Mercury All-Area: Unflappable Nguyen’s sensational shooting sent Spring-Ford to most prolific season in program history

Jacob Nguyen doesn’t shy away from big moments. In fact, as the stage gets bigger and the stakes get higher, the sophomore sharpshooter out of Spring-Ford is often the most comfortable.

Nguyen showed his level-headedness on the floor in numerous pivotal points, but take Spring-Ford’s opening round game in the PIAA Class 6A tournament as perhaps the most prime example.

Central York exploded out of the gate, leading the Rams 16-8 through a rocky first quarter on Spring-Ford’s home court. The Rams’ rally over the District 3 squad — led by YAIAA Coach of the Year Jeff Hoke and Player of the Year Greg Guidinger — began with the 6-foot-4, 170-pound shooting guard.

With the season on the line, Nguyen poured on eight of his 14 points in the second quarter and finished with four 3-pointers to ignite a 56-46 comeback.

Of the instances this winter where Nguyen was a major difference on the floor, it was his willing Spring-Ford out of trouble and ultimately on to new heights, eventually reaching the program’s first state semifinal appearance ever.

That composure, ability to be poised under pressure was a massive asset for Spring-Ford in its breakout campaign. And it’s one of the reasons why Nguyen is the 2022-23 Mercury boys basketball Player of the Year.

“I try to stay calm all the time. My coaches and my teammates help me all the time with that,” Nguyen said. “We practice everything that happens in games, so it’s nothing new that comes.”

Spring-Ford’s Jacob Nguyen takes a shot over the Red Knights’ Ruben Rodriguez in a 55-32 loss to Reading High in the PIAA Class 6A boys basketball semifinals at Coatesville High School on March 21. . (Bill Uhrich – MediaNews Group)

Nguyen closed out his sophomore year with 485 points, averaging 16.2 points per game. Against Upper Merion in the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship, he put up a game-high 25 points in the team’s first league title win since 2015-16.

And against Plymouth Whitemarsh in the District 1-6A final — the program’s first district final appearance ever — Nguyen again led with 20.

No matter the game scenario, whatever the situation or environment, Nguyen has been playing with the poise of a four-year starter. And he has the motor of one, too.

“Most sophomores are so erratic,” Spring-Ford coach Joe Dempsey said. “Their season goes up and down. His season never went down in the sense that he was so consistent. A lot of that has to do with his demeanor. He never gets flustered. He’s so calm, it’s often hard for me to figure out when he’s actually tired.”

Dempsey, a longtime coach at La Salle College High School, entered his first year at Spring-Ford when Nguyen moved up to varsity. All Dempsey knew at the time was there was an incoming eighth grader “who can really shoot the basketball.”

Spring-Ford’s EJ Campbell, center, and Jacob Nguyen wait to receive their runner-up medal after being defeated by Plymouth Whitemarsh in the District 1-6A championship on March 4 at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

As Nguyen started games as a freshman, he continued to be sponge-like, absorbing everything he could as most coachable underclassmen do. The result was a real threat for opposing defenses at the perimeter, though largely one-dimensional.

Through his offseason work playing for Philly Pride UAA and competing in the Donofrio Classic, Nguyen expanded his game ahead of the 2022-23 PIAA season.

There were more items in the tool belt than just a pinpoint outside shot. And with them, more responsibilities.

“Freshman to sophomore year, it was a huge jump. I didn’t have as much a role as a freshman, I was just a shooter,” Nguyen said. “The jump to sophomore year, I have a much bigger role. It was a huge gap, what I did in my sophomore year compared to my freshman year.”

The shooting was always there from the start. This season alone, Nugyen made 76 3-pointers, second most in the PAC behind Methacton’s Matt Christian (88).

Entering this year, Nguyen stepped up his ball handling, willingness to get to the rim and his midrange game. Of course, his ability to shoot off the dribble improved as well.

A more complete player in the face of heightened defensive pressure, Nguyen can now create more off-ball screens to fuel teammates like junior guard EJ Campbell, who had a dominant run through the postseason to finish the year averaging 13.2 ppg.

Nguyen’s aggressive rebounding helped seal a tight win over State College — to go with a game-high 22 points — in Spring-Ford’s first ever state quarterfinal appearance.

Now, there are other avenues to help his team win games. That sole reliance on Nguyen’s shooting went from being the entire burger to a side of fries.

“Obviously everybody knows he can shoot. Even as a freshman, the attention he got, the game sort of caught up with him,” Dempsey said. “He got worn down a little bit, he was tired. I challenged him to develop other parts of his game because we really didn’t have a true center this year.”

That true center graduated last year. Jake Kressley, an All-Area second team senior, led Spring-Ford’s scoring with 238 points in 2021-22. The vacancy wasn’t going to be filled, but rather, Nguyen — listed at the same height as Kressley, being 6-foot-4 — adopted more of his predecessor’s duties.

He did so without aches or pains. The stress of going outside the comfort zone was no bigger than the pressure of expectation in the midst of a 20-game win streak through the regular season. To that end, both were pretty minuscule.

“Being poised is really important,” Nguyen said. “That’s not our style, being out of control. We’re controlled at all times, handling pressure. That’s how we play.”

Spring-Ford guard Jacob Nguyen (3) leaps up for a layup against Downingtown West in the District 1 Class 6A semifinals at Spring-Ford High School on Feb. 28. (Evan Wheaton – MediaNews Group)

In the biggest moments, Nguyen is right at home. He’s shooting in his driveway, listening to Lil Baby’s “Low Down,” the unofficial anthem of the Kansas State men’s basketball team.

And while he might not be a fan per se, watching the Wildcats’ run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament was relatable for Nguyen as his own Spring-Ford squad danced with the PIAA-6A’s finest.

“They had such a big run in March Madness, so I just got interested,” Nguyen said on Kansas State, noting the determination to take Spring-Ford’s program deep as well.

For the little team that could, Nguyen was the engine. And that engine has been polished by his trainer John Riles, an assistant for No. 10 nationally-ranked Imhotep Charter (ESPN) and AAU coach Sandy Tanner, an assistant at Springside Chestnut Academy.

Playing alongside Campbell and fellow high school teammate Tommy Kelly, Nguyen balled out in his second Donofrio Classic appearance, unloading 38 points with eight 3-pointers in his opening game.

Having continued to raise eyebrows for the last few months, the three return to Spring-Ford next season. And with them, the exclamation point of a historic year for basketball in Royersford.

“This season, we put a huge stamp on it. Nobody expected us to go far in districts or states,” Nguyen said. “I think now, everyone respects us more.”

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