Diontae Champion came to Lamar as a talented guard. He’s finishing his high school career as a virtually unstoppable forward with post-up power, shooting range and the ball-handling skills to drive to the bucket.
Champion’s continued growth, along with the recent return to health from a knee injury of point guard Julius Jackson, is allowing the Vikings boys basketball program to reach greater heights. Lamar, tied with Martin and Sam Houston for third in District 4-6A, is poised to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Lamar’s emergence was on display last week against defending district champion and rival Martin. Led by Champion’s 23 points and four late free throws by Jamal Gray, Lamar escaped with a 49-41 home victory. The Vikings also defeated the Warriors on the road in early January.
“I wasn’t thinking anything right there,” Gray said of his late free throws against Martin. The Vikings held just a one-point lead going into the final minute. “I was just focused on making it and knocked it down.”
The clutch plays on offense are critical, but Champion knows that the Vikings’ success starts with rebounding and defense. “If we hadn’t gotten offensive rebounds, it would have been a long night for us,” Champion said. “If we hadn’t gotten defensive rebounds, it would have definitely been a long night for us. If we had just gone out jacking up shots, like coach said, it would’ve been a long night, too.”
Indeed, coach Zach Burks preaches making stops on defense and making smart plays on offense. Defensively, the Vikings held Martin to less than 10 points in every quarter but the second. And on offense, Burks prefers it when the ball goes through Champion in the post.
“They get caught up in the moment and they start doing some things they don’t need to be doing, like a jump shot when you’re up seven,” Burks said. “You really want to take some time off and you want to really go through [Champion] in the post. And when everything collapses, you might be able to kick it out and get that wide open shot.”
Champion’s embraced playing the post-up game, but it took time to adjust to playing a big man’s game. He moved to Texas from Mississippi before his junior season as a 6-foot-2 guard. But even at that height, he was one of the tallest players on Lamar’s roster. So Burks wanted him as his featured post player.
“We would butt heads, butt heads,” Burks said. “‘Coach, let me play on the wing,’ and I’m like, ‘I need you in the post, because you’re my [player with the most] height.’”
Champion, who is averaging 19 points per game, grew 4 inches over the summer and is now feeling comfortable in his new role. The 6-foot-6 forward can use his big-man skills while still occasionally showing off the quick moves he developed as a guard. “Actually, this year it’s paying dividends, because he sees now when they put a smaller guy on him he can go to the post,” Burks said. “And now I’m giving him freedom on a bigger guy to shoot it and bring the ball down, and when Jackson was hurt, I was at the point of putting him at point guard. I just didn’t want to put that much pressure on the younger kids.”
Champion now understands Burks’ plans. The coach has helped Champion develop into a matchup nightmare at forward and that makes Lamar a force to be reckoned with. “I’m glad I grew to the height I am, because if it’s somebody small on me, I can post them up,” Champion said. “If it’s someone as tall as me, I can drive right past them.”