Jalen Suggs averages about 16 points per game and is a second-year starter for the Minnehaha Academy boys’ basketball team. No big deal.
Except he’s just an eighth-grader.
“I haven’t seen an eighth-grader in Minnesota that has his ability level,” coach Lance Johnson said.
Two of Suggs’ teammates, Terry Lockett and Kaden Johnson, are also eighth-graders, and the trio combined for 32 points in a 72-55 victory over Holy Family Catholic in the MLK Classic on Monday. Minnehaha Academy, ranked No. 5 in Class 2A coming into last week, is not a program that is set on bringing up younger kids to play varsity, according to Johnson.
“It’s not the best scenario,” he said. “We’ve been young just because we have a very unusual group of what is now eighth-graders who are able to play at a varsity level.”
The Redhawks have rebuilt since the senior-filled roster took the Class 2A crown in 2013. They went 19-9 last season and were upset in the section quarterfinals.
“This year, I would say we have a really young team, but we have a lot of really good talent,” sophomore forward JaVonni Bickham said.
The Redhawks “are able to notch it up when they need to,” Johnson said. They’re 12-5, with three of their losses coming against Class 4A opponents.
For Johnson, the goal is all about getting his team to play to its potential, something it doesn’t always do.
“Right now, that’s what this team needs to learn,” he said.
It relies on players such as Bickham, a 6-6 sophomore averaging more than 18 points per game.
“Me being so tall and so young, some people who are like me are a little uncoordinated,” Bickham said. “But I just keep moving my feet.”
Johnson said Bickham has maturity beyond his years; teammates treat him like a senior because he’s been around so long.
“He is a stabilizer,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of funny that I’m saying that about a sophomore.”
His scored a season-high 31 points in a loss to Northfield. He’s only failed to hit double digits in points in two games this season. He also led the team in three-point shooting last season.
But it’s not just his height. He can dribble, pass and he’s working on his “explosive athleticism,” Johnson said.
“He’s an all-around player,” Johnson said. “He’s not just a big kid.”
Bickham scored a team-high 19 points in the MLK Classic, playing most of the second half with four fouls. He managed 13 second-half points.
Meanwhile, Suggs is a guard who played just three junior varsity games as a seventh-grader before joining the varsity squad. He led his team with 26 points in a 70-60 victory last Tuesday over St. Paul Academy.
“I can adapt real well,” he said. “I think I can do whatever coach needs me to do.”
Johnson sees Suggs’ exceptional ball-handling skills and court vision, plus explosive jump.
“He’s athletically gifted, period,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we just kind of shake our heads. … It’s unbelievable.”
Suggs likes to guard the best player on the opposing team, “take him out of the game so that our team doesn’t have to worry about him,” he said.
Still, he knows there might be a bit of a target on his back from opponents.
“They don’t want to lose to an eighth-grader,” Suggs said. “But I like that kind of stuff. I don’t want to have it easy.”