HAMPTON — Coaches are optimists and find silver linings, by nature, and Hampton University's Ed Joyner Jr., is no different.
Joyner took it as a sign of progress that leading scorer Deron Powers bageled from the field last Monday against Delaware State, yet the Pirates still won.
"If you'd have told me that earlier in the year, I would have told you we'd probably lose by 20, because at that point he was our calming factor," Joyner said. "When he had it, we could calm down a little bit. Now, we have five guys who are capable of producing on the court at any time, and they all know that and they all can play together that way."
While Wesley Dunning was the hero of the double-overtime win against the Hornets, with a game-winning 3-point shot, the man who put Dunning in position to be the hero is the player most directly responsible for Hampton's present five-game winning streak.
Forward Du'Vaughn Maxwell was all but automatic on offense last Monday, pouring in 29 points on 12-for-13 shooting — more than tripling his season average.
While Maxwell's output might have been a surprise, his impact on the game is not. He relishes playing defense, rebounding and blocking shots. His energy is infectious, and he's become a cohesive force as Hampton (10-13, 7-3 MEAC) prepares for Monday's 7 p.m. game against rival and conference leader Norfolk State (16-10, 11-0 MEAC) at the Convocation Center.
"The biggest thing for us in this five-game win streak is his leadership," Joyner said. "He has become the emotional leader, and every team needs one. When we fall behind, he's the one on the bench saying, we're getting back in it. If a player makes a mistake, he's the one getting on him, but then it's all about, let's get ready for the next play."
Maxwell, a 6-foot-7 junior from Manhattan, by way of Western Nebraska Community College, was one of six new faces on a young roster that also had two redshirt freshmen and only three seniors.
The Pirates showed promise, but often were disjointed as players became accustomed to their roles and to each other, and as Joyner and the staff juggled lineups searching for effective combinations.
Powers, the freshman point guard from Williamsburg, was a leader almost by default. The ball was in his hands, he was productive and he generally made good decisions. Joyner knew other leaders had to emerge, even if only periodically.
Enter the skinny, undersized power forward.
"I wanted to be a leader," Maxwell said. "My problem was, I didn't know how to lead. I thought leading was me getting more touches, me getting more stats, stuff like that. I realized the way for me to lead this team is with energy. One night, it might be getting five blocks, one night it might be getting 29 points, one night it might be getting rebounds. It depends on the game and the situation."
Maxwell is a spectacular athlete whose speed, quickness, timing and hops allow him to flourish, despite regularly giving up inches and pounds to power forwards around the conference. He runs the floor as well as anyone in the league and routinely plays above the rim.
He has scored in double figures in six of the Pirates' past seven games and averages 9.7 points per game. He is fifth in the MEAC in rebounding, at 7.2 per game, and third in blocked shots, with 62. He often swoops in for blocks, away from the play, causing opponents to keep an eye out for him as they attempt to shoot. He has four or more blocks in eight games.
"That doesn't take into account how many shots he changes," Joyner said. "We're going to have to start keeping track of that."
The emergence of Maxwell and 6-8 sophomore Emmanuel Okoroba has balanced the Pirates' offense during the winning streak. In four of the five games, they have shot at least 44 percent from the field. They did so only once in the first 18 games.
"We want to play more inside-out," Joyner said. "We're still taking 3-pointers, but we're playing more inside-out. Du'Vaughn and Emmanuel have become our emphasis.
"Take the open shots. We don't want you scared to play, but we've put more emphasis on Du'Vaughn and Emmanuel. We feel like that's the reason that our percentages have gone up."
The Pirates also are improved on defense. They've limited six of their last 10 opponents to less than 40-percent field goal shooting. Opponents shot better than 40 percent in seven of HU's first 13 games. That, too, Joyner believes is an extension of Maxwell's impact.
"He cares about defense and blocked shots more than anything else," Joyner said. "That attitude about defense carries over to everybody else. He has made Emmanuel a better defender."
Maxwell rarely hunts his shot, especially at the beginning of games. He said that he would rather block a shot than make one, because of the jolt it provides the entire team. He's a set of defibrillator paddles with feet.
"The only thing I ever look for is a play to get us going, like a block or a dunk or something like that," he said. "That's the only thing I focus on. It's not a shot, necessarily. I don't want to say that's not my role or that's not important, because when it comes, I have to touch the ball, but I'm not searching it."
Joyner also had to learn how to read Maxwell on the court.
"He's one of those guys that confrontation gets him going," Joyner said. "I didn't know that. So I would see him out there looking upset and mad and huffing, and he's really not upset. He's just trying to get himself into the game. Lately, I've realized to just let him go. If he's really upset, he'll look at us and say, I'm ready to come out, I need a minute. That's part of us learning each other as a coach and a player."
Joyner and the players are increasingly confident, as the Pirates enter the stretch run before the MEAC tournament. All five of their wins during the streak were by six points or less. They won rematches against Morgan State and Coppin State. Even the earlier 74-67 loss to Norfolk State was a game in which they led by nine points in the second half.
"We seem to be playing a lot more poised in late-game situations," Joyner said. "We've had so many close games."
Joyner chuckled at the memory of the Delaware State game.