The Cary boys’ basketball team has had to evolve after graduating key players from last year’s N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A runner-up, and so has its new point guard, Donte Tatum.
Standing 6 feet 1 and having a lightning-quick first step, Tatum is an ideal build for a point guard, but it was a position he had never played before.
With last year’s starter, Darrion Burnett, going down with an injury during football season, the move was made out of necessity.
Tatum was last year’s leading scorer, but he didn’t have to run the offense. It was all about getting open and letting others find him – and he had a green light to shoot or drive.
“Last year’s team, I had help. I mean, I didn’t have to worry and do too much,” Tatum said. “My role was just to score.”
Tatum has had his share of growing pains, but more recently, his bright spots too.
When Cary was placed in a loaded T.J. Warren bracket at the John Wall Holiday Invitational, Tatum knew his time for adjusting to his new role had to come to an end.
“When I found out who we were playing I was like, ‘It’s barbecue chicken,’ which means I was about to eat,” Tatum said. “I don’t care if you’re a national player or not, I feel like I can compete with you. Going into this tournament, I was going hard.”
Tatum did more than just compete, he shined.
The Imps went 1-2, but both losses came on buzzer-beaters against top prospects in the country.
In the opener, Cary dropped a 71-69 decision to Tampa Catholic, who often doubled Tatum. Tatum blew past Tai Strickland, whose father is former 17-year NBA veteran Rod Strickland, with ease to begin the game and finished with 20 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals while shooting 52.9 percent from the field in a full 32 minutes.
Most notable, though, was the fact he turned the ball over only three times and dished out five assists, a drastic difference from his early-season struggles.
“Their defense was really tough on him, and they’re making him work 94 feet to bring the ball up, and I thought he was so strong and his decision-making was so good,” Cary coach Allan Gustafson said.
In the tournament finale, Phillip Blackley, Cary’s 6-8 center, hurt his MCL and would miss the game against University School (Fla.).
So it was up to Tatum to occasionally guard 7-foot-1 Balsa Kopravica.
Despite the dramatic size difference, the pressure didn’t vex Tatum, who grabbed 10 rebounds, more than anyone on either team.
“There’s a lot of pressure because I need to run the team, I need to score, I need to rebound, I need to do all of that,” he said. “I can work with it.”
With the score tied up near the end of the fourth, it was Tatum’s turn to take the last shot. He went straight at 6-10 Vernon Carey Jr., who was assigned to play man-to-man on him in the second half.
It looked like he had a step, but Carey tipped away Tatum’s layup as the buzzer went.
“Donte is not afraid of anybody and he’s going to challenge anyone and everybody,” Gustafson said.
If Tatum could rewind and do the play over again, the thing he’d change isn’t the decision to go to the basket, but how to finish.
“The last play, I should’ve dunked on (Carey). I should’ve,” Tatum said. “I’m not scared of anybody and that’s how it is.”
If Cary’s track record for playing in tight games continues, Tatum will be in the same situation again, and he’ll be ready to rise to the occasion.