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Luella boys headed in the right direction

Photo by Brian Paglia / Luella basketball coach Jamond Sims doesn’t know exactly why, but he says this fast start from the Lions feels different than previous ones that fizzled with poor finishes and no state playoffs.

Photo by Brian Paglia / Luella basketball coach Jamond Sims doesn’t know exactly why, but he says this fast start from the Lions feels different than previous ones that fizzled with poor finishes and no state playoffs.

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Photo by Brian Paglia / Luella coach Jamond Sims and players say sophomore 6-foot-11 center Doral Moore has made dramatic improvement since last season.

LOCUST GROVE — There was never the chance of walking into a Golden Corral that had suddenly been hijacked by a band of brothers from Luella ranging from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-11.

Now there is.

There had never been so many scoring options on the court for the Lions and so many ways to implement them.

Now there is.

There had never been a time when Luella boys basketball got to the beginning of January and had so much optimism to believe a strong start would translate into a state playoff appearance.

Now there is.

And Lions coach Jamond Sims doesn’t even know why.

“There is something different about this group,” Sims said. “I just can’t quite put my finger on it yet.”

Luella has certainly looked the part of a state tournament team. The Lions are off to a 12-3 start going into tonight’s Region 2-AAAAAA game against Lovejoy, hold down first place in the region, have held up against strong competition both in and out of state and come stocked with a few Division I prospects and plenty of surrounding talent.

There are some of the first clues.

This team’s talent is surely improved. TeMarcus Blanton, a 6-foot-4 junior small forward, has 12 scholarship offers already from the likes of George Mason, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Sophomore 6-foot-11 center Doral Moore is showing flashes of his immense potential on both ends of the court. Point guard Nyrryk Evans has come through with game-winning free throws and shots all the while getting everyone involved on offense. Senior shooting guard Jared Hendricks has given the Lions a dangerous scorer coming off the bench.

But even Blanton admits they aren’t the reason the Lions feel different this season.

Instead, it’s been the swift assimilation of Luella’s newest players, the ones asked to jump from junior varsity to varsity and contribute right away. It’s been because of Kadarius Compton, a senior shooting guard, or Charles Brown, a junior power forward, or Jabraun Newsome, a junior guard.

They were new. They were inexperienced.

And they had to develop fast.

“What we tried to do was build their confidence,” Blanton said. “The more confidence you have the better you play. So our young guys have built their confidence up more. They’ve been playing good lately. And Tuesday night [in a 69-65 win against Morrow], they came through for us.”

“We were already good on JV,” Brown said, “so we knew we were going to be good this year. We had to.”

Indeed, there was no other choice. With Blanton, Evans and Moore, Luella started to get a name in the recruiting world. Sims knew the trio needed the challenge — and exposure — from playing in the Florida-Georgia Shootout and Hoops N’ Overdrive tournaments.

It might also help the newcomers grow up quicker, too.

“I thought there would be a lot of ups and downs, a lot of bumps in the road, a lot of struggle,” Sims said. “But they’ve come around pretty well.”

Brown said they’ve adapted so quickly because of their efforts to develop team chemistry. They often go out as a team to dinner after games. They sit together during lunch.

It’s different compared to past Luella teams, but it’s working.

“We’re more of a family,” Brown said. “We’re close. We’ve got I guess you could say a swagger. We’re trying to change stuff and see if it’s going to work.”

If it can finally get the Lions into the state tournament it will have been well worth it. Luella is still searching for its first playoff appearance.

Not that Luella hasn’t looked like a state tournament team before. Last season, the Lions started 13-2 only to finish the season 4-7 and lose in the first round of the region tournament. It was the same in 2010-11 when 7-4 turned into 12-12 and in 2009-10 when 9-2 turned into 15-9.

But the Lions feel they’re heading in the right direction this time.

“I think this year we’re not as selfish,” Blanton said. “We play more as a team. ... We might have a good chance of going to the playoffs.”