WASHINGTON Township High basketball coach Bob Byatt was running his players through a fastbreak drill during a recent practice, where emphasis was placed on pushing the ball, making good decisions and limiting turnovers.
The three-on-twos and two-on-ones had their share of bright moments, with crisp outlet passes, strong drives to the basket and some rainbow jumpers that easily dropped through the net.
But one simple play might have defined how far a player in Byatt's program has come.
As 6-10 Matt Lopez waited on a pass from a teammate under the basket, he raised his large paws, looked right at the ball and, before the pass fully touched his palms, he redirected it to another teammate for an easy layup. A beautiful, no-look touch pass.
Another tool to his ever-expanding repertoire.
Last year as a 6-9 sophomore, Lopez was the type of player fans couldn't help but notice on the court, as he stood more than a few inches above everyone else. They also were quick to label the somewhat bumbling big boy (he was only 15, after all) as a work in progress.
Easy for an outsider to say. Even harder for a 15-year-old to realize it. Lopez has. And his work has been tireless and his progress boundless. He just might be the most recruited junior in South Jersey now.
"The work that Matt put in during the summer was simply amazing," said Byatt, whose team has started the season 2-0. "For a person that young to change the structure of his body, to have the discipline that he's showed is an attribute to what kind of person he is."
Lopez has grown to a legit 6-10 now, shed a lot of the weight he carried onto the court last season and is immensely popular with teammates, who appreciate his hard work.
"During the summer, I was working out 7 days a week, three our four times a day," Lopez said. "Putting the work in gets results. I basically sacrificed my summer. I didn't have much of a social life, I missed a lot of different events with my friends. But it was worth it.
"Last year, I weighed as much as 280 pounds. I weighed myself this morning before practice, and I weighed 249."
That tells only part of the story of what the workouts produced. Besides the aforementioned touch pass, Lopez continually got the ball in the low and high posts during practice, and when he was double- and triple-teamed, he always made the right passes to open teammates, most times leading directly to baskets.
He has developed very good touch on his midrange jumpers. He threw down numerous thunderous dunks on baseline moves during a halfcourt scrimmage. And if that wasn't there, he was nimble enough to go up and under the basket on a strong reverse layup.
"He is a lot more mobile, jumps higher, runs the floor real well," junior teammate Chris Grabbe said. "He's one of the best on the team at running the floor. I was surprised at how much work he put in. He'd call me during the summer after his workout with the trainer and ask me if I wanted to go to the park and play. It's been nonstop with him. He wants to take it to the next level."
And that certainly will come. But as much as his improvement has college recruiters drooling, Lopez is content to gain his immediate goals.
"My goals aren't about me, they are about making the team better," he said. "I would like to dramatically improve my numbers from last year, but only because I think it will help us become a better team. Whatever my numbers are at the end of the game, it doesn't matter, as long as we have a W on the board."
On the board now are offers from several Division I schools, including La Salle and James Madison. Bigger schools such as Penn State and Oregon State have shown interest.
For now, Lopez wants to concentrate on the Minutemen, who will face Hunterdon Central in the Ewing tournament today.
"I just want to go to the best college I can," Lopez said. "I don't care if I go far away or stay close to home. But for now I want to continue to make myself a better basketball player. I don't think you can ever be your best. Even players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant can keep getting better. There's no limit. Whenever you stop working, that's the type of player you're going to be. I don't want to stop working. I want to keep going."
With a 3.1 GPA and a drive unmatched by kids his age, he'll go as far as he wants. *