If you want to see a 16-year-old junior guard improve before your eyes, Brandon Russell of Woodland Hills El Camino Real is the player to watch.
Wearing a headband and flashing a contagious smile, Russell is one of those high school athletes you want to brag about to a friend sitting next to you and say, "In a year or two, he's going to be something special."
Already 6 feet tall with lots of time to grow and mature, Russell is showing hints of what might be possible, averaging 17.1 points. In his last three games, he scored 28 points against Beverly Hills, 20 points against Loyola and 21 against Westchester. There also was a 24-point performance against Fairfax. After making four of eight free throws against Fairfax, he has made 28 of his last 33.
For El Camino Real Coach Joe Wyatt, watching Russell become a significant player for the defending City Section Division I champions is no surprise.
"We've always known he was good," Wyatt said.
Russell spent parts of the last two seasons on junior varsity but ended up as a major contributor off the bench for last season's championship team.
He has basketball instincts and moves that defy his youthful physical profile. He mixes drives to the basket with a pinpoint left-handed outside shot. Then there's his defense and rebounding, in which he finds a way to get loose balls with hustle, determination and desire.
Perhaps his instincts come from being exposed to the game from an early age. "As soon as I could walk, I found a basketball," Russell said. "I just loved the game."
His father, Bryon, is a former NBA player who has given him lots of advice and lessons to consider.
"Just being in his presence and around the NBA environment helped me a lot to be humble and work hard every day," Brandon Russell said. "Nothing is guaranteed. You have to work hard to get that next spot at the next level."
He said his father challenges him.
"Every time I couldn't do it, he'd push me to that extra limit," Russell said. "Every time I can't guard that guy, he says, 'Yes, you can.' He gives me that extra confidence."
Russell has talked with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who told him, "Be humble and work on defense because they have a lot of scorers in the NBA and not many defenders."
So Russell takes pride in playing defense and being a disrupter and stopper. "You can't take any plays off, no matter who I'm guarding, no matter the assignment," he said.
El Camino Real (5-3) was supposed to fall back and no longer be one of the City Section's elite teams after the graduation of last season's top three players, Evan Wardlow, Julian Richardson and Maleke Haynes.
But a group of scrappy young players has the Conquistadores back in the title mix. They knocked off Westchester two weeks ago in the Beverly Hills tournament to finish in third place and begin action Friday in the La Salle tournament. The day after Christmas is filled with basketball tournaments throughout the Southland.
El Camino Real will be strengthened on Jan. 5 when sophomore Nick Heller becomes eligible after transferring from Agoura. He'll join a group of talented underclassmen that include juniors Marcel Addy and Myles Marchand and sophomore Juhwan Harris. Seniors Chris Terry, Josiah Woods and Stone Spellman are also major contributors.
"I'm trying to get them to buy in," Wyatt said.
Now, if only Russell can figure out how to beat his 6-7 father in a game of one-on-one.
"He doesn't take it easy on me," he said. "With that big body, he puts me in the post. I'm going to whup him one day."