Joel Sales looks at ease pushing the tempo of a basketball game. The Gavilan College point guard also can shift gears in the halfcourt set to find the open man just before the shot clock expires.
But the road to becoming the Rams’ leading scorer and assist man wasn’t always so smooth for the 23-year-old freshman.
“I’ve always been an underdog, so coaches didn’t really look at me as a starting point guard,” Sales said. “To finally come to a program that really believes in me, I finally get to show off my skills.”
And Sales has been showing off plenty. In the context of the game plan, of course.
“He’s the player we’ve been waiting for,” Gavilan head coach Tito Addison said. “He’s one of the ‘X’ factors this program has not had. Right now, I just think he’s trying to do too much. But he’s capable of it.
“He’s a player who, after his two years here, I think he’s a viable Division I guard.”
Sales enjoyed a solid career at James Logan High School in Union City. As a senior, he helped the Colts finish second in the Mission Valley Athletic League with a 9-3 record.
But the 5-foot-10 point guard was bypassed for a Division I scholarship when he graduated from Logan in 2007. Sales committed to play at Las Positas College, but those plans went awry with a foot injury.
Soon, there were bigger priorities off the court. Sales became a father.
His 2-year-old daughter, Jayla Kalina Sales, has been cheering for her dad during several games this season.
“Every now and then, she kind of gets the stress out of my mind,” Sales said of his daughter. “I look over and take a glance at her and see her smiling and playing with other kids. That gets me in a different mindset.”
Now healthy and driven, Sales has announced his presence as one of the top prospects in the Coast Conference, if not the entire state.
Through eight games, Sales led the Rams with 13 points and 1.8 assists per game, while shooting 30 percent on 3-pointers and 74.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Gavilan (3-8) suffered a 74-48 home loss to Ohlone on Dec. 28, but Sales was a rare bright spot with a team-high nine points, and he assisted on the Rams’ first two baskets against the state-ranked Renegades.
If Sales wasn’t a prospect for consideration by four-year colleges coming into the season, he likely landed on the radar with his 24-point performance in a 66-52 loss at Monterey Peninsula College on Nov. 30.
“He’s a great ball handler,” Addison said. “He has a great ability to get open shots for teammates and himself.
“He’s a vital point to our offense and defense, a player that we need.”
Sales wasn’t sure what to expect before he took the court for the Rams.
“To tell you the truth, I was really skeptical about coming to Gav,” he said. “I didn’t really hear too much about the program, but after I got used to what kind of coach Tito Addison is, I really believe in his program. He takes care of his players. I’m learning a lot from him. It’s definitely paying off.”
Sales said Addison has helped expand his skill set as a point guard.
“Coach Addison has really helped guide me and teach me not only just what to do on the floor, but how to be a leader,” he said. “I’m a little bit older than the (other) guys and have a little bit more experience, so that’s the biggest thing.”
Sales’ emergence has helped the Rams pick up the pieces from last year’s 1-23 season marked by tragedy.
Gavilan opted to play the season after freshman guard Andrel Gaines died Nov. 18, 2011 – 12 days after he suffered severe head trauma from a car accident on U.S. Highway 101 south of San Francisco.
Teammates Billy Heard and Davontea Johnson also were in the car, but survived their injuries from the crash that killed the 19-year-old Gaines. The other man involved, San Jose resident Dennis Leffew, was charged with vehicular manslaughter, but later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for driving under the influence.
Heard and Johnson are back with this year’s team, and the deep roster has shown signs of progress.
The Rams visit Canada College in Redwood City at 3 p.m. Saturday before opening conference play at MPC on Wednesday. Gavilan’s first conference home game tips off at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 against Cabrillo.
“My goal is to lead my team to a playoff run,” Sales said.
Sales has traveled a winding road to find a college basketball home, and a scholarship that once seemed far away might be approaching. He has tentative plans to major in either business or marketing.
“An athletic scholarship is definitely something I’m aiming for,” he said. “Whatever program has an opportunity for me to play there, I’d be happy.”