For a guy whose first name starts with a D, Dashante "DJ" Alexander was quite the slow learner when it came to the importance of defense in basketball. How slow?
"Really," he said, "I've just started playing it hard this season."
And he's liking it, too.
The 6-foot, 165-pound Alexander, a transfer from Robert Lamberton High (more on that later), is a senior guard (mostly the wing, some slivers of time at the point), for Simon Gratz Charter, and Thursday night he was important at both ends of the floor.
As the Bulldogs bested Ben Franklin, 49-40, in the latter's gym in the American Division of the Constitution Convention, a tournament so named by ConHigh's principal, Tom Davidson, Alexander enhanced a 12-point performance with three assists and six steals.
Back in the day, a half-dozen thefts might have represented a month's work.
"Everybody was telling me after last season that I had to get my defense up," Alexander said. "I kept practicing and practicing, focusing on that, because I always knew my offense would come.
"In every practice, I go really hard in the slides and every other defensive drill. I can see how much that dedication has improved my game. Now I'm getting a lot of steals."
The Bulldogs mostly played fullcourt man-to-man.
"And we'd do our traps out of that," Alexander said. "Coach [Aron Cohen] would call out two of our names to go put on the trap. If we did it right, it worked a lot of the time."
Alexander, who is hearing from Immaculata and Arcadia, is on his third high school in as many years, but the first wasn't exactly local. He lived through the 10th grade in Jacksonville, N.C., not far from the coast in the southeast portion of the state, and played ball for Northside High.
He moved to Philly to live with his father, Jermaine Alexander, and their home is on Brockton Road, footsteps from where Haverford and Lansdowne avenues intersect.
So, when DJ Alexander gets older, will he still want to reside in Philly?
"I think so. Most of my family is up here," he said. "It's OK up here. The lifestyle is a lot slower down in North Carolina. And there's less crime, of course. Lots of the kids have cars because you need them if you want to get around. No [public transportation]."
When Alexander ditched Lamberton, he did so with his best buddy and hoops teammate, Rafiq Marshall. Both transfers were contested on the basis that they were motivated by athletics. While Alexander was approved, Marshall was not, even when he appealed to the state level of the PIAA hierarchy, and he remains inactive.
In a league where every good team seems to have three to five transfers, or even more, imagine how hard Marshall's parents are scratching their heads over the fact that their son was told to keep his sneakers untied.
Said Alexander of his transfer: "I wasn't doing that great in my grades and my dad looked around for a better place to send me. He was impressed with the Mastery charter system [Gratz is now part of that] and he decided to put me here. It just so happened that I love basketball."
Two other transfers, guards Malik Tyndale (West Catholic, 12) and Donte' Winfield (Palmer Charter, 11), also scored in double figures for Gratz.
Franklin was led by forward Emmanuel Young, likewise a headliner in football and baseball. He posted 12 points and seven rebounds before fouling out with 7:37 remaining. Jarrett Bryant, a beefy frontcourter, claimed eight boards and even nailed both shots after being chosen to shoot a tech.
Overall, this game was tough on the eyes. Even the hint of a flow was nonexistent.
"Really," Alexander said, "I think the ball was better down in North Carolina . . . Well, I don't know about that. I guess I'm not sure yet."