In the closing minutes of the Lake Mead Holiday Classic championship game Saturday, a fan, decked out in blue and orange, turned to a man seated to his left and confessed, “I have the chills right now.”
The Bishop Gorman junior varsity boys basketball devotee had just witnessed Lake Mead’s Justin Yamzon connect on a shot from 28 feet away, one of five 3-pointers he made in the game.
Although the Eagles lost by a point on a last-second shot, Yamzon scored 37 points — 23 in the second half — and turned more than a few heads.
“You know what I love about him?” Lake Mead coach Jeff Newton said. “We’ll go to other schools or other schools will come here and they’ll cheer ecstatically for him. They’re out of the stands; they’re up on their feet, jumping up and down. You look at it and it looks like a riot. To me, that’s the neatest thing.”
The admiration is nothing new for the point guard. Yamzon, a senior who averaged 30.3 points last season, exhibits many of the skills coaches desire, including a sense of leadership that Newton said has benefited the Eagles (5-1).
While draining long-distance 3s attracts attention, it’s a glaring physical attribute that makes the 17-year-old endearing. He is only 5 feet 7 inches tall.
“As a smaller player, he knew that he had to have the fundamentals,” Newton said. “That’s why he’s an off-the-chart dribbler. He covets the ball, and he’s got that high IQ. He’s a coach’s dream who shoots like no other.”
Yamzon consistently lets the ball fly from long range with success, while leading an up-tempo offense and fearlessly attacking the basket.
“I would say it may be a little surprising to see a little guy drive the lane,” Yamzon said. “It takes a lot of hard work in the offseason to keep up with the bigger guys who have longer strides, longer arms. You’ve got to do the little things better than the big guys. That’s how you can compete with them.”
That aggressive style has led to some astounding statistics. As a sophomore, Yamzon made 13 3-pointers in one game, placing him second in state history, according to the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association. He followed that feat as a junior, converting 11 3-pointers in a game while also scoring at least 40 points four times and posting a 51-point game.
Despite the accomplishments, Yamzon said he is more enthralled with the dynamics of his position.
“I like how you’re in control of the game,” he said. “The ball is in your hands, and you’re the decision maker for the team. I think with my IQ, I can be one step ahead of the game. Just trying to see passes before they’re there. Making wise decisions and managing the clock.”
Yamzon’s adoration for basketball can be linked to his parents, Karen and Jesse, who both played point guard at San Francisco State.
“We never forced it, but as soon as he could walk, he’d be picking up a basketball and putting it wherever he wanted it,” said Karen Yamzon, the coach of the Lake Mead girls basketball team. “He’s pretty much always had a ball in his hand by choice.”
His father said Justin grew up avidly playing chess and would watch Jesse play in recreational leagues, critiquing his game. Though both helped to mold Justin, neither would say who he most resembles on the court.
“That’s a very sensitive question,” Jesse Yamzon said with a wide grin. “He definitely got his intelligence from his mom.”
Yamzon landed a scholarship to play at Division II Brigham Young University, Hawaii next season. But before he heads to college, Yamzon said his main objective is to bring Lake Mead its first state title since 2009.
“I want to go out on top,” he said. “Anyone can say they did this and they did that individually. But I think what trumps everything is, ‘Hey, I won a state championship with this team.’”