The coach of the defending Class AAA state basketball champions has a unique way to describe his young phenom at point guard.
“He’s a 50-year-old midget,” said Columbia High’s Phil McCrary, referring to Tahj Shamsid-Deen. “It speaks to his maturity level. He thinks way beyond his age.”
The 5-foot-8, 160-pound Shamsid-Deen is considered one of the state’s top sophomores, averaging 18 points, nine assists and three steals for Columbia, which is 11-1 and leaves Wednesday for the Alaska Airlines Shootout for five days.
“It’s a compliment, not at all meant in a derogatory way. It’s just that most kids his age make simple and minor mistakes on the floor. It’s rare for Tahj because he’s more mature than most of the point guards he plays against.
“How many 15-year-olds do you know that are constantly looking up at the clock, knowing the situation they are in? How many always know where to go with the basketball? Know when to shoot? When to slow it down? And when to take over a game?
“All that stuff, Tahj has already learned. That’s why I call him a ‘50-year-old midget’ because his knowledge is way beyond his age.”
What does Shamsid-Deen think of the uncanny description? “It makes me smile and laugh,” he said. “I know exactly what he means. Coach means I’m wise beyond my years with how I see the game. I guess I’m smarter than I’m supposed to be at my age.”
Columbia is depending heavily this season on Shamsid-Deen, who is the only returning starter from last year’s state championship squad. The little guy has responded in a big way to the pressures, helping Columbia win the Arby’s Classic over the holidays with a game-high 24 points in the championship game.
Columbia’s only loss was at the buzzer to Miller Grove, which is ranked No. 4 in the nation by USA Today. Shamsid-Deen blistered Miller Grove’s highly respected defense for 24 points in front of college scouts in attendance to watch other players.
“He’s like a general out there,” Miller Grove coach Sharman White said. “He definitely gives them their drive. He steers everything that Columbia does. He’s so young, but such in command. He has a great feel for the game and doesn’t try to do more than his team needs him to do.”
When asked to explain Shamsid-Deen’s importance to the team, McCrary said, “It would be like trying to fly an airplane without the pilot. That’s how important Tahj is to our team.”
Connecticut, Florida and Memphis are among the teams that have shown early interest in Shamsid-Dean, who had a growth spurt of three inches since last season. The point guard is just as sensational in the classroom, posting a qualifying SAT score for college while in the seventh grade. He has nearly a 4.0 GPA in high school and is a finalist for the Governor’s Cup in math.
Shamsid-Deen is a second-year starter and has high hopes for Columbia’s second state title in a row. The DeKalb program doesn’t have the size or experience of last season, but may be quicker, faster and a little deeper on the bench.
“Columbia is right up there with the top overall teams in the state,” White said. “They don’t have as many big-name stars as last year, but they can play. This year’s group is more of a blue-collar team that will do all the little things to grind it out and wear you down to win.”