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) 1637696750
"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) 1637696163
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."
THE HOUSTON-AREA GIRLS BASKETBALL SCENE IS RICH IN TRADITION. MAYBE THE RICHEST IN THE COUNTRY.
What other city has had four WNBA No. 1 overall draft picks — Nneke Ogwumike (Cy-Fair), Chiney Ogwumike (Cy-Fair), Brittney Griner (Nimitz) and Charli Collier (Barbers Hill) — dating back to the beginning of the WNBA in 1997? None. The Houston Comets won the first four Championships in league history.
Houston is the epicenter of girls basketball.
As Rori Harmon and Kyndall Hunter of Cypress Creek head to the University of Texas this fall, the question begs...who is the next big thing?
Houston Christian combo- guard D'Asia Thomas is currently a nationally-ranked star in the Class of 2023 with college coaches all vying for her signature a year from now.
"When I was younger, I was always overlooked," the 6-foot-3 Thomas said. "If you would have told me I would be where I am today back then, I would have thought you were crazy. But I've put the work in from running hills, on the track, in the weight room and in the gym for countless of hours. It's all paid off."
When not dominating the SPC for the Mustangs, she plays in the summer with Cy- Fair Elite.
"I was pretty good in middle school and then I joined Cy-Fair Elite. They opened up my game tremendously and made me so much better. They put me on a much bigger platform." What makes Thomas special, is her versatility.
"In school ball, I play all five positions," she said. "If I need to play the point, I'll play the point. It's really helped me improve on my guard skills from shooting the three-pointer to seeing the open man to getting to the basket. I can always get a bucket.
"What I really need to concentrate on now is my defense," she laughs. "I don't love defense but that is going to take me where I need to go. I watch a lot of DiDi Richards (Cy Ranch, Baylor and New York Liberty). I play her position and she made her name playing defense."
The offers have begun piling up as she starts to whittle down her list of favorites.
"I like to watch Baylor and I've been to a few UH games, but it's starting to get really busy," she said. "I'm looking for a place where I can build a great relationship with the coaches and players, and is big on God. I'm looking for a second family."
For now, she's just a kid doing TikToks, fishing with her father, hanging with friends and family, watching Outer Banks and listening to 'Lil Baby.
On the court, however, Thomas can see her future.
"I want to be the best girls basketball player to ever come out of Houston Christian and get drafted in to the WNBA in five years," she said. "It will take more work, but I know I can get there."
Much like the ones before her.
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