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A very tall tale

They’re big players, sure, and working to get better

By Phil Perry
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2011

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With no wasted motion, John Swords went to work in his comfort zone, close to the basket. Holding the ball aloft with both hands, he spun his long frame and leaned in to easily drop in two points. Time after time.

The Waltham High defenders were helpless. They tried to front him. They stuck up their hands to disrupt his flow. They tried to get physical. It was no use. The towering 7-foot senior from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional was unstoppable, converting all 10 of his shots from the floor in a convincing 84-65 Dual County League victory on a recent Friday night.

“Offense is starting to work more than it has,’’ said Swords, his baritone voice bouncing around the nearly empty gymnasium at Waltham High. “It’s starting to click.’’

He’s not the only one on the rise.

At St. Mark’s School in Southborough, a pair of juniors — 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-9 teammate Alex Murphy — are dominating inside and outside the paint for the perennial New England prep school power. In Wrentham, 6-8 junior Jake Layman is quickly emerging as one of the state’s top talents at King Philip Regional, able to drain a 3-pointer or slash to the basket for a dunk. Newton North welcomed back senior Tevin Falzon to the lineup last week after the talented 6-foot-7 forward was sidelined with a broken wrist. Natick’s Alex Perrone, a 6-9 senior at the Dexter School in Brookline, is a double-double threat every game. Matt Kneece, a 6-8 senior at Shrewsbury, has developed into a presence for the Mid-Wach A champs.

All of them — and Swords in particular — have quickly figured out how to use their size to their advantage, overpowering foes and lifting their teams to success.

No player has come further than Swords, who as a 6-7 freshman was a member of the school’s hockey team. He switched back to basketball as a sophomore (he had played the game in elementary school) but barely got off the bench for junior varsity team. Fast forward to this season, in which he is averaging an eye-popping 16 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots per game for the 17-3 Warriors. For defenders who often barely measure up to his shoulder, his sure hands and variety of post moves make him nearly impossible to handle.

“I remember my first dunk in my driveway,’’ said Swords, who will play at Bowdoin, a Division 3 program in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, next year. “I had my friend videotape it, I was so excited. Now I have one or two usually every game. It’s pretty cool.’’

An honors student who also plays the baritone saxophone (“the big one’’ he says), he has picked up the game as quickly as he has fallen in love with it. He is following the lead of his sister Carolyn, a 6-6 senior captain at Boston College who powered the L-S girls to the Division 2 state title in 2007.

“He’s like a sponge,’’ said Lincoln-Sudbury second-year coach Pat Callahan. “Little things that you’d pick up after playing for a long time, he has to catch up on day by day — touch, footwork, chinning the ball.’’

Tarczewski is equally focused.

When he left Stevens High in Claremont, N.H., two years ago, he was a wiry, unpolished center. Locals recall the sight of the towering Tarczewski, as a sophomore drummer with the school’s marching band, ducking under the goal posts at football games.

Now, after arriving at St. Mark’s, and working with coach Dave Lubick as well as his Amateur Athletic Union coach in the offseason, John Carroll, the former Celtics bench boss, Tarczewski has developed into one of the top prospects in the country.

Division 1 programs drool over his footwork and savvy in the post.

“That’s what I work on all day long,’’ said Tarczewski, who is averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds for the 17-2 Lions. “It’s incredibly hard. . . . But I know I want basketball in my life, so I know I have to keep working.’’

His teammate Murphy is a “big’’ who has the versatility to play all over the court. The same applies to Layman, who netted his 1,000th career point last week, along with Falzon, whose return bodes well for North in the tournament. A three-year standout at Marlborough High, 6-9 Zach Auguste is showcasing the same kind of skills this season as a junior at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire.

These walking — dribbling — anomalies can push the ball on the fast break, see over defenders to pass to teammates, pull up for jump shots, and of course, dunk whenever they get the chance.

Murphy (21 points, 6 rebounds per game) committed to play at Duke earlier this month. The only question is whether he will enroll this fall or next.

“Growing up, I was always the biggest kid,’’ he said, moments after signing autographs for young fans in a recent game at Independent School League rival Thayer. “But my dad [former BC forward Jay Murphy] had me play point guard. I was always dribbling the ball so I’ve sort of worked my way from the outside in. As I’ve grown, I’ve tried to keep the ball in my hands and stay skilled with the ball, because you’re able to do a lot of things on the court that way.’’ His brother, Erik, is a 6-10 sophomore forward at the University of Florida.

The college offers, staggering stat lines, and adoring fans are nice. But there are a few inherent snags to being the biggest guy on the court.

Bill Curley knows.

“Big guys are discriminated against,’’ said Curley, the 6-9 former Boston College big man from Duxbury who is in his second season as head coach at Thayer. The tallest players are often presumed to be great, he believes, and they receive too much criticism from coaches and fans if they don’t live up to the lofty expectations.

“Because of the way the game is played, and the way their bodies mature, . . . they have to let their muscles and tendons catch up to their body before they can get going.’’

Hopkinton High senior Jake Doucette experienced a growth spurt last summer that every player dreams of, shooting up from a 6-3 perimeter player to a 6-7 man in the middle. And though he has thrived with the rapid physical change, he wasn’t instantly transformed into the world-class talent some might have expected.

“I love being this height, and I wouldn’t change it,’’ Doucette said. “But I think people think I should be drop-step dunking every time I get the ball.’’ He and Kneece joked about the dilemma of trying to land a tux for the prom, recalling fittings that came up well short.

No matter the attire, height garners attention, and that’s not always a good thing.

There are constant double-teams to beat, persistent hacks from smaller players, and heckling from spectators.

Swords has been called a freak by opposing fans, but when someone politely asks him about his height, he handles it perfectly. He’s had practice.

“It happens all the time,’’ said Swords, smiling. “I try to have a good sense of humor about it and come up with some entertaining answers.’’

After he patiently answered every question after the win over Waltham, he hurried off into the winter night to grab a seat on one of the L-S vans warming in the parking lot.

This game was over. The quicker it was left behind, the quicker a new day, a new chance to learn, a new chance to improve, would come. There wasn’t a moment to waste.

Phil Perry can be reached at paperry27@gmail.com.

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