This is the third in a series of profiles on the six finalists for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award, which will be announced March 20 at the Free Press.
Detroit Cornerstone Health and Technology boys basketball coach Derrick Edwards wanted to prepare senior Jamal Cain for life in the Big East.
Cain, a 6-foot-7, 175-pound three-star swingman, has signed with Marquette and will be expected to defend some of the nation’s best guards when he begins his college career next season.
Cain’s defense was his biggest flaw when Edwards took over Cornerstone a year ago. Edwards, who spent 14 seasons as an assistant at Detroit Henry Ford under Ken Flowers, prides himself on building teams with tough defenses.
“Most definitely, he has been working on becoming a better defender,” Edwards said. “He got better last year, but he has also been getting better this year.
“When I got here, he wasn’t a defensive-minded player. Myself and my background, I believe that defense wins championships, so that’s what the mentality is I’ve brought to Cornerstone. You play defense first because your offense might not be there, but your defense will always be a constant.”
The Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan named Cain one of six finalists for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award in February. A lot of that recognition has to do with how he has coupled his offensive output with his new, improved defense that is giving opponents fits when he’s on the court.
During Cain’s junior year, Edwards rated his defense as a five, on a scale of one to 10. The coach says he’s now an 8 1/2 and one of the best defensive players he has ever coached, which includes former standouts Manny Harris and Jerome Tyson when he was an assistant at Redford.
Other Mr. Basketball finalist profiles:
The best defensive player he has ever coached is Davion Bradford, a senior on Cornerstone and also Cain’s cousin.
“That guy (Bradford) is super athletic and has a strong body, and he loves to pressure and hound people and make them uncomfortable,” Edwards said. “He checks baseline to baseline. Jamal’s cousin has been the one who has motivated him to play defense more the last two seasons.”
Cain has learned how to play better defense through osmosis.
“Seeing my cousin Davion be a top defender, it just makes me want to do it even more because it gives us more tempo on the offensive side knowing we can stop the other team from scoring,” Cain said. “When we first started doing defensive drills (last season), some of us would be lackadaisical with it. He’d always take it seriously, and it carried over to the game. Now it’s like his defense is helping us because he plays terrific defense.”
In practice, Cornerstone (16-5) focuses on defending the full length of the court, especially during dribbling drills. Sometimes, it practices its defense for up to an hour to prepare for certain teams. That extra work has made Cain versatile.
“We do a lot of different things defensively because we use Jamal on the top of the press, we use him in the back and we also have him as a help defender,” Edwards said. “He’s learning how to play all types of defenses like on the ball and with using lateral movement and sliding to cut people off.
“Jamal can use his length when he’s checking someone who is faster, and he can play more contain defense, so that’s why I give him an 8 1/2 to 9 rating now.”
Cain had 15 points and 15 rebounds in Cornerstone’s 76-36 district semifinal win over Detroit Central on Wednesday. For the season, he has averaged 24 points, 14 rebounds and four assists — and four blocks and two steals on defense.
“(Me improving my defense) has made it extremely better for my team knowing I can guard from any position they need me to guard,” he said. “I can guard a guard if one of our guards gets into foul trouble, so that’s a huge help.
“It’s been good with me being more of a leader and more of a smarter basketball player, too. We’re just playing smarter defense, and it’s just really helping me prepare for the next level.”
The other five Mr. Basketball finalists are Grand Rapids Christian’s Xavier Tillman, Detroit East English Village’s Greg Elliott, North Farmington’s Amauri Hardy, Kalamazoo Central’s Isaiah Livers and Powers North Central’s Jason Whitens.