Syracuse, N.Y. — The only guarantee that Corcoran basketball star D.J. Haynes had when he packed his suitcase for a trip to Florida in late November was that he wouldn’t need any winter clothes.
As far as actually taking the court, that was up to him. And it turns out that was all the sliver of hope Haynes needed.
Much has changed in a year, but in some regards a lot has stayed the same. Last season around this time, Haynes was hitting big shots to help the Cougars win a Section III crown. Now, he’s doing the same for Plant City High School near Tampa, Florida, as that school advances through the state’s Class 6A postseason.
Haynes gambled that his basketball — and perhaps football — talents could extend well past the boundaries of Central New York, and so far he’s winning.
“I just knew I had to come down here, work hard for a spot on the team. That’s just really what I did,” Haynes said.
Haynes, a guard, was an All-CNY player for Corcoran last year, putting up 14 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per contest. He had fully expected to continue building his athletic resume at Corcoran this year.
But when coronavirus concerns pushed football season to the early spring and threatened the basketball season, D.J. and his father, Daricus, came up with another option.
D.J.’s mother, Erica Walker, lives in Plant City. Everyone decided it would be a good idea for D.J. to move to his mother’s house and attend school there. Scholastic sports in Florida have remained on fairly regular schedules despite the pandemic.
“I knew they were playing sports. It was like the pandemic didn’t even happen. He understood the sacrifice he had to make if he wanted to keep competing and get looks from colleges,” Daricus said.
“I was definitely worried. Junior year, that’s the year colleges start looking at you,” D.J. said. “I was really nervous. I didn’t know if I was going to have a season or not.”
The Florida trip offered a chance to play but little more. Before D.J. could start thinking about turning college eyes his way, he first had to land on the radar of Billy Teeden.
Teeden is the basketball coach at Plant City, and by the time Haynes showed up at his school, Teeden was already well on the way to putting together his roster. Teeden certainly needed some more talent, but he had no idea what Haynes offered.
That changed as soon as Haynes trotted out for the team’s first practice.
“I knew the moment he stepped on the floor, he was going to help us,” Teeden said. “I said, ‘Oh, we got a player.’ ”
Haynes said he sensed he’d fit into Plant City’s program soon after workouts started.
“The first tryouts, I was very confident in myself. It was harder than I thought (overall), because down here the defense is better,” he said.
That puzzle apparently hasn’t been too hard for Haynes to solve. He’s averaging 23 points, four assists and six rebounds per game for Plant City.
“He doesn’t get rushed. He makes the right decisions, finding guys open,” Teeden said. “You can see the high IQ right off the bat from him.”
Haynes said he’s starting to draw some initial interest from college basketball coaches, and his menu could extend beyond that sport. He was also a standout running back and strong safety at Corcoran, and as winter high school basketball season winds down he’s looking at an even busier spring.
Haynes plans on sticking around in Plant City to play AAU basketball and also compete in the school’s spring football program. If all develops as planned, he said he’s staying at the school for his senior football and basketball years.
Though Haynes said he’d prefer to play basketball at college, a strong football effort in a hotbed like Florida could alter that equation.
“I was happy for him,” said Corcoran football coach Tyrone Fisher. “I’m interested to see what happens with D.J. down in Florida in terms of his recruitment. The bigger schools around here often overlook our kids, thinking they play in Central New York and they’re not good enough. I’m very interested to see how he stacks up against the other talent down there. I think he’s good enough to play down there.”
Haynes would have had a chance to play both his sports had he stayed at Corcoran. An abbreviated basketball season is underway, and a shortened football schedule is expected to begin next month.
Haynes tilts his head up north and knows he would have made an impact with both of those teams this year, but there’s nothing to second-guess about his decision to pull on different jerseys now.
“It’s hard leaving your family and friends behind. But I just had to do what’s best for me,” he said. “I think Florida definitely put me in a better position. It’s just a better opportunity.”
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