For a school with a rich basketball history like Taft High, you expect to know what to expect from year to year, as far as talent, skill and team chemistry.
But there is a bit of mystery surrounding the 2018-19 collection of Toreadors — and not in the way you might think. This is a team not wondering if it can be as good as people believe they can be. Instead, they’re contemplating whether they are actually better than first projected.
Taft is off to a 5-0 start after edging Washington Prep of Los Angeles, 60-59, on Dec. 6. It was the kind of game Coach Derrick Taylor may have to watch and coach through this year. The Toreadors broke out to an early lead, fell behind by halftime, trailed by as many as nine points in the third quarter, but hustled and rallied to win at the end. In between there were pockets of indecisiveness, a few bad passes, a couple of missed defensive assignments.
From the sidelines, Taylor can be effusive and demonstrative. Yet during the course of this game’s inevitable ebbs and flows, Taylor — with a couple of exceptions — sat calmly and reflectively on the bench. When the final buzzer sounded, he calmly stood up and reminded the players about their next practice and what to work on.
Perhaps Taylor is still figuring out exactly what he’s got. Or maybe he knows and has already decided this is the best way to guide them this season. “We were making uncharacteristic mistakes….[but] they are smarter than some teams I’ve had in the past,” Taylor said afterward.
The 2017-18 team was solid, going 27-10 and winning the West Valley League before reaching the semifinals of the City Section Open Division playoffs. This season’s overall roster is smaller, sleeker and younger than that team. And it doesn’t have a dominant, galvanizing personality like Kihei Clark, who is now thriving as a freshman at the University of Virginia.
But there are two returning All-City players in the starting lineup — Demetrius Calip II and Dominque Winbush, a transfer from Crenshaw High of Los Angeles. Other starters like Khalil Haywood and Brandon Wilson are making their presence felt.
“Last year we had to rely so much on Clark (and Torshawn Roland),” Taylor said. “And now all five starters and even guys coming off the bench can play. ‘One through eight’ can be productive. All of them can handle and shoot the ball. We have a unique team, a ‘small ball’ team. But even the big guys (like 6-7 senior Micha McLauren) can shoot threes. All the guys in the rotation can shoot it.”
But, who are they? What are they? The Toreadors aren’t yet sure, as they continue to integrate Winbush deeper into the game plan as the point guard.
“I think [this team is] a little different,” said Haywood, 18, a senior. “We’re missing our leader from last year (Kihei Clark]. But we’re a little more athletic, and may be a little bit better as a team, even though everyone is still getting to know each other.”
“We are missing Kihei, who could average 25. But we’ve also gotten more players to score,” said Calip, 17, a junior. “Khalil is becoming a big part of the offense; he wasn’t last year. And we’ve been sharing the ball a lot.
“The one thing we can still work on — I want to see more heart in our team. We showed great heart against Washington. But I want to see how far we can go, especially on the defensive side.”
Wilson, 19, a senior who was granted a fifth year of eligibility by City officials after qualifying as a “hardship case,” sees the Toreadors as work in progress but one with true promise.
“As the season goes along, we’ll get better at knowing each other’s tendencies,” Wilson said. “The returners know what we can do…we can knock down open shots. And we can get nice, clean looks. We never really take bad shots — maybe one or two, but who doesn’t — but for the most part we get clean looks. And we can knock them down.”
Of immediate concern to Taylor is reducing and eliminating Taft’s early propensity for turnovers. “We didn’t turn the ball over a lot last year. But we had 12 in one game, and in another game against Cathedral we had 22 turnovers. We’re a little more ‘loosey-goosey’ with the ball right now.”
Defense — at least the kind of defense Taylor wants to play — is also being defined. “Our identity over years has been ‘full-court pressure.’ We’re not that team this year,” he said. “But they are resilient, tough little dudes.”
Taft may carve out its identity over the next four weeks. The Toreadors will play in a couple of holiday tournaments as well as the Sierra Canyon Super Showcase before opening West Valley League action against Granada Hills Charter High on Jan. 9. There will be plenty of games in a concentrated period of time to grasp what is possible.
And once league play begins, annual border wars against Granada, Birmingham and El Camino Real should get the Toreadors ready for the City playoffs, where powers like Westchester, Fairfax, Crenshaw, Dorsey and Narbonne await.
If the Toreadors don’t know who they are by then, they will never know.
“I want to find out our identity on the defensive end,” Wilson said. “I feel we can tighten up more on that side. Our offense will come. And once we get the train rolling, we’ll be going downhill from there.”