The here and now for the Walker boys’ basketball program is as stout as it has been in at least a generation with four starters on the way back from a team that finished a whisker away from the Class 5A regional playoff round.
But the future isn’t dimming any time soon, and this weekend was more proof of what could lie ahead for the Wildcats.
Rising sophomore Jalen Cook and incoming freshman Brian Thomas both traveled to the Under Armor Association finals, a season-ending event for teams that qualified with how they performed over the course of the summer.
Both played for Louisiana Elite, a program run by Madison Prep coach Jeff Jones. Cook played for the 16-under team and Thomas for the 15U team.
The 2017 All-Livingston Parish Most Valuable Player, Cook averaged 11.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2 assists in five games. Thomas, a 6-foot-3 forward, scored 25 points and snatched 19 rebounds for his team in four outings.
“This was a good experience because there are lot of (college) coaches there to watch guys play, so it opens up some opportunities for the future,” said Cook, who started every game in his rookie season on a veteran WHS team that finished 24-9 and as the runnerup in District 4-5A to Class 5A/Division I state champion Scotlandville.
“I’ve been to nationals before, but nothing really on this level.”
While Cook has become a veteran of high-level national events, Thomas is relatively new to the experience.
Which is fitting because the whole summer was a transition for the talented young teenager as he moves from middle-school stardom to the grind of the high-school level.
“It’s a good experience and it helps me out moving on to high school,” Thomas said. “It teaches you that you have to stay mentally focused.”
During the Woodlawn Summer League and team camp play, Thomas logged substantial minutes with the Wildcat veterans and got more comfortable with each passing week.
“It helped me a lot to play with the older guys,” Thomas said. “I learned that I have to commit fewer turnovers and be ready to shoot the ball when I get a pass at the right spot on the floor. Toward the end of the summer, I was shooting more – wasn’t hesitating at all – and my confidence was up.”
No reason for that to let up, especially considering the rarity connected to this week.
Cook and Thomas are the first male players from Livingston Parish to play at this high of a level of summer ball since former Denham Springs High stalwart Tasmin Mitchell.
Jalen’s father Eric Cook said he isn’t aware of any former Walker players to do so.
“It means a lot because nobody from Walker has gotten exposure like this, so it means a lot coming from small city like we do,” Jalen Cook said.
All of which fits into the plan Jalen Cool has established at a young age.
Already a high-profile Division I recruit, the 5-foot-10 playmaking guard makes no bones about his desire for exposure. Houston was the first school to offer a scholarship earlier this summer and Cook has been to several LSU practices after re-establishing contact following the dismissal of Johnny Jones in March.
That said, although Cook has some individual motivation, most of his focus is geared toward helping Walker continue to take steps in the playoffs.
Last season the Wildcats notched their first postseason win since 2001 and then pushed perennial 5A powerhouse Natchitoches Central to the brink before falling 52-50.
Like his older teammates, five of whom are back for their third or fourth seasons on the varsity, Cook has placed his goals on the top shelf.
“I want to open a lot of eyes get some attention from colleges, so I always go out and play hard and let people know I’m not going to back down,” Cook said.
“But the big thing for me is to keep getting better so I can help us reach our biggest goal -- to win it all because we know we’re capable of doing that.”
Capable now with a veteran crew coming back. And capable down the road with a multi-layered foundation in place of older players and youth.
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
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