Ask East Lincoln senior point guard Connor Ashley a question and there’s a good chance he’ll respond, “Yes, sir.”
Ashley doesn’t waste words in the same way he doesn’t waste possessions for the Observer Sweet 16 No. 13 Mustangs.
Averaging just over six points per game, Ashley’s not likely to be the player talked about following one of East Lincoln’s 20-plus-point wins this season.
He has, however, been exactly what the Mustangs (19-0 entering the state playoffs) have needed him to be.
With four starters around him averaging in double figures scoring – including two Division I prospects in the Surratt brothers, Sage and Chazz – Ashley has tactfully played the role of the unselfish facilitator, and quietly pushed his team from good to potentially great.
“Connor is always in the gym,” said junior guard Chazz Surratt, who is averaging 20.8 points per game this season. “He doesn’t say much, but he’s one of those guys you need on your team to make it really gel and make the season special.”
After playing sparingly as a junior, Ashley’s minutes have increased dramatically this season and, with that, so to has the Mustangs’ win total. The team entered the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the West division.
“I’m enjoying this season a lot,” said Ashley, who stands 6-foot-1, 165 pounds and boasts a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. “Playing with these guys is a lot of fun because they’re all phenomenal scorers, so I’m not complaining at all.”
Watch Ashley in practice for a couple minutes and it becomes strikingly obvious that he’s the son of a basketball coach.
Ashley’s father, Chip, the Mustangs’ assistant coach under Neil Hodges, has been with the program for the better part of the past three decades, and the East Lincoln gym has become a second home for the two Ashleys.
“This team can be very goofy and we like to play around a lot,” said sophomore swingman Cameron Dollar. “And Connor is always the one to get us right. He’s kind of like a daddy figure I guess. He’s very fundamental and he’s always correcting us when we try to get too flashy.
“He and his father go back-and-forth quite a bit,” Dollar added. “Because Connor’s been with him forever, he’s heard Coach Ashley say almost everything that he’s trying to teach us. So Connor knows almost as much as his father does.”
Ashley is not one to take a shot outside the flow of the Mustangs’ normal offense, but during a game against North Lincoln Feb. 7, he knocked down five of seven three-point attempts on his way to a career-high 17 points.
Having made 23 of his 52 attempts (44 percent) from behind the arc this season, Ashley owns the Mustangs’ top three-point shooting percentage and has made a habit of making opposing defenders pay when they stray too far.
“I’m just out there to do whatever I can to help the team,” Ashley said. “I’m not a give-me-the-ball type of person. I do things when I’m supposed to.”
There are young kids that carry around a blanket for security. Connor opted for a basketball.
At the age of 2, Ashley began attending Mustangs practices with his father, where he'd sit in the corner of the gym and play with a basketball.
“I remember if we were at the house and Connor didn’t have a basketball, he would create a sock ball,” said Chip. “I never really pushed him to do anything. I always told him that if he wanted to play that I’m here to help.”
As Connor got older, his father would bring him on scouting trips. During halftime of each game, a young Ashley would put on shows with his shooting touch.
In his free time, the younger Ashley would work the concessions stand, or sell tickets at Mustangs games. Later, he’d film games, run the clock, and act as the team’s water boy – always hoping to one day make his own mark as a player for East Lincoln.
“There’s a lot of little kids that will come up now as tell me that I’m a great shooter and that they love seeing us play and I love that kind of stuff,” said Ashley.
Asked if it’s surreal to wake up and finally be one of those players he grew up idolizing, Ashley’s answer was as straight to the point as his game.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
Seth Lakso is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Seth? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.