Lanier seniors Simon Shafack, left, and Paul Webb, right, are the cornerstones of Lanier’s young basketball program. (Staff Photo: Ben Beitzel)
SUGAR HILL — Most times when Jeremy Huckaby tells Simon Shafack something, by text message or phone call, he knows one less player needs telling.
“If I text Simon he’ll be like, ‘Do you want me to tell Paul? Well, he’s right here,’” Huckaby said.
Plenty of players on teams maintain friendships after workouts, practices and games, it’s a product of teammates and time spent together. Closeness isn’t guaranteed or even needed for success, it only adds a dimension to create a winning culture. And in the case of Simon Shafack and Paul Webb, the two aren’t just Lanier’s best basketball players, they are the cornerstones of a still growing program.
By the time they reached junior high the two knew they would be the first freshmen class at Lanier High School. Each grew up in the North Gwinnett district, but neither held strong dreams of wearing the Bulldogs’ red and black. Shafack’s older siblings graduated from North Gwinnett and he held stronger ties than Webb, but once both put on the burnt orange of the Longhorns neither regretted it.
“It’s actually a good thing this school opened up because I had the opportunity to make the Lanier eighth-grade basketball team,” Shafack said. “It was a good thing that happened because I got an opportunity and I could make the best of it.”
On the eighth-grade team, Shafack and Webb first met.
“We weren’t really good friends in eighth grade,” Shafack said. “Our relationship just grew to where we are like brothers.”
They go to parties together, double dates and battle in NBA 2K. The video game battles return the pair to their first season at Lanier. Both made the varsity roster, but sat well down the bench for much of the season. Their friendship grew over the year even as they fought for every available minute.
“I think our bond got closer freshman year,” Webb said. “In the beginning, I was playing more than he was and he saw that and then he was playing more than I was. We just started competing with each other.”
There were older players to watch and a pair of coaches to learn from, but the burden of creating the culture of Lanier basketball fell heavily on Shafack and Webb. The pair are the only two four-year varsity players on the Longhorns team and, obviously, the first two in the short history of Lanier basketball.
“I had to beg to be on varsity with (then head coach) Tony Watkins and he gave me an opportunity to at least sit on the bench and watch how quick the game is,” Shafack said. “I always want to be on the court at all times, I hate sitting on the bench. I put in the work all the time, I just wanted to be the best.”
“I realized that this was a new opportunity to start a tradition, to be a part of history, to start from scratch,” Webb said.
Huckaby took over for Watkins in the school’s second year. He spent the first as the girls’ head coach and found it impossible not to notice the talented freshmen.
“We view this as one big family and I would try to watch as many games and try to keep an eye on what was going on on the guys side,” Huckaby said. “Simon in particular, he has that kind of personality where everyone knows him. There was no hiding from Simon, everyone knows Simon. They had talent, you could see their talent. It was just a matter of maturing and growing into that talent. We talk all the time about the mental side and that is the biggest thing — the maturity they’ve made on the mental side.”
Huckaby calls Shafack the team’s most complete player and praises Webb’s ability to finish at the rim. If an offensive possession doesn’t include either touching the ball, Huckaby considers it a failure.
“We need them both to score,” Huckaby said.
Lanier needs them both for so much more. They are both friendly and open with their teammates, there is not a hint of intimidation or elitism from the seniors. Everyone seems at ease with the pair. Huckaby extolls their leadership but also their strengths as teammates. He watched them grow into the team’s most important assets over their four years.
“The first couple of years, they really had to learn a lot based on just what the coaches said. There wasn’t this upperclass leadership that they could point to and say, ‘This is how it’s done.’ Everyone was new,” Huckaby said. “Now I think they are going to make it easier for us. We can say, ‘Look, this is how Simon did it, this is how Paul did it.’ They’ve just been an integral part of what we are trying to do here.”