It took half a season for Class AA teams to realize testing Zane Alm at the rim was a mistake.

Those who try get shots sent back into their faces or into the first row. Sometimes it lands in the hands of a Mitchell High School player and ends with Alm racing the floor for a two-handed dunk.

Alm has become one of the best shot-blockers in South Dakota and is a focal point of every opponent’s scouting report. But two seasons ago, Alm was glued to the bench, averaging 4 minutes per game for a 2-19 team.

Mitchell knew Alm — 6-foot-7 and gangly at the time — was filled with potential and had a plan. The coaching staff wanted to build him up and allow him to gain confidence on the junior varsity team rather than take lumps against thicker, stronger and older opponents.

Of course, Alm wanted to play and prove himself, but also understood the plan. In the last two seasons, he grew to 6-foot-10 and gradually unlocked a variety of different skills.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

A menacing rim-protector that has swatted 122 shots during his career, Alm has also developed a soft shooting touch that has allowed him to go from scoring 15 points in 15 games as a sophomore to averaging 14.4 points per game this season and accepting a scholarship to play for the University of Sioux Falls.

“Back then, I wasn’t working out and I was really weak,” Alm said. “Working over the last two years, lifting weights and just getting stronger — I understood why I didn’t get many minutes sophomore year. It gave me a little time to develop, put on some weight and develop my game all-around.”

When Alm entered Mitchell’s starting lineup last season, he immediately made an impact defensively. He averaged 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks during his junior season, including a performance against Sioux Falls Roosevelt that saw him post 11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six blocks.

This season, Alm has upped his averages to 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game, anchoring a Kernel defense that allows 48.1 points per game, the lowest total in Class AA. Naturally gifted footwork and hand-eye coordination provides Alm uncanny timing, not only to block the first shot, but to reload and swipe away a second opportunity.

“His footwork is really good, his hand-eye coordination is good and his timing is good,” said Phil Collins, a former Gary Munsen assistant who works with Alm on strength and skills. “The thing that people don’t realize is that most centers swipe at it with their dominant arm. He blocks with both hands. He can go left or right on a block and you don’t see that a lot in high school.”

With Alm lurking near the rim, opponents have shot 34.7% this season, including 39.9% on attempts in the paint. By comparison, Mitchell shoots 56.8% percent in the paint.

In several games this season, Alm’s presence has altered offensive gameplans. On Dec. 29, Campbell County (Wyo.) attempted 52 shots and 39 came from beyond the 3-point line. The following day, Thunder Basin (Wyo.) attempted 39 of its 55 shots from the 3-point line, with players abandoning dribble penetration and reversing course when Alm took a step in their direction.

“I’ve never seen where a kid is afraid to come down the lane,” MHS head coach Todd Neuendorf said. “You’ll watch them come down the lane and take a sharp right and veer out — or left and veer out — because they see Zane sitting there. In college or the NBA, a guy is still going to go down the lane right at a big guy. They’ll start the game trying to go at him and they’ll get it blocked and then they completely abandon what they’re doing. It’s a luxury.”

Finding a shooting touch

Despite his prowess as a defender, Alm has never been content simply being a shot-blocker and has worked relentlessly to improve his strength and offensive skills.

Along with his defense and rebounding, Alm proved to be a gifted passer last season, with five games of at least six assists. But his scoring output was erratic, averaging 9.4 points per game on 46.2% shooting.

Mitchell's Zane Alm (40) goes to the basket past a pair of Aberdeen Central defenders during a game on Friday night at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell's Zane Alm (40) goes to the basket past a pair of Aberdeen Central defenders during a game on Friday night at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

For the past 23 months, however, Alm has worked with Collins to improve his core and leg strength three to four times per week, along with altering his shooting form nearly every day during the summer.

He has also worked on strength with Mitchell assistant Adam Fosness, and during the last two seasons, assistant Wes Morgan has helped Alm create a jump hook that has become his go-to offensive weapon. After scoring more than 15 points twice last season, Alm has seven games of at least 15 points this year, including three 20-point outings and five double-doubles.

“He’s wanted to improve his perimeter game, he’s wanted to be a more versatile player and I think his college coach wants him that way,” Neuendorf said. “Last summer, that’s what (USF) told him they wanted to work on, and he took it to heart and worked on it. We’ve allowed him some freedom. I’ve also said, ‘Zane, this is where we want you. We have to have you (on the block) for us to be successful,’ and he’s a team player, he does what we want. … It’s been good for him, good for us to expand his game.”

As Alm’s game has expanded, Mitchell has given him more opportunities within the offense. In turn, opponents have often guarded him with two or three defenders at times. Roosevelt and Harrisburg focused defensive efforts on stopping Alm, holding him to a combined 14 points. But when Sioux Falls Washington opted to cover him one-on-one, he exploded for 23 points.

“I’ve always wanted to get better at basketball and my parents always pushed me when I was younger,” said Alm, whose sister Taylin played volleyball for the University of Iowa. “We’re a big, tall family and all athletes. They were always pushing my brothers and sisters. My parents were a big factor. … When I was younger we had all these other bigs. Finally, I stepped up, got stronger and developed.”

Alm has progressed significantly the last two seasons, but many believe he has not reached his limits as a basketball player. Collins says Alm has gone from squatting 95 pounds to 225 in the last two years and he will continue to add weight and strength at USF.

With his offensive repertoire continuing to broaden, there is also a chance that Alm transforms from a back-to-the-basket center to a perimeter-oriented forward during his college years, a rarity for 6-10 Division II players.

“I think it’ll be night-and-day,” Collins said. “... I think he’ll be so much better in college, because they feed you. You’re a project. When you’re in high school, you go to McDonald’s for lunch. The last time I was down at (the University of South Dakota), the trainer was showing me five different protein supplements and you keep switching out because your body gets adjusted to one. Imagine how much more scientific they are with you.”