According to teammate Tyonne Malone, the freshman didn’t show much of anything.
“I don’t know what was going through his mind,” Malone said. “He didn’t say anything to us before the game, he didn’t say anything during the game, but he went to work. Actions speak louder than words.”
Perhaps none of Martin’s actions spoke as loudly as a breakaway with 6:15 left in the third quarter. After a scrum for a loose ball, Martin took off down the right sideline as Keiayvin Hayes drove up the floor. Hayes dished to Martin, who leapt high into the air, bringing down a massive one-handed dunk on a defender.
“I knew I was going to dunk on him,” Martin said. “I don’t know why he jumped.”
The play was a spark for the Beavers, who claimed their fourth consecutive Western Mass. championship with a 61-51 victory over the Hurricanes. Martin’s performance — as it has been throughout the postseason — was crucial for Putnam, scoring 15 points including a pair of 3-pointers. But his dunk may have been his most crucial points — it tied the game at 28, and the ensuing free throw gave the Beavers a 29-28 lead. Putnam never trailed again.
“That might have been Uncle Mo coming on to our side right there,” Putnam coach William Shepard said. “(Martin) was steady all game. He had a few mindless turnovers at the beginning, but he stayed focused, and he did a hell of a job down the stretch.”
Martin’s performance during the postseason, and even over the past few weeks, has been eye opening — he is averaging 18 points per game during the postseason and played big minutes for the Beavers in an increasingly important role.
“We tell Taelon ‘Don’t wait until you are a senior to do something,’” Shepard said. “He is a very talented young man.”
Malone and Martin play for the same AAU program — Mass Rivals — but Malone said he saw Martin’s potential well before their Rivals days.
“I saw him play at Dunbar (Community Center in Springfield), and I thought ‘This guy is going to be good,’” Malone said. “I knew for a fact if he just worked on his attitude and did what he has to do, he’d be fine.”
Work was never a problem for Martin. According to Rob Kelly, Martin’s former teacher and current trainer, Martin would bother Kelly for workouts every 10 minutes at 6:30 in the morning even as a nine-year-old.
“I’ve never seen a kid or an adult with that type of work ethic,” Kelly said. “He lives at the gym. … He’s a great kid — he listens, he’s respectful, he loves the game. If he keeps that mindset, the sky is the limit for him.”
People are beginning to take notice. After a strong performance at the CP3 Rising Stars camp this summer and a good circuit with Mass Rivals, Martin has risen to No. 3 in the 2019 New England recruiting class according to the New England Recruiting Report.
His teammates, meanwhile, have witnessed a significant maturation in Martin’s play, even since the beginning of the season.
“He’s become more of a leader,” Malone said. “The thing that he does, he accepts that he’s a freshman, but he doesn’t play like a freshman. His mindset is not on a freshman level. It’s more on a junior level. I can’t say there’s a lot of freshmen that are doing what Taelon is doing right now.”
Still, Martin takes his lumps from the upperclassmen in practice.
“They treat him like a little brother,” Shepard said. “He gets the rough end of the stick. They kick him around a lot. He gets frustrated, but he comes right back at them. But it’s all love. They know he has the talent. They just want to see him carry it out.”
The Beavers have asked more and more of Martin over the past two months, and they will continue to pile on responsibilities as the playoffs progress. On Friday, Martin was matched up immediately in man-to-man defense with Amherst star Devonte McCall, who had scored fewer than 20 points in just one of his previous 11 games. When Putnam switched to a 3-2 zone midway through the second quarter, Martin was the top of the zone — rotating from side to side in an attempt to pressure and trap the Hurricanes' ball handlers.
“We give him tremendous responsibility as a freshman to guard the other team’s best player,” Shepard said. “He does a tremendous job.”
Teams are quickly learning to throw multiple defenders at Malone, that Luqman Abdur-Rauf needs to be defended at all times behind the arc, that Hayes can hurt an opponent off the dribble. Shepard said that when Martin showcases his versatility as a shooter, a ball-handler and a high-flyer in transition, it opens up the game even more for the Beavers.
“It’s been the maturation process, the mental part of coming in, and his willingness to prepare to be in situations,” Shepard said. “He’s not afraid of work. He just needs the mental part to catch up with the athletic ability he has.”
“His confidence comes with preparation,” Kelly added. “It’s easy, if you’re talented, to rest on your laurels. He was going through a point where he wanted to be better, and we would go work out for another two hours after practice. That was every day. When I saw that, I knew he could be big. Confidence is about preparation — doing things over and over. You are seeing that now with how he’s playing in the postseason.”