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Men's basketball: How two high-scoring friends from Oregon both ended up at Minnesota Crookston

Jacob Shames
Leonard Dixon shot 43.9 percent from 3-point distance as a redshirt sophomore at Mount Hood C.C. in Gresham, Ore., last season.

Leonard Dixon made it just in time.

With the United States headed for total lockdown, Dixon arrived in Minnesota on March 17, able to squeeze in one last recruiting visit. If everything went right, the sweet-shooting junior college forward knew he could be calling Minnesota Crookston home for the next two years.

While Dixon was touring the campus and facilities, his friend Ethan Channel, a solid JUCO prospect himself, was back at home in Oregon. Channel and Dixon had played together at Mount Hood Community College and still kept in touch, talking almost every day and working out together when they got the chance.

Dixon had told Channel he’d put in a good word to UMC head coach Dan Weisse. Channel figured Dixon would give him his name, his vitals and his stats. That sort of thing. Just to let Weisse know that there was a kid out there hungry for a shot.

Weisse and Dixon were at dinner one night when Weisse mentioned he still had a roster spot or two he wanted to fill. A guard, preferably. Did Dixon know anybody? Sure did.

When Dixon got back home, he called Weisse and told him he was committing. Then he told Channel to shoot Weisse an email with some highlights on it.

Dixon doesn’t remember precisely what he told Weisse on that trip. But to Channel, it’s obvious that it wasn’t a simple, “hey, I know a guy.” It was a full-fledged endorsement. One that clearly made an impact on Weisse and his staff.

“They seemed like they wanted me a lot without even really knowing me,” Channel, who committed to UMC on April 9, said. “ … I had no idea he put in that good of a word for me.”

It makes sense, though. Playing style aside, Channel and Dixon aren’t that different. Just ambitious, high-scoring hoopers from Oregon eager to play together again, like they’ve been ever since they went their separate ways two years ago.

This fall, they’ll get their wish.

***

Channel starred for Aloha H.S., 20 minutes west of Portland, Ore. Dixon did the same at Sam Barlow H.S. in Gresham, 20 minutes east. During their prep careers, their schools were even against each other.

The two didn’t get to know each other then, but they respected each other’s games from afar. Channel knew never to give Dixon a millimeter of space beyond the arc. Dixon describes Channel as “super athletic” even then.

Of the two, Channel’s college prospects looked stronger at first. Dixon was younger than most in his class and had yet to grow into his frame, at a skinny 6-foot-5. The only interest he got was from D-III Linfield, and Mount Hood and Chemeketa C.C. at the JUCO level. Channel, though, had a college-ready body and was getting attention from both Division I schools in town, Portland and Portland State.

But a month into his senior season, Channel broke his wrist in two places. Bigger schools ran, unsure of how long it would take him to recover. Mount Hood was the only school that invited him for a visit afterwards.

Channel and Dixon saw each other at a number of Mount Hood games throughout the 2016-17 season. But it wasn’t until that summer, after both committed, that they really got to know each other beyond their games. Mount Hood asked them to come early for workouts, so Channel moved east to Gresham and Dixon began hanging out at his place.

When the school year began, the pair took almost all the same classes. When they weren’t studying, they were putting up shots in the gym together. “We basically had the same schedule,” Dixon said.

The Saints’ freshman class in 2017-18 was diverse — guys from Atlanta, California, Hawaii, Las Vegas. Channel and Dixon were the local kids, which only strengthened their bond even more.

But the foundation of their friendship remained basketball. It reaped benefits that first year: Channel was second on the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game. Dixon was fifth, averaging 10. The pair saw the hunger in each other; the will to do whatever it took to get to the next level.

“JUCO is different from coming straight out of high school,” Dixon said. “JUCO players know the grind and know their time is short. We just really knew we had to influence and encourage each other.”

***

Channel left Mount Hood after his freshman season, wanting to move back home, and also as a result of Mount Hood’s head coach retiring. Because he was transferring to another school in Mount Hood’s conference, he had to sit out a year.

Dixon, meanwhile, was behind academically, and would have needed to take classes during the summer to graduate in two years. His new head coach, Nate Bowie, didn’t want to rush him.

“When I got Leonard, he was a little bit behind the eight ball as far as physicality,” Bowie, who recruited him as a Mount Hood assistant in 2017, said. “ … Leonard was one of those kids who was potentially gonna redshirt coming in anyway.”

Dixon used the redshirt year to his advantage. He knew he could shoot, so he focused more on expanding his game: developing his left hand, off-the-dribble game and passing skills and putting on size. He still took 1,000 shots per day, with more time to lift after. It didn’t hurt that he had grown two inches, either.

After practice was over, Bowie, a former professional player overseas, took Dixon aside and put him through the ringer. Plyometrics, weight training, skill development, whatever it took. In Bowie’s words, Dixon got better every single day.

“I can coach the s--- out of Leonard,” Bowie said. “With him it was, ‘yes, coach, yes,’ and ‘on it.’ When you have a kid like that, it makes it easier for me to play that kid.”

Bowie thinks the summer of 2019 was the real turning point for Dixon. During that time, Dixon played in pickup games and worked out with a number of professional and Division I players. Bowie could see his confidence growing along with his game, and knew big things were on the horizon.

Dixon began the first game of his redshirt sophomore season by throwing down a windmill jam.

With 19.3 points per game, Dixon slotted in as the 13th-highest scorer in the conference as a redshirt sophomore. He drilled 3.9 3-pointers per game at a 43.6 percent clip, also grabbing 5.7 rebounds for good measure, placing him on the All-Region First Team.

“Leonard’s worst game, he’s gonna knock down three or four threes,” Bowie said. “His good game, he can potentially have 40 points.”

On the other side of the city, Channel was blazing his own basketball path. He enrolled at Portland Community College, but didn’t join the team right away, instead focusing on taking classes and working out on his own — and with Dixon, when possible.

While Dixon took after those around him, the individual route worked for Channel. It was during his time sitting out that he started taking basketball more seriously, working on the things he wasn’t quite as good at instead of perfecting his strengths.

Tony Broadous, the head coach at PCC, had kept an eye on Channel when he was in high school. He remembered a solid all-around guard at 6-foot-3 with a confident jumper. When Channel first practiced with the Panthers, Broadous didn’t have to dig too far into his memory bank.

“I was like, ‘he’s as good as I thought he was,’ ” Broadous said. “It wasn’t a surprise or anything. I was excited to be able to coach him and I knew that I could coach him to do some good things. … I thought the sky was the limit.”

Channel began his redshirt sophomore campaign still getting used to his new team. He missed a trip to Arizona at Christmastime due to illness, too. But by the time conference play started, Channel made it clear the feeling-out process was over. He averaged 26.6 points per game over PCC’s last seven contests, finishing the year with 18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds per game and an All-Region Second Team nod.

The two friends were right on the doorstep of achieving their goals.

Now if only they could find a way to do it together.

***

After Channel left Mount Hood, he and Dixon played tug-of-war with each other. Dixon wanted Channel to come back to Mount Hood, while Channel wanted Dixon to join him at PCC.

It ended in a stalemate — neither wanted to have to pay for an apartment an hour away. Their current situations were probably best for both of them. And for 2018-19 at least, it wouldn’t have mattered.

But then Channel and Dixon got to thinking about the next level.

“We decided that, well, if we both have the option to play (NCAA basketball), to see where we could possibly play together,” Channel said. “Because we had such good chemistry between one another.”

The two kept their minds open. They weren’t quite a package deal. But it certainly would have been the optimal outcome. During the 2019-20 season, some schools — MSU Denver and Texas A&M-Commerce, for example — would show interest both Channel and Dixon, but lose interest in another over time. As a result, those school would slowly drop out of contention entirely.

To those around Channel and Dixon, there’s a fair bit of luck — good or bad, depending on your perspective — involved in getting the two Oregonians to Crookston. For starters, Channel’s illness in December didn’t just put him out for a few games. It left him home for a series of huge games against highly-rated NJCAA opponents; games where scouts were sure to be watching.

“If he just plays decent, he’s gonna probably pick up some offers,” Broadous said. “I think (missing) that trip set him back and slowed down his recruiting a little bit.”

Dixon faced a similar situation. Mount Hood went just 12-16 this season, but with a roster heavy on freshmen. Having been done no favors by inexperience and seven losses by four points or less, the Saints barely missed the conference tournament, costing Dixon valuable exposure.

But there’s not much regret here. Not for Channel and Dixon, who get two seasons of college basketball together, and certainly not for Minnesota Crookston, which gets a needed infusion of chemistry and scoring.

“You add Ethan and Leonard, that gives you two knockdown shooters,” Bowie said. “They can shoot with a hand in their face, spot up, any way possible. And Ethan being a bigger guard as well, I think that’s important for that league.

“Their attitudes are great. … I never had any problems with (Channel) or Leonard off the court. Ever. Ever. Those are really, really good kids.”

When Dixon is reminded of the good word he put in for Channel on his visit, he shrugs it off. “Really, Ethan put in all the work himself,” he says. But that doesn’t mean neither of them are unaware of everything it took for them to get where they are now.

“It’s kind of wild to think through what happened,” Channel said. “That we still ended up at the same school.”

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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