COLLINSVILLE — In less than a year, Collinsville High School senior Falando Wilkinson has graduated from sixth man to one of the top six players in the Southwestern Conference.
Wilkinson, a versatile 6-foot-2 guard, averaged a meager 1.6 points per game last season when the Kahoks shared the conference championship with Edwardsville.
This season, Wilkinson is clicking along as Collinsville's leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, which ranks fifth in the SWC. He is tied for second in 3-pointers with 36 and is shooting 79.2 percent from the free-throw line.(*19*)
"We've expected a lot out of him, and he's been able to do all that. He's definitely one of the most improved (players) in the area," Collinsville coach Darin Lee said. "His game got better. He worked at it. Athletically, he's improved. He's played the point guard and scored points, and that's hard to do."
Most SWC followers would agree that Belleville East's Malcolm Hill, Belleville West's Nick Van Osdale, Edwardsville's Garret Covington and Tre Harris, and East St. Louis' Deshawn Munson are the top five players in the league.
The conference recognizes six players on its first team at the end of the season, and Wilkinson, Belleville East's Darreon Reddick and Granite City's Omar Walker could be vying for that spot.
Whether Wilkinson is that player remains to be seen. But the soft-talking left-hander is content with what he's been able to accomplish in a difficult conference, considering his limited experience at the varsity level.
"I knew that we had five new starters (this season) and someone had to step up from last year's team. I've improved a lot," said Wilkinson, also a quarterback and receiver in football. "Over the summer, I worked hard. I (practiced) football in the morning and basketball in the afternoon."
Granite City coach Steve Roustio can attest to Wilkinson's improvement. He watched Wilkinson score a career-high 33 points and make six 3-pointers Dec. 21 in Collinsville, a game the Warriors won 66-62.
"Falando Wilkinson is one of the biggest surprises in the SWC this season," Roustio said. "Having coached in Collinsville for years and reflecting back on teams which had someone as valuable as him, I am hard-pressed to find very many.
"The night he had 33 points against us, I believe we tried about three or four different things to slow him down. ... His range is absolutely incredible and his scoring mentality creates major problems for other teams and coaches."
Roustio said Wilkinson is "undoubtedly" a first-team all-SWC selection.
"What he brings to the floor in terms of leadership, along with being an amazing offensive threat, is as good as anyone in the conference," Roustio said. "Wilkinson does for Collinsville what Munson, Hill, Covington, Harris and Van Osdale do for their teams."
Heading into this season, Lee already knew about Wilkinson's athletic ability. But with Collinsville graduating Daryn Foster, J'Vaughn Williams, Devonta Crochrell and Caleb Johnson -- another starter, Jason Kusnerick, decided not to play this season -- the Kahoks needed scoring.
Wilkinson has filled that void, posing constant danger as a 3-point shooter and penetrator. Making him doubly tough to defend is an ability to quickly shoot off the dribble.
"He can penetrate and come off screens and he's been able to pull up off the dribble. All that has made him a dangerous player," said Lee, whose team is 6-9 overall and 1-5 in the SWC entering its 7:30 p.m. game Fridayat Belleville West.
Wilkinson said a rapid-fire release is necessary for any shooter.
"I've practiced it all the time," he said. "When you have to get a shot, you have to get it quick because you're not going to be open for five seconds with a good defender guarding you."
Wilkinson, 18, opened the season playing on the wing since Collinsville had freshman Zeke Moore at point guard. Moore abruptly left the team two weeks ago, forcing Lee to shift Wilkinson to the point.
Wilkinson said he prefers the point "because I have the ball and I'm in control with it."
"Since I moved to point guard," he said, "(Lee) has designed a lot of plays around the point guard. If (teams) play me up tight, I'm looking to get to the hoop way more. In zone, I look to shoot."
The move to the point could provide long-range benefits for Wilkinson, the son of Jeff and Markita.
"He's going to be able to play some college basketball, especially if he can play the (point)," Lee said. "Everybody needs point guards. That's a hard position to fill.
"He'll probably go to a junior college and I'm sure he'll be able to be a good player. There are a lot of good scholarships, and if you go junior college and get your degree, the sky's the limit."
Wilkinson mentioned Rend Lake College and Lindenwood-Belleville as possible destinations, but it's early in the recruiting process and Wilkinson is in no hurry.
"I know I can go somewhere if I keep working hard," he said. "I'm looking forward to going to college and playing basketball.
"I think on it a lot because I want to play basketball in college. (But) I try not to put pressure on myself most of the time because if I put pressure on myself, I'll try too hard. I just let it come to me. I know I have to go out there and play."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.