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Paetow senior guard E.J. Roberts.
KATY—E.J. Roberts remembers the exact date of when his young basketball career hit the proverbial fork in the road.
January 27, 2021. A district road game at College Station. Roberts, playing a prominent role for Paetow as one of its lead guards, tore the ACL in his left knee.
The 5-foot-11, 160-pound Roberts is a natural sparkplug, a prototypical point guard who creates open shots for others, makes shots when given the opportunity, and creates turnovers with his athleticism and speed. But he had to watch, first on TV from home and then on crutches from the bench, as the Panthers enjoyed a surprising run last year to the Class 5A regional final before falling to eventual state champ Beaumont United.
"It was really hard," Roberts said. "Mentally, it'd be hard for any player to see your team go as far and do as well as we did. Some games, I was sitting on my couch, watching. I was at the game where we lost, and it's tough not being able to contribute.
"I had to keep in my mind that if I just kept working and grinding, I'd be able to help us in the future."
Fast track eight months, and Roberts, who was cleared to return to the court three months ago, is back like he never left.
Well, scratch that. He's even better.
"I put myself above 100 percent," Roberts said, practically beaming. "My left leg is stronger than my right now. All that rehab I did … it was a hard grind, for sure. But now I see it paying off."
In Paetow's 69-43 home win over Fort Bend Bush on Tuesday afternoon, Roberts was back to doing Roberts things. He scored (14 points), he dished (five assists), he rebounded (four rebounds), and he defended (three steals).
Roberts scored 11 points in the second quarter, when Paetow (5-3) outscored Bush (4-4), 21-10, to pull away and turn a five-point game into a blowout.
.@EjRoberts2022 3. The dish from @_trevorfrank. @paetowhoops takes a 37-21 lead into halftime over Bush. #txhshoops @PaetowAthleticspic.twitter.com/DMyDDzByp7 — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
"He's trying to push fast into what he was already doing, and early on, the first couple of games, it caught him off guard," coach Mike Niemi said. "This game, especially, he was a lot more composed. He's starting to see the game a little bit slower, instead of rushing through everything. He's seeing the game clearer, as far as lanes that are available and passes that are available."
Roberts admitted he is still trying to get the rust off. He had his fair share of turnovers against Bush, and only more reps, in practices and games, will get him back in stride.
But he's already made a difference, primarily in taking pressure off Panthers senior star guard Trevor Frank (14 points, six assists, four steals against Bush).
"He makes a lot of passes, a lot of reads that I can't make," Frank said of his backcourt mate. "He's a ball-handler, so I don't have to be handling the ball all the time. He makes big shots. He's huge for us."
Roberts also has significant influence in the locker room.
When he was injured last season, the Paetow coaching staff adopted the guard as one of their assistants. Roberts was able to observe and understand things coaches saw daily.
"Right now, he's able to interject in the locker room things that he knows we're thinking and that he can see himself," Niemi said. "Just from that standpoint, he brings one other guy who leads this group in the direction it needs to go."
Roberts' return fuels a team that has great expectations.
"Last year, we learned how to play together and how to compete at a high level," Frank said. "Our goal last year was to go to the state tournament. This year, we feel we can go to the state championship and have a chance to win it, hopefully."
Aside from having Roberts back, Paetow has a physically gifted newcomer in 6-foot-7 forward Abou Camara, arguably the most athletic Panther on a team full of athletes. Camara had nine points, eight rebounds and four dunks against Bush.
6-7 senior forward Abou Camara making an early impact. The @paetowhoops newcomer has five points and five rebounds. #txhshoops @PaetowAthleticspic.twitter.com/AAzpyA0Euw — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
Sophomore wing Ade Onaleye, a bit player on varsity as a freshman last year, adds perimeter shooting to the starting lineup.
Roberts, Camara and Onaleye are ideal complements to the Panthers' lethal tandem of Frank and senior 6-8 post Charles Chukwu (15 points, 17 rebounds, two blocks against Bush).
"I don't see much of a difference in this year's team from last year," Roberts said. "We have just as much talent, if not more. We want to continue molding, keep everything going. Continue to kill."
No. 9 Katy Paetow Panthers
The Paetow Panthers made history last season, going undefeated in District 19-5A and reaching the Regional Finals. They fell to the eventual state champ Beaumont United.
Coach Michael Niemi had some program-builders in Jayden McCullough, Everett Marlatt, Kameron Spanburg and Brian McKnight, who helped build the culture along with the coach, but they have graduated.
So, who will carry the leadership torch this season?
The team is built around the man in the middle – Charles Chukwu. At 6-foot-9, the Tulsa-commit completely changes the game on offense and defense.
Feeding Chukwu and putting up threes are senior guards EJ Roberts and Trevor Frank. Frank can do it all from scoring, rebounding and creating havoc on defense.
The Panthers will go as far as Chukwu can lead them and that could be to the Alamodome.
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