Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year | Mount Vernon’s NJ Benson was a slam dunk for the Rams | Preparing for basketball

JOHN D. HOMAN The Southern

MOUNT VERNON – Senior striker NJ Benson dominated our vote for Southern Illinois Player of the Year in the same way he dominated opponents on the basketball floor last season.

For the record, The Southern’s staff rated a few other outstanding players for the annual award, including Murphysboro senior point guard Calvon Clemons, a four-year standout for the Red Devils; Saxton Hoepker, an exciting slam-dunking senior who helped lead the Nashville Hornets to a state title a few weeks ago; and another sharpshooter from Vienna who caught our attention in Owen Treat.

In the end, Benson’s work was too hard to ignore.

After a solid junior season where he averaged 16 points and nine rebounds in a game – his first as a college starter under new head coach Tim Holloway – Benson was a big favorite to continue where he left off and enjoy a banner senior season.

The 6-foot-8 power center in the paint did not disappoint.

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Benson checked in with 22 points per game. match (658 total points) and only one shadow under 11 rebounds. In addition, he shot 61.3 percent from the field with a healthy portion of the points coming via slam dunk. On two-point attempts alone, he converted 68.4 percent of his shot attempts. He was also fairly fair from beyond the arc and managed 32.1 percent of his attempts. He averaged on the free-throw line, finishing at 62.4 percent.

Benson was Ram tough no matter who he matched with. In the prestigious Centralia Holiday Tournament, he received the award for the most valuable player, even though his team did not win the competition. He added All-Tourney elections to the Metro East Lutheran and Salem Invitationals.

He was the South Seven All-Conference and All-South a year ago and will no doubt be named to these teams again this year. And he will definitely add All-State to his portfolio because of his performance this year.

Benson, signed by Missouri State University, led the Rams to an overall record of 22-10, four games behind Centralia in first place.

“It was definitely a fun year,” Benson said. “Coach Holloway changed things a lot when he came here and gave me the opportunity to show what I could do. I hadn’t played college football before my teens. He believed in me and I’m very grateful.”

A growth spurt certainly helped Benson become the player he is today.

“I went from 6-foot-4 at the end of my second season to 6-foot-8 in my junior season,” said the soon-to-be graduate senior. “I also gained about 10 pounds and got stronger, which helped make me more dominant close to the basket.”

Benson also became more aggressive as he attacked the basket. It resulted in dozens of questionable slam dunks in the face of opponents who could confuse even the best of them.

“This past season it got to the point where I just wanted to go harder and harder after it (the can) – get the guy who was guarding me to stop me. But as I grew into my body, I also got time to to work on. my shot and it’s gotten a lot better. “

When Mount Vernon senior struck from long range, it showed how complete a player he could be. That’s obviously what Missouri State head coach Dana Ford sees in offering the scholarship.

“I can’t wait to get there and see what I can do,” Benson said of his transition to collegiate basketball.

“I had some other schools to choose from (Butler, Illinois State, Saint Louis, Ohio and SIU),” he said. “It was especially hard to screw down for SIU, but I just felt comfortable in Missouri State. I got along very well with coach Ford and his staff. I just felt like he could do the most for me next time. “He described me in a way. as a hybrid – someone who could play multiple positions for him because of my size and skill set.”

Benson said he probably would not be in the position he is today if not for a supportive mother (Lynn).

“She’s the one who’s always told me that heaven is the limit for me, but not to plan to reach that limit yet. She’s driven me around to a lot of AAU games in the summer. She’s worked hard to get me “whatever I needed and I love her for it.”

Holloway said Benson has made tremendous progress over the past two years.

“He simply had a great season for us,” the second-year head coach said. “We had a lot more scoring opportunities when he was a junior. This year everything went through NJ offensively and he attracted a lot of attention. Many times he had two or three guys guarding and he still managed to score 22 points and snatch 11 rebounds and camp. “

Holloway said Benson is scratching the surface of his talent right now.

“I would describe NJ as a late bloomer. He made a big leap (in terms of performance) between his second season and junior season and an even bigger season last season. I think he has the potential to become a very good player in Missouri State I think the intensity of college basketball will help him grow as a player. “

Benson certainly hopes so.

“I was pushed around a bit by the college guys when I visited and trained with the team. I know I have to get a lot stronger in the offseason if I want to play inside the next level. I I want to work hard on to improve my strength and my overall game. “

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