By Jim Irish
Cedar Creek boys basketball team will ride talented Kenji Franklin this season.
The sophomore — who is close to 6-foot-6, according to Cedar Creek coach Valentino Maxwell — could be one of the top players in Central Texas. But he has to remain healthy.
In the first crosstown rivalry contest against Bastrop last season, Franklin ran into the wall below the padding at the end of the court and dislocated his toe with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Cedar Creek (14-21 overall, 3-11 in district) lost narrowly 67-65.
Maxwell called Franklin’s injury a “freak accident.” With Franklin sidelined, the Eagles lost seven of their next eight district contests and missed the playoffs. To show Franklin’s significance to the team, Cedar Creek won 12 games with him in the lineup and only two without him.
Cedar Creek won only two games with Franklin out of the lineup
The left-handed Franklin (11.3 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game, 1.1 blocks per game) returned for the final three games, but the Eagles lost all three, including to the top two teams, Weiss and Manor. After missing eight games, Franklin had lost his some of his conditioning, Maxwell said.
“We still lost, but we were very competitive (with Franklin),” Maxwell said.
Franklin played AAU summer basketball with S.T.A.T. Elite in San Marcos, and Maxwell said he’s observed Franklin’s improvement.
“He’s head and shoulders better than last year,” Maxwell said. “He has worked strenuously on his game. He’s gotten stronger, more athletic.”
Maxwell said Franklin, who was selected all-district honorable mention despite missing 8 of 14 games, is capable of playing all five positions, including point guard. Franklin knocked down all four 3-pointers in a recent scrimmage against Cedar Ridge to prove his outside range.
"...He can be an effective anyplace on court. That's what makes him a top player."
-- Coach Valentino Maxwell about sophomore Kenji Franklin
“We will have him everywhere,” Maxwell said. “You don’t want to limit him by putting him low (post). He can be effective anyplace on the court. That’s what makes him a top player.”
Junior Robert Conrad, a 5-11 point guard, is a two-year starter, who was chosen all-district first team in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. He averaged 17.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals last season.
Maxwell has higher expectations for Conrad, who was Franklin’s teammate on S.T.A.T. Elite,
“He’s more mature,” Maxwell said. “He understands the game. Robert could always control himself. When you become a top player, you’ve got to start leading others. That’s where he’s improved this offseason.”
Micah McDonald (6-2, jr.) returns as a starting small forward, who averaged 3.1 ppg and 2.2 rpg.
"...When you become a top player, you've got to start leading others. That's where he's improved this offseason."
-- Maxwell about point guard Robert Conrad
Kaleb Bunker, the leading scorer in Central Texas last season at 24.6 ppg and Cedar Creek's leading rebounder, graduated, leaving a large hole. Bunker also became the leading scorer in school history.
“The other guys have to get better, Maxwell said about Bunker’s departure..
Newcomer Phineas Koplin (6-3, so.) will start at either guard or forward.
“He’s going to play an important role on our team,” Maxwell said. “He is a shooter.”
Leo Lopez (5-10, sr., guard) and Kade Masters (6-0, jr., guard) are returning lettermen and add depth.
Brian Allen, the 6-1 senior quarterback on the football team, will play after missing last season with an injury.
District 23-5A will be 'wide open' after exit of top teams Manor and Weiss
Maxwell predicted that District 23-5A would be “wide open” this season with the exit of top teams Manor and Weiss after the UIL realignment. He said Pflugerville, Connally, Hendrickson, and Georgetown will be competitive.
“If we can stay healthy, we’ll have a good shot of making the playoffs,” Maxwell said. “I said that last year, and that injury (to Franklin) was the only thing that kept us out.”
Maxwell, who prefers man-to-man defense, said his team would play more aggressively on defense because of its athleticism.
The Eagles, who play 17 non-district games, open the season on the road Friday at Northeast Early College, which won 26 games last season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Jim Irish is a freelance writer living near Austin, Texas