This story appeared in the Greater Pittsburgh edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
There hasn't been a whole lot of downtime the past few summers for Tom Droney. But every few weeks during those warm months, when he can get away, he grabs his fishing rod and hits the Youghiogheny River, often from creeks around Seven Springs. But unlike some fishing enthusiasts, the quiet 18-year-old from Green Tree likes to "ease into it."
Calmness runs in his blood. His biggest catch, during a venture to Montana with his cousins last summer, was an exercise in that kind of patience. Droney, using fly-fishing methods for the first time, took to the water at 7 a.m. and waited -- and waited. Some eight hours after he got on the boat, he finally felt a tug: a 26-inch brown trout.
He's brought that same virtue to the hardwood at Sewickley (Sewickley, Pa.).
"The first two quarters, you don't want to rush," Droney says. "You want to see how things are going. Then in the third quarter, fourth quarter, you strike. You start attacking. That's how it is with fishing: You wait around to find a good hole. There are some parallels."
The 6-foot-6, Davidson-bound senior point guard has an arsenal of moves at his disposal -- crossovers, step-backs, pull-ups, and a vicious spin move. But he's at his most dangerous when passing up the rock in the early going of games and then taking over late. Last year, Droney averaged 23.7 points, 6.6 assists and 6.1 rebounds and dropped 40 in the championship as Sewickley won the WPIAL Class A title. And he did it by being patient and getting his teammates involved.
"He's great about supporting those guys," head coach Win Palmer says.
"We kind of rally off his big plays," adds teammate and close friend David Bonomo. "He just makes us all want to be better."
When the time comes, Droney has no reservations about turning it up and going for the kill. And can he ever turn it up -- especially at home, when the gym at his small school of roughly 300 is rocking.
"He really just lives and dies off the energy," Bonomo says. "He knows personally everyone in the crowd who's there. He definitely averages more points at home."
"He's a clutch type of player. He goes hard all the time," adds former Sewickley assistant Daryn Freedman, now the head coach at Kiski Prep. "When he gets in the zone, it's pretty awesome. You can see it on his face. He clenches both his fists, says 'Let's go' and then he goes out and makes eight shots in a row."
There were plenty of those kill-shot moments in the Panthers' run to the WPIAL title last season. Like his 47-point output in a 92-85 win over Our Lady of Sacred Heart last February, where he not only scored from everywhere on the floor -- pulling up, off the dribble, and even from 32 feet out -- but created open, high-percentage shots for his teammates.
Or the game against Clairton when, down by one with two minutes to go, Droney broke down his man and -- according to multiple witnesses -- dunked on four defenders. Or there's the performance most people talk about, his record-tying 40-point outburst in the Panthers' championship win over Serra.
Sure, everyone knew the talent was there from early on. That's why Palmer approached his seniors before the start of the 2006-07 season, telling them their leading scorer would be a 6-foot-4 freshman -- after which the team vowed to look after him in the hallways. Droney went on to average 15 points a game that season.
But Droney will tell you a different story, about how before he was the hot-handed playmaker lighting up Western Pennsylvania, he was a lanky 5-foot-10 eighth-grader with great handle, no shot, and no defense. He'll tell you he's lucky he got his growth spurt.
But there's nothing lucky about the work he's put in. In May of 2007, Palmer and assistant Alan Bauman sat down with Droney and set out a goal: 10,000 shots made by September.
Remarkably, Droney hit the mark by July.
"I've never done the math on how many shots that is in a day," Palmer says. (For those keeping score at home, it's more than 100.) "But the thing about it is these were 3-point shots. For someone as a freshman who probably made five 3-point shots on the year, to as a sophomore now averaging two a game, that's just a drastic difference. He completely changed his mindset."
The scouts began to take notice that summer, too. Droney got his first scholarship offer after impressing the coaching staff at Duquesne's camp. At the time that included Freedman, who left the Dukes that August, hopped on at Sewickley as a volunteer assistant and formed the Basketball Stars of America AAU program with Droney as one of its key players.
By then, word was already out on Droney. Big-name coaches like Mike Brey (Notre Dame), Jamie Dixon (Pitt) and Bob McKillop (Davidson) were spotted at Sewickley games. The next summer, he torched the Five-Star Basketball Camp and ended up on its all-star roster alongside some of the nation's top recruits.
Former Florida star Nick Calathes is a frequent comparison that comes up, but Freedman goes further back: "A bigger version of Chris Herren without the baggage," he says, referring to the brilliant but troubled former Fresno State point guard.
Droney ultimately picked Davidson this past July and can't wait to enroll. Though he's never bumped into former Davidson star and current Golden State Warriors rookie Stephen Curry during visits -- "We always miss each other by a few days," he says -- there is buzz about him being able to carry on the tradition Curry established.
There's work to be done before then, though. At the next level, he'll have to tighten up his one-on-one defense, particularly against speedy waterbug types. His lateral quickness will have to get better.
Nothing a little patience can't improve.