A year ago, Mark Armstrong stunned the local high school basketball scene as a freshman at St. Peter’s Prep, averaging 16 points per game, and becoming the school’s all-time leading freshman scorer on the Marauder varsity.
Armstrong’s scoring prowess earned him a spot on the Hudson Reporter All-Area First Team, a total rarity for a rookie to be classified with the top five players in a talent-packed area.
Armstrong’s ascent into high school basketball prominence right away also earned him Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week honors in the Jan. 24, 2019 editions of the Reporter.
There are some players who could have rested on those laurels. And there are some who excelled at high levels as younger players, but never reach the same heights ever again.
That’s obviously not a title or a description that is being tagged to Armstrong.
Because as incredible as it may seem, Armstrong has proven to be a much better player this season than he was last year.
Both Armstrong and his head coach Alex Mirabel agree that Armstrong has improved considerably – with both using the same adjective about Armstrong’s playing style this season.
“I think this year, Mark is a lot more aggressive,” Mirabel said. “He gets it now. Last year, we had to constantly remind him. But he picked it up to be more aggressive and the more he is, it opens up things for a lot of people.”
“I could learn how to pass and be aggressive at the same time,” Armstrong said. “Coach [Mirabel] always reminds me that I couldn’t be the kid who failed after one year. I had to keep getting better.”
The numbers prove the fact that Armstrong has indeed improved tremendously. Armstrong is averaging 21.8 points per game this season as a sophomore, entrenching himself as one of the top sophomore guards in the nation, not just New Jersey or even Hudson County.
Over the last six games, Armstrong has kicked his game into an even higher level. He started his run with a 26-point performance against Trenton Catholic, continued with 25 against Dickinson, tossed in 26 against defending Hudson County Tournament champion Union City, scored 20 against Manasquan in the Dan Finn Classic at the Jersey City Armory, had 17 against Bayonne and scored 32 in a win against Memorial. Of those six games, only Manasquan was a setback. The rest were all wins, as the Marauders own an impressive 12-2 record.
And for his efforts, Armstrong has been selected once again as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week, matching the honor he received almost exactly a year ago to the date.
And Armstrong is certainly not sneaking up on anyone this time around. He’s gained his solid reputation as a big-time marquee scorer.
Mirabel believes that despite all the accolades and praise, Armstrong is still a work in progress.
“I think with Mark it’s a game-to-game process,” Mirabel said. “I think a lot of teams play Mark differently. Some try to double team him. Others put a player on him to faceguard him. He’s learned to make the adjustments when there isn’t a lot of room to create plays. It hasn’t been easy for him. He’s our best scorer and every team we play is trying to lock in on him. But he’s been up to the challenge.”
Armstrong knew that this year was not going to be a walk in the park, that every opponent would most certainly make Armstrong the center of attention – even if he is a guard.
“I feel like I’m a better player on both ends of the floor,” Armstrong said. “My body is bigger. I’m faster. I’m shooting better. My Dad [former St. Peter’s Prep and Rhode Island College standout Mark Armstrong, Sr.] and Coach Mirabel worked with me in the weight room to get stronger. I can see the difference already.”
Armstrong believes that he’s improved in a mental aspect of the game.
“I feel a little more confident,” Armstrong said. “I’m shooting the threes [3-point field goals] much better. I go to the basket more and I’m a good free throw shooter. The other team’s defense has been very tough, but it enables my other teammates to score. They can’t always cheat on me, so I just make the pass to the open man.”
One of the key recipients to Armstrong’s court awareness has been junior Ray Ford, who has developed into a fine scorer, averaging 12 points per game.
Mirabel believes that Armstrong is also a better player on the defensive side.
“He’s become a better defender,” Mirabel said. “He can take over the game defensively by blocking a shot or getting a steal. It’s all an advantage for him.”
Needless to say, the colleges are lurking about. There’s no question that Armstrong is a big-time college prospect and has received his share of interest, even though he’s only a sophomore. Without printing the schools, the list is impressive.
“There’s a lot of interest,” Mirabel said. “Some big-time schools are reaching out. I think others are waiting for him to develop.”
“I’m keeping an open mind to everybody,” Armstrong said. “I’m accepting all interest as a blessing. But I’m going to keep working on it. I’m not worried about college just yet. I think things will all work out.”
It also helps having someone who went through the process a little in his own living room.
“My Dad has always been there for me,” Armstrong said of his father, who graduated from Prep in the mid 1980s. “We’re really close and talk all the time. It’s definitely a help. I have to thank my father every chance I get.”
Mark Armstrong, Sr. wouldn’t have it any other way. But there’s nothing head-to-head, father vs. son, anymore.
“He doesn’t want to play me one-on-one,” Armstrong laughs.
There’s good reason for that.
There’s never been a 2,000-point scorer in the history of basketball at Grand and Warren, but Armstrong is definitely on pace to do that. He already has 719 points – and we’re only halfway through his sophomore season.
And you have to remind yourself listening to Armstrong’s words that he’s still only 15 years old.
“That’s the crazy part,” Mirabel said. “He’s only 15 years old and has done all of this. It’s exciting to have him around and watch him develop. He has the potential to be the best here, but he still has a lot of room for growth. But he’s headed in the right direction.”
Armstrong remembers vividly two summers ago, when he was still just a student in Prep’s Higher Achievement Program (HAP), where prospective students come to learn during the summer months. One of Armstrong’s teachers was Kevin Walker, the former great Marauder guard who scored more than 1,000 points in his Prep career, before heading off to star at Caldwell College.
“I always talk to him,” Armstrong says of Walker. “We used to play around a little and he told me that I’d be special one day. I remember looking up at the banner in the [Prep] gym with all the 1,000-point scorers’ names and seeing Kevin Walker’s name. And I imagined what it would be like to have my name there.”
It’s coming, sooner than you think.
“When it comes, it comes,” Armstrong said. “The goal is to keep getting better. I just have to work hard.”
Incredibly, the best three guards in Hudson County right now are all sophomores, namely Armstrong, Zion Cruz of Hudson Catholic and Maurice Odum of Union City.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Armstrong said. “It’s a great thing for the Class of 2023. People are taking notice of that class.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com
If you want to read the Armstrong AOW feature from last year, click on here: