Life is good for South Atlanta High basketball in the post-Derrick Favors era.
No, the Hornets aren’t scheduled to play any games on national TV, as they did last year when Favors was on the roster. No, the stands aren’t overcrowded with spectators, including college and NBA scouts, all clamoring to get a glimpse at Parade Magazine’s and USA TODAY’s National Player of the Year, who is now playing at Georgia Tech.
Nearly everything is different with South Atlanta this year except for one thing — the program’s winning ways. The Hornets are off to a 14-1 start, including 8-0 in the region, and ranked No. 1 in Class AAA.
They are threatening to do what many thought was impossible — win back-to-back state championships without the superhero wearing the soon-to-be-retired No. 34 jersey in the middle of the lane.
“We’re not as spectacular as we were with Derrick,” South Atlanta coach Michael Reddick said. “We don’t have that unquestioned leader with unmatched ability, the kid we can throw the ball to at any point on the court, and know that he will make something happen. Derrick Favors was a talent above most.
“However, Derrick is gone from our team. But we still have expectations for our program. Our kids want to win badly. That hasn’t changed.”
While Favors remains an icon among his former high school teammates, they still want to prove they can compete at the highest levels without him. It’s not about disrespect toward Favors, but earning respect for this year’s team.
South Atlanta can’t go anywhere, especially on the road, without someone in the crowd reminding the team that Favors is no longer on the roster. Opposing fans have been known to chant “Where is … Fav-ors? Where is … Fav-ors?”
“We’ve had a lot of doubters this year, even at our own school,” said South Atlanta forward Rashaud Bell. “You hear people say things in the stands during the games. They don’t think we can really do anything with (Favors), but we just keeping working hard as a team. I think we’re doing pretty well so far.”
Not only did the Hornets lose their headline act with Favors, but also three other starters off the state championship squad, along with several key members off the bench.
“Other teams have been saying that this was going to be the year to get payback against us,” South Atlanta center Nick Jacobs said. “But we ain’t letting that happen.”
Why isn’t it happening? Because South Atlanta, despite returning only three players with varsity experience, has one of the state’s most imposing frontlines with the 6-foot-9 Jacobs, 6-6 Bell, and 6-7 Dominique McCoy.
“When you have size and athleticism like that, you can get away with a lot of (youthful) mistakes,” Woodland coach David Bice said after Tuesday’s 73-56 loss to South Atlanta.
“I’m not surprised they’re playing so well without Favors. They have a great coach, and he always makes those kids play with intensity.”
Reddick is the stabling influence at South Atlanta, even though his season got off to a disastrous start. While demonstrating some defensive stances in gym class in last October, he blew out his left kneecap. He underwent surgery a few days later, and was forced to rest while the leg healed up. Reddick was only able to attend three practices before the season, and just returned working at the school part-time last week.
The time away from school and basketball had positive effects on Reddick.
“It re-energized me — made me realize how much I enjoyed coaching basketball,” Reddick said on Tuesday, while walking with a slight limp.
“I have a new starting point again, with what we want to accomplish with this program.”
Reddick has thrown a few tweaks in the offensive scheme to get all the players involved. The days of clearing out of the way to watch Favors put on a one-man show are history.
The heir apparent is Jacobs, who averages 22 points and already has more than a dozen early scholarship offers, including Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, Tennessee and Virginia Tech. He sharpened his skills by competing against Favors in practice every day last year.
McKoy, who is also generating interest from major colleges, is scoring 17 per game. However, the difference-maker may be 5-7 sophomore guard James Arnold, who made five 3-pointers against Woodland.
When Arnold is hot from the outside, it stretches defenses to the perimeter, opening up the inside game for the big men.
Can South Atlanta defend its state championship without Favors?
Reddick sidesteps the question, saying that his teams aim for title runs every year. His focus is securing the Hornets a spot in the playoffs, because anything can happen in the postseason.
Two years ago, South Atlanta was a favorite to win the championship. However, the Favors-led Hornets were eliminated in the first round, suffering a shocking upset to East Hall.
“Hopefully, if things continue to come together, we can make another run,” Reddick said. “It depends on how we improve over the next few weeks. We need to (peaking) around the time of the region tournament.”
Maybe Favors can rub a little magic on his old team. He will be returning to South Atlanta to have his jersey retired on Jan. 26.