Maybe they should call the Connally High School Gym “the Bounce House,” because Lord knows Jelani McDonald often has it jumping.
When you’re as gifted and springy an athlete as he is, you’re liable to bring the house down. Among McDonald’s litany of baskets this season were more than 50 dunks, often of the creative, windmill variety.
But it’s not just the lack of gravitational pull that separated McDonald from his Central Texas rivals and made him this year’s choice as Super Centex Boys Basketball Player of the Year. It’s the way he also elevated his leadership skills in spurring the proud Cadets to a school-record win total and another appearance in the regional tournament.
Connally coach Quinton Snell said that he first noticed that leadership growth spurt in McDonald at the end of the 2021 basketball season.
“Just kind of saw how he was trending in a different fashion, he was real positive,” Snell said. “The thing that I guess stood out to me the most was the way he began to work. His work ethic was different from the beginning of his sophomore year up until that point.”
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McDonald carried that mindset into the 2021 spring track and field season, where he won state silver medals in both the high jump and triple jump. Then he approached Connally’s 2021 fall football season with the same maturity, starring as the Cadets’ quarterback.
So, naturally, come basketball season he was eager to rise up as a leader again.
“I just try to stay positive,” McDonald said. “Kids might get down, I just try to stay in a happy mood, keep the energy up, so we don’t have no bad moods around the area we’re in. Just try to keep people uplifted.”
On the season, McDonald put up a team-best 14 points per game to go with 5 rebounds and 3.5 steals per contest. In the playoffs, he elevated his play even more, scoring an average of 20.5 points as Connally achieved a school-record win total of 31 while making the program’s eighth all-time trip the regional tournament.
But at Connally, it always starts on the defensive end. That’s a Snell staple. You’re going to defend or you’re going to find a seat on the bench.
Not a problem for McDonald. He’s fine with that. After all, he’s seen firsthand how cranking up the defensive pressure can lead to a parade of easy, breakaway buckets for the Cadets on the other end.
“Yes, yes,” said McDonald, when asked if it’s easier to get after it defensively when it yields so many fast-break opportunities. “Because you’ve got me looking forward to something that’s going to turn up the gym. When I lock in, stick some D, get the rebound, push it, get a dunk, that’s fun. That’s all I try to do is have fun when I’m playing.”
Here’s a scary thought for Connally’s basketball opponents. McDonald is constantly targeting ways to “add more bounce” to his game, to make it even easier to finish at the rim. But he’s also intelligent enough to realize that the area that needs the most work is probably his outside shooting, so he plans to spend a good chunk of this summer hoisting up shots. (You know, when he’s not refining his football talents.)
“I’m just not scared of (hard work),” McDonald said. “I’ve been doing it my whole life, playing up and stuff. Nothing has changed, really, except the hype. And that’s something I can go by.”
Speaking of hype, McDonald feels like he doesn’t need to inflate the 2021-22 Cadets’ legacy. It’s all right there in black and white. No Connally team has won more games. Given how many past Cadet basketball heroes like to return to their old stomping grounds and relive their glory years, McDonald will be quick to put them in their place.
“We’re the best team to come through here, hands down. I ain’t worried about that,” he said, suppressing a sly grin.
McDonald edged out three other talented Central Texas senior players for the Super Centex Player of the Year accolade — La Vega’s smooth senior swingman Randy Woolf Jr., Belton’s record-setting scoring machine T.J. Johnson, and Midway’s Division I-bound big man Caden Powell.
Coach of the Year:
Tom Daniel, Clifton
After the Clifton Cubs knocked off Palmer in this year’s Class 3A bi-district playoffs, head coach Tom Daniel looked around the locker room and had a realization. “Wow, I’m the only guy in the room who was even alive in 2003,” he thought.
Daniel didn’t just pick that year at random. You see, that’s the last time Clifton’s boys basketball program had won a playoff game prior to this season. For his guidance in launching the Cubs to a 24-9 record along with their first playoff trip in 17 years and their first postseason victory in 19, Daniel is the Super Centex Coach of the Year.
“It was extremely rewarding,” Daniel said. “We have banners up in our gym of previous playoff appearances for all of our teams, not just basketball. Football, softball, baseball, all of that. And we pointed it out a bunch, saying, ‘Look, it’s been since 2005, so we want to put something on the banner.’ Then once we put playoffs on the banner we wanted to add something to it, to put bi-district champs.”
Entering the season, Daniel optimistically expected that this would be the year the drought would end. Clifton had been close to playoff qualification in recent years, and the Cubs returned three senior starters who had logged varsity minutes since they were freshmen.
More than that, they all got along. Teams that grin together, win together.
“They enjoy playing together, which is awesome, because it’s not always like that,” Daniel said. “They’re a really fun group to coach. They wanted to get better every day. It’s not always like that either. And the third thing is, these guys like playing defense. We allowed about 40 points a game in district play, and in our playoff win we held Palmer, which is a pretty good offensive team, to 44 points. Those three things, I’d say, were kind of a key.”
Daniel was ecstatic that the seniors got to experience their goal and dream of the playoffs. Once Clifton qualified, the coach pulled up several of his JV players to the varsity roster so they’d get a sense of what the postseason was like. With those call-ups from a 16-8 JV squad plus the returning varsity players, Clifton has every intention of making this a regular occurrence.
“We’re just excited about that group, and I had a couple of sophomore starters (on varsity), so we have a good young group coming up, too,” Daniel said. “We want to make a streak the other way.”
Newcomer of the Year:
Camden Brock, Lorena
Camden Brock owns a photo of himself from age 2 dunking a mini-basketball through his grandfather’s hoop-creating arms.
Some 14 years later, he’s still getting buckets.
Brock, Lorena’s supremely skilled sophomore guard, displayed a poise far beyond his years on his way to winning Super Centex Newcomer of the Year honors. After earning a call-up from the JV squad, Brock showed he was definitely a ready-for-prime-time player, averaging 18.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2 steals per game for the regional semifinalist Leopards.
He is athletic enough to help Lorena in other sports, including football, but basketball is Camden’s first love. He comes by it naturally, as his grandfather is Bill Brock, the former longtime women’s basketball assistant coach at Baylor.
“Ever since I could walk, I had the ball in my hand,” he said. “They just pushed me to play basketball at an early age. … I’m in love with it, man.”
To this day, he’s most at home on a basketball court somewhere. He even enjoys practice. Brock said his favorite part of Lorena’s practices is something called the Leopard Drill, which requires participants to step in and take charges. He’s not afraid to stick his nose into the fray and absorb a little contact.
But the 6-foot-4 Brock can do a lot more than just play bully ball. He shot 36% from 3-point range this season, and demonstrated a slick ability to break down defenders off the dribble. His talents were on full display in the playoffs, especially Lorena’s packed-house third-round game in Robinson against Groesbeck, when Brock pumped in 21 first-half points on his way to a game-high 29, including two game-sealing free throws with 11 seconds left.
“That first half, especially, he just showed up,” Lorena coach Matt Jackson said. “There are some times like that where kids are feeling it, and you just let them go. When he got that look and got that feeling, you let him go do that.”
Added Brock, “That was the most packed game I’ve ever played in in my life. I just hit a stride there, especially in the first half, I was shooting lights-out. The crowd, being loud, it was great. I loved it.”
Jackson wants to see Brock continue to develop as a leader over the next two seasons, and he has no doubt this gym rat will do so. As for the young player himself, he plans to do everything he can to lift Lorena past the regional tournament next season.
“Next year we’re cutting down the net,” he said. “I hate that feeling of losing before you go to San Antonio. I’m going to do everything and make sure my team does everything that they can do to win that tournament next year.”
Smooth, third-year swingman averaged 14 points per game for 31-win regional semifinalists, including 20.5 in Cadets’ four playoff games.
District 18-4A Co-Defensive MVP averaged 12 points on 60-percent shooting, but his most valuable asset is his lockdown defense.
You’ve got to admire a fearless guard who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the fray, as evidenced by Dobie’s 11.2 rebounding average.
Lights-out shooter made defenses respect him and freed up space for teammates, as he hit 39% of his 3-pointers, 83% of free throws.
Two-year starter, Valor Prep student put up 21 points, 6 assists on average as Texas Wind captured its third straight TAIAO state title.
Heady, gifted floor general tossed in 18.7 points, 3.9 assists per outing, made all-tournament teams at MT Rice, Leander tournaments.
Fluent scorer led Trojans with 20-point average, including seven games of 30 points or more, made all-tourney at West, Hillsboro events.
Lanky transfer from Midway gave Pirate foes problems with his mismatch-creating abilities, led La Vega with 22.7 scoring average.
Few area players demonstrated any higher basketball IQ than La Vega’s multiskilled team leader, who produced two triple-doubles.
District 12-6A MVP leaves legacy as one of Belton’s all-time top players, having scored more than 2,500 points for his career.
High-flying multi-sport star delivered double-double averages (13.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg), also swiped 4.6 steals per game on defense.
Veteran Panther leader, University of Wyoming signee continued his upward mobility with consistent double-double production.
Rising star put up team-best 18.5 points, 2 steals after call-up from JV squad, elevated to another gear in Leopards’ playoff run.
Veteran Cubs coach led program to breakthrough campaign, with first playoff appearance in 17 years and first playoff win in 19.