Courtesy of NYDailyNews.com
BY EBENEZER SAMUEL
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Andre Armstrong has grown up.
It's the first thing you'll notice if you see him at Forest Hills HS. He's sprouted an inch and gained 10 pounds since last winter, and he sports tattoos on both forearms. He's a senior, and he looks the part.
Maurice Harkless is a kid, and that can't go unnoticed, either. The way "Big Mo" tucks his shirt in his mouth when he talks and the way he slouches when he walks the halls to camouflage his 6-6 frame - both things reveal that he's 15 years old going on, well, 15.
He acts like the sophomore he is.
To listen to Armstrong talk about his younger teammate is to understand the gap between them.
"When I came here, this program was pretty much nothing," Armstrong said after practice on Wednesday. "Now, with Mo . . . we can make some noise.
"I want to teach him what I can."
He needs the youngster to learn. Because Maurice Harkless just may be the sidekick that Armstrong needs if he hopes to lead Forest Hills to the Queens 'AA' title.
"They're a good 1-2 punch," said coach Ben Chobhaphand. "With Big Mo, Andre doesn't have to do so much."
Last season, Armstrong shouldered the offensive load. His 13.5 points per game ranked 10th in the division, but no other Ranger boasted a double-figure scoring average.
When Armstrong didn't play, Forest Hills struggled; the team went 1-1 during the first week of January, when Armstrong served a two-game suspension after a shoplifting incident at a local mall.
That mishap was one of a string of immature incidents for Armstrong. He admits he used to occasionally show up late for practice. Sometimes, he tried to attract college scouts with flashy play.
"I was focused on getting a scholarship at the beginning of (last) year," he says.
But after seeing the team struggle without him, he resolved to become a leader.
"Now, my focus is on winning," he says.
That means staying out of trouble. Armstrong says his life is now "school and basketball."
"(The mall thing), I left it alone; it's in the past," he says. "It was a stupid decision."
Now, Armstrong wants to help Harkless avoid such errors. He says he sees himself in the youngster, remembers just two years ago, when he - not Harkless - was Chobhaphand's prodigy.
Harkless could be even better. Armstrong remains unconcerned about his collegiate future, but has no scholarship offers. Harkless already holds an offer from Hofstra and has drawn interest from other schools.
"He could be very good," recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski says of Harkless. "He's not as skilled as (West Virginia forward) Devin Ebanks, but he's long and lean and young looking, the way Devin was as a sophomore."
The sophomore is already flashing his skills. In an 88-67 loss to Loughlin on Nov. 24, Harkless scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, despite spending much of the evening guarding touted Loughlin forward Jayvaughn Pinkston.
Chobhaphand says Harkless has a "feel for the game," which recently prompted the coach to give him a pair of sneakers autographed by Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva.
"Charlie's brother gave them to me," Chobhaphand says. "They were size 17. I said, 'I know just who to give these to.'"
Armstrong knows just what to say to Harkless. The two speak daily, with Armstrong regularly prodding the sophomore to "get to class" or "don't be late for practice," or "make sure to get home and not be hanging out." A few weeks ago, Armstrong heard that Harkless was struggling in a class.
"He'd had the professor before," Harkless says. "So he told me what I needed to do to pass."
Harkless isn't grown up - not as much, at least, as Armstrong. Thus opponents will key on the senior, forcing his teammates to pick up the scoring slack.
That's what Bayside did in Forest Hills' PSAL opener on Thursday, using a box-and-one defense to force the ball out of Armstrong's hands. The tactic worked: Armstrong managed just seven points and one field goal.
"It got me," Armstrong admitted. "It was working."
So was Harkless. The attention Armstrong drew opened holes in the lane, and Harkless spent the evening collecting rebounds and tip-ins. He finished with 13 points and 11 boards in the Rangers' 45-43 win.
Afterwards, Armstrong gave his teammate a hug, then posed with Harkless for pictures. He was frustrated by his shaky performance, but he
smiled when asked about Harkless' play.
"Mo played a good game, no doubt, and that was the game plan," Armstrong said. "I didn't need to score."