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Niagara Wheatfield’s Bradberry making impact as eighth-grader

Jalen Bradberry isn’t the typical 14-year-old.

Sure, he can’t donate blood just yet. He can’t buy a lottery ticket, either. He still has to wait a few more years to learn how to drive.

One thing Bradberry can do, though, is handle himself on a basketball court with a level of play and maturity far beyond his years.

As the starting point guard on Niagara Wheatfield’s varsity boys basketball team, the 5-foot-11-inch eighth-grader is already proving he’s capable of navigating a young Falcons team through the rugged Niagara Frontier League.

“We’re definitely getting more than what I would’ve expected from an eighth-grade point guard in our league this year, a very good league,” Wheatfield coach Erik O’Bryan said. “And I only expect it to get better and better. I really do.”

The thing is, Bradberry’s season has already been very good. Regardless of how old he is or which grade he’s in.

Bradberry leads the Falcons in scoring at 15.5 points per game, a figure that places him just inside the top 50 in Section VI according to sectional statistics. He’s approaching 60 three-pointers on the season, converting at a 37 percent rate.

Aside from scoring, he’s dishing out a team-high three assists per game, is second on the team in steals and is fourth in rebounds.

How has Bradberry been able to adjust so quickly to the varsity level? Well, he’s been playing against the older kids his whole life.

Jalen spends his summers playing for an AAU team coached by his father, Carlos, the former LaSalle star and 1993 Allen Wilson News Player of the Year. The team, despite playing against competition a few age groups older, often shows very well in regional tournaments.

“It’s basically the same,” Jalen said. “We go play with our grade, but we’re still playing against players three years older. So when I play with these kids (on varsity), it’s kind of the same talent level too.”

Bradberry has adapted so well, in fact, that O’Bryan recognized before the Friday, Feb. 3 game against Kenmore East that the team has almost relied too much on the eighth-grader to bring his A-game every night.

The physicality of playing against kids three, four, five years older can take its toll over the course of a 20-game season. It’s the aspect that Jalen, Carlos and O’Bryan all agree has been the toughest part of this transition.

“I think that’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 14-year-old kid,” O’Bryan said. "And once teams start scouting and seeing his name in the paper, they started defending us a little bit differently. I think as a group we relied too much on him and now we’re asking him to do way too much as a young guard like that.”

But it’s hard to limit Bradberry’s workload when he puts up numbers like he did against St. Francis of Ontario on Saturday, Feb. 4.

Bradberry racked up 38 points, including 10 three-pointers, and set a new record for most points in a game at the annual Battle at the Border hosted by Niagara Falls. Six of those threes came in an 18-point fourth quarter, some from legit NBA range.

"When he is dialed in he's up there with the best shooters in Western New York,” O’Bryan said after the game. “When you think about his age and size and how closely guarded he is, it was quite the performance."

Bradberry’s debut season has been full of highlights like those, including scoring nine points in the span of 70 seconds in a season-opening win against Starpoint. In a Jan. 13 win at Lewiston-Porter, he scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half and 10 in the fourth quarter to bring Wheatfield back from an 11-point halftime deficit to a three-point win.

While Bradberry has showed well this season, the Falcons as a team have struggled to a 5-13 record with two games left in the regular season.

“He’ll be the first one to tell you we gave away a couple games,” O’Bryan said. “But it is what it is this year during the growth, so we’re just trying to fight through the year, keep everybody healthy, keep learning and hopefully that learning experience this year will propel us next year.”

As for what Bradberry can grow into individually during the next four years of his varsity career, O’Bryan doesn’t want to put any expectations on it.

“It’s whatever he wants it to be,” O’Bryan said. “It depends on how hard he wants it and how hard he wants to work. He could just go through the next four years and just play basketball and get better and better and still be very good. Or he can really go after that dream.

“Knowing the competitor that he is, he wants more.”

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