Watts off to fast start at Salem College
by Allen Worrell, Sports Editor
It hasn’t taken former Carroll County standout Jessi Watts long to make an impression at the collegiate level.
Watts, the 2008 Southwest District Basketball Player of the Year, was named to the All-Tournament Team at the Jackie Ammons Memorial Basketball Tournament in Raleigh, N.C. on Nov. 22. After taking over the starting point guard role after two games, Watts has averaged 12.6 points per game since Salem College’s season-opening loss to North Carolina Wesleyan.
In the Jackie Ammons Memorial, Watts averaged 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and five assists per game. Despite her small stature, the freshman point guard recorded a double-double in a 75-54 victory over Wesleyan College of Ga. in the consolation game as she scored 16 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out five assists.
"She has really come along. It took her a couple of games to get adjusted, but she has really played well in the last three games," Salem College head coach Jim Jackson said. "Her ball handling skills, her shooting skills and defensive skills have all stepped up and improved since the beginning of practice."
Since that tournament, Watts scored 11 points and dished out three assists in a 73-66 loss to Meredith on Nov. 19, but she scored 12 six days later to lead Salem to a victory in a rematch with Meredith.
Jackson said Watts has taken control of the Spirits’ offense much quicker than he ever could have anticipated.
"I figured it would take her at least half of the season to get in gear, but she has been a pleasant surprise," Jackson said. "She is starting and she has played really well. She has developed her skills as far as taking the ball and pushing it down the court, and if the shot is there she can hit or hit the open man. I think game experience has given her confidence and I think she knows that she has the skills to do the job. You can see it in her ballhandling and shooting."
Watts didn’t put up mind-boggling numbers at Carroll, but her value in leadership, hustle and desire was immeasurable to the Cavaliers. Jackson has seen those same characteristics from Watts at the Division III collegiate level.
"That is one thing I look for in players, do they have the aggressiveness? Because when you get to the college level you either get pushed around or you do the pushing around. I think it has been an eye-awakening for her and the other freshman girls I have and they have stepped up to it," Jackson said. "She is a hustler, she is aggressive on defense, doesn’t mind taking the open shot. And our philosophy is if you have the shot and it is a good shot, take it. That is what I try to instill in all my players and she is a good shooter."
Considering that, it must have been a good omen for Watts that her first collegiate points came on a 3-pointer from five foot behind the arc. She said her shot has continued to improve since making the transition from high school to college.
"I made a comment to my boyfriend that I wish I could have shoot as well as this in high school," Watts said. "I have no idea what it has been. It’s by far the best I’ve shot the ball, but I am not complaining."
Watts said it has been an easy transition thus far and she is still having fun playing the game. She is averaging 24 to 25 minutes a game and she said the increased level of competition has helped her.
"Practices are challenging," she said. "We have good competition and it is always positive because you get better and better with competition."
But Watts is not alone in making the transition to college ball as she is one of seven freshmen on an extremely young Salem squad that is off to a 2-4 start. One of those fellow freshmen is one of Watts’ former Carroll County teammates, Hailie Lineberry. While Lineberry hasn’t cracked the starting lineup yet, she is also making her presence felt at the collegiate level.
"She is doing really well," Watts said. "She is playing center and she is getting her fair share of playing time."
Because of a tremendous work ethic, Lineberry went from getting limited minutes her junior season at Carroll to being an All-Southwest District performer during her senior campaign a year ago. Jackson said Lineberry has continued to show the same determination at Salem and he expects big things from her very soon.
"Hailie is one of the hardest workers I have. She has improved and she is going to continue to improve. She does a good job defensively and rebounding," Jackson said. "Her offensive skills still need some work, but she is working on it and I think the more she plays and the more experience she gets, she will get better and better. But as far as her attitude and work ethic, it is the best. She is a great girl, too, and I think she wants it more than anybody. It is going to take some time, but she will get there with her attitude and work ethic."
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