by Evin Demirel / @evindemirel
Two years ago, as an eighth grader, Kevaughn Allen, decided to seriously prepare for high school competition.
So he started a training regiment that would make some NBA players balk.
Every weekday, year-round, he has met his AAU coach Kahn Cotton at the North Little Rock Athletic Club at 5 a.m. For two hours, they work on skills, strength and quickness. In the offseason, Allen tacks on an afternoon session of plyometrics.
For the love of just being a kid, why does he do it?
“I just wanted to be get better as a person and as a basketball player,” Allen said. “I just didn’t want nobody else to be better than me.”
For the most part, all that sweat has paid off. Allen, one of the nation’s most promising sophomore guards, has earned scholarship offers from a host of schools including the University of Arkansas. He helps lead a North Little Rock Charging Wildcats team that has won 23 games in a row and has spent nearly all the season ranked No. 1 in the state.
He has teamed with fellow guard Dayshawn Watkins to form one of the state’s best backcourts. The duo combines for about 36 points and 10 assists a game, and has already helped NLR defeat other top teams around the state—Jonesboro, Little Rock Hall, Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Clarksville.
Their statistics, though, wouldn’t fuel as many wins were it not for an on-court chemistry springing from off-court friendship. Last season was hard on Watkins. The point guard had just transferred from North Pulaski and had trouble jelling with new teammates. “It wasn’t easy for me to get used to my teammates, and it wasn’t easy for them to get used to me,” Watkins told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Tim Cooper in December 2012. “We liked each other, but we didn’t always have the chemistry on the court.”
North Little Rock finished its season 18-9 after losing to Fayetteville in the Class 7A state tournament quarterfinals.
But things changed heading into this season. First, North Little Rock got a new head coach who’s made building camaraderie a priority. Coach Johnny Rice scheduled tournaments requiring overnight stays, threw a team Christmas party at his house, and signed up his Charging Wildcats to help with the North Little Rock Police’s “Shop with a Cop” program, which provides poor children with toys for Christmas.
On top of this, Allen, who stands 6-3, and Watkins, 6-feet, have developed an extra strong bond. Allen, who played for NLR’s ninth grade team last season, got Watkins to join him in his morning workouts. They also hang out together after school, and have a ritual of discussing strategy over a meal at Chili’s before each home game. All this communication comes in handy on the court, Watkins said. “When he makes a mistake, I pick him up and when I make a mistake, he picks me up.”
The result: North Little Rock is 25-1 and ranked No. 25 in the nation, according to CBS Sports’ affiliate MaxPreps.
If North Little Rock keeps rolling and finishes off what seems like destiny at this point— a 7A state title—there shouldn’t be a question Allen and Watkins are the state’s best backcourt. At least, this is how it would work most years.
Because of two guards at Little Rock Parkview High, this isn’t most years.
Junior Anton Beard and senior Imara Ready are the most recent torchbearers for a Parkview Patriots tradition that has produced 12 state titles. Two years ago, the 5-9 Ready picked up the nickname “Little General” for strong play in the state tournament. Ready lived up to the moniker by delivering 11 points, 7 defensive rebounds and 3 assists in a 50-44 win over Jacksonville in the 6A state title game.
“What’s next after general?” Parkview head coach Al Flanigan asked afterward. “He’s got [a promotion] coming, whatever it is. Commander-in-Chief. He deserves it.”
Since then, though, team leadership has clearly split between Ready and Beard, who recently decommitted from Missouri and is considering Arkansas. Since 2010, with Beard and Ready as starters, the Patriots have accrued a 68-13 record and another state title in 2012. After each player averaged around 17 points per game last season, for much of this season each guard averaged more than 20 points a game—productivity which may be unprecedented in state history.
Together, Al Flanigan can’t recall a backcourt as statistically dominant as Parkview’s.
The Patriot guards shoulder much more of a scoring burden than their North Little Rock counterparts, who share responsibility with other all-state caliber players like forward Thomas Alexander.
Like Allen and Watkins, Beard (5-10) and Ready (6-0) have learned leaning on each other is vital to team success. “They look out for each other,” Flanigan said. “They’re just like brothers.” Beard, who lives near UALR, and Ready, who lives in North Little Rock, often do homework at each other’s homes and shoot together at Parkview’s gym on weekends.
On offense, the guards have interchangeable roles handling the ball, scoring and distributing. On defense, the quicker Ready stays on perimeter players while the stronger Beard occasionally guards centers. Indeed, he’s guarded players ten inches taller in wins against Hall and Fayetteville. “It’s all about the heart,” Beard said. “Some kids lay down. I can go out and guard anybody on the court.”
For years, Watkins, Allen, Beard and Ready have played with and against each other at lower levels. In fourth grade, for instance, Allen teamed with Beard on the AAU North Little Rock All Stars. Later, they were Lakewood Middle School teammates. Ready and Watkins were North Pulaski teammates in ninth grade.
But this quartet hasn’t played on the same court in high school. In each of the last two seasons, three of the four players have competed in Jammin’ For Jackets, an annual December tournament. Last season, Parkview won 54-41 over host North Little Rock in a title game that didn’t include Allen because he wasn’t yet a varsity player. Ready, who also goes by IJ, scored 25 points and was selected MVP.
This season, Parkview didn’t have Ready when the teams met in the opening round. In Parkview’s previous game against a Memphis team, Ready had collected two technicals and was suspended for one game. Flanigan said Ready was suspended after trying to defend Beard. A couple Memphis Hamilton players had confronted Beard by walking up to his face, and Ready “came to his rescue,” Flanigan said. “He didn’t throw a punch or nothing.”
“The referees got carried away and said he was talking too much,” Flanigan added.
North Little Rock beat Parkview 82-68 and ultimately won the tournament with a 83-59 victory against host Little Rock Hall. Watkins and Allen were chosen co-MVPs.
Both sides wonder what would have happened had Ready played. His presence “would have made the game more interesting” and much closer, Allen said. “It would have made everybody just play harder than they ever had before.”
Flanigan believes Ready would have tipped the outcome in Parkview’s favor: “There’s no doubt, we would have won the game.”
Beard wishes there was a way to sort it out before Watkins and Ready graduate. “A part of me wishes that we could play North Little Rock in a championship game again.”
That won’t happen.
North Little Rock will compete for a championship in the state’s largest classification. Parkview is on a separate playoff track in the second largest classification. Decades ago, each classification’s champion played each other in an overall state tournament, but that no longer happens.
And so the question of the state’s best backcourt (and possibly the state’s best team) will likely forever stay up for debate.
A previous version of this article published in Sync magazine. Updated information on the recruitment and statistics of the four guards is here.