Owens men's basketball program on an upswing

Kelly helps team to renewed success

Owens sophomore James Kelly has transformed himself into a possible high-level Division I prospect in his two seasons with the Express.
Owens sophomore James Kelly has transformed himself into a possible high-level Division I prospect in his two seasons with the Express.

James Kelly passes the YouTube test.

In one online video, the Owens Community College basketball player hurls a basketball off the back wall about 15 feet above the basket, then dashes in from the 3-point line for an unassisted two-handed alley-oop slam.

"One of the best athletes I’ve seen," said teammate Franklin Lindsey, a guard who graduated from Whitmer.

As for the rest of the 6-foot-7, 238-pound sophomore’s game, who knew?

When coach Dave Clarke was hired at the Perrysburg Township campus last season, he saw Kelly and the program as a lot alike. They had tons of potential but miles to go.

Kelly only began playing organized basketball midway through his junior year at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. An NCAA non-qualifier, he came to an Owens team that won 10 games in 2011 with no post moves and a form that wavered from shot to shot.

"The attention to detail was very low,"" Clarke said.

Flash to today, and both player and program are barely recognizable.

Kelly is now a versatile power forward fielding high-level NCAA Division I scholarship offers and leading the Express toward a second straight 20-win season.

A year after winning 24 games — the Division II junior college’s best season since 2007 — Owens (14-7, 3-1 Ohio Community College Athletic Conference) and its transformed star are in search of more this winter.

Kelly, who said he is deciding between the University of Miami, New Mexico, Marshall, and — if a scholarship offer comes — Michigan State, averages 18.2 points and 10 rebounds, and has heaps of help.

Owens countered the loss of guard Justin Edmonds, another Division I-bound prospect who averaged 18 points before suffering a season-ending knee injury last month, with a rotation that extends at least 10-deep as nine players average at least 14 minutes.

The Express have won five of their last six games and, despite a 97-94 home loss to league-leading Lakeland on Wednesday, sit only one game out of first place in the OCCAC.

"When coach Clarke took over two years ago, the first thing he said was he wants to win a national championship, and I think that set the tone," said former Central Catholic standout Jay Marquette, who has started the past five games. "We have a long way to go, but we're definitely on the right track."

The biggest reason is Kelly, who has proven a quick study.

The Ann Arbor native attended an alternative school before moving to Pioneer, where he joined the basketball team and turned heads with his physical gifts. In Kelly’s first organized game as a high school junior, he had 24 points and 12 rebounds. The next year, he won the Best of the Midwest dunk contest in Fort Wayne, Ind.

His game remained raw. Clarke thought Kelly could be a serviceable player in the Mid-American Conference basketball player ... if he committed himself on the court and academically.

Kelly’s done both.

He is on pace to graduate in May while his skills have grown exponentially. Clarke recalls the speed with which his precocious big man picked up moves down low last year.

"We would teach him something, and two days later, he would do it in the game," Clarke said. "One day, the coaches from Akron were here, and we went through our post moves. He caught it in the post, took two dribbles to the middle, and finished a jump hook. He looked like a MAC basketball player."

A year later, change that to an ACC, Big Ten, or Mountain West Conference player — as suggested by his growing list of suitors.

For Owens and Kelly, who is averaging 25.5 points, 12 rebounds and three steals in four OCCAC games, it has been a gainful match.

"I knew if I worked hard here, I would get more recongition from bigger schools and the opportunity to play," Kelly said.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.