Johns Creek’s zone defense is in a predicament.
As Forsyth Central guard T.J. Custer whips the ball crosscourt to Chap Lindstrom, all five Gladiators tentatively lean in Lindstrom’s direction. They dare not extend their perimeter too far, not with such a productive scorer shuffling from post to post, his hand waving for the ball and nearly grazing the rim.
Johns Creek’s indecisiveness costs them. A quick pass back to Custer, and the Bulldogs’ marksman drills a 3-pointer that puts Central in the lead for good.
The play doesn’t happen without Andrew Fishler, but he’s not around to celebrate it. The Dawgs center is already halfway down the floor, ready to defend his team’s lead at the D.B. Carroll Complex.
Catching defenders’ attention is just one of many attributes in the big man’s duffel bag.
“I couldn’t imagine playing without him this year,” Custer said. “He’s such a good blocker, defender, shooter, he dunks. I mean, he’s just such a good threat in the post.”
Fishler’s dominance in the paint has helped Central earn its highest win total since before 2004-05. It will be of the utmost necessity if the Bulldogs are to sneak into the state playoffs at the Region 7-AAAA tournament next weekend.
The senior’s development has drawn looks from some small colleges, too, just a few short years after Fishler wasn’t sure if he’d even contribute at the high school level. Schools like Young Harris and Georgia College and State University have expressed particular interest.
“He’s spoiled us in a lot of ways,” coach Steve Barnes said. “Our guys will get beat off the dribble and sometimes you don’t realize you’re not playing really good defense because he’s back there, and he gets a block. He makes up for others’ mistakes, which has just been awesome.
“He’s protecting the fort, and it’s kind of a safe place.”
Notable accolades for a guy that occupied a folding chair for most of his middle school basketball career.
“Fish,” as he’s known around Central, rarely saw the floor in seventh and eighth grade. He stood less than six feet tall until his final year before high school.
Then, he started growing. And growing.
“Near the end of my eighth grade year, I went from about 5-11 to about 6-3,” Fishler said. “I had to learn to be comfortable with myself, obviously, as I kept growing a lot.”
It didn’t happen overnight. Fishler wasn’t a member of Central’s varsity lineup until last year, and even then his height was his most eye-popping statistic.
But a commitment to improving his coordination and conditioning has allowed him to come into his own this season.
After scoring 4.9 points per game a year ago, he ranked second on the team behind Custer with 13.2 heading into Tuesday’s matchup with South Forsyth. His rebounding numbers are also way up — 7.9 boards a game as opposed to 4.2 last year.
Central’s offense revolves around him. When he’s not executing a drop-step for an effortless lay-in or banking home the soft hook shot he spent his summer perfecting, Fishler’s drawing defenders and dishing the ball to an open teammate.
“We said from the start [of the season], when we come down, the No. 1 option is Fish,” Barnes said. “No. 2 is Fish, No. 3, look into Fish, No. 4 — and we get to about 10 and then we want to look for something else.”
Fishler may be even more effective on defense. Before Tuesday, he’d blocked at least four shots in every game this season (8.3 per game), and his 19 against Rome on Jan. 14 set a state record according to prepcountry.com. He’s also recorded four triple-doubles.
Knowing he presents a mismatch for nearly every opponent, Fishler doesn’t venture far from the basket. Instead, he baits teams into working the ball into the paint.
Whether that’s via the drive or the entry pass, he’s almost never out of position to at least alter a shot’s trajectory. Usually, though, he swats it away.
“I’m just going to block his shot,” Fishler said when asked about his thought process as an offensive player enters his realm. “I just know that he’s stupid for trying to shoot over me.”
Such a statement may seem boastful, but it stands in stark contrast to Fishler’s off-court demeanor. The mild-mannered senior isn’t the most talkative, but his friendliness is recognized by the entire school.
“He’s not selfish,” Barnes said. “He’s just the ultimate guy. Everybody loves him.”
Fishler’s membership in Central’s winter homecoming court drew a thunderous cheer at halftime on Jan. 13 against Lambert. After being escorted by his mother during the ceremony, he scored nine points in the second half of a 61-54 Bulldogs victory.
Just another step on a long — and tall — basketball journey.
“He’s really grown a lot,” said Fishler’s younger brother, Austin Fishler.
The Central sophomore would know. After missing the cut during freshman tryouts, Barnes asked Austin (who stands more than a foot shorter than Andrew) to join the varsity team as its manager. He enthusiastically accepted and has been on the sidelines for all of his older brother’s games.
“It’s awkward but fun at the same time, hanging out with the team and hanging out with him,” said Austin Fishler, known in the Dawgs’ locker room as “Little Fish” or “Nemo”. “They’ve come a long way.”
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter @PhilErvin_FCN