Altiliyah Butler never doubted her potential. What concerned her was if she’d ever get the chance to fully explore it.
In almost any other program, Butler would be a featured attraction. Long, elusive and fearless taking the ball to the basket, the 5-11 junior seems ideal to build an interior foundation around. But, at Shabazz, where the structure of its frontcourt has been firmly built around sturdy, durable 6-0 pillars Zaire O’Neil and De’Ashia Jones since they arrived as freshmen, the opportunity for extended, quality minutes were hard to come by.
O’Neil and Jones were fixtures on the blocks for the Bulldogs and they were also classmates of Butler, meaning there was no guarantee she’d ever get the desired playing time she so desperately coveted.
“I was kind of nervous,” Butler said of the prospect of being a long-term reserve. “I didn’t know when I was going to get my time in the spotlight. But, one day, I was sitting in church and the pastor said ‘Everybody is going to have their chance’ and I was waiting and waiting.”
Divine intervention came in the form of some imaginative thinking by Shabazz coach Vanessa Watson. When the Bulldogs bid farewell to four-year star guard Aliyyah Handford last spring, a substantial void was left in the Bulldogs’ backcourt, which got Watson to wondering…
What if she tapped Jones to play away from the basket? On the surface, it may have seemed like a reach, yet Jones occasionally dabbled with a perimeter game in her first two seasons and possessed a better handle than people gave her credit for. So, why not move her to a wing, give her the chance to put the ball on the floor, drive to the hoop and balance that with her outside stroke and sharp vision?
The idea became an even more attractive option with Butler in the mix. The rearrangement would provide a perfect setting for her to slip into the forward position opposite O’Neil. Watson acted on the hunch and Butler has done nothing to make her second-guess her decision.
“Altiliyah is so athletic,” Watson said. “So, we threw it out there. We had to build the confidence a little bit. Now, she’s finishing because she knows she needs to finish.”
Butler was just one piece in an all-encompassing performance by Shabazz on Saturday. The Bulldogs, No. 1 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, relied on the expanding diversity of each part, a hounding defense and an unselfish quality within its offense to storm past Weequahic, 76-29, in the Newark Public Schools Holiday Tournament championship at Essex County College.
Shabazz (6-0) raced out to a 21-3 lead in the first quarter with Butler, who was named the tournament MVP, fueling the early surge. After using a drop step to deposit a pass from Doniyah Cliney, Butler filled the lane on consecutive fast breaks and her hustle was rewarded with feeds from O’Neil and Naqaiyyah Teague, each of which she converted within the span of a just over a minute.
“It’s my time to step in,” said Butler, who ended with 16 points and eight rebounds. “I’m amazed by everything that’s happened but I knew I had it in me.”
Butler was not the only Bulldog to disclose versatility within her respective game.
Jones looked comfortable at the point forward. She distributed wisely, picking up three assists in the process, and added 11 points. On the defensive side, her familiar rate of activity resulted in four blocked shots and numerous alterations by penetrators unwilling to face rejection.
“We’re trying to help each other improve on our games and make everybody better,” Jones said. “Coach Watson and I had a talk before the season started and she told me she was going to be depending on me outside more. So, I knew I had to come out strong. And, with Altiliyah finishing inside, I want to get the ball to her more.”
Teague has long been the defensive stopper for Shabazz but, with Handford’s departure, was the logical choice to assume the brunt of the point-guard responsibilities. The 5-8 senior has responded favorably, averaging 4.3 assists per game.
Her selflessness on the ball encouraged teammates to join her in transition, which she recognized by handing out four assists to complement four steals and seven points.
“All I had to do was step up and be a leader,” Teague said. “I never had to be the point guard, but this was the time to step up.”
Already cognizant of the value of a well-rounded offensive repertoire, O’Neil spent much of last summer concentrating away from the blocks. That work ethic is beginning to pay dividends.
O’Neil displayed nimble footwork with a nifty spin move along the baseline, connected on a mid-range jumper and dropped in one of her patented putbacks all within the game’s initial five minutes. But, it was her work rate beyond scoring that captured her immeasurable worth.
She set the defensive tone by twice blocking shots, was competitive on the glass and alert when firing outlets off the defensive boards.
“With everyone working on different things, it makes us more complete as a team,” said O’Neil, who had a game-high 18 points, four rebounds, four blocks, four assists and four steals.
For the second straight year, Weequahic (4-2) bowed in the NPS final but the setback shouldn’t outweigh the accomplishment of consecutive appearances in the championship and the future looks bright for coach Amiri Baraka’s Indians.
Junior Stephanie Davis, who was named to the all-tournament team, is assertive off the dribble and 5-2 freshman Ciara Pugsley, who finished with a team-high 11 points, not only poses a threat along the arc, where she buried two 3-pointers, but is brash driving into the lane.
Amatullah Johnson, a 6-3 sophomore center, is developing in the post and junior Alsaymeenah Alexander, along with sophomores Zsade Byrd and Hafeezah Causeby give Weequahic depth in the backcourt to utilize.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner