Staff Photo: John Bohn T.J. Shipes is a 6'8" senior on the Buford Wolves basketball team. Shipes, who will play basketball for Georgia State, has recently seen his personal stock rise along with the fortune of the Wolves program.
BUFORD -- T.J. Shipes has seen it all throughout his basketball career at Buford High School.
Through the depths of two of the Wolves' most difficult seasons in a generation to the high of last season's Class AA state runner-up finish, Shipes has been a rock of consistency since breaking in as a starter in his sophomore season.
"He was the guy who, when I was looking into taking the job here, I asked around to people I trust, and they were all in agreement -- T.J. had a chance to be a really good player," second-year Buford coach Allen Whitehart said.
Shipes has lived up to that billing, ranking second on the team in scoring (14.4 points per game) and leading all of Gwinnett County in rebounding (10.8 rpg) throughout the Wolves' current 13-5 start heading into tonight's game at Blessed Trinity.
Now, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound senior post is hoping he and his teammates can chisel their legacy with the one thing Buford's tradition-rich program is missing -- a state championship.
It's a goal Shipes honestly didn't think was reachable after the Wolves sank to 8-17 and 9-16 in his first two seasons in the varsity program.
While Shipes knew he and his teammates would need to work hard to improve their fortunes, he also knew the Buford program was in need of a change in culture -- a change back to the winning ways of the past that the Wolves had experienced in qualifying for the state tournament the previous seven seasons.
"I would work (hard) before, but it wasn't a basketball school," Shipes said. "Football was the main thing (at Buford). ... And during the girls games (when the Wolves were winning the first two of their three straight state titles), the whole town would be here and they'd all leave before our games. Now, ... they stay. It just goes to show that Coach Whitehart has changed a lot for us."
Shipes has also changed a lot throughout his career.
Already a capable athlete, his all-around skills have blossomed over the past two seasons, which includes earning third-team All-County honors from the Daily Post after averaging 14.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as Buford (24-9) advance all the way to the Class AA state title game before falling to GAC.
He has also lived up to his billing as one of the Daily Post's preseason Super Six this season, leading Buford in blocked shots (1.9 bpg) and ranking second among Wolves regulars in steals (2.1 spg) and field goal shooting percentage (56.3 percent).
"He's a very good athlete," Whitehart said. "He can run and jump with anybody. ... He's an unbelievable kid. He's an even better kid than he is a basketball player."
The latter has help drive other qualities that have impressed the Buford coaching staff about Shipes -- his willingness to endure bad times and accept what needs to be done to change them.
"(His) desire to get better," said Buford assistant coach Mike Lawley, when asked what the biggest changes he's seen in Shipes over the last two seasons. "The last spring, he decided, 'I want to work every day to get better.' That's improved (his) overall game. (His) athleticism, (his) body, everything's gotten better."
From Shipes' perspective, everything about the Buford program has gotten better since Whitehart arrived -- from practices to the talent surrounding holdovers like himself and fellow seniors like Kyle Kellam, who Whitehart calls the "Robin" to Shipes' "Batman."
And while the changes in the Buford program have invigorated his desire and his game, he also said the same kind of culture changes at Georgia State is what led him to sign to play college basketball next year with the Panthers over offers from other mid-major programs like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, plus interest from power conference schools like Rice, Utah, Tulane and Alabama-Birmingham.
"When I went on my (official) visit, I went with (Coach Ron Hunter's) son, R.J. Hunter," Shipes said of GSU, which is 13-6 in Hunter's first season as coach after enduring nine straight losing seasons. "Me and him talked for a while and we got to watch Coach Hunter's practice. It was just like (Whitehart's at Buford) -- high-tempo and everyone's working.
"It will help me a lot. I have no problem working."
Whitehart won't argue with that assessment.
"He's got that warrior's mentality on the floor," Whitehart said. "That's helped shape where we are this year -- his leadership and wanting to play at a high level."