By Conor Walsh
---- — There was a time when Manchester Essex's Max Nesbit flew under the radar.
A role player on teams led by a corps of players older than him, Nesbit earned a reputation as a dangerous shooter for the Hornets' boys basketball team. But on a squad with a seemingly endless supply of weapons, he was a player that opponents likely overlooked in their gameplans.
In his senior season, though, Nesbit's been impossible to miss. Having further developed his ability to drive to the rim while maintaining his lethal stroke from the perimeter, Nesbit's become the Hornets' leading scorer and one of the best players in the Cape Ann League.
When the fifth-seeded Hornets open up the Division 4 North tournament against No. 4 Lynnfield -- a team they lost to twice in CAL play -- there's little doubt the Pioneers will be looking for a way to limit the Hornets' explosive leader.
"We knew it was going to happen. We knew that we started four seniors last year, so eventually they would graduate," Nesbit said. "I just played the team last year. We had a lot of seniors who could shoot and go to the basket, so I played my role and shot the ball. This year, with those guys graduating and us having a whole new team, I had to take on a more responsible part of the offense: Shoot when I'm open and go to the basket.
"I think we transitioned really well. I think that the team has really responded and the new guys have stepped up."
Especially in high school basketball, most players are relatively one-dimensional. Most sharpshooters struggle on the dribble. Likewise, players strong on the drive often struggle to shoot from the perimeter. Few playmakers double as scoring threats.
Nesbit was once that kind of one-dimensional threat for the Hornets, be it by skill set or to meet the team's needs.
After graduating four starters from last year's team, though, it was clear for coach Bryan Shields and the Hornets that the team would need Nesbit to be more than an outside shooter.
He's delivered. While he's remained as deadly from the perimeter as always -- his 50 3-pointers on the year leads all local players -- his development as a well-rounded scorer is what's separated him from the pack and helped him pile up a team-high 16.4 points per game.
Standing 6-foot-1 with a muscular frame, Nesbit often dwarfs opposing defenders, especially when the Hornets (13-7) go big, which allows him to play the shooting guard position alongside point guard and fellow senior captain Liam Aldrich.
That, coupled with his newfound ability to get to the rim, has pushed Nesbit to the top of the CAL. While teams are sometimes effective in denying him the ball, that success is often short-lived, and once Nesbit has the ball in his hands, defenders have a decision to make
On one hand, they can respect the drive and play off of him, which Nesbit's exploited to the tune of his 50 3-pointers. The other option is to play him tight and force him to the dribble, but between his dribble-drive and the ability to kick out to fellow perimeter threats like Aldrich (15.1 points per game) and another senior co-captain in Taylor Ketchum (11.8 points per game).
It's hardly surprising then, with Nesbit as the centerpiece, the Hornets' run-and-gun offense has once again led them to a high tournament seed and near the top of the CAL.
"I think that is the biggest thing that Max added to his game this year is going to the basket," Shields said. "The ability to get to the basket and hit shots separates him from other players in the league. It makes guys play him. We had talked a little bit last year and coming into this year, 'If you just shoot, they're just going to play you for a shooter, but if you have the ability to put the ball on the floor, go past people, make layups and make shots, it makes you that much more of a threat.'"
Nesbit is no slouch defensively, either, giving the team stability around the perimeter and forcing turnovers with his length -- a hugely important attribute for a team that thrives on turnovers.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Nesbit's game, though, is innate. A player can work on his shot, work on his drive, work on his defense. But Nesbit's poise is the kind of thing that can't be taught.
That composure shines through on and off the court. Nesbit is soft-spoken and thoughtful, handling an interview like a seasoned pro. On the court, one can see that same mindset, even at the end of close games when Nesbit knows it's likely his number that's going to be called for the team's last shot.
"He's able to stay calm no matter what the situation is, and that's been huge for us over the course of the season," Shields said. "He's the one in a two-point game, he's on the floor and he comes over to the sideline and he's making a little joke and he and I are joking back and forth in a two-point game. But I know that that's just his way of focusing himself in and keeping himself in a place where he can be productive for us and he knows, a lot of times in close games, the ball's in his hands down the stretch and we need him to score.
"It's a calmness and it's a confidence, but it's not an over-confidence. He's comfortable with his role."
As a senior, Nesbit's entering a unique situation as the Hornets prepare for what could be their final game of the season tomorrow night. While the team could continue playing over the coming weeks, the end is near for Nesbit and his fellow seniors, a bittersweet moment for a group that's been playing together since childhood.
Nesbit still has his biggest athletic passion, baseball, waiting for him in the spring before he hangs up his green and yellow and heads off to college -- his top choices include Villanova, Colby and Fordham.
Before all that, however, Nesbit's expecting his career on the hardwood to last a bit longer. With his Hornets playing their best basketball of the season, winners of their final five regular-season games, Manchester Essex looks to be a tough out.
"I'm going to miss these guys," Nesbit said. "It's been a long four years and I've played with them since first grade. It's going to be weird not coming in November to play with them. We'll still meet up, we'll still play pickup and things like that but it's going to be disappointing to see it end, but hopefully we get to finish on a positive note."
Cape Ann Scoring Leaders Boys Name School PPG Shaun Aspesi Rockport 16.9 Max Nesbit ME 16.4 Liam Aldrich ME 15.1 Tucker Meredith Rockport 12.9 Adam Balzarini Rockport 11.9 Taylor Ketchum ME 11.8 Drew Shairs Gloucester 10.2 Girls Name School PPG Sophie Black Gloucester 13.6 Julianna Costanzo Gloucester 11.5 Heather MacArthur Rockport 8.2 Sydney Christopher ME 7.5 Kayla Parisi Rockport 7.1 Rachel Haselgard Rockport 7.1 Ella Silag-Stearns ME 5.6