The Heritage boys basketball team took down a bevy of traditional powerhouses this year en route to a 24-0 regular-season finish behind star junior post player Jayden Gardner.
Gardner has made a name for himself with his mature inside game and dominance on the boards, averaging 22.5 points and 15.0 rebounds per game during the regular season.
The Huskies (26-1 after falling in the Cap-8 Conference tournament championship to Millbrook) are the No. 1 seed in the 4A East region entering this week’s playoffs, and Gardner is their unquestioned go-to guy.
Undersized, but big on the boards
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Many high school players rely on their height advantage to dominate the glass but struggle at the Division-I level once the opposition is stronger, bigger and faster. At “only” 6-7, this isn’t the case for Gardner. His coaches say he has a mental edge over his competition as he snatches shots ricocheting off the rim.
“Rebounding really boils down to effort and desire, the two things Jayden has mastered,” Heritage coach Tilden Brill III said. “I think Jayden’s mentality towards dominating the backboard is the biggest thing that sets him apart. That’s something you can’t really coach – either you have it or you don’t.”
Gardner’s Team Loaded AAU coach, Derrick Wall, agreed.
“Jayden’s nonstop motor is what sets him apart from other players,” Wall said. “He’s a tenacious rebounder on both ends … which is why he earned the nickname ‘Beast Mode.’ ”
Compared to other starting power forwards in the ACC, Gardner is shorter: N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu is 6-8, Wake Forest’s Konstantinos Mitoglu is 6-10, North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks is 6-10 and Duke’s Amile Jefferson is 6-9.
That doesn’t deter Gardner, though.
“I try not to focus on that because I can play with any big anywhere in the nation,” he said. “But I do try and use it as motivation. I just go out there and be the best big I can every night.”
Gardner does rise to the competition. In six games against Millbrook, Leesville Road and Garner, he averaged 17.5 rebounds per contest. Gardner has 10 offers, including top programs like Penn State, Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond and Old Dominion. He also has ACC interest from N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
Finding a fit, final push
Pairing Gardner with players not afraid to let it fly from 3-point range, such as teammates Ian Hinkley, Colton Reed and Virginia Tech recruit Jarren McAllister, has made the Huskies a tough team to plan for.
“Having guys like Ian, Jarren, and Colton who are all threats on the perimeter keep teams honest,” Brill said. “You can’t jam the paint on Jayden because you’ll be leaving one of those other guys open. They have learned how to play off each other and trust option one as much as option three. That sort of trust and team-first mentality has been the backbone for our team’s success.”
No matter how hot his team’s shooters are, Gardner always puts himself in a position to grab a miss and put a shot back up, giving Heritage shots at crucial second chance points.
“It’s wonderful to have all the shooters out there that can light it up,” Gardner said. “Even if they miss, I got it, because that’s what every coach and Brill tell me: ‘Crash the boards because you never know.’ ”
While he’s able to create his own shot, capitalizing after offensive rebounds has been a staple of Gardner’s game. He’s shot 63 percent from the field this season, using an arsenal of moves in the paint and his 228-pound body to terrorize opposing defenses.
It’s been a season of firsts for Heritage, and Gardner’s hope is making sure it ends in the school’s first state championship in any sport.
“I think I have a high motor, and I just give all I have on the court every time I play,” Gardner said. “That’s how I was taught how to play the game so I just go out there and have fun.”