Roman Catholic (Philadelphia) boys' basketball coach Chris McNesby always knows when Maalik Wayns arrives for
practice because he can spot his star player's smile from a mile away.
An affable guy off the court, Wayns acts just like any other teenager, sharing a few laughs with his friends.
But once he steps on the basketball floor, the smile vanishes. When the ball is in his hands, Maalik Wayns transforms from a funny high school student into a cold-blooded court assassin who gives every ounce of his strength to make sure the Cahillites come out on top, no matter how formidable the opponent.
This killer instinct has taken Wayns to another level. Rated the state's top player and the nation's No. 22 overall recruit in the ESPNU 100, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior point guard has committed to Villanova.
"I have no friends on the court," says Wayns. "I'm just so competitive. I want to win so bad. It doesn't matter what I'm doing. Whether it's a shooting drill or a game, I'm trying to come in first."
"Maalik will go anywhere, any place to accept a challenge," says McNesby, a former player and assistant at Roman who took over the helm after legendary head coach Dennis Seddon retired in October after 22 seasons.
Wayns fits the prototypical Philly guard to a T -- a tough-as-nails, lockdown defender who can contribute in all facets of the game, even mixing it up with the big boys down low for a key rebound.
He's essentially a carbon copy of friend and mentor Kyle Lowry, a Memphis Grizzlies guard who starred at Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova before moving on to the NBA. Lowry made a name for himself with a no-fear attitude at crunch time and a refusal to back down to anyone.
Wayns has earned the same reputation on the high school level.
"Maalik reminds me of Kyle," says Lonnie Lowry, Kyle's older brother and Wayns' AAU coach with Team Philly. "When you're coaching, you know you need someone to step up and hit that big shot, and he's that guy. He's always
gotten it done. Something good is going to
happen when the ball's in his hands."
Developing this persona didn't come easy for Wayns. As a freshman, he was a reserve on the varsity and admits that because he wasn't
starting, he figured he didn't have to bring it every day in practice. But his mindset quickly changed when he started watching then-junior guards Brad and Brian Wanamaker.
The Wanamaker twins treated each practice like it was a playoff contest, so it was a seamless transition for them to carry the intensity over to the real games. Eventually, Wayns began to take the same approach.
A turning point came during his sophomore year in the Philadelphia Catholic League finals against loaded Neumann-Goretti, which featured Rick Jackson and Scoop Jardine - who are both now at Syracuse -- as well as current junior guard and Wake Forest recruit Tony Chenault.
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Roman trailed N-G by 10 late in the game, and Brad Wanamaker -- who now plays at Pitt -- was in foul trouble. The Cahillites nevertheless staged a furious comeback thanks in large part to Wayns, who threaded passes, dove for loose balls and hit a key 3-pointer as Roman went on to win, 59-56. Wayns finished with 13 points.
"That was the game that showed me how tough I was and that I could compete in the big games against the big players in front of the big crowds," Wayns says. "That game put me on the map."
"That was one of the games where he transitioned from being a sophomore at Roman to one of the best players in the country," adds McNesby.
He carried the momentum over to the prestigious Alhambra Catholic Invitational, where he garnered All-Tournament second team honors after pouring in a game-high 21 points to again lead Roman past Neumann-Goretti in the finals.
Wayns stepped up his game even more last season after the graduation of the Wanamakers. He was selected to The Associated Press Class AAAA All-State first team and the Daily News All-City first team thanks to averages of 24.6 points, 7.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game. Roman won the consolation title at Alhambra and lost to St. Joe's Prep in the PCL quarterfinals.
Possessing the ability to finish with both hands in traffic, hit from long range, play
lockdown D and break ankles with his no-he-didn't crossover -- not to mention the less tangible ability to flat-out run a team -- Wayns is the
quintessential all-around threat at the point.
"He probably has the highest basketball IQ of anyone I've ever coached," says McNesby, who was also a college assistant at Lehigh and Drexel. "He's really a coach on the floor."
This past summer, Wayns played with the USA Basketball Men's U18 National Team that finished as runner-up at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Argentina. He also was named co-MVP of the Boost Mobile Elite 24 at Rucker Park in Harlem, where he earned the nickname Lik Lik So Unique. Getting a nickname is an honor bestowed on only a select few at the
legendary playground court.
Now prepped for a big senior campaign, Wayns hopes to cop PCL, City and PIAA state titles. The PCL became a full member of the PIAA this season, meaning schools like Roman are now eligible to compete for a District 12 (City) and PIAA state title -- an opportunity PCL
predecessors like Lowry never had.
"This year, I'm on a mission," says Wayns. "I want to win a championship bad."
If he does, maybe then you'll catch a smile from him on the court.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.