Green Dragons hope to take the next step this season


John Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Jaedyn Gist, Johann Gist, Kaleb McLendon, Jordan Akal, Trey Barnes, Kyler McLendon and Will Austin; back row: Cameren Maples, John Mark Bryson, Hunter Clem, Darius Akal and Matthew Pennington.

By John Henson, Managing Editor


The Harlan Green Dragons were almost like two different teams during the 2020 season.
The version without star guard Jordan Akal, who missed eight games with an ankle injury, posted a 1-7 mark and was near the bottom of the 13th Region standings.
The version with Akal was 12-10, winning its first All “A” Classic regional title in 18 years and making a fourth straight trip to the 13th Region Tournament before falling in the closing seconds to regional heavyweight South Laurel.
Akal is back for his junior season along with three other starters as the Dragons try to take the next step in 2021, looking for their first district title and regional tournament victory since 2000.
“We hadn’t been to the regional in a long time, so to go four straight years is an accomplishment,” said Harlan coach Derrick Akal. “We hope to get over the hump this year. We don’t want to be just glad to get to the regional.”
Unlike a year ago with a sophomore-dominated team, this year’s Dragons are no longer one of the region’s youngest squads.
“We have experience now — four starters back who played a tough South Laurel team very close in last year’s regional,” Akal said. “That group played Harlan County close three times. I don’t think we got blown out any last year once we had Jordan at full strength.”
The Dragons lost center Jon Eldridge and guard Charles David Morton to graduation, which takes away their top rebounder and one of their best outside shooters.
“Size and depth are weaknesses for us at this point. We lost one of the top rebounders in the state in Jon Eldridge, a three-year starter,” Akal said. “We also lost one of our best shooters in Charles (Morton) off the bench.”
Akal (25.8 points per game last season, 4.3 rebounds per game) is back for his fourth season as a a starter at point guard. Several schools have already expressed interest, including Western, Youngstown State, Tennessee Tech, Morehead and Virginia Tech.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger. I expect him to have a good year,” said the Harlan coach of his son. “Jordan, in my opinion, is one of the top players in the state, although some may see me as being a bit biased. We’ve moved up the district and regional rankings as a result of his leadership and growth.”
Junior guard Kaleb McLendon (9.7, 2.8) provided another perimeter threat for the Dragons last year and is one of the region’s toughest players on the defensive end.
“Kaleb was a different player from the beginning of the season to the end. He has a high basketball IQ,” Akal said. “He shot the 3 well and handled the ball well when Jordan was hurt. He’s kind of a Swiss army knife with all he can do.”
Kyler McLendon (2.3), a sophomore guard, moved into the starting lineup late last season and is expected to play a bigger role this year.
“He’s a good batl-handler with good instincts,” Akal said. “He got so much better last year. He is crafty around the rim and he’s a competitor and gives us an extra ball handler.”
Jaeden Gist (11.5, 8.6), a 5-10 junior forward, was one of the region’s most improved players last season and became very effective off the dribble and on the boards.
“He was able help us handle the ball last year, and he’s another one who is a.hard worker who rebounds, handles the ball and guards,” Akal said. “He’s a tough kid.”
Will Austin, a 6-2 junior who transferred from Lexington over the summer, will take over for Eldridge at center.
“He hasn’t played organized ball in about three years, but he can do a lot of different things,” Akal said. “He can rebound and pass and handle the ball a little. He has big shoes to fill, but they are different types of players.”
John Mark Bryson, a junior guard, is among the team’s most improved players and is expected to play a key role off the bench.
“We expect him to step up and fill the shoes Charles left as a shooter, and we also expect him to be a good defender,” Akal said.
Johann Gist (2.5), a junior forward, was a starter for much of last season and will provide depth inside this year.
“We look for him to bring energy off the bench,” Akal said. “Johann is a good defender who can hit shots.”
Trey Barnes, the team’s only senior, provides depth at guard.
“We want Trey to knock down shots and show some senior leadership,” Akal said.
Even with their strong finish a year ago, the Dragons haven’t been ranked among the 13th Region favorites going into the season. Harlan was ranked sixth in the region in the Cats Pause and even lower in other rankings, including as low as ninth on the 13th Region Facebook page.
“This particular group really doesn’t pay attention to ratings,” Akal said. “We have to go out there and play the games. I think it’s a little low, but this group is competitive. We would compete the same way if we were one or 16.”


Junior guard Jordan Akal is back for his fourth season in Harlan’s starting lineup and is ranked among the state’s top players in his class. (Chris Jones)