Jabree Coleman and Nasir Ralph took different paths and have different ways of helping the South Philadelphia High School boys basketball team. But they can both agree that defense always comes first.
The two Southern seniors are making huge plays at one end of the court, leading to a happy group of scorers at the other end.
“I try to tell them that defense translates to offense,” Southern coach Thomas Terry said. “In this day and age, everybody wants to play offense. Nobody wants to play defense. But if the other team can’t score, they can’t win. I don’t care if we win 43-20. It’s still a win. Everybody wants to score 80-90 points but they’re also giving up 80-90 points. I tell the guys that as long as we play defense collectively, it will show up in the game.”
Coleman and Ralph particularly have bought into that philosophy. Coleman has played with the Rams all four years and has stepped into a leadership role as the team’s big man in the paint. Scoring a bucket can be fun. But blocking a shot is his forte.
“It feels great blocking a shot,” Coleman said with a big smile. “It gives your teammates so much energy when you make a play like that. I was never really focused on scoring. I just wanted to play defense and get rebounds.”
Ralph shares that same defensive passion, but he uses a different method. The speedy guard is the team leader in steals, making it a nightmare for his opponents trying to execute a pass at the top of the key. Ralph is playing his first year of high school basketball as a senior and had to work his way into the starting lineup.
“I worked really hard at it,” Ralph said. “(Coach Terry) said I had to step it up because I was playing lazy. But then I just came out stealing the ball and playing as hard defense as I can.”
It cemented his spot in the starting five. Terry now looks to Ralph to make a play when the team needs it most.
“Nasir is the catalyst of my defense,” Terry said. “He changes the complexion of our team. We play off that energy on defense.”
Once things are settled on the back end, the Rams’ big scorers Yassir Joyner, Stephen Hill and Dayon Warren go to work, filling the basket. Joyner and Warren are both averaging double-digit scoring this season as Southern has raced out to a 7-2 record through Jan. 9.
Coleman and Ralph have proven they can score, too, as each picks his spot to contribute a big basket. Coleman shined in a 69-36 victory over the Academy at Palumbo on Jan. 4, scoring 16 points while hauling in 15 rebounds.
“Not to say he’s on that level, but Jabree is our Rasheed Wallace when he was in Detroit,” Terry said. “He plays a big game.”
The offensive spark is something Coleman has been adding to his game, despite his love of denying his opponent in the defensive paint.
“Since I was younger, I always played center and big man so my game was always focused on boxing out and getting rebounds and blocks,” said Coleman, an A’s and B’s student who wants to study engineering in college. “But now I’m trying to work on my scoring a little bit. Coach has been helping me with my free throws and my footwork in the post.”
Ralph wasn’t sure what he wanted prior to senior year. But he decided to join the Rams and he’s glad he did.
“This is my first year playing,” Ralph said. “I can say it, I was bull (crap) before. But now I take it seriously. You just can’t just play and expect to be a basketball player. You can’t just play ball. You need to be a basketball player.”
He found a good teacher in Terry, who has helped him grow his game.
“I had to light a fire under him and make sure he understands that he can be a top defender in the (Philadelphia) Public League,” Terry said. “You just have to believe that. If I believe it, then you have to believe it. He’s starting to believe that.”
And the Rams are starting to believe they have something special in the making.
“It’s just like baking a cake,” Terry said. “We have to make sure we put the ingredients together and it’s going to slow cook and rise. And I think we’re starting to come together as a team.”