Friday night, North Mecklenburg High defeated Mallard Creek to win an outright regular-season conference championship.
Vikings boys’ basketball coach Duane Lewis admitted afterward he wasn’t sure it was possible. From his 2015-16 team that reached the N.C. 4A Western Regional championship game, he graduated 10 seniors, including Davion Mintz, the MECKA conference player of the year who now plays for No. 23-ranked Creighton.
“I guess I didn’t expect our team to come together this fast,” Lewis said.
North Mecklenburg’s surprise run has been fueled by three players who are related to former basketball players who were highly successful in the sport, so maybe it’s no surprise that junior point guard Vaud Worthy, sophomore forward Jae’Lyn Withers and freshman shooting guard Tristan Maxwell have led the Vikings to a 20-3 record heading into this week’s MECKA conference tournament.
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Worthy is the nephew of former Ashbrook High and Los Angeles Lakers world champion James Worthy.
Maxwell is the son of former Houston Rockets sharpshooter Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell, another former NBA world champion.
And Withers is the son of former West Charlotte High standout Curtis Withers, the 2001 All-Observer Player of the Year and three-time all-conference star for the Charlotte 49ers.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Lewis said. “In the locker room, though, they’re just kids cutting up. They don’t get caught up in it. The parents just come and support their kids. I look over and Vernon’s giving everybody a high five and Curtis is the same way.
“It’s neat that you’ve got guys who have played at a high level and know their place, and they’re sitting there like parents, wanting their kids to do well and their (kids’) friends to do well, too.”
Worthy, a television commentator who lives in Los Angeles, hasn’t attended any North Meck games, but Maxwell and Withers rarely miss them. Maxwell, particularly, is sought out by fans who remember him playing with Hakeem Olajuwon and Kenny Smith on the great Houston Rockets teams of the 1990s. Earlier this season, Maxwell, who also played for the Charlotte Hornets in 1998, invited his friend, Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, to come watch a game against West Charlotte.
“There definitely was a buzz,” Lewis said. “All of this is crazy to me. The biggest celebrity I’ve ever had before is when I coached Bray Pemberton, whose father (Rob) was a crew chief for Rusty Wallace in NASCAR. This is new.”
What’s also new is coaching a player like Withers, who is 6-foot-7. He’s bigger than most high school centers but prefers to play outside, where he has a deft shooting touch. Withers averages 16.5 points and nine rebounds. Coaches from Charlotte, Clemson, Miami, Wake Forest and Virginia have been on campus to watch him.
Lewis says Withers can be as good as the two best Vikings to ever play at North Mecklenburg - 6-9 forward Jamie Skeen, who went to the NCAA Final Four with VCU in 2011, and 6-8 power forward DeMarco Johnson, a former Charlotte 49ers star and second-round pick of the New York Knicks in 1998.
“Jae’Lyn has a chance,” Lewis said. “DeMarco and Jamie are as good as it gets, but that’s the bar for him. He has that ability in him. Not everyone has that. What he is right now, he’ll be so much better in two years.
“He’s a young puppy and he does things for us, right now, that you’re sort of amazed by. A lot of games, he takes over and doesn’t even know he’s taking over.”
Withers, 16, didn’t play middle school basketball, but switched from football because of injuries. In ninth grade, he played for Lewis’ junior varsity team. Becoming an elite high school player has come rapidly.
“I played wide receiver and tight end in football,” Withers said. “But after my eighth-grade summer, I changed sports. My dad was just like, ‘It’s going to take you to another level.’ I was always complaining about aches and pains and stuff and he made me focus on basketball. It’s been the best thing. I guess it’s showing right now.”
Maxwell, 14, has received recruiting attention from Clemson, Florida and Wake Forest. He averages 14.8 points. And it might not surprise you to know that - like his father - shooting is his strength.
“He had 25 (points) on nationally ranked Greensboro Day in a scrimmage,” Lewis said. “There was a buzz after that. The situation doesn’t affect him.”
Well, maybe a little at first.
“I was nervous, real nervous, when we got started,” said Maxwell, who will turn 15 in May. “I didn’t know how high school varsity basketball was going to be. But the first game when we played West Meck, that got me going. My first shot went in.”
Worthy, 18, is the only one of the three to previously play varsity ball. He started on the Vikings’ regional final team. Worthy has an offer from Winthrop, and coaches from College of Charleston, New Orleans and UNC Wilmington have been on campus to watch him play.
Worthy averages nine points and nine assists but doesn’t often look to score. Lewis reminds you that he can, but said his point guard enjoys sharing the basketball to make everyone happy.
“Teams know when I drive they’re going to help (defensively), and I’ve got my shooters on the outside, and they knock it down,” Worthy said. “I can score, but I don’t need to score on this team. Everybody can score the ball. This is as special a team as I’ve been a part of.
“We’ve got the famous relatives, but I don’t know, the whole team is like a brotherhood. We’re always together - in the locker room, out of school, during school, weekends. This is something I’ll never forget.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr