When he was a kid first learning the fundamentals of the game, as a 10-year-old in a Washington Township rec league, Demetrius Paynter benefited from having his dad as a coach. Although his son was always one of the biggest kids on the court, Jeff Paynter had him playing point guard.
When he was a high schooler with dreams of carrying a trophy off the court, a teenager who had grown into his big frame, Demetrius Paynter would watch YouTube clips of Shaquille O’Neal dominating a game in the paint. It’s why he earned the monikers “Baby Shaq” and “The Beast.”
Timber Creek High School’s center combined those traits — the basketball IQ and handle of a point guard and the sheer strength and determination of a big man — to lead the Chargers to a championship season in 2020. Demetrius Paynter, a 6-6, 260-pound senior, was a double-double machine down the stretch as Timber Creek advanced to the Group 3 state championship.
Paynter and the senior-laden Chargers never got to play that game, unfortunately. The coronavirus pandemic had terrible timing, shutting down New Jersey High School athletics with one game remaining in the basketball season.
But Paynter and the Chargers still collected a South Jersey sectional championship, the program’s first in 12 years. And Paynter is heading to graduation with another honor: he is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“It’s amazing,” Timber Creek coach Rich Bolds said. “When you see a kid come in that size as a freshman you wonder what he’s going to turn out to be, because sometimes guys like that lose confidence because they’re big. But as he continued to play, he gained confidence, which was great … He was a difference maker.”
Paynter averaged 18.5 points, 16.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game for Timber Creek (25-5), the South Jersey Group 3 champions. He also shot an impressive 88 percent from the free throw line, a stat that would even impress Shaq.
In the closing seconds of a 60-57 state semifinal win over Wall, Paynter converted two free throws to ice the game. He went 6-for-6 from the line that night and finished overall with a game-high 20 points.
“I don’t really look for (individual acclaim),” said the mild mannered Paynter, who was joined by fellow seniors Eric Benjamin, Jalen Bergen and Justin Bladen to form the core of Timber Creek’s championship team.
“I tell my family all the time,” Paynter continued, “they’ll ask, ‘How many are you going to score tonight?’ and I’m like, I don’t look to put up a certain amount of points, I just want overall team success.”
The Chargers enjoyed that from the get-go during that core of senior’s final high school season. But Timber Creek wasn’t able to go wire-to-wire with that success.
Although they were matched up against some tougher teams, including Camden and Paul VI, the Chargers lost four of seven games during a three-week stretch in February. Instead of letting the losses get to them, beginning to question each other or starting to doubt their potential, they showed the resolve of a veteran team once the playoffs began.
“It was definitely because of guys like Demetrius and the rest of the seniors, they held each other accountable,” Bolds said. “When they were in the locker room after a loss, you could genuinely feel the hurt, they really cared.”
Those losses brought a bad but familiar taste back to Paynter. On March 2, 2019, he was one of the last players remaining in the visiting locker room at Moorestown High School, still in uniform wiping tears away from his face, after Timber Creek’s season ended in the sectional semifinals for a second straight year.
“I know having a lot of seniors helped. We had a lot of leadership since we’ve been through this the last three years,” Paynter said. “So you don’t hang your head. Losing those games (in February) actually helped us a lot. They were all good, playoff-caliber teams that helped us get ready for the playoffs.”
When the playoffs began, Paynter unleashed “The Beast.”
Paynter, who credited his dad, Bolds, and Glen Landing Middle School coach Frank Lotierzo for his development, averaged 20.5 points and 16.5 rebounds, with clutch free throws and timely blocks, too, in Timber Creek’s final four playoff games.
“He’s the reason that we won, him and Jalen,” Bolds said. “(Other teams) began focusing on Eric and Justin and he just stepped up like, ‘OK, get on my back, I’ll take you where you need to go.’”
Paynter will hang up his sneakers after graduation. He’s headed to Mount San Antonio College in California to begin studying for an eventual career as an air traffic controller, following in the footsteps of his dad and older brother.
While he wishes he could have had the chance to play in a state title game, Paynter is content with the end of his career.
“I went out, in my mind,” he said, “a champion.”
SOUTH JERSEY SPORTS WEEKLY WINTER AWARDS
With the winter season over, South Jersey Sports Weekly is naming Athletes of the Year in 11 winter sports, as well as boys’ and girls’ teams of team of the year, over the course of three issues in the month of March. The teams and players are selected from the 30 high schools within SJSW’s coverage area.
Demetrius Paynter, Timber Creek
Emma Matera, Delran
Martin Cosgrove, Camden Catholic
Jake Grace, Gloucester Catholic
Megan Prettyman, GCIT
Tommy Burns, Eastern
Annie Behm, Cherry Hill East
Jackson Brookover, Cherry Hill East
Boys Winter Team of the Year:
Cherry Hill East Boys Swimming
Girls Winter Team of the Year: