Dragons working to build on success

While their record may not have reflected progress, dropping from 15-14 in 2016 to 14-15 in 2017, there’s little doubt that the Harlan Green Dragons were an improved team in Derrick Akal’s first season at the helm.

Harlan made its first appearance in the 13th Region Tournament since 2005 by knocking off Bell County in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament, ending a string of 10 straight first-round defeats.

The Green Dragons also ended a streak of first-round losses in the 13th Region All “A” Classic by advancing all the way to the finals before losing a hard-fought game to Pineville.

“Over the course of the year, we got better. I thought we became a better basketball team,” said Akal, who is with the Dragons exclusively this season after coaching both the Harlan boys and girls last year. He led the Lady Dragons to four straight appearances in the 13th Region Tournament finals, capped by championships the past two seasons.

Akal would like to repeat that success with the boys but understands it’s a slow process. Harlan lost two starters and two reserves from last year squad.

“We lost four seniors and those four seniors played, so we’re still trying to integrate guys into the system,” Akal said. “I’ve had to change some things this year based on personnel.”

The Dragons aren’t exactly short on experience though with Kilian Ledford (14.6 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game) returning for his third season as a starter and Jacob Wilson, Cade Barnes and Carter Barnes all starting at times last year.

“Having Jake, Cade and Carter from the spring until now, after starting last year, has helped a lot with the carryover,” Akal said. “Getting Kilian and (Jon) Eldridge back from football will make us better. It’s been a little easier transition this year.”

Like his girls teams, led by all-stater Jordan Brock, the Dragons have the green light to shoot from just about anywhere and found success at times with a 3-point attack.

“We’re a good shooting basketball team with good ball handlers,” Akal said. “Our weakness is size, which could affect us on the boards. We have to be scrappy defensively to make up for our lack of size. Overall, I’m pleased with the progress.”

Ledford will take quite a few of those perimeter shots but also has the strength and athleticism to get to the basket.

“Kilian is an excellent shooter and he’s athletic and competitive,” Akal said. “We’re looking for him to build on what he did last year. We have to give him time to get his legs under him after football, but he’s no doubt one of the top players in the region, in my opinion.”

Wilson (7.8) provided a complement for Ledford last year and comes into his sophomore season in even better condition after dropping 20 pounds.

“Jake has worked hard to improve his conditioning and strength,” Akal said. “He can pass, shoot and dribble. We’re looking for more on the defensive end from him, but he’s a good offensive player.”

Cade Barnes (8.1), a junior guard, provides yet another 3-point threat who is also capable of handling the basketball.

“Cade is a good ball hander and excellent shooter,” Akal said. “He’s a fierce competitor and just a tough kid. He is also a good rebounder, probably the best team we have on the team pound for pound.

While Barnes could see action at the point, the probable starter is eighth-grader Jordan Akal, a former middle school star at Cumberland who made the move to Harlan last year to play for his father.

“Jordan has grown, gained some weight and gotten a little taller and stronger,” Akal said. “He needs some experience, but he’s talented and I think he’s ready. He’s worked hard over the spring, summer and fall. I think he’s worked hard enough to earn the position. He’s improved a lot since the spring. I think coming over in January from Cumberland last year helped.

“He handles the ball well and shoots it well. He’s learned to be a better passer. Defense is his biggest weakness. He’s not played much man in his life, so he’s still learning where to be on the floor.”

Austin Adams, a senior who hasn’t played since he was a sophomore at Harlan County High School, will see action at point guard and on a wing.

“He can shoot the ball well and handles it well,” Akal said. “He’s been a competitor since he’s been here. He can move his feet and guard people. I think Austin will help us a lot at that position, plus at the two-guard.”

Jared Hawkins (2.3), a junior, will give the Dragons a 3-point threat off the bench at wing.

“He’s a good shooter and passer and has a high basketball IQ,” Akal said. “He sees and understands things. He will contributed in all aspects of the game.”

Carter Barnes (3.2), a 6-1 junior, will share time at center with 6-4 sophomore Jon Eldridge and both could be in the game at the same time with Barnes moving to forward.

“Carter is very athletic. He’s a very unselfish kid and is a good shot blocker. He’s one of our better defensive players and gives us different options at the position,” Akal said. “Eldridge is a raw kid, but he’s very athletic. He is a good shooter and excellent rebounder with some of the best hands I’ve seen as far as rebounding. He needs to develop some post moves.”

Caleb Adkins and Tate Bryson, both juniors, can play either guard or forward.

“Tate is a tough, hard-nosed kid who will do what I ask him to do,” Akal said. “Caleb has excellent vision and is a tough defender. They both can help at guard or inside.”

Tyler Carmical, a senior, will see action at guard, as will sophomore Charles David Morton and freshman Trey Barnes.

Akal says defending 13th Region champ Harlan County remains the favorite in the 52nd District, but he likes the Dragons’ chances of making another postseason run.

“I thought our district was always the toughest when I coached the girls, now we have the defending regional champion in our district,” Akal said. “I think Bell is one of the region’s most underrated teams with good size and athleticism. Middlesboro now has coach (Lewis) Morris, and he will make them tough and physical. The district will be tough.”

Harlan was second to Pineville in last year’s 13th Region All “A” Classic and will be among the favorites this season.

“Lynn Camp is probably the favorite after their performance in the regional last year, but I think it will be kind of wide open with several good teams,” Akal said. “We always want to compete for the All “A” title.”

In order to reach that goal and improve on last year’s performance, Akal says the Dragons must continue to progress, both as individuals and as a team.

“We have to play together and play hard on the defensive end,” he said. “We want to play unselfish basketball, play defense and hit the boards.”