Thursday, April 20, 2017
A week or two before Armani Vermillion walked into the old men's gym unannounced, ready to start a new chapter of his life, Bubba Wheetley had heard the rumblings. A new kid was coming to Advance, his players said.
Wheetley, the Advance boys basketball coach, was used to such rumors, so he didn't put too much stock in the most recent gossip. But sure enough, Vermillion showed up one fall Sunday night. It was Vermilion's first day in town, and he asked his mother to take him to the old gymnasium where former Advance basketball players congregated to play pick-up games. While his mom talked to Wheetley, Vermillion started jacking up shots. Soon enough, he was out on the floor, competing against the adults.
His shot selection was poor -- he seemed to shoot the ball every time he touched it, Wheetley recalled recently -- and he didn't have great shooting form. But Vermillion was a good ball-handler and adept at slashing toward the basket. Wheetley saw that talent, that athleticism, and envisioned a bright future.
"I could tell right off he had a lot of potential," Wheetley said. "It would take time, and I knew he would turn into a pretty good player."
Three years later, Vermillion has grown leaps and bounds from that shy kid who had never played organized basketball before. He's grown accustomed to small-town life, and he's developed into the 2017 Southeast Missourian Boys Basketball Player of the Year after averaging 20.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the field. Thanks in part to the junior's stellar play, the Hornets advanced to the Class 1 state championship game and the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament final.
While Advance fell just short in both title games, the Hornets finished 26-7 as All-Missourian selection Dawson Mayo and fellow guard Preston Wuebker complemented Vermilion on the court.
It was actually Wuebker who, along with Wheetley, helped Vermilion develop into an efficient 3-pointer shooter.
"Just shoot the ball"
Vermillion had just seen Wuebker catch fire from beyond the arc. At this past summer's Rib City Shootout the Hornets faced Notre Dame, and Wuebker hit six straight 3-pointers to start the game, he recalled recently.
The team's next opponent was New Madrid County Central. Vermillion had started for Advance the year before as a sophomore and word had gotten out that he was a slasher with a questionable outside shot. So as the game began and Advance took the ball down the court, the NMCC defenders backed off. But Wuebker had been working with Vermillion all summer and saw his shot improve. He knew Vermillion was a different player.
"I just told him, 'Just shoot the ball,' Wuebker said. "And he shot it. I guarantee he made about seven in a row."
A couple seasons ago, that would have been unthinkable.
Vermillion's shot was a mess mechanically when he arrived in Advance during the fall of his freshman year. A day after Vermillion met Wheetley, the transplant came to observe a Hornets practice. The newcomer couldn't participate with the team yet, so as he waited for them to arrive he jacked up shots. Mayo remembers walking in and seeing a shot he has trouble describing. Wuebker once compared it to Shawn Marion, but even that doesn't paint the full picture.
Vermillion used his arms to generate power for the shot, whipping the ball around, instead of relying on his legs. It was a set shot, too, which means he didn't jump. That type of shot was popular in the sport's early days before giving way to the now-ubiquitous jump shot. But growing up playing pick-up basketball in Delaware, there was no one to teach Vermillion.
So Wuebker set about re-working the shot. One day during Vermillion's first week in Advance, he made the new kid shoot 150 shots three feet away from the basket with the correct form. The next day he came into the gym to see Vermillion practicing those same shots.
"He was more of a penetration-type person when he played," Wuebker said. "So I just figured I'd help him out because it would make him so much better, and it would make our team better even."
Wheetley was always there when Vermillion needed advice or guidance. Now, the shot is so good at times Wheetley wants Vermillion to shoot more 3-pointers and mid-ranger jumpers.
Vermillion's shot improved from freshman to sophomore year, but the biggest leap came this past summer. Although Vermillion lit up the NMCC defense in that summer tournament, teams still didn't respect his shot at the beginning of this past season. He ended up shooting 34.3 percent on 3-pointers.
Midway through the year, teams realized they couldn't let Vermillion shoot uncontested from the outside. Mayo said that's when Vermillion turned to his quick first step to blow by defenders before finishing at the rim or dishing to open teammates.
"Obviously, if you've got a kid that can't shoot really well, you're going to back off and give him a couple steps," Mayo said. "And obviously everyone knew he could drive. Well,if you step back off him and he starts hitting that shot you're going to have to get up in his face otherwise he's going to keep putting points on you. That opened his game up."
With Vermillion slashing, Wuebker on the perimeter and Mayo battling inside, Advance turned heads at the Christmas Tournament. The Hornets advanced to the final for the first time since 2000 and along the way upset Cape Girardeau Central, the 2015 champion, and Jackson. They fell just short in the championship game as they lost to Charleston.
But that run gave the team confidence, Vermillion said, and they carried that belief into the postseason before losing 65-62 to Walnut Grove in the Class 1 final. Vermillion scored 63 points combined in two games at state, including 38 in the semifinal win.
After the title defeat, Vermillion was distraught for the seniors, like Mayo and Wuebker. Three years ago, he had met them on a fall afternoon. Now, they were family to him.
When Vermillion moved to Advance with his mom, he knew no one except his grandparents. In Delaware, he had lived in a bigger city, gone to a bigger school -- Cape Central or Jackson size, Vermillion said -- and played football.
Advance doesn't have a football team, something Vermillion learned his first day of school. And it took some time to get used to the new environment.
For the first week, Vermillion didn't really talk to anyone except Wuebker, who he bonded with immediately. One day that first week, Vermillion spent the night at Wuebker's.
Soon, he was opening up to the other Advance players, such as Mayo, and adapting to the pace of life. In Delaware, he said, he didn't have his head on straight. In Advance, he ate up the school spirit surrounding sports teams.
"The atmosphere there was way different than it is here," Vermillion said. "Like, a lot more people care here than they did right there. They didn't care down there. They didn't care if we won or lose or anything like that. It's just play the game to play the game. I want to play the game to win."
So, he switched from football to basketball. The closest he got to the gridiron were flag football games held during PE class. He always brought his pink and black cleats, Wuebker said, and played quarterback.
Both Mayo and Wuebker, members of the Advance baseball team, said he can throw a football harder than many kids at the school can throw a baseball.
The basketball court is where he rededicated his passion and where he made most of his friends.
Next year, Mayo and Wuebker will be gone, along with starter Brendan Crader. So Vermillion will have to shoulder a bigger burden for the Hornets if they want to return to the final four, Wheetley said.
The demanding coach, who after an opening-round win over Meadow Heights in the Christmas Tournament this season was disappointed with his team's performance, has a list of things Vermillion can improve. He wants the rising senior to become more assertive on the offensive end, improve his defense and become a do-it-all player, similar to former Hornet and Southeast Missourian Player of the Year Lane Below.
Vermillion wants to improve his strength as he looks to lead Advance back to state and earn a scholarship to a Division I school.
"My senior year, my team probably isn't going to be as stacked as they have been, but I think we could possibly have another chance of going to state again," Vermillion said. "We just have to have that confidence like you were saying."
If the Hornets make a return trip, Vermillion will likely play a large role in the run. His shot, once a liability, is now an asset. But the change goes beyond that.
When Vermillion looks at where he is today compared to where he was when he arrived in Advance, when he stepped into that gym that first night to meet Wheetley, he sees a completely different person.
He believes he was going down the wrong path in Delaware. In a new town with new friends, neighbors and teammates he carved out a new life, and basketball was at the center of that realignment. "You asked the question. 'What has basketball done in your life? And I said, 'It changed it, big time,'" Vermillion said. "It changed it because down in Delaware I wasn't on a good pace down there, I was doing bad things, not keeping my head on straight. And I came down here, and I decided to make a big change with that. Keep my head on straight, focus on one thing, maybe it can change my life. And it has."
- 2016-17 All-Missourian Boys Basketball Team (04/20/17)