BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — As the opening half of his team’s first summer league game came to a close, Shenendehowa boys’ basketball head coach Tony Dzikas motioned to his group on the court Wednesday to get a ball and stay on the floor.
“Set it up,” he told them, placing the team’s players — mostly junior varsity players from last season — into the positions of a motion offense. When an opening pass was made to the wing, the players began their cuts, most making it about two steps before Dzikas’ voice rang out again.
“Stop,” he said before breaking down how the movements needed to be improved.
It was a teaching moment in the night full of them, as 10 Section II teams began competing in the Shen Varsity Summer League with a pair of games apiece. July is when most of the area’s high school hoops summer leagues open up, with most Section II programs participating in one or two.
For the Plainsmen, Wednesday night was the first organized full team event for the program’s varsity squad since it completed a season in which it won the 2015 Class AA state championship. The goal of every team competing in the Plainsmen’s home summer league — joining Shenendehowa were Averill Park, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Cohoes, Green Tech, Mechanicville, Mekeel Christian Academy, Niskayuna, Queensbury, and Scotia-Glenville — is the same: to begin sorting pieces of the puzzle into a clearer picture.
“We’ll do a lot of experimentation with lineups, trying different defensive schemes and offensive sets, and playing with different tempos,” said Bryan Mattice, Niskayuna’s head coach.
“That’s what July is for, so I can work with my guys and start to establish some things,” said Dzikas, who gets 10 days of organized instruction with his players during the summer, per Suburban Council rules.
For this upcoming season, the Plainsmen need to figure out how to replace three starters and two more contributors from its state title team — and will begin that process with limited involvement from star Kevin Huerter, a rising senior whose summer is mostly being spent playing with his Albany City Rocks AAU team and fielding interest from the dozens of major college programs recruiting him.
Huerter missed the team’s opening summer league games because he was traveling to South Carolina for the Nike Peach Jam, one of the top AAU tournaments in the country. That’s fine with Dzikas and the rest of the Plainsmen, who know fitting Huerter — a 6-foot-5 guard with a deft passing touch and smooth outside shot — into the fold will not be difficult.
“I told Kevin to just do his thing this summer,” Dzikas said. “He’ll come use our shooting machine and work out here. There’s a part of me that wants him to get playing with our new guys, but we have plenty of time for that this fall.”
“It’s Kevin Huerter,” said Petar Bebic, a rising senior guard for Shenendehowa. “We know he’s going to be ready for us in November. … It’s good for us. As much as we love Kevin, [him not being here] allows other guys chances to develop.”
Where that manifested itself the most Wednesday night was in the ball-handling department. With Huerter — plus rising junior Luke Hicks, a likely starter and de facto backup point guard — missing for the night, players such as Bebic had to shoulder most of the night’s dribbling. That role was extra important in the Plainsmen’s second game of the night, a meeting with Green Tech in a matchup of the last two Class AA state champions.
“We don’t usually talk about it this early, but we talked a lot tonight about roles on the team,” Dzikas said. “We need to know who can fill the roles we need filled the most.”
Wednesday night, Shenendehowa — a favorite again in Section II hoops for 2015-16 — began to find some of those answers, winning both its games. Summer league operates with a running clock and away from the high-stakes pressures of the winter season, but it offered the perfect opportunity for the Huerter-less Plainsmen to take its first steps toward a title defense.
“We don’t expect to be great right away,” said Mike Spulnick, a rising junior forward for Shenendehowa. “We just wanted to get work done and focus on what we needed to do.”