A year ago, Zane Alm was scrounging for varsity minutes. Now, Mitchell High School is not the same when he is not on the floor.
Alm is scoring 8.1 points per game this season, but his greatest value comes by preventing opponents from putting the ball in the basket. The 6-foot-8 junior has developed into the anchor for a Kernel defense that is allowing 54.8 points per game on 40 percent shooting, down from 62.2 points and 45.8 percent last season.
Through the first 15 games of the year, Alm is averaging 2.1 blocks per game and has swatted away 22 shots in the last five games, a span in which Mitchell has outscored opponents by 70 points when he is on the court.
“When someone is backing me down and they turn into me -- I don’t know what it is, but I always seem to know if (an opponent) is going to spin back or whatever,” Alm said. “I can just be there before them.”
There are few players in the state that can match Alm’s height and wingspan, but while he made strides in adding weight and strength in the offseason, his frame is continuing to fill out.
Meanwhile, many of the players he guards in the post are shorter, but sturdier, such as Pierre’s Grey Zabel, Sioux Falls Roosevelt’s Brady Dannenbring and Harrisburg’s Brayden Phipps. As a result, Alm has worked to establish position on the block before an opponent in order to use his length to block shots.
Smaller players hope to gain leverage on Alm by playing into his body, but he has learned to hold his position, which forces players to shoot over an outstretched arm.
“We work on sliding your feet and playing behind and he’s getting really good at this timing,” said Mitchell assistant coach Wes Morgan, who works with the Kernel post players. “The shot blocking -- that’s on him. When these guys are getting it in the post, even though they’re pretty good size, they’re having a hard time with him because he’s so long. Defending the post starts before they get in position.”
Early in the season against Rapid City Stevens, Alm struggled to adjust to physical play in the paint, and as a result, he found himself in foul trouble. Since then, he has learned to alter his play to how the game is officiated.
Alm is now rarely taken out due to foul accumulation and has more blocks (32) than fouls (30) this season. Some of that, he believes, is due to acclimating to the pace and strength in varsity basketball games.
“I played AAU ball with the (Dakota) Schoolers this summer and that helped too, because the pace is quick and the fouls aren’t as frequent,” Alm said.
As Alm continues to grow as a defender, he wants to become more adept at guarding players on the perimeter, which would negate opposing teams from using smaller lineups.
The coaching staff also wants Alm to become a more aggressive rebounder. He is averaging 7.9 boards per game and has shown a propensity to not only block a shot, but grab the loose ball out of the air.
Morgan wants him to become more consistent in doing so, because of games such as Thursday’s 68-61 loss to Class AA No. 5 Sioux Falls Roosevelt. While the Kernels had 10 blocks in the game -- seven from Alm -- the Rough Riders had 21 offensive rebounds. So, if Alm can become a double-digit rebounder, Mitchell becomes a significantly more stingy defensive team.
“That comes with strength, that comes with being aggressive,” Morgan said. “Right now, he’s aggressive to shot-block, but now block it and go get the rebound. That’s the next step. He’s done a good job with what’s in front of him. You can’t guarantee six blocks per night, but you can guarantee getting 10 rebounds per night.”
As Alm continues to improve, so does the Kernel defense. Teammates are becoming more confident in closely guarding opponents on the perimeter with Alm prowling the post to erase any potential threats.
“Kids are missing shots because Zane’s there, kids aren’t taking shots because Zane’s there,” MHS head coach Todd Neuendorf said. “I can’t tell you how important he is defensively. I hope people understand and when they see Zane Alm around town, they say, ‘Hey, that’s the way to play defense.’”