Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Duluth boys basketball players Shamus Goss (1) and Ify Imachukwu (11) started playing AAU basketball together last summer and have developed into one of Gwinnett County's best 1-2 scoring punches.
DULUTH -- A single player lifting his game to a higher level can have a profound impact on any high school basketball team.
Multiply that number by two and the impact can go beyond any mere single season.
Case in point is what the improvement of the dynamic duo of Shamus Goss and Ify Imachukwu this season has meant for Duluth's boys.
Sure, the two seniors have played a major role in putting the Wildcats (13-10 overall, 4-9 in Region 7-AAAAAA) on the verge of not only doubling their win total from last season, but making a little history by posting their first winning season since 1998.
But according to head coach Eddie Hood, the positive influence both Goss (16.4 points, 1.6 assists per game) and Imachukwu (12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds per game) have had on the Duluth program go beyond just their contributions on the court.
"We've preached good character, and those two are two guys that are quality character kids," Hood said. "Our kids are learning that from them."
A big part of the character Hood values so much has manifested itself from each player making a significant adjustment to his game during the AAU and summer seasons and into this high school season.
For Goss, this has been a season of constant adjustment after transferring from Norcross over the summer.
With injuries and a deep roster of teammates limiting his playing time over the past three years in the Blue Devils' ultra-successful program, the 5-foot-10 guard has found a fresh new start at Duluth, even with a significant change to the role he's been used to playing.
"He's a natural point guard, but I've asked him to do a little more scoring to help us out," Hood said of Goss. "He's tried to do that. He's sped our pace up and helped us play fast -- the way that we want to play. He helps us run our break very well. His quickness is awesome.
"One thing that he did bring over (from Norcross) that's valuable to us is that spirit of competition. Our practices, they compete and get after each other. I think our kids have learned a lot from that about being able to compete. I think he's made the most of this opportunity. ... He's really come on for us."
It hasn't come as easy as Goss has made it seem at times.
He's still had to battle injuries, including a concussion that has kept him out of Duluth's last two games, though he could return to the lineup as soon as Friday night at Meadowcreek.
And despite leading the Wildcats in scoring, he has had to adjust to a new school, new friends and new teammates.
But his own competitive nature, plus the atmosphere he experienced while at Norcross, spurred him on to assert himself.
"It was nerve (racking), but I came out and I had to earn my spot," said of adjusting to the new team at Duluth. "It wasn't given. I had to fight every day in practice. ... There's a lot of good players (at Norcross) that kept pushing me. I always had to work hard to earn my spot. ... It's what prepared me for my success now."
It also helped that Goss had at least one familiar face around in the form of Imachukwu, who was a teammate of his with the Georgia Stars during last spring and summer's AAU season.
"I really didn't know (anybody), so I just hung around (Imachukwu)," Goss said. "When the team started practicing, I started getting to know all the teammates. ... It made us all bond a little bit.
"With Ify running on the break, I can just throw (the ball) up and he's going to catch it. I know where he's going to be, and he knows where I'm going to be. We just work well together."
The experience was just as positive for the 6-foot-3 wing, who says it helped him develop an on-court rapport with Goss and helped both of them adjust to each other's skills.
"This year, we have a better chemistry," Imachukwu said. "It's easier to play with (Goss) on the court. ... We've known each other a year now. Our chemistry grew even more in AAU ball, just by playing so many games together and having that outside the court relationship, and (it) kind of built on that."
Of course, Imachukwu has also had his own game to improve on this season, as well as accepting more assertive leadership role as one of the few seniors on the team.
It's been a much more lengthy transition -- one that's really built ever since he moved to Duluth with his family from Nigeria at the age of 5 and took up basketball at age 8 -- and it's required patience at time.
And while Imachukwu's scoring numbers are similar to what they were last year, when he averaged a team-best 12.5 points per game, Hood said the difference can be seen in his overall game.
"It's been a process (with Imachukwu)," Hood said. "He's benefited from the fundamentals that we've done. ... It's helped him take his game to a whole (new) level. He just needed a little bit of confidence. He got that last year through the experience of being the leader we had on the court.
"His rebounding has gone up. That's the key. And his turnovers are drastically down from last year. That's helped him tremendously. Last year, he kind of didn't understand how to pick spots, and he turned the ball over. That's helped him a lot."
Both Imachukwu and Goss continue to help Duluth not only try to make a little history, but change the culture of a Wildcats program that has struggled for several seasons.
And Hood is confident the example the pair has set will set a solid foundation for younger players like juniors Sabionn Griffin-Bey, Romelo Styron and Bryce Wooten and freshman Obinna Ofodile to carry on and pass down to future generations of Wildcats.
"They are giving this (program) the first shot of having a winning season in 15 years," Hood said. "It's very possible we're going to have a winning season. That's only going to carry that momentum into those kids coming up to want to be a part of Duluth and resurrect that history.