COLUMBIA FALLS – To see any Montana high school basketball player dunk three times in a game is rare. But when that player is a point guard, heads turn. And with Columbia Falls senior Nick Emerson, those heads stay turned. He’s an uncommon spectacle in Big Sky country.
Unlike Kayla DeWit, Columbia Falls’ star on the girls team, Emerson has flown mostly under the radar, emerging quietly last year and now coming into his own during his final high school season. Averaging 18.8 points per game, he is the leading scorer on the top-ranked team in Class A.
Head coach Cary Finberg, who said at the beginning of the season that Emerson “has a chance to be a special player,” underscored the obvious when asked how often a 6-5 point guard with talent comes around in Montana.
“Not very often,” Finberg said. “He’s got a special skill set that many kids don’t have and he’s still learning. I don’t think he’s reached his potential.”
Emerson has ball-handling skills, quickness and an ability to score from all over the court. He is matchup nightmare for opposing teams – too quick for posts, too tall for guards. If a team sends help, Emerson will find the open man. He averages 4.2 assists, second best in Northwestern A.
But two years ago, you probably wouldn’t have seen this coming, unless you were Finberg. Emerson was barely 6 feet tall, hidden among the rest of the talented Columbia Falls varsity players. Then he began growing, reaching 6-4 his junior year. But more important than height has been his diligent, almost obsessive, training routine. He’s a gym rat.
“Ever since he’s been in high school, he’s loved to be in the gym and he loves basketball,” Finberg said.
Case in point is this past summer. Emerson was in the gym nearly every day, following a strict regimen of shooting and ball-handling drills, along with strength training. Emerson has bulked up to 200 pounds, carrying a sleek but solid frame.
In addition to the individual workouts, Finberg said his senior leader attended open gyms, camps with the team, tournaments and camps by himself.
“He had a very productive summer and offseason,” Finberg said. “He’s reaping the benefits of that right now. Obviously he wouldn’t be where he’s at without the time he’s put in.”
Emerson’s disciplined ball-handling drills alternate between stationary and zig-zagging, with cones occasionally thrown in the mix.
“Sometimes I just grab a ball at my house and start doing it in my living room,” he said.
Emerson has spent many hours improving his shooting and the hard work has paid off this season. He leads the conference in free-throw shooting at 84.6 percent. His field-goal percentage – 53.9 – is about as high as you’ll find for a high school point guard.
Part of Emerson’s high field-goal percentage is his ability to get to the rim. Using quickness and size, he gets most of his points inside on slashing drives to the basket or fastbreaks. In a 77-27 Columbia Falls victory over Eureka on Jan. 6, Emerson had three dunks en route to a 24-point performance.
But not all of Emerson’s scoring comes from dunks and driving layups. He has a smooth jump shot that he can knock down on the move or spotting up. Finberg would like to see him trust his jumper more, though Emerson said his decision not to shoot from the outside is often prompted by something other than a lack of trust.
“I think I trust it, but it just seems like I feel I can always get a better shot,” Emerson said.
After being named honorable mention all-conference last year, Emerson has raised his game to another level this winter, an improvement that hasn’t gone unnoticed by opposing coaches. Fred Febach, Flathead High School’s head coach, said Emerson does a “super job.” Emerson scored 21 points in a 58-40 win over Flathead on Dec. 16.
“The level of improvement from last year to this year is tremendous,” Febach said. “That shows you he’s willing to work. Probably the best compliment I can give him is he’s just a tremendous team player.”
Febach has also noticed something else: Emerson isn’t the only good player on Columbia Falls. The Wildcats use a variety of lineups featuring multiple players 6-4 or taller. Half the players can dunk and all of them can shoot.
Finberg and Emerson say the Wildcats are still working out kinks in their offense, but their defense has been swarming. Columbia Falls holds opponents to 36 points per game on 29 percent shooting. They are a perfect 8-0.
“I don’t know if you can find too many Class A programs like this team – they’re legitimate,” Febach said. “They have had a great program for awhile and this team, I think, is as good as any they’ve had. They can compete with any team in the state, at any level, no doubt in my mind.”
It was Finberg who first saw the potential for Emerson to play point guard and moved him to that position. In some ways, Emerson’s still learning the position, but he’s learning fast.
“It’s different to manage the game yourself,” Emerson said. “The leadership role is something I definitely embrace.”
Emerson has spoken with Montana State University, University of Montana, Carroll College and other schools, though he has not committed elsewhere. Finberg knows college material when he sees it.
“He’s a prospect to play at the next level,” Finberg said. “Where he goes and the success he has at the next level will be determined by a lot of luck and a lot of hard work. The sky’s the limit for him.”
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