The maturation of V.J. Beachem from shooter to player can be traced to a little age, a little wisdom and more than a little Al Gooden.
Beachem entered high school at Harding – later moving to New Haven when Harding closed – blessed with long arms, 6-foot-7 height and a nice touch. He could score inside, using his length. He could score outside, using his touch.
He had heard of this foreign term, defense, and its cousin, rebounding, but they weren't part of his regular repertoire. Those weren't high priorities since he had the University of Notre Dame, among others, pursuing him and extolling what they liked about his potential.
“You remember V.J. as a freshman and a sophomore?” Gooden said. “He grew up.”
Beachem leads the team with 21.7 points per game, but points only tell part of the story. He's also averaging 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
Gooden pushed Beachem to all-around maturity on the court. Gooden, who was also at Harding before moving to New Haven, has coached his share of talented, college-bound athletes over the years. And his expertise as a coach is mentoring and molding them, not coddling them. He teaches them how to play team basketball. He points out their weak points and makes them work at them.
Gooden demands more than they might think they have in them. That's what a good coach and a good teacher does.
“Coach told me over the summer I don't always have to score the most points to be the best player on the court,” Beachem said. “I took that to heart.”
The result is a more complete Beachem, a senior who will head to Notre Dame this fall on a basketball scholarship. He's rebounding with more purpose than before. He's defending better.
Best of all, Beachem is figuring out ways to make plays that don't involve a pull-up jump shot or a baseline drive.
In the Bulldogs' 77-72 win over Norwell last Saturday, Beachem made one of the biggest plays of the game late in the game. A couple offensive rebounds had slipped away from the Bulldogs. The ball was about to be knocked out of bounds under the basket. Beachem grabbed the loose basketball, made a quick move, spun and dunked.
“My freshmen and sophomore and junior years, I wouldn't have tried to save that ball,” Beachem said. “I'd have let it go and got back on defense. I've matured a little bit. I saved the ball and ended up getting two points for the team.”
Gooden called that play one of Beachem's biggest on a night when Beachem scored a game-high 27 points.
“When your best player is doing something like that, that's leading by example,” Gooden said. “Everyone else sees that and that's an asset to our team.”
New Haven (8-4, 3-1 Northeast Hoosier Conference) hosts Columbia City (14-2, 3-1) in a key game on Friday.
The NHC race is tight at the top, with Homestead at 4-0 in conference play and New Haven, Columbia City and DeKalb tied at 3-1. The winner of the New Haven vs. Columbia City game stays in the running.
New Haven's loss was to DeKalb, Columbia City's loss was to Homestead and DeKalb's loss was to Columbia City.
“I'm very proud of the guys,” Beachem said. “We've come out and been practicing harder lately. I think we're progressing and trying to make a run for the NHC. I think we're clicking at the right time and hopefully we can ride some momentum into the tournament.”
Gooden has always been strong at developing teams prior to the postseason state tournament. His Harding teams were always much tougher in February and March than in December and January.
He's steered Beachem that way as an individual. Beachem is playing his best ball in the final quarter of his career as a senior.
“He's getting older, he's more mature,” Gooden said. “We pound it in their heads and they realize it. He's a good, smart kid. He knows the game.”
Beachem said he is still working to improve his defense and rebounding, although those areas are better than they've been in the past. He'll need a little more bulk on his body next season to play on the college level.
But he has learned how to let the game come to him, and how to influence the game in ways that don't necessarily show up in the box score.
“I realize I don't have to take all the shots,” Beachem said. “When they're there, (Gooden) doesn't want me to pass them up. That's definitely part of maturing over the summer, growing up and knowing when to force shots and when you don't need to.
“We want to come out with the win any way we can do it. And that's what I want to do.”