By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Taj Thweatt is a high school senior who has committed to West Virginia University, but by looking at him you’d think he was already a junior in college. He’s 6-foot-7 and nearly 200 pounds — a man among boys. And that’s exactly how the Glory Days Magazine Boys Basketball Player of the Year treated the rest of the Cape-Atlantic League. Like they were a bunch of JV teams.
Nearly every time Wildwood Catholic played a game there was an opportunity to add another highlight-reel dunk to Thweatt’s Hudl account, but there was so much more to Thweatt’s game that just his ability to soar above the rim and throw down jams. During his time in the cramped gymnasium at Wildwood Catholic High, under the watchful eye of Crusaders coach Dave DeWeese and his staff, Thweatt transformed from a rangy freshman with a lot of raw ability to a seasoned senior who could indentify small flaws in his game, fix them, and be even better the next time.
Thweatt was seventh in the Cape-Atlantic League in scoring at 17.9 points per game, third in field-goal percentage, fifth in made free throws, third in blocked shots and second in rebounding. But anyone who saw him play this past winter knows he could have lead the league in just about any category he wanted. The fact that he didn’t lead the league in any offensive statistical category shows not a deficiency in his game, but rather just how good his teammates were. Jahlil White was 12th in the league in scoring, Martin Anguelov and Jacob Hopping were both in the top eight in 3-pointers made, and White led the league in steals while DaSean Lopez was fourth.
Really, the only thing that could stop Thweatt and the Crusaders was the Coronavirus pandemic, which shut down the NJSIAA state playoffs after Wildwood Catholic won the South Jersey Non-Public B championship. Despite an ending nobody saw coming, the Crusaders still captivated South Jersey basketball fans all winter long with big game after big game, and more often than not Thweatt rose to the occasion and gave fans exactly what they were paying for. He also showed a lot of leadership, never shying away from a post-game interview whether the Crusaders had won or lost.
“It’s crazy how it ended. Nobody expected it to end the way it did, but I’m glad we got the win in the South Jersey championship,” Thweatt said. “It was fun playing in that environment, that’s what I signed up for when I knew I was coming to Catholic. It was fun playing up to that level. You just have to play hard. (Being the center of attention) didn’t really bother me, I like giving interviews, so that part of it was fun.”
“I think the most impressive thing about Taj was how much he improved each year, and how he continued to improve. He came into our program as a raw athlete and he’s leaving our program as a high level Division I player who I think is only going to continue to get better in the future at West Virginia University,” DeWeese said. “His work ethic, his determination to meet the goals he set for himself — which was to play at a high Division I level and to be one of the best players in the state of New Jersey — he worked very hard to achieve those goals, and he did it. He’s probably the best player I’ve ever coached. He’s very special, and I give him a ton of credit because it’s all related to how much work he put in.”
What’s scary is that Thweatt is continuing to evolve as a basketball player. Guards who didn’t have to worry about having him in their face a year ago suddenly had to contend with a 6-7, muscular defender out by the three-point line, as Thweatt began to develop a perimeter game, both offensively and defensively.
“Even defensively, as a freshman and sophomore he played in the post for us and we worked with him on post defense primarily, because he wasn’t really out on the perimeter guarding somebody. But his junior and senior year he worked very hard to become a very good perimeter defender. With his athleticism and quickness, his length, he was able to utilize that to become a very good perimeter defender. I think you saw this year that he was out there — we did a lot of switching, and when we switched, he could guard anybody, whether it was a point guard, a two-guard, whoever. He could switch onto anybody and guard them, and that’s an aspect of his game that has really evolved over the last four years. Next year he’ll have to take on guards on the perimeter, and I think he’s gotten to the point where he has confidence he’ll be able to do that,” DeWeese said. “When he’s on the floor, he’s a difference maker. It doesn’t matter whether he’s scoring or rebounding, just his presence on the floor changed things for us. His versatility, his ability to do pretty much anything on the floor took our team to a different level.”
The book on Thweatt used to be that if you got up into his face, got physical with him and forced him to hang around on the outside he became much less effective as an offensive force. Coach DeWeese even told him as much, that teams were going to test his mental and physical fortitude, and that if he wanted to be any kind of factor at West Virginia he better learn to not only be more physical, but more versatile.
“We continually identified for him the areas we thought he needed to improve. If we identified an area, he worked on it. Ball handling was one of the things he really worked on. In the middle of the season, we played Elizabeth, and we didn’t play very well. I told Taj that the Elizabeth coach told me after the game, ‘I love that kid, he’s a great player, but we identified two ways to exploit him. One was to be physical with him, and two, he couldn’t take our guy off the dribble. He couldn’t catch the ball on the perimeter and go by somebody.’ I conveyed that to Taj,” DeWeese said. “I said, ‘look, this guy identified it so that means other guys are going to identify it. You better get yourself to the point where somebody being physical with you isn’t going to impact your game, and to where you have to the ability to catch the ball on the perimeter, shot-fake and be prepared to go by somebody to the basket.’ And, to his credit, he worked on it. As the season went on, those types of things became non-issues for him.”
“I think I improved being able to shoot better from the outside, and just working on handling the ball and things like that. Those are things I need to get ready for at the next level. I’ll never forget coach DeWeese. He pushed me hard but I know he was just trying to make me the best player I could be,” Thweatt added. “When I came in freshman year, I just wanted to come in and play hard, give it my all. I didn’t know it would turn out like this. A couple teams tried to (push me around) throughout the years but I just had to get used to that. That kind of stuff just gets me ready for the next level, so I just had to adjust to it.”
“He’s special. He got better every year, and that’s a tribute to Dave and Taj. With the work he’s put in, I think he’s going to be very successful at West Virginia,” said Atlantic City coach Gene Allen, a longtime Crusaders rival. “What I was most impressed with was his perimeter game. The dunks came and you kind of expected those, but for him to shoot the 3-pointer the way he did, I was really impressed with his ability.
“It was virtually impossible (for a high school kid) to guard him because he’s so big, so strong and so athletic.”
While the Crusaders went 24-7 and won a South Jersey championship, the season wasn’t all rainbows and roses, DeWeese said. Catholic lost a pair of games early on, to Archbishop Wood (Pa.) and Elizabeth, then stumbled in early February, at one point losing 5-of-8 games. But, following a 63-54 loss to Camden on Feb. 16, the Crusaders got things right and won the final eight games of the season, including three on their way to the CAL Tournament title (third straight) and four in the state playoffs.
“It was a rocky road this season. It wasn’t all highs, there were a lot of lows, and we had to fight through a lot of those lows. Throughout the season we dealt with a number of issues as a team, but I think you saw the team evolve into what I thought was the best team in the state. But that took a lot of work. The kids really came together as a group,” DeWeese said. “There were points during the season when I felt like we were fractured a little bit. We had pieces, but the pieces weren’t all together, but to their credit they came together and they all were concerned about one thing, which was just winning games. In the last three of four weeks, I think everybody saw that. They really changed the way they were playing, they became more unselfish, they became better friends. Things seemed to turn around. Team chemistry determines how good or how bad you’re going to be, and if you’re able to have a group that comes together, works together, and they aren’t concerned about their own statistics but rather the team’s success, you’re able to have success. But, it’s not easy to get there.
“It’s hard for 17- or 18-year-old kids to not start to look ahead, and look beyond what their current circumstances are. That can be a distraction, but it’s something that’s hard to resist, to put the high school season behind them and start thinking about what they are going to do next year,” he added. “But to their credit, none of our kids did that. As opposed to losing focus, they refocused and had their sights set on winning the whole thing.”
Thweatt saved his best for last, pouring in 28 points and adding 16 rebounds in a sectional championship win over Rutgers Prep, and his career ended with 1,773 points and 1,028 rebounds. That’s the kind of production and talent he’ll be taking to Morgantown.
“(My teammates) are my guys. I’ll never forget playing together with them. Our chemistry was great, we’ve all been playing together since I’ve been playing basketball. It’s going to hurt to leave, but it’s time for the next level. Wildwood Catholic means a lot to me. I’m happy I came here and that we were able to make coach DeWeese happy. We just wanted to win, and we did that a lot,” Thweatt said. “I’m so excited (About West Virginia). I was just talking to coach (Bob) Huggins the other day, I’m so ready to get there. I’m ready to put the work in this summer. I know I have to improve my defense.”
“He’s hungry. He’s always been hungry, he’s always worked and he’s never been afraid to work,” DeWeese added. “In his mind, he wants to be the best, and that drives him to do the things he does. To his credit, he’s very receptive to criticism and suggestions as to how he can improve. I’m tough, and I was tough on him for four years. Even his senior year, I had people saying, ‘man, you’re all over him and he’s the best player.’ And I said, ‘that’s right, that’s driving him to be better.’ He accepted that and used it to get better.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays