STAUNTON – When the NCAA released its basketball tournament brackets Sunday, Darius George took special note of two schools.
Well, let’s make that three. As a big Duke fan, the Robert E. Lee junior always pays attention to where the Blue Devils are placed in the tournament. But this year, in addition to just being a fan, George also realized that there was another reason to be interested.
In the East region, the ninth seed was Providence and, in the South region, Iowa was a seventh seed. Both schools have expressed an interest in George, who has so far received a scholarship offer from Longwood and has several other schools interested.
There’s a good reason George is drawing looks from these college programs, and it can be summed up in one sentence by Spotswood coach Chad Edwards: “Darius is absolutely one of the very best players in Virginia regardless of classification.”
When The News Leader staff met recently to vote on the All-City/County basketball awards, there was very little discussion about who should be the boys Player of the Year. George’s name was mentioned and everyone in the room agreed that he was the choice. It would have been difficult to argue otherwise.
The News Leader tradition holds that, when it comes to postseason honors, it’s one award per person, meaning the player of the year can’t also be named offensive or defensive player of the year.
But there was a case to be made this year that George should have swept the awards. He was that dominant in every facet of the game.
Offensively, he led the Staunton-Waynesboro-Augusta County area in scoring with 22.5 points per game. No one else was within seven points of his average. As a junior, he became just the 15th player in Lee High’s storied basketball history to reach 1,000 points for his career, and by the end of the season, he was at 1,128 points, 11th on the school’s all-time scoring list.
He’ll probably pass Jason Rogers for 10th in the first game of the season next year — he’s just 13 points behind the former University of Virginia player — and if he just repeats what he did this season will crack the top five. With a really good season next year, he could finish third on that list with only Kevin Madden and Tyler Crawford realistically out of range.
George’s offensive numbers improved this year. He finished the season shooting 52 percent from the field, including 58 percent from inside the 3-point line. He scored more than 30 points four times and more than 25 points 11 times.
On one hand that can be expected with more experience, but it is also impressive because, last season, opposing teams put maybe their third-best defender on George. This year, he was getting the other team’s best.
“He’s the concentration and the focal point of the defense,” said Lee High coach Jarrett Hatcher. “They’re either playing zone, their playing a box-and-one … the Spotswood game earlier in the year I didn’t think either he or our guys adjusted very well to him being denied in such a manner. But I thought as the season wore on that didn’t stop him at all. His numbers, his consistency was there the whole time, regardless of how he was being played.”
What impressed his coach the most may have been his performance in an early December win over Broadway.
Despite being in foul trouble, George was needed by his team in the fourth quarter, but Hatcher said he didn’t force his shots. He showed maturity and got other guys involved before eventually getting a few looks and knocking down some shots. He scored 10 of his 15 points on the night in the fourth quarter and hit the game winner with five seconds left. Lee won 59-58.
George has made a number of impressive dunks this season, including one at Harrisonburg to put him over 1,000 points for his career, but he can also step back and hit a 3. He had seven in one game this season and five in two other games. He finished with 49 3-pointers this season and shot 38 percent from behind the arc.
As a freshman, George was just over 6-foot and developed guard-like skills, but he’s grown seven inches in the last two years and is now a force inside as well. That presents problems for opponents.
“If you put a big guy on him, he will go outside and beat you with perimeter skills,” said Spotswood’s Edwards. “If you put a smaller, quicker guy on him, he can go to the block and beat you with his height and post play. He is incredibly difficult to matchup with and scheme for.”
While a lot of the focus this season has been on George’s offense, his defensive numbers were impressive also. He led the Leemen with 115 defensive rebounds, 30 blocked shots, 41 deflections and 54 steals. His analytics-obsessed coach pointed out that 54 percent of George’s deflections led to a turnover, another team-high stat. His long arms and height along with his quickness is a real challenge for anyone he is defending.
“I work on defense a lot during practice,” said George. “I work on defense more than I work on offense, I can tell you that.”
His mom, Maria Hill, said there’s not a lot of focus on defense in the spring and summer when George plays AAU basketball, so it’s important that he works on that part of his game during the high school season.
In his first two seasons on the varsity at Lee, George was out front in the zone. But with a shift to more man-to-man this year, George was required to be more versatile, guarding both guards and post players depending on the opponent.
With one more year remaining in high school, George is hoping he can help get his team to the state tournament, a place he hasn’t been his first three years. Hatcher believes the experiences this season, including a close loss to Bruton in the regionals, will lead to bigger and better things next season.
“Darius has the desire and the work ethic, and I think he’s just going to really … this will be a stepping stone,” said Hatcher. “Hopefully, he’ll be sitting here next year, and we’ll be talking about the same type of honors and even more.”