HAMPDEN, Maine — Perhaps the biggest offseason news in Eastern Maine high school basketball last summer involved the transfer of Isaiah Bess from Penquis Valley of Milo to Hampden Academy for his senior year.
The 6-foot-4-inch Bess averaged 26.5 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game last winter in leading the Patriots to the Class C state championship, and now he was joining a Hampden club fresh from its own undefeated run to the Class A state title.
And while his resume also included the acceptance of a basketball scholarship from Division II Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., for the 2014-15 season, Bess was transferring to a program that already had a definitive leader in senior forward Zach Gilpin, like Bess a 2013 Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team honoree.
Yet the assimilation of Bess into the Broncos’ basketball family has looked as smooth as a Hampden fast break.
“He was more accepting of what his role was going to be than I was sure at first would happen,” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett. “Isaiah’s been great. He’s been a very unselfish offensive player and a guy on the defensive end who’s been really dependable.”
Top-ranked Hampden will enter the Eastern Maine Class A tournament Saturday night with an 18-0 record, and both Gilpin and Bess recently were accorded Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference first-team all-star status — with Gilpin named player of the year.
“It took a little time adjusting to everybody’s tendencies and blending myself into the defensive and offensive ends,” said Bess, who began playing with the Broncos during the summer league season, “but it’s gone pretty well so far.”
Bess is averaging 13.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game but is capitalizing on his opportunities in the more balanced Hampden attack, converting 68 percent of his 2-point field-goal attempts and 39 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
“Isaiah came in with the understanding that probably he wasn’t going to take as many shots as he did at Penquis and that’s been the case,” said Bartlett. “The shots he’s been taking he’s been shooting at a high percentage.
“He’s been a great complementary offensive player, and I use that term loosely because he’s a first-team all-state player but understanding that he and Zach can feed off each other. They’ve had a couple of nights when they’ve both had mid-20s and there’s also been nights when Zach wasn’t playing real well and Isaiah has had to carry us and was ready to do so.”
Hampden employs quick passing to generate its high-percentage attempts, a less hands-on approach than Bess was familiar with in Class C and one similar to what he is likely to experience in college.
“I’m learning to become more of a mover without the ball,” said Bess, who played goalkeeper last fall for Hampden’s Eastern A championship soccer team. “I don’t have to have the ball in my hands all the time to score. Coach Bartlett has done a good job of getting me to move and set screens and be more productive without the ball in my hands all the time.
“When I go to college I’m not going to have the ball in my hands all the time because I won’t be a point guard, so I have to learn to play without the ball and this has been a great help so far.”
Bess’ basketball development may be even more pronounced at the defensive end.
“Early in the year we didn’t have him guard great players yet because I wasn’t positive how good of a defensive player he was,” said Bartlett. “But in the past 12 games he’s really gained my trust on the defensive end and his teammates’ trust that he can go out and guard really good players well.
“He’s very dynamic in the fact he can guard bigger guys who are 6-6 or he can guard a guy who’s 5-9 and do a great job on both with his length and his athleticism.”
Bess said the focus on defense is one of the primary common denominators linking Bartlett and his coach at Penquis, Tony Hamlin.
“The coaching on the defensive end is similar,” Bess said. “We play man to man and get up on defense and deny passing lanes, and then get out and run in the open court when we get the chance. Last year’s team and this year’s team are both at their best in open-court situations.”
While Bess may have sacrificed some individual offense in his transition to Class A basketball, his new teammates appreciate his sense of team and experience in big-game situations.
“It’s definitely easy to play with Isaiah,” said senior guard Cam Scott. “He sees the floor very well, and if we need a big shot we don’t only have to go to Zach, we have Isaiah who can knock down the three or take it to the rim.”
The move to the deeper Class A ranks also has meant Bess has had less room in his game for any shortcuts he might have been able to take against Class C competition.
“It’s held him really accountable to what he’s had to do every night on both ends of the court,” said Bartlett. “If there’s a night when he’s not doing a good job, we can simply take him out and put someone else in for him.
“But I would say he’s really brought it every night and in the biggest games he’s had some of his best games up to this point. I think that’s typically the type of player he is, one who’s going to step up his game come the tournament.”