Joe Russo has coached hundreds of basketball players in his 24 seasons at Portland High, but he’s never had a player who has played all five positions.
Until Jayvon Pitts-Young.
As a senior on the top-ranked team in Western Class A, Pitts-Young is most often at power forward. Don’t let his 6-foot height fool you. Pitts-Young is strong and knows how to maneuver among the bodies and sea of arms down low.
Pitts-Young made the varsity as a freshman and played a little bit at point guard. He still fills in there when Justin Zukowski takes a breather. He also has played center when Matt Talbot gets into foul trouble, and he has seen time at off guard and small forward.
“Coach Russo does a great job of placing me where it will help the team the most,” said Pitts-Young.
“He’s taught me a lot of moves that I use underneath.”
In Portland’s biggest game to date, a 69-60 win over previously undefeated Bonny Eagle at St. Joseph’s College on Jan. 14, Pitts-Young took charge in the second quarter. He scored 13 points, all inside, as the Bulldogs (14-0) turned a four-point first quarter deficit into a four-point halftime lead. Pitts-Young finished with 21 points to lead Portland.
“It was a great atmosphere,” said Pitts-Young. “We came out and were ready to play.”
As for his scoring surge, Pitts-Young said modestly: “I just got the ball and happened to put it in a lot.
“We’re not a selfish team. If I’m not scoring and my shots aren’t falling, I have no problem giving the ball up. If one of us is having an off game, someone else is always there to pick us up. We don’t care about our stats. We’re a team and like to be there for each other.”
Pitts-Young credits Zukowski for helping him become a better player. The feeling is mutual.
“We’ve been teammates a long time. We kind of click,” said Pitts-Young.
They started playing together in the fifth grade on an AAU team called the Gymrats. They’ve been football teammates, and during the spring they play for MBNation, another AAU team.
“I’m basically with Jayvon year round,” said Zukowski, who was a finalist for the Fitzpatrick Trophy in football. “He’s just so athletic. He beats opponents with his athleticism and strength.”
Playing on the same AAU team with other top players from Maine and competing against some of the best prep players from around the country has helped both Pitts-Young and Zukowski. The two also have one-on-one contests, sometimes at Zukowski’s house, or anywhere they can find an open basket.
Asked when they play one-on-one, Pitts-Young quipped: “Anytime coach isn’t around.
“In the summer, we’ll call each other up and ask ‘wanna get some shots up’.”
Of course those one-on-one games are friendly, right? Well …
“About half the time,” said Zukowski.
“They’re intense,” said Pitts-Young. “We don’t go easy on one another. We definitely push each other to the limit. Coach thinks we’re going to kill each other. It’s definitely made us better players.”
Pitts-Young said Zukowski won most of the one-on-one games when they were younger, but “I’m starting to catch up.”
They always walk away friends, waiting for the next dual or the next Portland game, where they try to beat their opponents just like they try to beat each other.
Pitts-Young looks back fondly on their grade-school years and his growth as a player.
“I didn’t get many minutes with the Gymrats,” he said. “I sat on the bench watching the other players. Justin and I were the only kids from Portland on the team. We were the youngest guys on the team. I kind of looked up to the older players and learned from them. I just kept working and have gotten to the point where I am today.”
In his first two years playing for Portland, Pitts-Young was good at penetrating to the basket, but his outside shot needed work.
“Coach Russo called me a slasher,” said Pitts-Young. “I liked it when he said that, but I wanted to be a more complete offensive player so I worked a lot on my shooting at high school practice and in AAU. My shot eventually improved.”
Pitts-Young is averaging 14.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 steals per game.
“I’ve had players who have played multiple positions, but not all five like Jayvon,” said Russo. “He plays bigger than he is. Jayvon is relentless on the court. He would play all 32 minutes if I let him.
“We could give him the ball every time down the floor, but we don’t have to because we’re so balanced. Jayvon carried us the first three games and was our leading scorer.”
Russo said Pitts-Young’s breakthrough came in his sophomore year when he scored 19 points against South Portland in a playoff game. The Bulldogs lost that quarterfinal matchup, then were eliminated by the Red Riots in the semifinals last year.
Pitts-Young was outstanding on the football field as well, playing halfback and even a little quarterback his sophomore year. In youth football, Pitts-Young and Zukowski were on different teams.
“We were both quarterbacks,” said Pitts-Young. “Playing high school football has helped me become a better basketball player. I’m more aggressive and focused on the court.”
Pitts-Young plans to play only basketball in college and believes being able to concentrate on one sport will enable his game to improve exponentially. He has had contact with coaches from St. Joseph’s College, Keene State and Salem State.
“They’re looking at me as a point guard,” he said.
Pitts-Young is confident of being able to play the position in college. After all, he’s played the position in high school, along with every other position.
Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: