Kareem Hemsley shoots during a 56-42 win at Steinert Jan. 18, 2019. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Kareem Hemsley looks and feels like a new player.

The Lawrence High School junior knew after last year he would be a team leader for the Cardinals boys basketball team, and he set about to make sure that he was ready for a big jump.

“I’ve developed my game a ton,” Hemsley said. “I’m way better than I was last year. Last year, I just used to shoot. Now I’m attacking more and getting to the line, starting to score more points, and helping our team.”

Hemsley and senior Malik Southward are the only Lawrence players who played varsity last year. Hemsley had shown promise as a sophomore starter who contributed almost nine points per game a year ago, but his first year on varsity also came with too much inconsistency as he picked up the speed of the game.

“I’m way better this year,” Hemsley said. “Last year, I was immature. I’m way more mature. Everything has developed about me and I go way harder.”

He and head coach Jeff Molinelli had talked about a need to come back better this year, and Hemsley has followed through well.

“Coming in, we knew he had to score a little bit for us to be successful,” Molinelli said. “We rely on him to bring up the ball, to get assists and to score and rebound.”

Hemsley led the Cardinals with 20 points in a 56-42 win over Steinert on Jan. 18 that helped Lawrence improve to 6-6. Rayshawn Young was also in double figures with 11 points, and Jack O’Reilly had eight points.

“We played hard and we played really good defensively,” Hemsley said. “Whenever we play good defensively, it brings us better results. We play way better when we do well defensively. That’s how our offense comes up.”

Hemsley has done a little of everything for the Cardinals throughout his breakout season. He had four 3-pointers in the win over Steinert.

“I think he’s more of a complete player,” Molinelli said. “Last year he was more up and down and didn’t do as much. Now he’s rebounding and bringing up the ball from time to time and getting assists.”

Molinelli loves the versatility that Hemsley brings. He can play anywhere from point guard to power forward.

“I like to create for my team,” Hemsley said. “I know that I can get going, but I need my teammates to get going. So if I can get them going, I know our team will have a better chance to win. I know I can score anytime.”

Malik Southward goes for the ball during a 56-42 win at Steinert Jan. 18, 2019. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

His confidence grew over the summer while working on his game. Daily he worked out with his father, and he played AAU, traveling as far as New York City for Sports U team practices. It paid off with a better developed skill set and improved confidence that he has needed for this season.

“It’s not really tough, it’s just I have more expectations,” Hemsley said. “Everyone depends on me to do more than last year. I have to live up to my expectations.”

The increased pressure has not fazed him. Hemsley averaged 13.8 points per game through his first 13 games, up five points per game from a year ago. He’s part of young, but dangerous Lawrence team that hopes to keep climbing.

“To start the season, we didn’t have a person averaging 10 points,” Molinelli said. “We have a couple guys scoring the ball a bit now. They’re getting more comfortable.”

Lawrence is trying to develop itself at both ends of the floor. The Cardinals have seen mixed results based on their ability to play consistently on offense and defense. They had opened the season 5-3 before three straight losses preceded the win over Steinert.

“Our defense was very, very good early in the year,” Molinelli said. “We were defending well. We were tough off the ball, we were defending ball screens well. In this three-game stretch, our defense hasn’t been as good. We were trying to focus on offense and then our defense went down. Hopefully we can put it together to play a complete game.”

Hemsley is hoping that Lawrence can learn from its losses. The Cardinals were frustrated to follow up the Steinert win with a loss the next day to Cherry Hill East despite 20 points from Yahseer Oliver and 17 points from Jamari Howard.

“We lost three out of our last four,” Hemsley said. “We should have won at least two of them. Out of our last four games, we should have been 3-1 and we’re 1-3. We’re playing bad right now, so we’re not happy with that.”

Molinelli is thinking that the tough stretch is just a speed bump on a road to a more mature, cohesive team.

“We have a lot of first-year varsity guys,” Molinelli said. “Only two guys returned with varsity experience. We have a lot of sophomores and juniors. I think we have some talent. If we can weather this down part of our season, hopefully we can get it back together.”

Hemsley believes it comes down to preparation. If the Cardinals can put in the same effort that they did to get ready for Steinert, they could produce the same positive results.

“In practice, we went hard,” Hemsley said. “We weren’t playing around and it translated to the games. We weren’t playing around. We were going hard and everyone was contributing.”

Hemsley would like to see that mindset continue as the team builds. Lawrence is hovering around .500 after facing a difficult road stretch and some adversity that pushed their young team to grow. The Cardinals are finding their roles and finally have Shaun Johnson, who had a good summer before an injury cost him the early part of the season, back in their rotation.

“We’re just trying to create adversity in practice for them to make practice tough,” Molinelli said. “When they come to the game then, they’re not shell-shocked by what’s going on. We’re trying to make practice tough for them and get them to work together. We’re trying to get back to playing good Lawrence basketball.”

Lawrence will have chances in the postseason to prove it has developed significantly. The Cardinals could be a sleeper going into the Mercer County Tournament and state tournament.

“It’s just hard work and being dedicated to the program,” Hemsley said. “We have to work hard in practice and not goof around and just being dedicated. We have to listen to what Coach Molinelli says.

“We can be good, real good,” he added. “We can be one of the top teams in the CVC.”