Ryan Hansen sat his lone returning player down for a talk.
Pa’Treon Lee was in the third grade when he first met Hansen, the Auburn High School boys basketball coach. They haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but there’s no one Hansen trusted more with taking over the proverbial keys to the team.
And there was no one this team more needed to take over than Lee.
“I pulled him aside and I said, ‘Think of our team as a car — you are driving the car,’ ” Hansen said. “ ‘Where are you going to take us? We’re giving you the keys.
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“And it was surreal because I had the same speech with his older brother a few years prior.”
So far, the junior guard has driven the Trojans (9-8) farther than what could have been expected.
Auburn is in the thick of a playoff hunt in its first season in the 4A North Puget Sound League. But here’s a look at all that the Trojans had going against them entering the season:
▪ One returning player from last year’s team (Lee).
▪ Two players that were expected to be returning starters had season-ending ACL tears before the season began.
▪ Auburn moved up a classification to the 4A NPSL from the 3A SPSL, where it finished 10-12 last season. So now it’s playing bigger schools with a less experienced roster.
Hansen had never before lost a player to a season-ending injury in his 15 years at Auburn.
“That’s obviously the roughest offseason I’ve ever experienced as a coach,” said Hansen, who took over at Auburn shortly after his playing career as a shooting guard at Eastern Washington University ended as a 24-year-old.
“It’s been an exhausting season because not only did we lose two returning starters, but I got one player in this gym who is taller than me. And I’m not very tall.”
Hansen stands at 6 feet.
“So that’s another challenge we’ve had.”
But that tumultuous offseason barely fazed Lee.
The 6-foot junior moved from shooting guard to point guard, and he’s been Auburn’s steady presence since. In back-to-back games against Decatur and Enumclaw, he first scored 27 points, then followed it up with a season-high 37.
Auburn won seven of eight games in one stretch this season, but has slumped lately as it rides a four-game losing streak.
“I think everything that happened this offseason lit a fire in us,” Lee said. “It gave us a reason to work harder. No one is going to feel bad for us because we lost two starters.”
Those two were junior point guard Jason Brown and senior forward Gavin Strojan.
Brown’s injury happened late in Auburn’s fall league. About two weeks later, Strojan was playing quarterback for Auburn when his ACL tore as he was tackled by a defender.
Strojan said basketball always had been his first love. Both his father and grandfather played at Fife before graduating and continuing their playing careers at Saint Martin’s University.
“That was probably the initial thought when I found out I tore my ACL was what it meant for my final basketball season,” Strojan said.
“Coach Hansen announces at the football games. I heard his voice and I immediately started thinking about basketball season. I don’t know what the future holds for me now, but I would love the opportunity to go play college basketball.”
In the meantime, he’s spent the season helping out on Auburn’s bench, keeping in-game stats.
Strojan wasn’t sure, either, what Auburn’s outlook looked like with so many fresh faces getting their first tastes of varsity basketball.
“It’s kind of been baptism by fire,” Strojan said. “Guys have had to go out there and prove they can do it with limited or no experience. And they’ve done a really good job.”
But Lee is the kind of player who has been used to having odds stacked against him.
He’s the youngest of five children and lives with his mother and stepfather. He spent much of his time around his next-oldest sibling, Harold, who graduated from Auburn in 2013 before playing two seasons at Highline College.
Lee goes by “Joosey,” a nickname his mom began calling him when he was a baby, he said. He would constantly be hanging around Harold, attending Auburn’s practices, watching his brother play and even acting as the ball boy.
“I loved watching my brother play because he’s who I learned to play basketball from,” Lee said. “We played all the time and it made me tough. I was always playing against older people, and even now he’ll take me to the gym and we’ll play against older people.”
Ka’Sean Griffin was the starting JV point guard last season and is now seeing significant varsity minutes.
“Joosey’s my best friend. We play basketball every day,” Griffin said. “At the YMCA, outside, indoors — wherever we can play. I’ve just seen him grow so much as a leader throughout the season. He’s a great example.”
As a freshman, Lee started on JV for the first few games. Then he became a JV-varsity swing player, and by the end of the season he was starting varsity games.
His 6-foot stature doesn’t do justice to his true size. He’s built thick, which explains why he’s so adept at finishing through contact. Lee said he likes to model his game after his favorite player, LeBron James.
Lee started all last season, but it wasn’t until this offseason that Hansen gave Lee the keys to the team — having the same conversation Hansen once had with Harold Lee.
“He told me that anytime we go through adversity that I’m going to have to be the one who brings people up,” Pa’Treon Lee said. “He told me to be the leader. That when we step on the court, have no fear and you’re going to be the one to drive this team.”
Hansen’s shirt at a practice last week had “NO EXCUSES” written on the front.
“I’ve seen Joosey grow from this little kid in the third grade to where he is now — just so mature,” Hansen said. “He had a chip on his shoulder his freshman year, and was upset that he was on JV. But he practiced really hard.
“Last year he kind of took a step back in that regard. I think he got comfortable. But I think this year, with so much on his shoulders, he’s stepped back into that role as a hard practice player — and those are always my best players.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677