Dragons, now a regional contender, seek final step in rebuilding project

By John Henson, Managing Editor

When he committed to a rebuilding project three years ago with a freshman point guard and several other younger players in key roles, Harlan coach Derrick Akal had an idea what they could accomplish.
The Green Dragons reached several of those goals along the way, first with an All “A” Classic regional title in 2020, then the program’s first 52nd District title in 21 years last February on the way to a 17-6 record.
All five starters return for the 2021-2022 season and the goals continue to grow.
“We hope to get better every day, but this is a competitive group and they’d love to win the All “A” regional again. They know they’re not the hunter anymore. They are the hunted,” Akal said. “We know we’ll get everyone’s best. We’d love to have the opportunity to compete in the All “A” state and win the district. We know Harlan County, Bell County and Middlesboro have all improved.”
The Dragons were expected to bring back four senior starters this year, but with the new covid rules that allowed high school athletes to repeat their current grade only point guard Jordan Akal will graduate, along with key reserves Johann Gist and John Mark Bryson. Akal (26.1 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game) is.a five-year starter who ranks among the state’s top players in the Class of 2022.
“He’s a fifth-year player and he’s our leader,” said the Harlan coach of his son. “His experience on the floor has made it easier to teach our other guys. We value his leadership and experience.
“As his coach, and as his dad, I have high expectations of him. He averaged 20 points and almost seven rebounds and shoots a high percentage from the free throw line, so he’s done a lot already and he wants to do more, and I want him to do more.”
Junior forward Jaeden Gist (12.8, 11.0) also moved into the conversation as one of the region’s top players a season ago and was ranked as a top 10 player in the region by the Cats Pause.
“He’s our Swiss army knife. He can play the two or three or four and guard every position on the floor,” Akal said. “Without Jaeden, we’re not who we are. He was among the leaders in the state in rebounding last year and that’s a tall task for a guy who is 5-11, 6-foot.
Junior guard Kaleb McLendon (11.5, 4.7) is another three-year starter who helps set the tone on the floor with his intensity and explosiveness.
“He’s a strong, tough and athletic kid who is very good defensively,” Akal said. “He’s been around the program since he was an eighth-grader. He’s a good shooter and brings us tremendous energy on both ends of the floor. His ability to handle the ball created matchup problems, and if you don’t put a body on him he is constantly rebounding. He does so many things well for us.”
Sophomore guard Kyler McLendon (7.7 4.3) can help Akal with ball-handling duties and came through in the clutch several times last season in his first year as a starter.
“Kyler is our secondary ball-handler and sometimes our primary ball-handler because we like to move Jordan off the ball. Kyler gives us the ability to do that with his ball-handling and his toughness,” Akal said. “Kyler has a feel for the game, including some things you can’t teach.”
Will Austin (7.5, 7.6), a 6-3 junior who moved from Lexington before last season, provided an immediate boost for the Dragons with his skills on both ends of the floor while providing a second threat in the post to complement Gist.
“He hadn’t played since the eighth grade, and I thought he got better every day and fit in seamlessly with the other guys,” Akal said. “He’s tough and handles the ball well enough and shoots the ball well enough to keep you honest. He’s not as athletic as Jaeden but has a lot of the same skills. He’s long and a good defender. We expect him to continue to get better.”
Bryson and Johann Gist provide experienced depth for the Dragons.
“Johann is Mr. Energy and intensity. He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. His attitude is great. I told a college coach the other day that Johann never has a bad day. He brings up the level of intensity in practice every day. Having a guy like that on the team has been a blessing for us,” Akal said. “John Mark has spent a lot of time working on his jump shot and we hope he can bring us what we got from Charles Morton two years ago. We think he can come off the bench and make some shots for us.”
Derek Pruitt, a 6-6 junior, has been one of the most improved players on the roster and could also provide a lift off the bench.
“He did a lot to change his body in the last year and a half. He was worked hard and we hope we can get some minutes from him to give Jaeden and Will a rest. He gives us another big body and rim protector.”