Jack Boufford has blossomed into more of a leader as an upperclassman for Hamilton High basketball. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

It has taken some prodding, constructive criticism, hard work and self-revelation, but Hamilton West senior Jack Boufford has transformed himself into one of the Colonial Valley Conference’s top players.

It just took a while to get there.

After averaging over 13 points per game as a sophomore, Boufford was feeling pretty good about himself as a varsity player. Scoring, however, was all he had in mind.

So, at the start of his junior year, during a free throw drill, first-year coach Brandon Johnson had a little chat with the talented forward. The discussion stemmed from what Johnson had seen of Boufford while coaching at Nottingham, and in the first few days of preseason at West.

“What I heard about Jack before I met him, was he was a player with some talent; he could do some things and shoot the basketball,” Johnson said. “What I saw was a kid with decent talent, but just a good player, a decent player, on a bad team.

“He was nursing a back injury during our first couple of workouts. When he was finally good to go, he kind of just rubbed me the wrong way as far as he didn’t have the mentality we needed for us to be successful as a program or for him to be a leader for us. He kind of just went through the motions and didn’t understand what it actually took.”

Thus, the coach wanted to get that point across during those foul shooting drills.

“He asked a lot of me,” Boufford said. “He said I wasn’t really a leader at all and I didn’t have any leadership qualities and that’s what he challenged me to do. Become a leader and control our team more on the floor. I wasn’t gonna back down from the challenge.”

Considering how Boufford responded, it must have been quite a talk. Johnson shed a little light on what was said.

“I told him that every team, good or bad, has a best player, but at the end of the day there’s only a certain amount of players that matter when it comes to All-Conference and All-County and so forth,” the coach said. “I said ‘If you’re the best player on a bad team, you don’t enter that conversation.’

“I asked him what he wanted as far as what his goals were in high school basketball. He said, ‘Coach, I want to be the guy on a great team and hopefully we can get to the playoffs and much more.’ I said, ‘Well if that’s what you want to be then I’m gonna hold you to it.’ And from there I started to see a little change with him as far as just competing more, talking more, being more of a leader.”

A talk like that can sometimes be a gamble, as a player may not want to hear that about himself and may rebel in their own way.

Not so with Boufford.

“I think it was good,” he said. “It’s really helped me as a player, to progress and to be a much better player than I was.”

Boufford went on to average slightly less than 13 points last year as he slowly tried to transform himself into more of a team player. Johnson saw it starting to come together but still wanted more, especially after Hamilton finished just 10-15.

“He started to make small strides and he thought that was good enough,” Johnson said. “I showed him examples of what it really takes to get to the highest level. Sometimes kids don’t understand. They may think they understand, but you have to sit them down and say ‘This is what needs to be done.’ I think by the end of last year he started to get it a little bit more.”

And coming into this year, it was clear the message had been received.

“I looked him in his eyes before our first game with Ewing this year and he just was a completely different guy,” Johnson said. “The energy, his aura, his swagger, everything was completely different. He was truly going to do whatever he had to in order to accomplish the goals he set for the team.”

Through the Hornets 5-2 start, Boufford was averaging 22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. After Hamilton lost to Robbinsville, he responded by scoring 53 points in wins over Ewing and Hightstown.

Whereas a year ago he might have remained point hungry after those two games, Boufford showed his maturity in the next contest at Notre Dame. He did not take a shot in the first quarter and hoisted just 12 in the game. He did not force anything and still finished with 16 points.

“I started focusing on talking more and leading them to do the right things,” Boufford said. “I really realized I should do that this year, especially when I started to do those things that he asked, and seeing how everything has changed for our team, and just how everything has become easier for us.”

Despite always being tall for his age, Boufford began his career as a guard while playing in the YMCA League at age 6. He moved on to Hamilton Little Lads and then played travel ball for the Monroe Hawks. From there he went to AAU with Freddie Young’s YSU team.

In 8th grade, he had one of those early-teen growth spurts to 6-foot-1, which affected his coordination.

“I was a lot slower. I had to get used to it. I worked on getting stronger and faster,” he said. “By the time I was a freshman it got better, by the time I was a sophomore I was completely used to it.”

Boufford now stands 6-4 with good ball handling skills, a strong inside game and the ability to make 3-pointers (he had 78 for his career through Hamilton’s first seven games this year). But it is the intangibles that have made Johnson happy.

“He’s more of a vocal leader and more leading by example,” the coach said. “When he says and does things, kids respond to it. He’s constantly coaching kids from our freshmen to our seniors and juniors. He’s trying to raise their game. He now understands in order to be part of a good team you need everybody to play their part.”

And yet, Boufford must still play maintain role as a scorer in order for Hamilton to have success.

“It was difficult to do at first,” said Boufford, who is still undecided on his college plans. “It was a lot different from what I’ve been doing my entire life with basketball.”

But he is happy to have gotten there.

“It’s always great seeing other teammates do well all around, and it just makes the team better,” Boufford said. “This is one of our better teams. Our identity is just better for winning games than it has been. We’ve been holding teams to 40 points and under, that’s our recipe to win. We haven’t had that in recent years. You gotta love all of it.”

Johnson just loves that he has a horse he can ride for almost an entire game.

“He doesn’t take any possessions off,” Johnson said. “Sometimes he’s dragging his legs here and there because he’s constantly beat up but he looks at you like ‘Coach don’t take me out. Coach I’m ready to go. Coach I’m not quitting.’ He just wants it so bad.”

Which is exactly what Johnson had in mind when he had that little chat last year.