The idea of being a “role player” has been vastly misappropriated and mistreated in my opinion over recent history and it is high time to get back to what it really means…well, at least to me. Detroit Southeastern star and future MSU Spartan Brandon Kearney was just recently labeled as such in the class A semifinal game because he sacrificed offense for defense, deferred to a dominate teammate, and played a more heady game. Um, someone help me find where the negative is in that? However, because he was a Mr. Basketball candidate, many expected him to shoot 20 times and dominate the game offensively. Did I mention his team won? It is amazing the standards that some are held to versus others. But it is astounding to me the negative connotation that being a role player has gotten. So, let’s examine it just a bit from a coach’s perspective.
Every coach on the planet wants role players. Notice that I did not say players that operate in a role. Those type of players are categorized by what they do well. For example, former Frakenmuth star Brad Redford is a great shooter. Current Mott Community College stud Doug Anderson is a great athlete/leaper. Anthony Crater at the University of South Florida is a great passer. MSU frosh Keith Appling was a great scorer in high school. These are all luxuries to have, but do not epitomize a role player in my eyes. They are all players who operate inside of a role. What I mean is something different. Players that a coach can call into their office or locker room before the game or practice and say to them, “This game I need you to shut down the opposing team’s best player.” Then the next week say, “I need double-digit rebounds and points from you this game.” The best role players can even change that role during the game. The best example that I can think of is none other than Magic Johnson. Many people understand that he played all five positions in the NBA championship game, but not many understand how each position required a mentality and role change. No one has done it better on a bigger stage in my eyes. Coaches appreciate these players more than anyone even knows because the flexibility they allow for is paramount. If the starting PG gets hurt or in foul trouble in a big game, it is quite the luxury to be able to move the starting SF there is there backup is stronger than the backup PG. Versatility is essential in the biggest of games. Just ask the BYU coach who would have loved to see Jimmer Fredette turn into a creator when the 3-pt ball wasn’t falling (4-15). However, he was stuck in his operation as a scorer and stayed there to the detriment of the team in that game. There is one player on the high school level in mid-Michigan that I believe was the best role player this year, that is, Dewrell “JD” Tisdale Jr. of Flint Northern.
For background purposes, most of JD’s career early on was spent serving as a team’s undersized big man. Playing alongside GB’s Jordan Fields, Beecher’s Monte Morris, Lapeer West’s Cullen Turczyn, and current teammate Richie Lewis with the Flint Affiliation AAU program, JD was generally left to fend for scraps on the blocks with the guard-heavy unit. His freshman year at Northern was spent largely regulated to the bench, stuck between positions. The summer that followed had him focusing on playing the PG and SG positions with the Mid Michigan Lakers AAU club.
Growing 3 full inches over the course of the summer and gaining some athleticism with it helped propel him into his sophomore year at Northern. Entering the year with a chip on his shoulder from the previous year, JD showed immediately while dunking on a teammate during the tryout that this would be a different year. He ended the year as the only Viking to start every game of the season, quite a contrast from the year before. Playing his first full year on the wing, he was 4th on the team in scoring, 3rd in rebounding, 3rd in steals, 3rd in blocks, 2nd in deflections, and 4th in field goal percentage. Not bad for a sophomore with little experience at the guard spot. But what was most important for the team was his ability to adapt.
Early in the season with Northern’s top two leading scorers struggling to find rhythm, JD was asked to pick up more of the scoring duties. When the backup PG suffered a knee injury, he had to do more ball handling as well. In the second game of the year, he was asked to guard NW’s De’Ondre Parks due to him burying the team with his outside shots. He did just that, holding him to 0 points in the quarter while guarding him. That became a popular assignment for him over the course of the year. Against TC West he was asked to take out their SG, who had already hit 6 three-pointers and was single-handedly keeping them in the game. He locked him up and the result was Northern pulling away. Carman’s Anton Wilson, SWA’s Marquez Pool, and Dow’s Blake Appell are other’s who had similar efforts after JD took over the assignment against them. But his most impressive execution of the role player attribute was in the district semifinal game at Saginaw Arthur Hill against the host team.
Two days before the game, the staff found out that there starting 6’7″ center would be unavailable for the game. Earlier in the season, they had already lost the backup for the duration of the year. JD was asked to start his first playoff game where he would play a significant role at, you guessed it, the center position. Oh yeah, matched up against 6’8″, super long athlete Jordan Hare and a Saginaw Arthur Hill team that Northern hadn’t beaten in recent history. I am guessing that was not what he wanted to hear, but he didn’t let it phase him. Back to anchoring a lineup that started 3 players 6’0″ or less, He managed double-digit scoring, 2nd on the team in rebounds for the game, 2nd in assists, got the team’s only block, but more importantly led a valiant effort to hold Hare to only 10 points (he had scored 28 in the first meeting). No, he is not Magic, but the effort was reminiscent of his feat.
That is what a role player is all about. Doing whatever is necessary to help make the team successful, whether they like it all the time or not. There should not be any negative stigma attached to this label in my mind, but rather we should understand that many of the players that do go on to college to play (especially the bigger programs), will be asked to do just that when they get there. That is sacrifice for the good of the cause. Maurice Jones, Appling, Crater, Ray McCallum, etc. all met similar tasks from their respective college coaches just this year. JD approached it with an open mind and can only grow from the experience. That is the anatomy of the role player.