Brandon Johnson knows he has good young players to build around on his Hamilton West boys’ basketball team, such as junior Jack Boufford and sophomore Maurice Williams. He also realizes they need to be balanced out by play from heady veterans.
That is where Jamaj Walker and Tobias Prall come in handy. The senior bookends are the stability that Johnson needs in his first year as a head coach.
“We have some young kids with some talent but they haven’t been there yet, so Jamaj and Toby have to lead us,” said Johnson, whose team got off to a 7-4 start. “We kind of have eight to 10 guys who are leaders. We don’t have that one guy who’s an alpha-dog right now, but we’ve got a lot of guys who can play for each other. It’s their time now, everyone else will have their time going forward.”
And they are making the most of their time.
“Tobias’s biggest thing is he can put the ball in the basket,” Johnson said. “He’s a shot creator. He can make open jump shots, he’s a tough cover off the dribble, he can get to the basket. And Jamaj is our anchor, he finishes when he gets the ball in the paint, he stops the other team and he rebounds and keeps a lot of things alive.”
The two have worked their way up the ladder and have also become good friends despite just meeting two summers ago.
Walker grew up in Hamilton and did not play basketball until sixth grade.
“I used to play football but I quit that, it was too violent, I don’t like to get hit,” he said with a smile. “I started playing basketball and I just tried to keep working when I came here as a freshman and tried to get better every year.”
Prall was a Trenton guy who attended Stem Civics Academy in Ewing for two years before transferring to West last year.
“When I first transferred I used to go to Shady Brook Park and play basketball,” Prall said. “I kind of met (Walker) over there. I told him I was coming to West and it started from there, and we became closer.”
A lot closer, Walker said.
“Tobias is a good friend of mine,” he said. “I’ve only known him for a year, but we got to know each other pretty well, pretty quick. He’s a real funny guy.”
But the two are all business on the court.
Walker saw scant minutes as a sophomore, getting his first varsity points in the third to last game of the season and finishing with just six that year. At the same time, Prall was swinging back and forth from JV to varsity at Stem Civics.
The forces combined last season, with Walker averaging around 6 points per game while Prall averaged over 8.
“It was a little weird because I had to get used to my first year, playing with each other and getting the chemistry together,” Prall said. “It was a slow start.”
With a season under his belt playing with Walker and a talented offensive force like Boufford, Prall has meshed in nicely with the Hornets this year and the result was a 7-4 start as of Jan. 20 after Hamilton won just six games all of last year.
West has hit a resurgence under Johnson, who quickly fell in love with the ability of his two key seniors.
“From the summer I could see that Toby has a very unique ability,” Johnson said. “He’s very herky-jerky but can shoot the basketball, handle the basketball. He’s tough to cover. One of the big things for us is putting the ball in the basket. He started off the season doing a great job. He was banged up a little bit from an injury and now he’s kind of responded to the call I had.”
One thing the 6-foot-1 guard has done better is become more selective in his shots. There were games last year when he would hoist up a bunch while trying to make a quick positive impact on his new team. Johnson has seen hardly any of that this season.
“We refer to him more as controlled chaos,” the coach said. “He’s unorthodox but it works. He takes good shots when we need it. Every once in a while he’ll take a bad shot but most of the time he’s under control. “
As for the 6-foot-3 Walker, he had other commitments in the summer but Johnson knew he had a weapon once preseason arrived.
“He was the missing piece and once he got here he stepped up,” Johnson said. “He protects our paint and can dominate at the other end. Every time we need him to finish he does that, and then he stops the other team from getting lay-up after lay-up.”
Through 11 games, Prall was averaging 12 points while Walker was averaging around 7 points and 8 rebounds while playing rugged interior defense.
The two had their greatest combined effort in a huge win over Nottingham Jan. 11, when they combined for 20 second-half points and carried the Hornets down the stretch in a 69-62 victory. It snapped Hamilton’s three-game losing streak and started what was a three-game win streak entering a Jan. 21 game with Robbinsville.
“Toby sparked us up with a couple big shots, getting out in transition and Jamaj is banged up but he gave me everything he had for long stretches in that game,” Johnson said. “He left everything out there on the floor even while he’s hobbling up and down.”
It’s that kind of dedication that has permeated throughout the Hornets. Both players know their roles and relish them.
“On defense I’ve gotta be the anchor in the back,” Walker said. “As a big guy you gotta work and get rebounds. When the guards dump it off, you gotta finish it. You gotta play big.”
As for Prall, he feels, “my role is to step up and make big-time plays when we need it. Knowing we’re down sometimes, I have to have the ability to get us back in it.”
Aside from all that, they both need to lead a strong nucleus of talented underclassmen.
“We have to keep working,” Walker said. “We gotta set the example every practice.”
They’re doing just that, as well as making a difference in a lot of games.