Bryant, Baker's two-man game a product of years of reps

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Rocky Mount Prep's Kalil Baker celebrates during the final seconds of the Jaguars' NCHSAA 1-A state playoffs third round win over East Carteret at Rocky Mount Prep.


Sports Writer

Monday, February 26, 2018

Few things spell out chemistry like eye contact, a lob and a dunk.

Picture it: The ball goes out-of-bounds, off of an opponent, under Rocky Mount Prep’s basket.

Kalil Baker, one half of the Jaguars’ stellar senior tandem, heads to the baseline to inbound. He takes the ball from the ref, and, his eyes in a calm surveillance, finds and settles on the other half of the duo, Keyshawn Bryant, who’s been lingering near the 3-point line.

Soon, after a subtle agreeance, he’s on the run, soaring from a few feet inside the free throw line, catching a lob from Baker, finishing with an authoritative alley-oop dunk. A crowd pleaser every time.

The wink-and-nod dead-ball play was a success in the first quarter of RMP’s third round game this past Saturday against East Carteret. The two also executed it twice before that in their second round game.

It’s been one of the resounding occurrences in a 24-0 season between two longtime teammates and friends, who, as senior captains, have so far averaged a combined 48.5 points per game — 56 percent of the team’s points — for the aspiring state champions in 1-A.

“I know where he’s going to put it. I just go up and get it,” said Bryant, whose Jaguars will play No. 5 seed Durham Voyager Academy at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at home for a place in the final four of the 1-A NCHSAA tournament.

Bryant said the play’s inception came when they were both sophomores, a combination of the two’s improvisation and some coaching to bring it all together. The first time they landed it in a game was that season, both Baker and Bryant’s first together on varsity.

It’s been perfected during this undefeated season, to the point that it really only takes a quick look to know the plan.

“Eye contact. We’ve got chemistry,” Baker said. “He knows when to jump, I know when to throw it. We’ve been doing it all this season.”

Added teammate Toyaz Solomon, who will occasionally fill in for Bryant as the high-flyer: "Those guys do a good job playing off each other. On that (inbounds) play, we see some teams have their backs turned and we just sneak it on them.”

Alley-oops and exclamation marks aside, both have been close friends and teammates in some capacity since middle school. They began playing basketball in a local middle school league, where, to Baker’s trepidation, Bryant took home Most Valuable Player honors.

“I was so mad at him,” Baker said, smiling.

Through basketball, they were drawn together as friends, Bryant said, to a point that a natural type of adhesion began to form between them on the court, years before their prep careers even began.

When the two moved on to high school, Bryant played for varsity through a disheartening freshman season. Baker joined the varsity team the next season, as the two helped the Jaguars improve to a six-win team.

With their expanded roles, RMP went 22-6 last year before losing to Riverside in the third round of the 1-A tournament.

Of course, this season has been backed by the Baker-Bryant combination; Baker, the de facto point guard and heady ball handler, and Bryant, the athletic wingman, picking and choosing when to work off each other and when to defer to a solid cast of players around them.

“He knows me, he knows me on the offensive end, I know him on the offensive end,” Baker said. “We play perfectly together; two-man game, pick-and-roll, I can throw it up to him. He can find me on the perimeter.”

In the game against East Carteret, a 63-56 win, both scored 18 (Baker and Bryant average 26.9 and 21.6, respectively), flashing their awareness during one particular stretch in a close third quarter game.

In that two-minute span, Baker tipped in a miss, then came up with a steal, threading a pass on the right wing to Bryant for a made 3-pointer. The Jaguars got another stop — a rebound in the hands of Bryant — who pushed the ball and returned the favor, this time finding Baker, who also swished a 3-pointer, quickly stretching the lead from four to 12 points.

“He knows when to back off, when to go for it. He knows how to balance between his points and everyone else’s,” Bryant said. “He’s very smart, so easy to play with.”

Starting Tuesday against Durham Voyager, the Jaguars are three wins from a perfect record and a state title, a hypothetical for now that would crown a memorable season for both of these two.

“It’s been a blessing,” Bryant said. “I learn from him and he learns from me. I mean, he goes out every night and averages 30. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”