Honor guards: Backcourt of Rankowitz, Frusciante fuels Staples' offense
Updated 12:44 am, Friday, January 11, 2013
Devine -- now in his sixth season at the helm of Staples High's boys basketball program -- has seen Rankowitz steadily develop into the consummate scorer, a two-guard who is equally effective striking from the perimeter or attacking the basket.
"As a freshman, you knew he'd be a very good basketball player," Devine said. "He's probably logged the most minutes over four years than anyone in the last 10 years at Staples High School. It's a credit to his work ethic and how he plays the game of basketball."
The 6-foot-4 senior has warranted careful attention from defenders as a player capable of changing games in a hurry. Showing the same scoring prowess that earned him FCIAC second-team honors a season ago, he's keyed some of Staples' early success.
He's not alone, however.
In the same backcourt, senior James Frusciante has quickly emerged as the quintessential floor general, a pass-first, shoot-second point guard with a penchant for breaking down defenses. Directing an offensive system predicated on timing and rhythm -- with ball screens and backdoor cuts to the basket -- Frusciante's role is a crucial one.
"He came in, essentially as a starter from his junior year on and logged just as much minutes as Peter," Devine said. "He's really, really become one of the best point guards in the league. He controls our offense."
The two guards have carried Staples' offense early this season, despite being the main targets of opposing defenses. Through seven games, they've accounted for more than 62 percent of the team's scoring, with Rankowitz averaging 19.8 points per game and Frusciante 16.1.
"They're both definitely two of the best players to come through here in a while," Devine said. "They also play well off each other. They pass the backdoor cuts together (and) James definitely looks for Peter on the fast break."
Although opponents have tried to throw Staples' offense off-kilter with a mix of different looks on defense, the Wreckers' backcourt has been a stabilizing presence. Rankowitz has scored at least 15 points in six of his team's seven games, while Frusciante has topped 18 points four times.
Both players attribute much of their success to the strong chemistry they've built on the court through years of playing together at the youth travel and high school levels.
"We've been playing together a long time," Rankowitz said. "We went to the same elementary school and middle school. We've been playing since way, way back. ... We have a pretty good idea of where each other is on the court, even down to the little things like when to pop out (off screens), and setting up the offense."
"We have great chemistry," Frusciante added.
Staples' backcourt tandem has been efficient handling the ball in the face of constant pressure from defenses and has breathed confidence into a playoff-hungry team. The Wreckers -- averaging more than 57 points a game -- are 3-4 after losses to the conference's top two teams, Trinity Catholic and Ridgefield.
"When you've got two tough leaders and two tough players with the basketball, you know good things are going to happen," Devine said, adding, "We have confidence as coaches and players that if James and Peter are in the game, we're going to break the pressure and we're not going to have unnecessary or sloppy turnovers."
Rankowitz, who has led Staples in scoring five times this season, knows just how valuable a sure-handed facilitator like Frusciante can be.
"He runs the floor so well. If I get a quick rebound, I know I'm looking straight to him," Rankowitz said. "It will make my job a lot easier when he can just run up the floor, making guys miss and finishing on the other end."
The 6-foot Frusciante has made a living this season -- and many years before this -- breaking down defenses in transition. He's attacked the basket and has gotten to the free-throw line regularly as a result, averaging a team-high seven attempts per game.
"That's been pretty much what I've been doing all my life," Frusciante said. "If I have an open shot, I would take it. But my game is more of getting to the rim and when I get there, either take my layup or pass it."
With Rankowitz by his side, the ultra-athletic Frusciante has been a handful to guard, as opposing coaches have noted.
"You don't get a sense of how fast (Frusciante) is until you actually see him right in front of you on the court," said Norwalk coach Tom Keyes, whose team saw Frusciante drop 21 points and Rankowitz 24 in a 84-75 win over Staples on Dec. 18. "He takes good angles and he can get to the basket. ... He makes things happen for Staples. With a kid like Rankowitz that he's playing with, that's a really dangerous combination."
Like Frusciante, Rankowitz has displayed an ability to beat defenders off the dribble and get to the basket. But this year, he's also worked on perfecting his outside shot, leaving defenders with another challenge. He leads the team with 20 3-pointers on the season.
"I've kind of added in the 3-point game this year," said Rankowitz, who will play at Division-III power Washington University in St. Louis next year. "That wasn't really much of a threat last year. I definitely worked on that over the summer and the spring."
Keyes calls Rankowitz one of the top players in the FCIAC.
"There's very few players in the FCIAC that can do the things he can do," he said. "He can shoot, he can go to the basket, he moves very well without the ball. ... He can shoot off the catch, he can shoot off the dribble."
Given the impact the two guards have had, Devine knows that opponents will likely draw up different ways to stop them. The Wreckers, however, aren't looking to stop anytime soon.
"Night in and night out, you're playing in a great league, and different coaches are going to try different things," Devine said. "It's our job as a coaching staff and players to get the job done, regardless of what they throw at you. James and Peter have done that so far."
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