All one needed to know about Baker basketball standout Labaron Philon could be discovered at South Alabama’s Mitchell Center during a Monday morning game against LeFlore in the Bridge Builders Classic.
The 6-foot-4, 178-pound junior completely took over the game in the second half, driving to the basket time and time again, displaying not only the ability to get his shot, but also an uncanny ball control talent, weaving past defenders as though they were frozen. If they fouled him along the way, it was just a bonus. In fact, he would score 22 of his 46 points at the free throw line, earning 29 attempts.
Perhaps what was most impressive about his game on Monday was his comfort in taking the reins for the Hornets and leading them from a nine-point halftime deficit to the lead in the game with 4:03 left to play on yet another driving layup. At one point in the second half, Philon, who picked up his third foul with 5:39 left in the second quarter, sitting out the rest of the half, scored 30 straight points for his team, willing it to victory. Baker would win the game 67-61, with Philon scoring 46 points, 36 in the second half. He failed to score in the second quarter.
No matter the defense employed by LeFlore to stop him or any heckler’s remarks he heard from the stands, nothing seemed to faze Philon, who recognized what his team needed from him and delivered, as he has done all season long.
Fans, regardless of which team they were rooting for, witnessed his play and movements — his hair, which freely flies as he moves along the court, couldn’t even keep up with him, seemingly flying in the direction Philon had been moving seconds ago but had since abandoned.
It became obvious to those in attendance — and has been noted by others who have seen him play over the past three years — they were witnessing a player with special gifts.
“His poise,” Baker head coach David Armstrong said when asked what most impresses him about Philon. “He understands the moment. He understands how to bring a team back and keep pushing and keep pushing. Foul trouble didn’t bother him. He wanted to be on the floor at the end of the first half and he knew I had to take him out and keep him safe. But his poise and his ability just willed this team back into that game. It was humongous.”
Watching Philon grow from a freshman who averaged 15.8 points a game to last season’s sophomore year in which he netted 24.7 points a game to this year’s average of 36.6 points a game — which ranks No. 3 in the country — Armstrong said he has watched Philon grow from a scorer to a player whose instincts on the floor are as strong as any player he has ever coached.
“His basketball IQ is so high and he understands what the flow of the game is going to do and what he needs to do to make the flow of the game go our way,” he said. “I don’t have to say a word. And I don’t have to say a word to the guys; the guys know, hey look, we need Labaron to be Labaron right now so that we can win this game. He did a great job of that today and my other guys played really well too. I don’t knock any one of those other 10 guys on the team. They did their job today. Thankfully, we came around with a victory.”
Philon said he just responded the way his team needed him to do on Monday.
“I sat out a little bit and they thought I was getting cold so they said they were going to get me the ball,” Philon said of his teammates. “I did what I had to do.”
That included scoring all of his team’s 16 points in the third quarter, as well as taking care of the basketball, grabbing rebounds and playing defense. He said his outside shot was a little off, prompting him to rely on driving to the basket.
“We had to wake up a little bit,” he explained. “It was early in the morning. We’re not used to playing early in the morning, just practicing. … My shot was a little bit off so I had to get to the rim. We had them in foul trouble — we fouled like three of their guys out — so we did a good job right there.”
There was a halftime adjustment Philon made that, as far as he is concerned, also had an impact on how he played in the second half — he changed shoes. He started the game with some off-white sneakers with a yellowish tint on the sole. In the second half, he sported black shoes that featured a green Nike swoosh.
“It started my freshman year,” Philon said of his habit of changing shoes at halftime if he didn’t feel the game was going his way. “When I don’t feel comfortable I have to change my shoes and socks.”
It’s not only defenders Philon has to contend with each game. He has obviously attracted the attention of numerous college scouts and he has already received a large number of Division 1 scholarship offers. Recently, he announced he has trimmed his list of contenders to six schools — Auburn, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
“The recruiting process, I think it’s great,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of scouts every day. … I’m prepared for it I guess. … I’m getting close [to picking his college team]. Soon I’ll be putting out a commitment. In February. … All of them are my favorites right now. If they weren’t my favorites they wouldn’t be in my top six. Those are the schools I feel like can help me. Other schools too. My recruiting process is still open so I’m open to a lot of schools.”
Wherever he lands, that school will be getting a player who is ready to make the move to the next level of play, as well as a young man who will be a benefit to that program in a variety of ways, Armstrong said.
“The thing I am most impressed with is after the game he’s standing there and taking pictures with every kid in the gym who wanted to take a picture with him and he’s got a smile on his face and he’s happy about it,” Armstrong said. “I’m proud of him for leading this team and pushing them the way he pushes them. He knows he has to do some things when we’re struggling shooting the ball outside of him and today he picked up the mantle and led and he talked to the guys on defense and when he was out of the game in foul trouble he was leading from the bench, telling them they could do it. That kid is incredibly special. He makes my job easy.
“I think that’s the part about him I’m most proud of. The game is something he’s really good at and that’s awesome. But the thing I’m most proud of him about is understanding who he is to all these kids that walk up to him, and these are kids he knows nothing about. … He’s learning to be a star, which he is.”