COVINGTON -- Heading into his second year as Eastside boys basketball head coach, Gregory Freeman is ready to improve his team. Not only did the Eagles make it to the Class AAA playoffs last year, they also had their first winning record (15-14) since 2004 when they went 16-11.
"I encouraged the guys to make mistakes this summer. It's OK to get it wrong now," Freeman said. "Being in my second year with the system already being in place, it was about making the kids that I have better."
One way Freeman helped was by playing tougher competition, such as Marietta, Campbell, Meadowcreek and Greater Atlanta Christian.
"The kids tend to play up, so what you do is play them against better competition. You have to set that window very high for them to play at that same level during the season," Freeman said.
Even though the Eagles didn't win that many games over the summer, a high winning percentage was not Freeman's priority. His strategy was to play the more experienced group early then throw his younger guys into the game, putting them under pressure situations against quality teams. He was more concerned with the development of the younger guys than winning. By having that philosophy, Freeman felt they would be ready for the pressure if he had to use them during the regular season.
Playing more most of the first part of the game were returners Treyvon Francis, Anthony Henderson, Quindarrious Russell and Chavis Williams. However, Freeman is still looking for that special fifth starter that will bring it all together. Making it harder, in a good way, is that the bench players are so good that it is making the decision difficult.
"Our bench, which was our Achilles Heel last year, is going to be stronger. Jomandi Smith, James Russell, Jamal Hardge played well this summer. We had a bunch of kids out and they really played hard. Jamal Hardge, a rising junior, has really improved a lot with his shooting. He was always a good defender," Freeman said.
Even though Freeman had several players stand out, the one that stood above the rest was 6-foot, 1-inch potential point guard and rising sophomore Sam Johnson.
"I just have to get him to understand the speed of the game," Freeman said. "Once he understands the speed at the varsity level he's going to be a contributor.
"A program is only as good as the depth that program has. I'm trying to make sure that once my seniors graduate there'll be guys that can step in and play for them."
But in the meantime, Freeman is going to have something that he didn't have last season -- multiple ball handlers. By having everyone on the floor with the ability to move the ball up the court it will allow the Eagles to be a true running team unlike last year the ball was always out into Ben Miller's hands.
The other thing the summer practices provided the Eastside basketball team was that they believe in themselves.
"They believe they're good and belief is 99 percent of anything you hope to accomplish. It looks very promising and I'm very excited. They've become more physical; they've become more athletic and that's what you want.
"We have to continue to get stronger and be fundamentally sound ball players with everything. We have to continue to work day in and day out with our shooting or our ball handling. Those are the things you have to do to play well."