Sharp pains shot through Emmanuel Jean-Francois's thigh and calf muscles as he raced the length of the summer basketball court. As punishment for losing one-on-one drills against former Potomac players, he had to complete each of seven wind sprints in fewer than nine seconds. Approaching the baseline on the final stretch, he gasped.
"Nine seconds pass so quickly," he said. "Every time I lost a drill, I had to run from one baseline to the other and back in nine seconds, take a few second break and do it again until I did it seven times. And then we'd play again, and every day I'd end up running around 20 sprints. My whole body hurt."
The physical strain the 6-foot-3, 175-pound shooting guard endured during the summer, however, has proved worthwhile this winter. Conditioning is a major reason for Jean-Francois's transformation from role player to one of Prince George's County's best.
He averaged 7.2 points and one assist per game as a junior, but with a stronger physique and resolve, began this week with stellar statistics -- 16.2 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals per game.
"He was just a contributor for us last year," Potomac Coach Rico Reed said. "There was no one out there who went into a game looking to try to stop Emmanuel Jean-Francois. Now he's getting double-teammed, and teams know they have to stop him. He's certainly getting noticed."
So are Gwynn Park senior guard Edwin Davis, Friendly senior point guard Trevan Jackson and Bowie junior guard Josh Hickson, who lead the list of the county's most-improved offensive players. Each used a different way to shed labels of "role player" and "contributor" and move into the spotlight.
Davis might be the area's most improved player. The 6-foot, 170-pounder averaged just six points per game last season and never scored more than 15. But his average now 24.3 points per game, and he had scored at least 15 points in 11 of the first 12 games.
"Last year, I knew what Edwin was capable of doing because he did make some clutch shots, but we had scoring" with All-Met guard Louis Hinnant and senior guard Darrick Sesker, Gwynn Park Coach Steve Matthews said. "But this year, we didn't have their scoring, and we needed Edwin to fill that void. . . . It was like the torch was passed."
Davis has had a hot hand since the season's outset. "I never thought I'd be scoring like this," he said. "I thought I'd be able to score around 18-20 but not the 23 a game I'm getting now."
Unlike Jean-Francois, who rarely says a word on the court, Davis has emerged as his team's unquestioned leader. He is vocal and sets an example by the way he carries himself in games and practice.
"The biggest I thing I learned from last year's seniors was how to be a leader," Davis said. "If you're the leader, then your teammates are going to act the way you act. I want to be serious all the time, no goofing off during practice or doing anything that sets a bad example."
Jackson said he feels the same way. He took over for Steve Nelson, who graduated, and has guided the third-ranked Patriots into first place in the Prince George's 3A/2A/1A League. They were 8-0 in conference play and 12-0 overall entering this week.
The 6-2, 180-pound Jackson has played point and shooting guard and credits vigorous summer conditioning for his emergence. In the offseason, he improved his bench press from 185 pounds to 225, ran a mile a day and took 1,000 jump shots a week. Not coincidentally, he averages 18.7 points and nine assists per game, marked improvements over the 10.2 points and six assists of last year.
"I had to get tougher because I knew I was going to have to do more for our team this season than last year," Jackson said. "Defenses were going to be a lot more physical with me, and I was going to get double-teammed, which really didn't happen last year."
Jackson's scoring ability, however, is not what has been most impressive to Coach Gerald Moore.
"Trevan's been so unselfish this year," said Moore, whose team began the week with four starters averaging at least 12 points. "He could be scoring a lot more points, but he's keeping everybody involved, and that's why we've been successful this year -- and to me, he's getting overlooked. Trevan has been a leader on this team, and I mean that in every way."
Hickson's transformation is different than those of Jean-Francois, Davis or Jackson, who were starters a year ago. Hickson sat at the end of the Bowie bench, the lone sophomore on a team of 10 seniors and four juniors, and averaged just four points in 18 games. But John Wiley Jr., then junior varsity coach, told him to be patient.
Wiley, now varsity coach, "kept telling me that my time would come," Hickson said, "and he was right, because it has."
The 5-11, 180-pound point guard has made the most of chances this season, averaging 12 points and five assists. He attributes much of his success to spending the summer improving his jump shot, attempting nearly 200 a day at a gym in Bowie.
"I would shoot so many shots that it was hard to lift my arms, and my legs would be really hurting me when I was done," Hickson said. "But that's what I had to do.
"I knew it was my turn now, and I wasn't going to waste it and spend another season sitting on the bench watching someone else play."