Akil Anderson had a feeling the time would come when he would have to reinvent himself. That's why he didn't mind the occasional odd look a passer-by or neighbor may have turned his way as he dribbled up and down Powelton Avenue with a heavy ball in each hand. Or why he'd walk around the streets of Lansdowne wearing sneakers with jump soles on the bottom.
This is going to be an interesting year for Penn Wood, the PIAA Class AAAA state finalist in 2010 and state champion in 2009. The Patriots are expected to reach their third straight state championship game, buoyed by the formidable frontcourt of 6-9 Shawn Oakman (Penn State-bound for football), 6-8 Darian Barnes (who's received serious Division I attention) and 6-6 Aaron Brown (who's committed to Big East power West Virginia).
But the X-factor that could be the key that gets Penn Wood back to State College in March could be Anderson, a smooth, 6-5, lefthanded, senior point guard who's finally getting his chance to show what he can do at the high school varsity level for the first time.
Anderson is a converted post player, where he played for Penn Charter before transferring to his area high school, Penn Wood, his sophomore year. He's undergone a complete makeover, from a player a few years ago who had his back to the basket, to becoming a wing player, to now the starting point guard for a potential state champion.
"Growing up, I was always taller than everyone else, so the tall guys are always the center or power forward, that's where my youth coaches put me," Anderson said. "But I was always what I would say an average player. I'll admit it, when I was younger, you can say I was a little on the lazy side. But that's changed. I know it's changed. As I got older, I put more time into my game, and I started to realize I'd be better off taking my game out more."
Akil's father, Robert Anderson, who played for Overbrook and then West Chester University, pushed him. Akil is getting a further nudge from Penn Wood coach Clyde Jones. It's Jones who envisioned Anderson playing the point for the Patriots this season - giving the defending Del-Val League champions not only a big front, but a tall backcourt, making it difficult for opposing teams to match up with the Pats.
"One of the things I like about Akil is that he knows the game," Jones said. "On a team like ours, we're going to need a steadying influence and I hope that's where Akil comes into play. That's what we're hoping to get from him. He's a skilled, long player, but one of the things we need from him is to be more aggressive offensively."
That wasn't a problem with Anderson's predecessor, Tyree Johnson, one of the area's most explosive point guards in a pint-sized 5-10 package, now playing for a junior college in Texas. That's where Anderson fits in, Jones points out. As opposed to being a team that relied on speed and size in previous years, the Pats will be different. They'll work more halfcourt sets. They'll use their size and power.
Like Johnson, Anderson has the ability to slash to the basket. But unlike Johnson, Anderson has the hops to dunk.
"Akil's been waiting for this chance his whole life," said Oakman, a childhood friend who played on Anderson's youth league teams since they were 9 years old. "His confidence and mental toughness is better, also his physical toughness. If the time calls for Akil to step down on somebody, he can do that. He did it this summer. A lot of things we do this year will hinge on him. He's wanted to play at this level his whole life. Here's his chance."
Anderson is a young senior, just turning 17. He's shown flashes this summer that he can take over games. It seems to be just one more problem opposing teams in District 1 will have to face.
"Akil has the talent to be a force every night," Jones said. "He's definitely a mismatch for any guard he faces. I don't want him getting comfortable. We have to keep a fire lit under him, because once Akil is wound up, he can take over games."