Impressive statistics and a lot of wins in a shortened season connect the five seniors that make up the top tier on The Daily Gazette All-Area boys’ basketball team for 2021.
Multi-champion Alex Barnhill of Mekeel Christian Academy is the lone first-team repeater after anchoring an undefeated run, just like Devin Dzikas did at Shenendehowa, and Marcus Jackson and Preston Graber did at Albany Academy. They are joined by the Suburban Council all-star teams’ top vote-getter in Christian Dufort of Saratoga Springs, whose exploits helped propel one of the area’s best Class AA teams during an abbreviated season that started late because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Connecting the group as well is the growth each player made from their junior campaign and displayed in this one, which was full of accomplishment albeit in a quick flurry of games.
Here’s a look at some of those accomplishments.
ALEX BARNHILL, MEKEEL CHRISTIAN ACADEMY
The senior helped Mekeel Christian Academy continue on its winning path with the numbers he produced, and the leadership he provided for an inexperienced cast that surrounded the Daily Gazette All-Area first-team repeater.
“There’s nothing like having your best player instilling confidence in younger players,” Mekeel coach Chad Bowman said. “He’s a big reason our kids played well and had that confidence.”
Barnhill would urge his teammates on and would often defer to them in a show of faith at the offensive end, and he still got his own with a more diverse and improved set of offensive moves.
“Getting to the basket in a variety of ways, and setting up his teammates as a playmaker,” Bowman said of Barnhill’s biggest improvement areas.
The 6-foot-6 senior averaged 25.3 points with layups, dunks, jumpers and foul shots during the Lions’ 11-0 season, and also averaged 4.1 assists.
“We were a very unselfish team, and it started with our best player,” Bowman said. “Al set the tone for us.”
With Barnhill serving as the catalyst, Mekeel extended its win streak to 28 games going back to the 2019-20 season which was highlighted by a Section II Class A title-game win. Barnhill was named the Section II tournament MVP as a junior and later was named to the all-state third team.
“He became a complete player for us,” Bowman said of the reserve on Mekeel’s state Class B championship team in 2018. “He made big steals and hit a million big shots. He blocked shots and made stops on defense. That’s what clutch players do. He’s not limited in how he can help you win.”
Barnhill averaged 10.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals this season, and bettered the 22-point scoring average he had as a junior.
“He came in as a skinny little kid and saw what some of our great players did here,” Bowman said. “He wanted to do that.”
Barnhill, who is considering his post-high school options, scored 1,327 points in his career at Mekeel.
“He always played his best in the biggest games,” Bowman said.
CHRISTIAN DUFORT, SARATOGA SPRINGS
Dufort’s potential was spotted when he was a sophomore by the Saratoga Springs boys’ basketball coaching staff and he didn’t disappoint on his way to reaching new heights during his senior season.
The Suburban Council Most Valuable Player averaged a double-double during his senior season with 16.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
“I think he impressed a lot of coaches this season,” Saratoga Springs coach Matt Usher said of the 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior who made 52% of his shots. “His athleticism really jumps out at you.”
Dufort was also versatile on the floor.
“His game is fun to watch because he can go inside, use his strength and score around the rim — and, then, he can score in transition because of his speed and athleticism,” Usher said. “Once in a while, he will step out and knock down the 3-ball. This guy can can do it from all over the floor.”
Dufort was called up to the varsity as a sophomore.
“We saw his potential and his athleticism [then],” Usher said. “He did a tremendous job this past offseason, both with working on his game and getting stronger. When we saw him this summer and fall, he looked like he put himself in a great spot to have a big season if we were able to have one.”
Dufort made his presence known at both ends of the court.
“He rebounded the ball like a machine,” Usher said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever coached someone that rebounds the ball with as much tenacity.”
Dufort’s spectacular season has drawn the attention from numerous college coaches.
“I think him having such a great year put him on more college coaches’ radar,” Usher said. “He’s still in the process of finalizing where he’s going, but he’s definitely excited about some of the opportunities that he’s got ahead of him.”
DEVIN DZIKAS, SHENENDEHOWA
A senior, Dzikas makes his first appearance on the Daily Gazette All-Area team in his final year with the Plainsmen. It also coincides with his coach and father, Tony Dzikas, calling it a career.
After being a part of the 2020 Section II Class AA champions, Devin Dzikas returned to help guide the Plainsmen to an undefeated, abbreviated Suburban Council season and end-of-year tournament title.
“He had a very good junior year as well, but his biggest growth was just his physical fitness,” Tony Dzikas said. “He became more athletic, quicker on his feet, and when he dropped 15 pounds that just made him more effective defensively and offensively.”
During his senior season, Devin Dzikas averaged 16.5 points per game along with 6.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.8 steals.
“He’s very smart,” Tony Dzikas said. “I would love to take credit for it, but I don’t think I can. Even when he was a kid and he played in grade school, everyone would say how smart he is as a passer, a player. He sees the game a couple of steps ahead of most players.”
And he doesn’t gloat about it, either.
“You can look through all of his 3-point buckets, I don’t think you’re going to see him celebrate, do any kind of fist bump in the air — that’s just not him,” Tony Dzikas said. “He can have 25 points in a night, he can have five points in a night, you will not notice by the way he walks into the house.”
Devin Dzikas will play next year for a former area star in Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake alumnus Jeff Juron, who is currently coaching at Suffolk University in Boston. Shortly after this season ended, Tony Dzikas announced that he would also step away from the Shenendehowa program.
“There is no way I was going to miss the next four years of him playing at Suffolk University,” Tony Dzikas said. “I don’t think it was an option.”
PRESTON GRABER, MARCUS JACKSON, ALBANY ACADEMY
The versions of Graber and Jackson that took the court this winter were far different from the players they were when they entered the program, Cadets coach Brian Fruscio said, and there’s still plenty of room for both to evolve at the next level.
With two-time All-Area first team honoree Andre Jackson now at the University of Connecticut and emerging big man Riley Mulvey transferring to a prep school in Connecticut, it fell to Graber and Marcus Jackson to lead the way at Albany Academy this winter, and both added new dimensions to their games.
“They both just stepped up as leaders,” Fruscio said.
Marcus Jackson — Andre Jackson’s younger brother — started out at Albany Academy as a tough, defense-first point guard who could fill up the stat sheet even if he wasn’t scoring.
This year, the points came in bunches, and the other stats were just as impressive.
The numbers read like something from a video game. Jackson scored 27.9 points per game — including a 49-point outing against Bishop Maginn and a 45-point game in a season-ending win over La Salle — while also averaging eight rebounds, 9.2 assists and 5.7 steals per night.
“For him to be able to still guard and rebound,” Fruscio said, “and do all the things he did . . . it’s pretty unbelievable.”
While his scoring reached a new height, Fruscio said that Jackson’s finest hour came on a night where hunting points for himself was purely an afterthought. On March 6 against Catholic Central, Jackson breezed his way to a triple-double with 11 points, 14 rebounds and 15 assists.
“He almost decided it was the Larry Bird [playing] left-handed game,” Fruscio said. “He was going to just pass the ball, he wasn’t going to look to score.”
Jackson was so unselfish, Fruscio said, that the coach needed to prod him a little to get his scoring up to complete the triple-double.
“That sort of will tell you how much he enjoyed his teammates,” Fruscio said. “He really became a great teammate upon completion of his four years with us.”
The same night as Jackson’s triple-double was also the scene of Graber’s biggest game. While Jackson was dishing, Graber’s sweet shooting stroke was on display, as the senior drained a school record-tying 10 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 43 points.
Shooting was the part of Graber’s game that was never in doubt. A long-distance specialist early in his career, this season Graber showed the development of the rest of his skillset.
“Preston came in as a shooter,” Fruscio said, “and to his credit — I said this on senior day — became a player.”
Graber — whose father, Jason, is a member of the UAlbany Athletic Hall of Fame after a standout basketball career for the Great Danes, and whose sister, Payton, is a junior at Schalmont who is already the program’s all-time leading scorer in girls’ basketball — grew to 6-foot-3 before his senior season, which aided in his evolution.
Preston Graber put up 22 points, 8.2 rebounds and three steals per game for Albany Academy’s undefeated squad.
“Preston, he had a couple dunks, he’s shooting the 3, he’s putting the ball on the ground, he’s guarding, he’s rebounding,” Fruscio said. “He really came into his own this year.”
Fruscio said both seniors are currently weighing their options for their future. Jackson has multiple Division I offers, while Preston Graber has talked to a number of Division II schools, though both are also exploring the possibility of a post-graduate season at a prep school.
Alex Barnhill, 12, 6-6, Mekeel Christian Academy
Chris Dufort, 12, 6-3, Saratoga Springs
Devin Dzikas, 12, 6-2, Shenendehowa
Preston Graber, 12, 6-0, Albany Academy
Marcus Jackson, 12, 6-1, Albany Academy
Mason Courtney, 11, 6-4, Shenendehowa
Hagen Foley, 12, 6-3, CBA
Gabe Lucarelli, 12, 6-6, La Salle
Josh Rodriguez, 12, 5-10, Troy
Dayshaun Walton, 11, 6-5, Green Tech
Royal Brown, 11, 6-2, Cohoes
Kenyon Coleman, 12, 6-0, Niskayuna
Zahki Fallen, 11, 5-11, Mekeel
Rodney Parker, 12, 6-4, Schalmont
Zeke Pulliam, 12, 5-11, Berne-Knox-Westerlo
Adirondack League: Anthony Girard (North Warren)
Suburban Council: Isaiah Austin (Albany), Marko Gibbons (Bethlehem), Damari Holder (Schenectady)
Colonial Council: Zaveon Little (Voorheesville)
Foothills Council: Yandeel Vazquez (Amsterdam)
Wasaren League: Hayden Day (Saratoga Catholic), TJ Kelley (Waterford-Halfmoon), Luci D’Ambro (Mechanicville)
Western Athletic Conference: Robert Jordan (Fort Plain)