Star sophomore Jaquan Carlos of Thomas Jefferson High School already has a target on his back. South Shore knows it—this was the sixth time they’ve faced off against Carlos in the last two seasons.
Down 69-68 in the PSAL ‘AA’ City Championship with just over 20 seconds to go, Dashan Crittenden finds Carlos near mid-court. The eyes of South Shore’s Dante Spencer light up as he steps forward to prevent the city’s best point guard from prowling into the paint, where Carlos collected 16 of his 23 points that Saturday afternoon.
Like a counterpuncher in boxing, Carlos takes a split second to study his opponent’s movement, then attacks. He crosses over to his left, immediately drawing his seventh foul of the game and earning a trip to the free throw line. He toes the line, takes a breath and drains both, giving Jefferson the lead with 19 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, however, The Shore’s Femi Odukale closed the show.
“I know how it feels now and I never wanna go through this again,” a distraught Carlos said after the championship loss, which came one season after Jefferson was eliminated in the semifinals during his freshman year. “Now I know what I’m getting myself into and I got my feet in the water, so I’m just getting ready to come back.”
Carlos entered Thomas Jefferson High School and averaged a league-best 20 points per game as a freshman, while playing in historically New York City’s most competitive division, the Brooklyn ‘AA.’ He outdid himself in year two, again averaging over 20 points, while dishing out more than seven assists per contest.
Currently, the 6’0” point guard holds offers from North Carolina State, Cincinnati—where fellow Brooklynite Lance Stephenson attended—and St. John’s, who offered him in late December of 2017. Other schools like UConn, Seton Hall and Temple have expressed interest.
He’s already Jefferson’s successor to Shamorie Ponds, and he’s maintained a brotherhood with the Red Storm star, who was in attendance for Saturday’s city title game.
“He tells me I could get it done,” Carlos says. “I’m in the gym with him a lot. We work hard together. I could talk to him about anything and he could always help me out. He’s like another big brother to me. Anything I need, I could always go to him.”
Carlos fell in love with the sport as a seven-year-old, looking out his window and watching older kids play. There’s a basketball court right behind where he lives in East New York, so he’d watch pick-up games all the time. Naturally, he started playing too.
“I used to go right outside my house and watch. My mom used to come out with me,” he says with a smile. “At that time, I always practiced by myself. So as time came and I got to around 11 or 12 years old, I noticed that I was good. Everyday I played up with older, grown men outside my house from daylight till sun down. It’s Brooklyn, so it was tough.”
From there, Carlos would take his talents to St. John’s Rec—a team for the recreational center in Crown Heights—and then bounced around various other programs before finding New Heights in the eighth grade, with whom he currently plays AAU ball in Under Armour’s circuit.
When he arrived at Jefferson, Carlos says he didn’t know he’d be on varsity right away—even Ponds spent a year on JV—but head coach Lawrence ‘Bud’ Pollard says, “He was better than what we had.”
“When I first got him I didn’t think he would come and lead the division in scoring,” explains Bud. “He came in ready and surpassed all my expectations last year. He’s definitely one of the better players in his class, but that means nothing in the ninth and tenth grade. A lot of guys don’t stay the same. They get taller, they get better. Guys like Shamorie, who people had never heard of come out the woodwork and they end up passing a lot of those guys because of the work ethic.
“You have to keep pushing these kids and encourage them to strive for greatness,” he continues. “J wants to get better, he wants to get his body right, he wants to get in better shape, get his shot better. One thing about Shamorie, every year he’s gotten better. J has also gotten better and more unselfish. He’s got a lot to work on, but he has a lot of potential.”
Carlos recognizes that, but is aware that potential is irrelevant until it’s fully reached.
“The focus I keep is that when I’m working, somebody else somewhere across state could be working. There’s probably a guy just like me in California working as hard as me; just another Jaquan,” he acknowledges. “I always keep that mentality: You’ve gotta have that one-up on everybody. You’ve got to be working out all the time or somebody is going to catch up to you and be better than you.”
And he also wants to set an example for his family, including his 12-year-old brother.
“I wanna have my little brother going around saying, ‘Yo, my brother is the best point guard to come out of New York City.’ I do a lot of stuff for him,” Carlos says. “I know he walks around with the tag on his back like, ‘I’m Jaquan’s little brother. I’m JC’s little brother.’ So I want him to always know that his big brother is out here working. I do it for him.”
He so badly wants to be the best, and being a New York City point guard means a lot to him. Coach Pollard thinks he can join the legendary lineage when all is written.
“Oh, definitely. He has a chance,” Pollard says. “He has two years left…I don’t know how many players in the city are on his level. If he puts in the work in the off-season and builds on that over the next two years, he could be unstoppable.”
He could be. Will the superb sophomore go on to exceed expectations? He and others certainly believe so.
It’s what motivated a Saturday spectator to shout “best guard in the city” repeatedly, after Carlos switched hands in mid-air to convert a contested layup late in the third quarter. It’s what sparked the bench to jump up on their feet after Carlos tied the game with 2:30 left, eyeballing those in attendance and pumping his fist. It’s what got him this far.
And he’s just getting started.
Bryan Fonseca is a contributor to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BryanFonsecaNY.
Photos by Jeffrey Armstrong.