The Wings Academy boys basketball team graduated or lost four starters and two reserves. With them came 60 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists per game.
The only returning player with any experience is forward Krystian Foriest, who is just recently back on the court after offseason knee surgery.
So, then why is Billy Turnage so happy these days?
“This team is unique in the sense they all have that fire in their bellies,” the fourth-year coach said. “We don’t have an individual leader. There’s been somebody different urging their teammates on every practice or scrimmage. It’s about all 16 guys.”
“The chemistry,” he added, “is way better than the last two years. … It’s like addition by subtraction.”
Ah, chemistry, a word all coaches use this time of year in describing his or her club. The Wings maintain it won’t change once the season begins, and they lose a couple of close games.
It was a problem last year. There were players in search of a scholarship taking extra shots, others looking for gaudy individual statistics or listening to hangers-on who thought they knew better.
“Just winning,” Turnage said. “All they want to do is win. I speak to them and they speak to me and they always say the same thing. They show me by the way they play on the court: they help each other off the floor, make the extra pass, the bench is encouraging guys.”
It has bred a close-knit basketball team, Foriest said, that feels like a family. The days of cliques are gone, replaced by the entire roster spending time together. They study alongside one another, eat pre- and post-game meals together and work out on their own with each other.
Foriest will start in the front court with Del Lewis, a 6-foot-6 power forward, Turnage said is his most improved player. Wings has plenty of options in the backcourt, traditionally the Bronx school’s specialty.
The Blue brothers, Jabriel and James, a pair of seniors that offer different skill sets, are ready to make an impact after waiting their turn. James is known for his pressure defense and scrappiness while Jabriel is a natural scorer. Sophomore Ian Vasquez could be one of the best pure shooters in the city, Turnage said, and at 6-foot-6, junior Steven Gomez is a dual threat.
Deonte Houston, though, may be the key. A pass-first, 6-foot junior who averaged 18 points per game and 5 assists for the JV, he will run the point.
“He has all the attributes that you need your point guard to have, basically being an extension of you on the floor,” Turnage said. “There are times in preseason I’ve called timeouts and he’ll say exactly what I was going to say to the team. There are times he’ll pull me and ask if we can run a play, and it was the same one I was thinking of. … His basketball IQ is incredible.”
With all that talent that has come through Wings the last two years, the Wings have failed to get out of the second round. The year before, in Turnage’s first season, they made the semifinals before slipping up against Lincoln in the semifinals. Getting back to that point is the goal, in addition to winning the Bronx regular season and borough crowns.
While that one standout star isn’t on the roster – such as Dashaun Wiggins, a Seton Hall commit, who is prepping – the Wings have plenty of depth. Plus, they feel underrated.
“We’re a young team with something to prove,” Houston said, “so we’re coming hard.”