By MIKE MEILER
Niagara Gazette — As a sophomore at Niagara Falls High School, Vinzell Watkins decided he’d try out for the school’s basketball team, traditionally one of the top teams in New York State.
He’d never played organized basketball before, certainly not in the school’s modified, junior varsity or varsity programs, nor had he really been on the radar of anyone with the team.
That’s why it was surprising when the quiet, lengthy kid no one knew about made the junior varsity team and started dominating his competition, averaging 25 points per game before being called up to the varsity squad.
This year, it comes as no surprise to Wolverines coach Sal Constantino that Watkins is playing a lot — and thriving — in his first full season with the varsity team.
“Vinzell really kind of came out of nowhere,” Constantino said. “Last year was his first year of organized basketball, and he dominated the JV level. He’s quick, athletic and a good defender, and he really fits the mold of what we’re trying to do here.”
Watkins, who typically comes off the bench, stood out, particularly defensively, in the Wolverines’ season opening win over Rochester’s Bishop Kearney, teaming up with senior point guard J.J. Wilkins to pressure ball carriers and force turnovers.
Now, Wilkins is out with a sprained knee, thrusting the 6-foot-1 Watkins into the starting lineup. The junior has averaged 16 points per game this season, which is tied for the team lead with senior Jermaine Crumpton, who’s committed to go to Division I Canisius College next season.
Constantino said the comparisons between Watkins and the 6-foot-5 Crumpton go farther than numbers.
“Vinzell is a kid who I look at a year from now,” Constantino said. “I think he’s that inside-outside guy that Jermaine is right now. He goes from defense to offense quickly and gets a lot of easy shots. One of the other nice things about him is that he and Jermaine can both play wing or post, and when they’re out there together it causes a lot of problems.
“This year we lose eight seniors. I don’t know why we wouldn’t hand (the team) over to him next year.”
Off the court, Watkins is a quiet, thoughtful kid. He excels in the classroom, boasting a 90 average, and Constantino said teachers often go out of their way to send their compliments to the coach.
“He’s a very good student, very unassuming, reserved,” Constantino said. “His teachers say he’s a very intelligent young man. He has a quiet personality about himself where he’s a very likable kid, but you kind of have to bring it out of him a little bit.”
Watkins uses that thoughtfulness to his advantage, showing a good understanding of his strengths — and flaws — on the court, and acknowledging what he needs to do to work on his game.
“When I came in (as a sophomore), I was just trying to get out there and prove myself, let these guys know I (wasn’t) just a little 10th grader,” he said. “I always tried to check the best guy in practice and show I could bring that defensive intensity.
“I need to keep improving my defense: being in the right spot instead of just standing around and watching the play develop, being more engaged in the play so I can defend as it happens instead of being a split second late.”
If Watkins continues to improve, the Wolverines, who lose seven seniors this season, should be in good hands next season.Follow high school sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.