When camp opened for the N.C. Central basketball, coach LeVelle Moton talked about the two freshmen guards on the team.
Moton, the Eagles’ coach since 2009, typically fills his roster with transfers, giving him plenty of experience. Those transfers usually have to sit out a season, giving them extra time to learn his system. Since they’ve played college basketball before, they know what it takes to compete at that level.
But this season, Moton was high on Jordan Perkins (6-1, 190) and Reggie Gardner Jr. (6-3, 180), a pair of true freshmen who both came from successful high school programs.
At Greensboro Day School, Perkins won a NCISAA 3A championship his senior season. Gardner played at the legendary Dematha High School in Hyattsville, Md., where he backed up Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, before finishing his high school career at Loomis Chaffee, a preparatory school in Windsor, Conn.
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When the duo arrived on campus, Moton noticed they were a bit more seasoned than most true freshmen he’s recruited.
“He’s already had the foundation and that makes it so much easier,” Moton said about Gardner in October. “I don’t want to put too much on him too soon because he has a lot to learn, but understanding and I.Q., he has that.”
Junior C.J. Wiggins was the most experienced point guard on the roster and the last true freshman to start a game under Moton, getting 11 starts during the 2015-16 season. But from the start of practice, Perkins was pushing Wiggins’ for the point guard spot, according to Moton.
Wiggins has started eight games this season, but Perkins has started the last six, pairing him in the backcourt with Gardner, who has started every game. The MEAC is a guard-driven league with most teams, like N.C. Central, using three guards in its starting lineup. Some teams start as many as four guards, surrounding them around one big man. The Eagles’ big man, redshirt senior center Raasean Davis, leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game. Davis, who transferred to N.C. Central from Kent State, appreciates what Perkins and Gardner do to open up the lane for him.
“It makes it a lot easier because they can’t just key in on me,” Davis said after scoring 23 points in a 64-63 win over Norfolk State Monday night. “They have to respect those guys. When they are hitting shots you just have to pick your poison.”
Against the Spartans, picked to finish second in the MEAC, one spot ahead of N.C. Central, Gardner hit his first three shots, including two 3s, to give the Eagles (8-8, 2-0 MEAC) an early 16-9 lead.
Gardner can put the ball in the basket, put Perkins is the better 3-point shooter (47 percent from three, second on team). When both guards are scoring, N.C. Central is hard to beat. The Eagles are 4-1 this season when Perkins and Gardner each score in double digits. But Moton wants more from them on both ends.
“I’m challenging these young men to compete,” Moton said. “It’s not high school where you can be the best player and guard the worst player on the floor. I can’t hide you out here.”
Last season, Moton had a trio of senior guards – Pat Cole, Dejuan Graf, Rashawn Madison – to handle the basketball, and all three had been in the system at least two seasons. Gardner and Perkins had to earn their spots on the floor this season. They had to beat out Wiggins and prove they could play at the college level.
After an early season scrimmage with UNC-Greensboro, Moton said his young guards had to adjust to the physicality of the college game. They needed to toughen up. Once they did that, Moton trusted them with more minutes on the floor. As Moton explained, guys arrive at N.C. Central with chips on their shoulders because they felt overlooked by bigger programs. They come to Durham wanting to prove they can play with anyone.
Gardner and Perkins proved in early practices that they could, earning them minutes right from the start, but popularity, and early success, went to their heads a little bit. The players “got cool” Moton said, and slacked off a little in practice, not working as hard as they did when they were trying to earn those starting spots.
“North Carolina Central is a strange place because once you arrive there are a lot of things on this campus that can soften you up, if you know what I mean … starting with our (girl to guy) ratio,” Moton said with a laugh, referring to the school having more female students than male. “That kind of trumps whatever the coach is talking about. It’s been like that since I’ve been here.”
Perkins, for example, was “feeling himself a little bit” after the season started and had to be called out for his poor practice habits on more than one occasion.
“I’ve jumped on him to get him to understand you’re going to play exactly how you practice,” Moton said. “That’s tough when you’re retweeting your articles and you’re player of the week or whatever. And somebody is liking your comments and posting and now you’re walking through the cafe with your sweatsuit on and you’re a little cuter than you were in August and all those things. We’re competing against that and all those things. I told him he has to be better, he has to step up and make free throws down the stretch. He’s more than capable, his focus just wasn’t where it needed to be.”
Perkins has turned the ball over 18 times in the last three games.
When they are focused, the freshman duo is off-the-charts good. Gardner is a top-20 scorer in the MEAC, averaging 11.6 points per game. He exploded for 26 points in an 86-77 loss to Southeast Missouri on Dec. 2. The 26 points were the most any player has scored this season for N.C. Central. He’s also hit five 3-pointers in a game twice this season, a team high. Against Southeast Missouri, Perkins also dished out a career-high 10 assists. He is fifth in the MEAC in assists, averaging 4.3 per game. He is also sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio with a positive 1.8.
Moton last season had seven seniors as the Eagles captured the MEAC regular-season and tournament titles, and went on to the NCAA tournament, where it lost 67-63 to UC Davis in the first round.
But in a league where the most experienced team is usually the one that wins the championships, can a pair of freshmen lead N.C. Central back to the NCAA tournament?
“We’re still young and inexperienced,” Moton said. “We’re taking a lot of things for granted, which is expected when you start two freshmen. They are driving me crazy. I love them, but they are driving me crazy.”
Coppin State at NC Central
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: McDougald-McLendon Arena, Durham
Radio: NCCU Sports Network