Coach Andy Thigpen and the Choctaw boys basketball team have reloaded with young talent for its 2019-20 season.

FORT WALTON BEACH — C.J. Matthews drifted into the corner, heels inches from the scuffed boundary, pumped once and fired.

The TeePee — packed to capacity on a cold, rainy Friday for the Indians’ first matchup of the year with crosstown rival Fort Walton Beach — seemed to fall briefly silent as it always does when Choctaw jacks up another 3.

But the ball rimmed out and fell into a scrum underneath the basket. A tornado of hands and sneakers flurried around it until the ball found junior Jamil Bowles, who knocked down a short, second-chance jumper for 31-29 lead midway through second quarter of the Indians’ scrappy 77-59 victory against the Vikings.

This is Choctaw basketball now, perhaps not as refined as it was during the past two years when the Indians racked up 50 wins and came up just five points short of Doral Academy in the 2018 7A state title game but with effort, grit and untapped talent to spare.

And that’s OK. That’s coach Andy Thigpen’s master plan for the 2019-20 boys basketball season.

“Our goal at the beginning of the season was to get them to play hard first and then we can get into the right spots as we go along down the season,” he said. “They’ve been doing good things and different kids are stepping up every night, which I love.”

Choctaw also loves its undefeated record. Including a season-opening 62-61 victory against Paxton, which made it to the 1A Final Four this past March, and wins against new district foes Booker T. Washington and Gulf Breeze, the Indians sit at 6-0 through the first 19 days of their season, averaging 68 points per game to their opponents’ 53.

What’s more impressive, Choctaw is doing it without the likes of Diante Smith and Josh Williams. Both lynchpins of the program for the past three years, Smith and Williams combined for 32.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per night as seniors during the 2018-19 season. Now, Smith plays for Texas Christian and Williams for Pensacola State College.

Filling their Jordans has become a team effort.

“It’s rough having that spotlight there, but we learned to share the ball a little bit more, get everybody involved and run a lot of plays to get all the guys involved,” senior captain C.J. Matthews said.

That selfless mentality shows up in the box scores.

Through Choctaw’s first six games, Matthews has led the Indians in scoring once, junior Amarion Pettis has done it twice, including an 18-point effort against Fort Walton Beach, and Bowles has done it three times, scoring 16 against Washington, 22 against Gulf Breeze and 26 against Pine Forest.

“Just from the summer, Jamil has grown up a lot; he’s a lot more comfortable,” Thigpen said.

And he’s a lot bigger.

Barely 6-feet tall a year ago, Bowles now checks in at 6-5 on Choctaw’s roster, and he’s already drawing some comparison to Smith, the Indians’ prototype lanky slasher.

Like Smith and Williams, Bowles wants it. You can tell. Friday against the Vikings, he found himself on the hardwood floor no less than a dozen times, diving for loose balls or careening to the ground after converting an acrobatic layup.

The uptick in production, he said, is the result of a summer spent reevaluating his approach.

“I stopped only looking for 3-pointers and I started driving to the basket more and being comfortable around the rim,” Bowles said.

Scoring has been easy, Bowles added, because no one wants to guard sophomore forwards Brian Grant and Elijah Johnson in the post; both check in at 6-8 and tip the scales at 260 and 270 pounds, respectively, and open up plenty of scoring lanes with that size.

Likewise, junior Ezra McKenna, a 6-6 wing, has been a pleasant surprise. Choctaw’s starting quarterback and the younger brother of Indians basketball alumnus Sage McKenna, McKenna dropped a season-high 20 points against Gulf Breeze before adding another 15 against the Vikings, drawing rave reviews.

“My man Ezra has to be one of my favorites,” Matthews said. “Being a quarterback, he just has so much vision and his IQ is phenomenal. I saw it in summer league just how good he’s gonna be, and he’s really proved it so far.”

Meanwhile, Matthews continues to prove he’s the consummate leader. Now in his second year as team captain, Matthews has been a “jack of all trades” on and off the court, Thigpen said.

“He’s another coach,” Thigpen said. “He does a lot of things behind the scenes. C.J. does everything from watching film, talking to the kids on the floor, setting up and running through drills.

“I walked in the other day and C.J.’s pulling uniforms out to hang up for the guys, and then on away trips, he had them in bags. Kids just don’t do that.”

With this core of players emerging, the Indians have set their sights on simply improving as they move forward, namely on defense.

The Vikings, who have now lost eight straight to the Indians, made use of several early Choctaw turnovers to hang around, trailing by just nine points at halftime, and often had open lanes to the hoop.

“It’s just a process,” Thigpen said. “Basketball IQ is what we gotta work on. The effort’s always there, but we just gotta get smart about the things we do.”

And that will come with time and experience, the latter of which is set to arrive in droves when Choctaw tips off at the second annual Emerald Coast 16 tournament this coming Thursday at The Arena in Niceville. Featuring some of the top prep squads in the country, the tournament will again act as a benchmark of sorts for the Indians, Matthews said.

“It’s a lot of experienced teams, a lot of built teams ready to play us,” he said. “It’s a lot of big games. We’ve been marking it on our calendar and we’re ready to go. We’ve been thinking about it since the beginning of the year.”

But performing in December is just stepping stone, Bowles cautioned.

“We’re mighty hungry,” he said. “We gotta go far this year. We gotta dive on the floor for everything — We’re lookin’ for a state championship.

“That’s our goal.”