in district, the Spartans bested Cinco Ranch, 57-46, on Friday. The Cougars were 3-0 in district.
With two opportunities to show what it’s got, Seven Lakes (25-3, 4-0 19-6A) took care of business.
“A lot of people had us finishing fifth or sixth (in district), down at the bottom,” sophomore guard A.J. Bates Jr. said. “We’ve been showing teams we’re one of the best in Houston.”
Bates was the common denominator in both wins. He scored 26 points against Mayde Creek and followed that with 24 points, five rebounds and three assists against Cinco Ranch.
“My role’s changed,” the 6-foot-2, 170-pounder said. “Last year, I was a freshman, relying more on my passing ability and only scoring when I had to. This year, my role is everything. Scoring, passing, defending. It’s bigger. It’s evolved a lot, and over time it’s only going to get bigger and bigger.”
Bates had an impressive debut season last year. This year, he’s taken his game up a level.
He is a more confident, prolific shooter; he knocked down three of seven 3s against Cinco Ranch. He is more aggressive as a scorer, looking to create for himself.
.@Ajbates_24 is already 2-3 from 3 early as @7LSpartanHoops jumps out to a 9-0 lead. #txhshoops @SLHSABCpic.twitter.com/xjEVoSFjQP— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1642209457
“The kid works harder than anybody we have,” Spartans coach Shannon Heston said. “He costs me hours and hours of sleep. He’s up here Monday morning through Friday morning at 6 a.m., getting shots up. It’s no surprise the results he’s getting.”
But Bates’ substantial growth has come as a leader. On a team with 10 seniors, it is his voice that means, and says, the most.
Bates is demonstrative in his actions on the court. He is aware of score and clock, knowing when to take over or create for others. He is attentive to coaching and detail.
Bates won’t say it, but it’s clear the Spartans are his team. With the work he’s put in, he feels comfortable telling others what to do and what not to do.
“He’s an amazing example of what a leader should do,” said Heston, who said Bates is the team’s most improved player from a leadership standpoint. “When he says something, guys can’t do crap about it because they know he’s done it.”
Heston said it was clear after last year’s bi-district playoff loss to Fort Bend Travis that Bates had the chops to be great.
“We were getting annihilated by a better team,” Heston said. “Travis had grown men and we were a year away, honestly. In that game, A.J. went post-up, and that was our offense for four or five minutes because that was the only way we could score. This 6-foot, 160-pound freshman posting up and getting baskets against a great team. That clicked for me.
“That kid will do anything we ask and he’s not afraid of the moment or anybody. We looked at that and said, ‘Hey, that kid is special.’”
So, Heston helped Bates take the next step, which was becoming a leader, particularly vocally. Bates started taking ideas for plays to coaches, offering his input more and more. He makes adjustments in-game. Heston raves about his high basketball IQ.
Bates was handed the keys to the team. Heston wanted to see what he’d do with them.
Bates didn’t just drive. He picked up others along the way.
“I’m taking more of a leadership role, but I’m also listening more to other guys’ opinions,” Bates said. “On our team, there’s not just one leader. Everybody is a leader. We bounce ideas off each other. My leadership, their leadership … that’s what our success is built off of.”
.@Ajbates_24 steal and bucket. He\u2019s got 12 already in this 1Q. #txhshoops @SLHSABCpic.twitter.com/dXaKs4pvql— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II) 1642209899
Seven Lakes is ranked No. 19 in Class 6A in the state, No. 9 in the Greater Houston area, not just because of Bates. He’s the headliner, yes, but the Spartans are a team of elite skill and quality depth.
The return of senior point guard Grant Van Hoozer from injury has been critical, giving the Spartans another 3-point threat, perimeter defender, and ballhandler. The return of senior guard Tahaad Davis after a one-year stay in California awards another scorer and athletic defender.
Senior forward Ethan Van Horn’s versatility is dynamic; his rebounding, passing, range shooting, and shot-blocking are exceptional. Junior Josh Akpovwa’s length and size inside is a nice luxury.
“I’ll take 25-3 in a heartbeat,” Heston said. “But going into each single game, I think we should win, and these guys feel they should win. Everyone in our locker room thinks we could be 28-0. That’s hard to do—we could be 20-8 as well—but we go into every game expecting to win and expecting to compete.
“Overall, I’m ecstatic. We expect success year in and year out, and we demand that from the kids. Being able to see it on the record is a lot of fun.”