The Downey High Knights qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for the first time in 10 years last winter. The experience did not end well for Lloyd French and his teammates.
The Knights were humiliated that night at Inderkum 87-37, and French – now the Knights’ senior captain and breakout star – uses that post-game feeling as kindling to light his personal fire.
“It was a rough night,” French remembered. “I let the big-game atmosphere get to me. I got a little jumpy. I took that to heart.”
French wasn’t exactly an unknown. He earned All-Central California Athletic League honors as a junior and also made The Modesto Bee’s All-Stanislaus District’s second team. But as a senior, he’s grown into one of the area’s most productive players.
He’s averaging 25 points (about 10 more than a year ago), nine rebounds and nearly four steals. More important, he’s filled out his game through hard work.
French, a sturdy 6-foot-3 and about 190 pounds, always has broken down defenses with his slashes to the basket. This season, he’s added better off-the-dribble shot-releases. His 3-point average of about 36 percent, unchanged from last season, hides his enhanced marksmanship off the dribble. He’s no longer only a catch-and-shoot guy from distance.
“Lloyd’s best skills are his physicality and shooting the ball,” third-year Downey coach Mitch Evans said. “But he still tries to get to the rim first.”
That’s when French really shines. His shot-fakes, pivot moves and power, combined with his accurate shooting, make him a major threat. Simply, he owns more than a few ways to find the net.
“This year, a lot of our offense has gone through him,” Evans said. “Our team is still working how to be focused on a daily basis. We’re making progress.”
The evidence was seen Wednesday night at Pitman when French heard chants of “Overrated” during the first quarter after he missed two free throws. His response: 26 points and 10 rebounds in a resounding 52-44 victory. On Friday, Downey extended its winning streak to four games with a 60-41 victory at Modesto.
“There is physical pressure and mental pressure,” French said. “I’m learning how to deal with all that chanting and name-calling stuff, the mental pressure. It’s almost like a compliment.”
Downey (16-5, 4-0) sits in first place in the CCCAL race and seeks its first league title since 2008. Accordingly, they’re drawing large crowds to Lyle Iverson Gym. French and fellow starters Reuben Lewis, Jorden Lewis (no relation), Calaun Lee and Edward Bobadilla are now a thing at a school more accustomed to football success than wins on the hardwood.
“We want to show that it can be done,” French said.
Last season, the Knights contended until losses to Turlock and Modesto lowered them to a third-place finish behind co-champions Turlock and Gregori. That disappointment, combined with the tournament loss at Inderkum, propels Downey forward.
The catalyst remains French. He’s drawing some interest from Division II universities, more kindling for the CCAL standout.
“We did a lot of serious grinding together after last season,” French said. “I knew this would be a big season.”
So far, it is.