UPPER DARBY >> It’s not easy to get Isaiah Wong to crack a smile on the basketball court. Even dressed in his school uniform, tasked with the very un-competitive pursuit of taking portrait photos, a certain steeliness dawns once he steps on the court at Bonner & Prendergast. He’s not going to cross anyone over in his dress shoes, but the basketball in his hands still inspires the impassiveness of his visage.
There’s a couple of tricks to get Wong to offer a glimpse at his pearly whites, though. Bring up the number of close games his Friars played this year — 16 decided by 10 points or fewer, five that went to overtime and an 8-1 mark in the Philadelphia Catholic League in games decided by seven points or fewer — and you’ll see a hint of a grin curl up the corners of his mouth. Mention the prospect of rising to the individual challenge of playing in the Catholic League, and the smile grows wider still.
If you want to get Wong beaming, though, just bring up the chants — those heckles about him being from New Jersey and the student-section antagonism of “Ov-er-ra-ted” that he heard in cramped gyms across the Philly this year. That’s a sure-fire method to piquing Wong’s amusement.
“I just laugh at the chants because it’s just funny,” Wong said. “Because I know that if all those people came out to the court, it wouldn’t be the same. I just keep a straight face all the time, try not to let them get to my head. I try not to hear, but you’re going to hear it anyway, so I just play my game.”
Wong’s bursts of exemplary play didn’t depend on what he heard from the stands. The implacable point guard didn’t let the attention from off the court negatively affect how he played on it. But he elevated his game to silence doubters so often that it couldn’t have been mere coincidence.
With Wong as the engine, the Friars embarked on a historic season, attaining a slew of milestones. They won their first District 12 title, made their first PIAA tournament and advanced to the Class 5A semifinals. For the first time since 1988, the Friars played in the Catholic League final after clinching the regular-season crown.
For his part in leading Bonner’s renaissance, Wong is the 2017-18 Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Joining Wong on the first team is teammate Ajiri Johnson, forward Christian Ray of Haverford School, Penncrest guard Tyler Norwood, Archbishop Carroll guard AJ Hoggard and Chester guard Michael Smith.
Only two seniors are represented, Johnson and Norwood. Wong, Smith and Ray are juniors, while Hoggard is still just a sophomore. Hoggard and Norwood, the 2016-17 Player of the Year, are each earning their second All-Delco nods. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
Getting acquainted to new surroundings has become a skill for Wong. He moved often as a kid with his family, born in New Jersey, then living in Georgia before moving back to his home state. He spent the first two years of his high school career at Notre Dame in Lawrenceville, and when he sought a challenge to advance his basketball career, the prospect of moving to Philadelphia to attend Bonner & Prendergast wasn’t daunting.
“It was easy adjusting because I always moved around because my family, that’s what we do,” Wong said. “It’s just normal for me. … And I love meeting new people.”
One aspect that surprised him was how his reputation preceded him, which speaks to Wong’s humility. In short order, the 6-foot-2 point guard with an explosive burst off the dribble and impressive shooting range has made a name for himself nationally. He’s regarded as a top-100 prospect in the Class of 2019 by a number of outlets. For brevity’s sake, he truncates his list of interested schools at Villanova, Miami, St. Joe’s, Temple, Xavier, Memphis and Tulane. Chances are good that he’ll soon be playing in the NCAA Tournament for a team that turns blue-chippers into NBA Draft picks.
Yet Wong was astounded by just how many people knew about this kid from New Jersey once he descended upon the Catholic League.
“I just knew my name was out there and I was surprised that everybody knew me in Philly because I just moved up from Jersey, where everyone knew me from that area,” he said. “And I wasn’t a big name, but it just got bigger.”
On the Catholic League’s grand stage, Wong’s status has grown ever larger. He averaged 22.2 points per game for the Friars, helping them to a 25-5 record against a daunting nonleague schedule. He also averaged 6.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals per outing. Wong scored 15 or more points in every game but one and scored 20 or more points on 20 occasions.
The Catholic League MVP went for 29 points in consecutive wins over Archbishop Ryan (in overtime) and Carroll. He scored 31 in the District 12 final, an overtime win over Martin Luther King, then 32 in demolishing William Penn York in the second round of states. He was Bonner’s leading scorer in all four states games, including a 27-point outing against Allentown Central Catholic and 19 in the OT loss to Abington Heights.
Often, he’d collect points in bunches with such effortless ease that seemed to minimize the magnitude of what he was doing, floating over defenders to find his shot or blowing by them in the lane. To wit, in just three high school seasons, Wong has 1,507 points.
This year, he added an emphasis on the collective at Bonner. While Johnson is headed to Rider next year, Wong and fellow junior transfer Tariq Ingraham, a second-team All-Delco who’s fielded several Division I offers, constitute an imposing 1-2 punch to build around. That has Wong looking forward to another chance to accomplish the goals the Friars fell just short of this year … just not expect him to sport the gleaming smile to match.
“We had a goal this year to win at the Palestra, which we didn’t do,” Wong said. “Now we want it even more because next year is my last year, and I just want to win (it all) at the Palestra.”