HOWARD — East Knox High School senior Luke Branstool is no longer surprising people when he takes to the basketball court. Branstool is, however, getting better with age.
After bursting onto the area basketball scene as a sophomore and following it up with a strong junior season, Branstool is raising his game again this season for the Bulldogs. He’s averaging 20 points a game to go along with 12.7 rebounds a contest, and the Bulldogs (4-4) have nearly reached their win total from last year (five) with 12 games still to play. The latter has Branstool smiling.
“The last couple of years, we’ve only won like five games each season,” said Branstool. “This year, we’ve won four already, so we are seeing a lot of improvement. The games we’ve lost have been close games. This is what we’ve been working for so long.
“I just go out and play; I don’t really worry about my stats. I just try to focus on the little things so we can win. After the game when I see my stats, it feels good, but the important thing is winning.”
Coach Don McDaniel said Branstool would trade his 25-point nights for a win any day of the week. Fortunately, he hasn’t had to quite yet. Branstool is coming off a three-game stretch that saw him score 77 points and pull down 51 boards, including a 30-24 night against Mount Gilead over the Christmas break.
One reason to which Branstool attributes his success is his preparation. He is a one-sport athlete, focusing solely on basketball.
“Basketball is pretty much year-round for me,” said Branstool. “I’m always trying to go to camps or work on fundamentals by myself. I spent a lot of time trying to get stronger through lifting.”
McDaniel echoed Branstool saying, “Whenever he is awake. If he is awake, he’s working on basketball either physically or mentally.”
McDaniel attributes Branstool’s improvement to that hard work ethic. Like other sports, when a player gets to the top of their game, the room for improvement shrinks tremendously. It becomes more about mental improvement than any actual physical changes.
“He has shown a tremendous amount of improvement,” said McDaniel. “Everybody looked at him last year when he averaged 18 points a game or whatever, and thought he reached his potential. I thought he was one of the better players in the league last year, but he has improved tremendously this year. Most of it is mental. He hasn’t grown anymore. He still shoots the ball very well, but what he is doing this year is cutting down on his turnovers. He’s averaging 1.75 turnovers a game this year, which is incredible. He had a lot of traveling calls and got nervous and threw the ball away last year.
“The other thing is he is really recognizing the defenses this year. Instead of forcing it into a double or triple team, he is finding other options. He is averaging two assists a game, which shows he is really trying to get his teammates involved. He’s become a total basketball player, and most of that is because of his mental aspect.”
Branstool realizes why he is playing better this year.
“I’ve learned a lot about being composed,” Branstool said. “When things aren’t going right, I’ve learned not to get upset and play through the mistakes. I’ve gotten a lot better just from working hard in the offseason. I’m just trying to make a difference for our team.
“Positioning is my most improved area. I have the ability to do things, but I’ve gotten smarter and am in a better position for rebounds. I’ve also gotten better at moving without the ball on offense.”
Being one of four East Knox seniors and easily the most recognizable, Branstool understands that it is up to him to be a team leader. It is a role he has come to treasure.
“I like to be a leader; I want the team to rely on me,” said Branstool. “I feel I can provide a boost for the team, and help make the team better. I’ve been through a lot that the young guys haven’t, so I can help them through it and keep their heads in the game.”
Branstool knows if this Bulldog squad is going to break out and surpass the success of the last few years, they have to be well rounded. It can’t be all about him.
“I can’t be the only one scoring; we have to have everyone involved,” Branstool said. “The more people we get involved and the more balanced scoring we have, the better we will be.
“We haven’t peaked; we still have a lot more to show. There are several things we can improve on and do better, little things that can help us win.”
Branstool’s play has a lot of eyes, including those of college coaches, focused on him and he is fine with that. It is something he has worked very hard for.
“I’ve always wanted to be mentioned as one of the best, the Player of the Year kind of thing,” said Branstool. “It would be a great honor. ... I feel like I am at that level, but I know I could be doing even better. I’m playing pretty well, and the hard work is paying off.”
Branstool’s also hoping the hard work can be parlayed into a scholarship come later this year.