With about two minutes to go in Millbrook’s 82-70 win over Southeast Raleigh on Jan. 25, senior point guard Phillip Burwell was done for the night.
The Wildcats had a comfortable lead, so head coach Chris Davis didn’t need the services of Burwell anymore. Sitting next to the coaches at the head of the bench, Burwell was doing one thing he’s known for around the program -- talking.
Seated next to Burwell was senior forward Jai McRae. Burwell had McRae’s full attention as he gestured towards the court, looking more like an assistant coach than a senior captain.
Earlier in the game, Burwell showed why he is the co-captain (along with Collin Lewis) and how he has the respect, and ear, of his peers.
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In the first quarter, Burwell called a timeout. High school basketball players sometimes call timeouts when they are trapped by two defenders, or are trying to inbound the ball and are in danger of being called for a five-second violation. This wasn’t one of those situations. Burwell just didn’t like the way his teammates were playing, so he took it upon himself to call a timeout and assemble the troops.
“It’s the second time he’s done it,” Davis said. “He didn’t like how things were going, he called timeout.”
Davis was confused. He heard the whistle and thought the other team called it. When the official informed him that his team called the timeout, Davis looked at Burwell, who let the coach know he wasn’t needed in the huddle. Burwell had it under control.
“He talked to the guys and we settled down,” Davis said. “He knows he has that right to do it. It makes it easier for us to have him to have the control to do that, and I trust him.”
Burwell has earned that trust from his play for the undefeated Wildcats (21-0, 9-0) and by his leadership in practice. He’s not afraid to get in the face of a teammate if he sees anyone slacking. But not only does he dish it, but he can take it, too. If he’s not playing up to expectations he’s OK with a teammate saying something, in fact he expects it.
“If I’m doing something and I tell you to do it, I’m not just telling you just to be mean,” Burwell said. “You tell me I messed up, I’m cool with it. I’m listening to you. I’m not one of those captains that I can tell you something and you can’t tell me anything, it goes both ways. I listen to what they say, they listen to what I say.”
On the court this season, the 6-2, 180 pound Burwell is averaging 14.3 ppg, 5.5 assists, and shooting 50 percent from the field. And he gets his teammates involved with more than verbal jabs. Last season he had 89 assists in 29 games. Through 21 games this year he already has 116 assists.
His vision and voice on the court are a big reason why he can sense when the Wildcats aren’t playing up to their potential, like early in the Southeast Raleigh game.
“I didn’t like the way the game was going,” Burwell said. “I didn’t feel like we were hustling enough and playing hard enough, and I think coach trusts me with a lot of power on the team, so I felt like it was my right to stop it before he had to. I didn’t let him (Coach Davis) say a word in the huddle. It was a 30 second timeout, I talked for like 15 seconds and the whole game changed after that.”
A way with teammates
But Burwell also has a gentle side. There have been times this season after halftime Burwell will stay with a player in the locker room for a few extra minutes to discuss something that happened. Sometimes it’s “kids gloves” but other times it’s more direct.
“He has a way with his teammates and they respond to it,” Davis said.
Davis said Burwell has always been that guy, the one willing to speak up when needed.
“Sometimes I have to get him to dial it back,” Davis said. “He would speak up, even to a fault sometimes. Me and him have gone at it over the years, to where it is now. Now I trust him.”
Davis sees a similarity between Burwell and his older brother John (class of 2016), a two-year letter winner at Millbrook who played two years at William Peace University.
“They are both talkative guys, super talkative,” Davis said. “Like, won’t shut up kind of thing.”
The younger Burwell said he watched how his brother, who was also a team captain, led his team. In 2016, John Burwell captained a Millbrook team that went 28-2 and made it to the fourth round of the NCHSAA 4A playoffs.
Phillip, though, already has one thing he can hang over John’s head.
“I was named captain last year as a junior,” Phillip said with pride. “I felt really big because my brother wasn’t named a captain until his senior year. He was happy for me and I was happy for myself that I could lead our program two years in a row.”
Davis worries that he will wear Burwell out because he plays him so many minutes. But even when Davis is able to get Burwell some rest, the captain is still involved in the game one way or another. That’s why Davis insists on Burwell sitting next to the coaches instead of between teammates. Davis wants him to see what they see while the action is going on.
According to Burwell, the game is much different from the sidelines. When he gets back on the floor, he gets back to giving the verbal commands based off what he saw while sitting. In a hostile environment, Burwell knows his teammates don’t need to see him, they just listen to him.
“They just hear me and know to do it,” Burwell said. “That’s big.”
Even away from the basketball court, Burwell is the voice of the Millbrook program, constantly talking, always communicating.
“I can’t shut up sometimes,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes I don’t realize I’m talking so much. Sometimes my coach tells me to shut up. It just flows.”