David Goricki, The Detroit News
What do Romeo Weems of New Haven and Laya Hartman of Okemos have in common?
Well, they are freshman phenoms on the basketball court, leading their respective teams while playing like senior leaders.
Weems, 14, is the top freshman boys basketball player in the state, but his goal is to become the top player in the country in his class.
At 6-foot-6 and 196 pounds, Weems is a dominant force with the ability to play any of the five positions. He plays small forward, but can handle the ball as a point guard and defend in the paint. He also causes havoc in the press, playing up top while using his long wingspan to force turnovers.
Weems is averaging 17 points, 11.5 rebounds, six assists and four steals for New Haven (7-1, 3-0 MAC Gold), which advanced to the Class B state quarterfinals a year ago. He posted his third triple-double of the season in a win over St. Clair Tuesday night.
On Friday, Weems put on a strong showing with 19 points, 12 rebounds, seven steals and six assists in an 82-56 rout at St. Clair Shores Lakeview. He set the tempo in the opening quarter, scoring nine points on 4-of-4 shooting while also getting three steals, dishing out three assists and grabbing three rebounds for a 30-13 lead for New Haven, which forced several turnovers with its full-court pressure.
Weems scored in all types of ways, off a putback, on a driving layup, a dunk off a steal and then a 3-pointer from the right wing.
“Romeo is a very talented and skilled player, but what makes him special is his work ethic, coach-ability and his high knowledge of the game of basketball,” coach Tedaro France said of Weems, who has played four years of AAU ball for the Detroit Family. “He is one of the first individuals in the gym and the last to leave. I literally have to turn off the lights on him some days to get him to leave, along with Eric Williams Jr. and Tavares Oliver.
“He plays with passion, poise and a determination you expect from seniors with years of experience. I expected him to be able to score but what has impressed me the most is his ability to rebound, pass the ball by setting teammates up the way he does, his defensive presence with great anticipation, awareness and with his ability to defend all five positions at 6-6.”
France has New Haven playing inside-out for good reason with 6-11 senior Innocent Nwoko and 6-9 senior Jerry Ben as interior threats. Nwoko, who moved from Nigeria his sophomore year, is improving every day in just his second year of playing organized ball. He had 13 points, 10 rebounds and several blocks in the win over Lakeview.
Weems has no problems being the third or fourth option in the half-court set, especially since he gets enough touches in transition or by getting steals and rebounds at the defensive end.
“I just try to get my teammates involved and make sure we get the win,” Weems said. “If they need me to score, I’ll score. So far they haven’t needed me to really score. I feel my strength is rebounding.
“We have an offense where we set things up against the man or zone and pass, cut, but we’re going to look to the bigs because they are big and they’re going to get open a lot. We play inside-out ball.”
When talked about being the top freshman in the state, Weems replied: “I just play basketball and stay in the gym. I want to be the No. 1 freshman in the country and I’m not there yet so I have to keep working. I have to work on my ballhandling and my shot, really everything.”
Weems has yet to receive a Division 1 offer, but once one comes it’s certain that others will follow.
“He’s big-time,” said Ypsilanti Lincoln 6-6 senior Ty Groce, a Northeastern commit who is averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds, 5.5 blocks and 5.3 steals. “We played them earlier this season (65-46 New Haven win) and he’s really aggressive, versatile where he can do it all. They pressed us and he was up top and forced some turnovers with his length. It’s amazing that he’s just a freshman.”
Hartman proves clutch
Hartman, a 5-11 point guard, is averaging 19 points for Okemos (4-5), including a double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds) in a 62-49 win over Holt earlier this month.
Hartman was never more dominating than Friday when she scored 31, including eight straight during the final 38 seconds in a 46-45 win at Jackson.
With Okemos trailing 45-38, Hartman started the run with a jumper from the paint to cut the gap to five. She then went coast-to-coast, hitting a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left to pull within 45-43. Then, after yet another defensive stop, she brought the ball up and made an NBA-range three with five seconds left for the game winner.
“I think for being a freshman and playing at the varsity level, just the level of composure she has stands out,” Okemos coach Tyler Hersey said. “She took over the game during the final minute (against Jackson), made two 3-pointers, one with twenty seconds to go and another with about five and on both shots she just looked so confident, expecting them to go in. She just has tremendous talent and composure that’s rare to see in a freshman.”
College coaches already know all about her. She has offers from eight Division 1 schools, including Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Villanova and Oregon State.
Hartman talked about playing on varsity as a 14-year-old.
“I think it’s really brought a lot of good opportunities for me to learn a lot about leadership and playing up to the physicality,” she said. “It’s a new experience, something I’ve never done before. My teammates are really positive and we play well as a team.”
So, what does Hartman think are her strengths?
“I feel I do a really good job of using my speed and trying to get up and down the court and my pull-up jumper. I know I have to get a little bit stronger so I can be more physical.”
Hartman spent her early years in Connecticut and her parents took her to some UConn women’s games.
Hartman moved to Michigan in secondary school. Her father, Doug Hartman, is a professor at MSU.
“I’ve been playing basketball since about the third grade,” said Hartman. “We used to live in Connecticut so we went to some UConn games and that’s when I started to like basketball. We lived right next to the campus and I remember watching Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi play.”
Hartman has been playing AAU ball since fifth grade, the last few years for the Lady Gym Rats based out of Indianapolis.
More frosh contributors
There are other talented freshmen playing big roles for their teams, including 5-8 guard Drew Lowder of Ann Arbor Pioneer (11-0), who has been a thorn in the side of crosstown rival Skyline, scoring 23 in a 90-81 win earlier this month and 14 on 6-of-9 shooting in a 71-64 overtime win in December.
Unfortunately, Lowder will be sidelined for 4-6 weeks because of a stress fracture in his foot.
“He is super-skilled,” coach Red Stanczak said of the 14-year-old Lowder, whose father, Tracey, is principal of Pioneer and the former head basketball coach at Jackson. “He can really shoot it and can handle it with both hands. He’s going to be a great player before he’s through.”
... Chandler Turner, a 6-4 freshman, was an immediate contributor for Detroit Renaissance, scoring 12 and making four 3-pointers in a season-opening 64-58 win over Chicago Kenwood.
Turner gives PSL power Renaissance added size to a team led by 6-8 senior center A.J. Jackson, 6-5 sophomore Jalen Tobias and 6-4 senior guard Justin Turner, who is no relation to Chandler.
... Southfield Christian has been a dominant team under Josh Baker’s guidance, led by senior Marlo Brown. But freshman guard Caleb Hunter is also playing a role, scoring 10 in a win over Plymouth Christian.
Hunter is the son of former Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter.
“Caleb has played in every game and is going to be good,” Baker said. “He has several colleges interested in him already.”
Top game last week
Walled Lake Western 64, Walled Lake Central 60: This has developed into a great rivalry with Western defeating Central for the KLAA Lakes title last year despite a 41-point night by Walter Kelser and Central coming back to avenge the loss in the Class A district championship game.
Western (7-2) led 28-12 Saturday night and had to hold off a late Central (6-2) rally. Kelser and Anton Lucaj each scored 21, bringing Central within 62-59 with 5.7 seconds left. Cody White scored 15 for Western, which also received 13 points and eight assists from Kam Ford, 14 points from Delano Smith and 15 rebounds from Donovan Williams.
Top game this week
Clarkston (7-1) at Rochester Adams (8-0), 7 p.m. Tuesday: Adams will be Clarkston’s next test after the defending OAA Red champion defeated state powers North Farmington (60-47) and Detroit Renaissance (55-33) on consecutive days Friday and Saturday.
Adams is led by 6-4 senior guard Spencer Littleson, who had a double-double (25 points, 10 rebounds) in a 57-45 win over rival Rochester Friday at the O’rena. Littleson will be going up against 6-4 Clarkston senior Dylan Alderson.
By the numbers
2 -- Players lost from Saginaw Arthur Hill’s team with five-star guard Brian Bowen leaving for LaLumiere (Indiana) prior to the season and Will Rodgers departing for Colorado this past week
11 -- Consecutive wins to start the season by Ann Arbor Pioneer heading into its rivalry game at Ann Arbor Huron Friday
35 -- Points scored in consecutive games by Warren De La Salle standout and CMU-bound Kevin McKay, including last Tuesday on 13-of-17 shooting in a 59-40 rout of West Bloomfield
Freshman Laya Hartman is averaging 19 points per game for Okemos. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Okemos High School)