South Atlanta looks to get over the hump


ATLANTA -- What do you get when you scorch earth with a 50-6 record over the past two seasons, trot out a Godzilla hoopster who just might be the nation's most dominant prep player, travel from sea to sea to play elite teams and bully nearly every Georgia team you played the way South Atlanta High did last season?

For one, you start the next season ranked No. 16 nationally in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 preseason poll.

But since you failed to whip every Georgia team you played, and you lost your first game in the Georgia State Class AAA tournament -- for the third straight season! -- as South Atlanta did, you get sand kicked in your face out in the neighborhood, and even in the school halls.

"They call me a one-hitter quitter since I made it to the state but lost every time," said South Atlanta senior reserve guard Rodrick Pitts of classmates.

Or, in the case of Derrick Favors, South Atlanta's otherworldly 6-foot-9, 234-pound center-man-child, you get brought back to Earth via derisive comparison.

"They call me Tracy McGrady," Favors said.

Someday, perhaps in a year or two, Favors is likely to play in the NBA with McGrady, the Houston Rockets' seven-time All-Star guard-forward.

For now, being compared to the former prep phenom whose teams have never won an NBA playoff series in an 11-year pro career is no form of flattery. That's acid with a sugar sprinkle.

Think this sticks in the collective craws of the Hornets?

"They laugh," Favors said softly of his critics. "It's all supposed to be funny. It just motivates me."

Favors -- who said Friday that he does not plan to sign a letter of intent in the early signing period that begins next week -- is South Atlanta's meal ticket.

He's the reason the Hornets were invited to play in the T-Mobile Invitational at Ball State University in December, on ESPN2 against Leflore, Ala., on Jan. 15, and against Oak Hill Academy in Springfield, Mass., two days later. "We could have gone out of state 20 times with a player like Derrick," said South Atlanta coach Michael Reddick.

Sure enough, you don't average 23.7 points, 17.1 rebounds and 9.2 blocked shots per game -- "video-game-like stuff," as Reddick said -- as Favors did last season without drawing attention.

Yet he's not the only reason Reddick's team draws attention.

The Hornets graduated three starters from last season's 27-3 team, including guard Jeffrey Middlebrooks, now at Alabama State.

Some good fortune came South Atlanta's way, however, when 6-4 senior shooting guard Andre Malone transferred in from nearby North Clayton High.

He made a verbal commitment to Auburn, and is expected to sign next week with the Tigers.

When the Clayton County school system, which is just south of metro Atlanta, lost its accreditation earlier this year in a national news story, "We were having a situation, and this was the closest school to Clayton County," Malone said. "We had to move. Plus I know Derrick well, and most of the guys here, really."

Reddick's glad to have Malone, to be sure, and no less pleased to have 6-foot point guard Nick Watkins, who earned mention last season from Georgia coaches as an all-state performer while playing both guard spots.

Sophomores Rashaud Bell, who is astoundingly athletic not to mention 6-6, and Nick Jacobs, who is 6-7 and sure to end up on national recruiting radars, are nice pieces. Senior Mikale Carter, a football player who will join the team soon, is a 6-3 hoss of many sorts. He can handle the ball a little, rebound beyond his height and throw muscle and attitude around, too.

"Nick is a strong body, a lefty who can shoot it, a hard-nosed competitor who runs the team," said Reddick, whose teams have made seven of 10 state tournaments while he has compiled a career record of 211-74 in 10 previous seasons at South Atlanta. "Andre has long range, and he's intelligent.

"We'll add a few wrinkles on offense, but for the most part our style won't change. We like to play the whole court. We'll put pressure on, and if you handle it, we'll change. If you can't, we're going to do it until you can. We like to play up-tempo basketball, but with those three guys [Favors, Watkins and Malone] sometimes you don't have enough balls."

Make no mistake, you're reading about this team because Favors is on it.

It will be a huge upset if he doesn't sign a letter of intent with Georgia Tech -- which would cement the best recruiting class in Yellow Jackets history -- or Georgia.

But Memphis (where Favors recently skipped a recruiting visit), NC State, Florida State and Kentucky are not giving up on him.

You'd give up if you were getting paid by the word and counting on Favors to supply them. Not a big talker, this guy, but man, can he ball.

His personality, which would remind nobody of a superstar, might make or break the Hornets.

Unlike many superstars, Favors does not demand attention unless you're defending him.

But might there be times when he needs to be more assertive?

Pitts, after all, claims Favors' nickname is "D-Nice."

Said the diminutive Pitts, a 5-5 whirling dervish: "We play off of Derrick. If we can't make a shot, we've got a big man."

However, when you're as good, and as big, as Favors, you face the Shaq factor.

How often have you seen Shaquille O'Neal called for a foul when somebody much smaller either ran into what from another player would be an incidental shoulder, or crash into him while crossing the lane?

It happens to Favors, too.

For the Hornets, it is critical that their big guy stay in games.

In their three losses last season, he fouled out twice and played in serious foul trouble the third time.

That third time came in the state tournament, when the Hornets jumped out to a 14-2 lead against East Hall High at East Hall.

Things got freaky from there.

South Atlanta, which is back in its own school building and gym after spending two years elsewhere while theirs was renovated, had a transportation issue before that first-round game. The bus was late by 90 minutes or so. The Hornets arrived about 30 minutes before tipoff, and perhaps worst of all, somebody -- a parent, a fan, nobody seems sure -- decided to try to help by buying dinner. Those bacon cheeseburgers were good.

But four players suffered cramping problems during the game, Favors landed in foul trouble, and the Hornets -- who averaged 83 points per game last season -- scored six points in the fourth quarter.

South Atlanta, which surrendered just 49 points per contest, lost by one point.

Reddick said, "We're not into excuses, but that was a nightmare."

Players are touting new and improved chemistry as a prime reason they're going all the way this season.

That, and the meat in the middle.

"If we're winning by, like, 50, I let [teammates] do their thing, but if we're down, then I've got to take over," Favors said. "And before games, it's like celery and carrots this year."

Matt Winkeljohn recently left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.