Byron Wesley makes his mark at Etiwanda

RANCHO CUCAMONGA – With mere seconds remaining on the fourth-quarter clock, Byron Wesley takes the obligatory peek at the scoreboard and fully understands how much is at stake and what needs to be done in a matter of moments.

His Etiwanda High boys' basketball team trails by a point, and accordingly, the ball is in hands. The pressure is on, no doubt.

Nevertheless, Wesley is calm, cool, collected.

The senior makes his initial move, a one-bounce dribble to the right at the top of the key. A subtle head and shoulders fake follows and freezes his opponent.

Suddenly, Wesley is just inside the free-throw line. An open look appears to present itself, but the rest of the defense is quickly collapsing around him.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, 5, 4, 3, 2...

With ice seemingly in his veins, he elevates and releases a short jumper that slowly floats toward the rim and catches nothing but net as the buzzer sounds.

The shot is a game-winner, of course, and serves as another indication of how talented Wesley has been over the course of his decorated prep career thus far.

“I definitely want the ball in my hands when the game is on the line,'' said Wesley, a USC commit who ESPNU ranks as the Southland's No. 3 prospect.

“I feel like I can get to the basket, and if they double or anything, I'm a good enough passer to get the ball to my teammates. I don't think it's cocky at all. I think it's a certain confidence. You practice these shots all day in the gym when you're working out. If you feel good enough about it, you should want the ball in your hands. That's how I feel anyway.''

Wesley is largely, though not solely responsible, for the success Etiwanda (27-2 overall) has enjoyed this season. No. 6 in the ESPNLosAngeles.com top 20 rankings, the Eagles travel to Valencia on Tuesday night for a 7 p.m. tip in a Southern Section Division 1AA playoff quarterfinal game.

The Vikings (21-7) figure to be well prepared for Wesley & Co. In fact, they have their own star, Lonnie Jackson, a senior shooting guard who committed to Boston College in mid-September.

Ultimately, things could come down to who plays better. If the past is any indication of what the future might have in store, Etiwanda will take its chances with Wesley.

“Byron has taken on a leadership role for us. I did ask him to do that, we had a sit down, a little talk,'' Eagles coach Dave Kleckner said. “He's our top performer, our top player, so it's nice to have one of your best players lead by example, as well as vocally. He's done a nice job of filling the expectation I had for him, better than I could have hope for, actually.

“He creates his own shots. He's a good finisher around the basket. He's an excellent rebounder. When called upon to guard one of the other teams top players, he has the ability to be a lock-down defender. Byron has got good basketball knowledge, plays with a lot of heart, he's a hard-working young man and unselfish. He makes his teammates around him better.

“Byron is just a joy to coach. I think he might be the most dominant player, physically, we've had, and over the years, and we've some good ones. Byron is special.''

Etiwanda, rest assured, has had some players come and go. As colleague Dan Arritt alluded to earlier in the season, current Indiana Pacers point guard Darren Collison got his start with the Eagles. The same could be said about the Portland Trailblazers' Jeff Pendergraph.

Wesley, on the other hand, started to make a name for himself at Etiwanda during his junior year after a transfer from nearby San Bernardino Cajon.

He averaged 18.8 points last season and guided the Eagles to the Division 1AA finals, where they lost to Santa Ana Mater Dei, 68-65. Another three-point loss, to Long Beach Poly in the Southern California Regional playoffs, unfortunately followed.

The setbacks have appeared to only add fuel to the fire.

It's as if Wesley has been on a mission this season. Averaging 19 points, he was at his best for Etiwanda when it mattered most in momentum-building victories over some of Southern California's premier programs such as Corona Centennial, Loyola Los Angeles and Ventura. It is worth noting that Sacramento, one of the top teams from up North, saw all it needed with regard to the determined Wesley in a 13-point loss to the Eagles in late December.

“Byron is a competitor, he's my, our go-to-guy,'' said Jordan Daniels, Etiwanda's point guard who's headed to Boston College. “If we're ever in a situation when we need a big basket, I'm looking for him, no doubt. He does a lot of things for us. He's our leader for a reason.''

Apparently, Daniels is not the only individual who thinks highly of Wesley. Division I coaches, as well as scouts, have been enamored with him for quite some time.

More than a few Pac-10 Conference programs were in contact with Wesley during the whole recruiting process. Nevada Las Vegas and Wake Forest were among the other potential suitors. But in the end, staying close to home with the Trojans proved to be the best fit.

“I was getting calls from a lot of schools, they were all coming out to see me,'' Wesley said. “You know, USC showed the most interest, they offered me right on the spot. I went to the school to check things out and it was hard to pass up, I fell in love with USC.

“As far as my future goes, and the rest of this season, I know I'm going to have a target on my back, I try not to worry about it, I don't look stuff up. I just want to work on my game, I know that if I get better, then good things will come my way.''

Sticking to such as philosophy has worked out particularly well for Wesley up to this point. There is no need to switch things up at this stage of the game.

Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.