On the biggest stage and when the crowds were at their rowdiest, the 2017-18 Deseret News high school boys basketball MVPs were at their best.
They were scorers first and foremost, but all six did so much more than just score as they were instrumental in each leading their teams to 2018 state titles.
Here’s a list of this year’s MVPs as picked by the Deseret News. The first- second- and third-team selections were voted on by the coaches:
Steven Ashworth, Lone Peak
Lone Peak didn’t lose to a Utah team all season, and the catalyst to that success was the confidence and leadership of point guard Steven Ashworth.
Whether he was scoring, setting up teammates are playing great defense, Ashworth did it all for the Knights.
“He’s well beyond his years as far as leadership and maturity. He has this overwhelming confidence, that’s not arrogance, it’s just confidence. He has confidence in himself and his teammates,” said Lone Peak coach David Evans. “He’s been fantastic for the last three years and he’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached.”
Ashworth finished the season averaging 16.4 points, 7.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 steals. His 7.1 assists were second in the entire state behind only Olympus’ Rylan Jones.
Ashworth was a three-year starter for the Knights, and this season he became an extension of the coaching staff on the floor.
“If we’re struggling, I say ‘Steven what are you seeing out there, we do we need to do,’ and he’ll know exactly what play or what offense to go into to be successful cause he’s really like a coach on the court that is in the middle of the whole thing,” said Evans.
Ashworth’s determination was never more evident than during the 6A semifinals against Layton. He was poked in the eye midway through the second quarter and temporarily lost full vision out of that eye for 15 to 20 minutes.
Evans initially wasn’t sure if his point guard would be able to play in the second half, but he returned with slightly blurry vision to start the third quarter and by the end of the game said he felt fine. He scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half as the Knights outscored Layton 45-20 in the second half.
Ashworth has committed to play college basketball at Utah State, but the recent firing of head coach Tim Duryea has created some uncertainty with that commitment.
Jeremy Dowdell, Olympus
Jeremy Dowdell proved throughout his junior season that he’s way more than just a shooter.
Don’t be mistaken, that’s still his strength as he made 103 3-pointers this season — the second-most in state history. Dowdell worked hard, however, to diversify his game and it contributed to Olympus’ success all season.
“He’s been a great shooter and a great scorer his whole life, so I really made a huge emphasis to try and get him to try and defend and rebound and do some of those other things to really make him a complete player,” said Olympus coach Matt Barnes.
Dowdell led Olympus in scoring at 20.7 ppg, with 55 percent of those points coming from behind the arc. His biggest offensive output of the season was against Skyline when he scored 35 points on 9-of-10 shooting from 3-point range with his high-arcing shot.
Just as impressive, however, was his performance against Bountiful in the semifinals. The Braves were determined to not let Dowdell beat them from the perimeter, so the junior simply took what they gave him.
Dowdell attacked the rim throughout the first half, making all eight of his shots at the rim finishing with 17 points as the Titans raced to a 39-22 halftime lead.
“I think he’s really evolved and awesome to watch. He can really finish around the basket,” said Barnes. “We’ve had a lot of good shooters a lot of good players and scorers, but he’s got that uncanny ability to find ways to score."
Dowdell’s rebounding went up as well this year from 2.2 rpg as a sophomore to 3.5 rpg as a junior.
Defenses will inevitably key on Dowdell even more during his senior year, but Barnes doesn’t have any doubt he’ll continue to be successful.
“He loves to be in the gym, he loves to work, he loves to shoot the ball and work on his game,” said Barnes.
James Nelson, Salem Hills
James Nelson led Salem Hills to its first basketball state title in school history thanks to unbelievable consistency all season.
He scored in double digits in every game and was the state’s leading scorer averaging 25.0 points, scoring 30 or more points on six different occasions.
“The game definitely slowed down for him this year. He started out from Day 1 and shot a higher percentage, he took better shots, he found his teammates a lot more, he wasn’t playing in a rushed mode,” said Salem Hills coach Jimmy DeGraffenried. “His whole thing this year was he just wanted to win.”
Salem Hills finished with a 20-7 record this season, and Nelson’s contributions to that success both tangibly and intangibly were obvious.
On the court he averaged 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.2 steals, but just as important was his leadership.
“His leadership this year with the team are things you’re not seeing in the stats. I think he helped everybody believe in themselves and the team,” said DeGraffenried.
Opponents had to pick their poison when dealing with Nelson as he had the ability to score both inside and outside.
“He’s a great 3-point shooter and has been for three years, but when teams would apply the defensive pressure that they needed to do to stop him he would just go inside. That’s why he became a lot more efficient,” said DeGraffenried.
Nelson was at his best on the biggest stage of the 4A state tournament.
He scored 27 points in the quarterfinals against Dixie, a team that ranked third in 4A heading into the playoffs in scoring defense. In the semifinals he lit up Sky View for 33 points, and then in the championship he scored 27 points against Juan Diego, the No. 2 scoring defense in 4A.
Nelson has committed to play college basketball next year at Northwest Nazarene in Idaho.
Matt Nelson, Manti
Efficiency was one of Matt Nelson’s biggest strengths this season for Manti as he scored in double digits in all but three games, averaging 20.0 points.
He did struggle in three regular-season games, one against Grantsvile and then twice against South Sevier, but given the opportunity to redeem himself in the playoffs against those same teams he rose to the occasion in a big way.
With a determination to drive instead of settling for 3-pointers Nelson scored 16 points in a semifinal win over Grantsville and then scored 20 points in the championship victory over South Sevier.
“One thing we focused on going into the state tournament was getting him to penetrate a bit more. Most teams were starting to complete face guard him and it was starting to stress him out a little bit,” said Manti coach Devin Shakespear.
Shakespear said playing Grantsville and South Sevier the first time was extremely beneficial for the rematches.
“I think we were pretty lucky to play Grantsville and South Sevier already, it gave me more time to help him see what he could do to break it down,” he said.
Manti put in a few extra offensive sets to help get the ball in Nelson’s hands during the state tournament, and confidence grew within the team after each game — particularly the quarterfinal win over No. 1 Morgan in which Nelson scored 24 points.
In addition to leading Manti in scoring, he also led the Templars in rebounding (5.92 rpg) and steals (1.92 spg).
Nelson shot 40 percent from 3-point range finished fourth in the state with 80 3s, many of the deep variety.
“We tried to instill the confidence that I believed in him and really didn’t stress about his shots because he was so effective. When his shots would go up and some people would wonder about them I never did because I knew what numbers were coming out of him and he would do for us,” said Shakespear.
Davis Heslington, Beaver
The top scorer in 2A rose to the occasion when his team needed him most in this year’s 2A state tournament.
Heslington scored 22 points in Beaver’s semifinal win over favored Layton Christian and then backed it up with 26 points in the championship victory over Duchesne.
“When we needed our best he was at his best, there’s no doubt about it. He seemed to always make a big shot or a big play when we needed it,” said Beaver coach Joe Hillock.
The biggest key to that was diversifying his game for his senior season.
As a junior last season Heslington shot twice as many 3-pointers as 2-pointers, finishing with 57 3-pointers as he was an important scorer for the Beavers.
This year he made 61 3-pointers, but his attempts from inside the arc and outside the arc were almost identical. The ability to score in a variety of different ways allowed him to take what defenses were giving him.
Heslington finished the season averaging 19.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists.
His defensive contributions were equally as important.
“He really took it upon himself to understand what we were trying to do defensively and really paid attention on that end. A lot of scorers don’t pay attention to the other end of the floor,” said Hillock.
That commitment defensively was infectious as everyone bought into that defensive mentality.
Jace Eyre, Panguitch
As a junior last season, Jace Eyre played a major role in leading Panguitch to the state title as he led the team in both scoring and rebounding. He benefitted from all the attention that eventual MVP Trey Barney garnered.
This season, with Barney graduated, all the attention was directed at Eyre and he didn’t skip a beat.
“I spoke with him early in the year, (saying) that he needed to score for us,” said Panguitch coach Clint Barney. “I told him his shot attempts were going to have to go up, and maybe his shooting percentage would go down because he didn’t have as many good looks as he did a year ago.”
It wasn’t a natural role for the unselfish player, but he embraced it and averaged 20.1 points and 8.0 rebounds in leading Panguitch to its second consecutive 1A title.
He dominated at both ends of the court. Defensively the 6-foot-5 forward protected the lane well enough that it allowed Panguitch’s guards to put extra pressure around the perimeter. And when opponents did miss, Barney said, “at times it felt like he got every rebound.”
Offensively he was a force both inside and outside, as he made 44 3-pointers.
“What made Jace special was his ability to step out on the 3-point line and knock that shot down. He did that a lot in transition which was a big part of our offense, and then at 6-foot-5 in the 1A classification he did most of his work on the low block inside,” said Barney.
With his size, Eyre naturally got fouled a lot, and he capitalized on those opportunities shooting 85 percent from the free-throw line.
His presence offensively also created great opportunities for his teammates, a luxury he enjoyed the year before, and a role he embraced during his senior season.