New Albany High School boys basketball player Jalen Rhea has embraced the work habits of a leader.

New Albany High School boys basketball player Jalen Rhea has embraced the work habits of a leader.

The 6-foot-2 junior guard had a supporting role last season as the Eagles finished 18-5 overall and advanced to their first Division I district final. The OCC-Capital Division champions graduated seven seniors, however, including all five starters.

So Rhea set the tone for this transitional season by heading to the gym, where he spent much of last summer.

"He's getting better, and I can't say enough about his offseason and the work he put in," coach Sam Davis said after the Eagles defeated Hilliard Bradley 74-59 on Jan. 17 as Rhea had one of his best efforts of the season to help end the team's three-game losing streak. "He's done a lot of work on his own and now he's reaping the rewards."

The same can be said of New Albany, which has stayed within striking distance of the OCC-Capital's leaders despite the roster turnover. Mount Vernon was 7-1 and Olentangy Orange was 6-2 in the league before the games on Jan. 24. Both won first-round games over the Eagles, who were 6-6 overall and 5-3 in the league before playing Watkins Memorial on Jan. 24.

"We've come a long way since the start of the season. I really believe that," Rhea said. "Maturity-wise, we're way better."

Rhea spent considerable time last summer honing his shooting skills through repetition.

"I was in the gym all summer and made the 10,000-shot club," he said. "That's 10,000 makes, by the way. (Jack) Serbin and (Devon) Pitts made it, too."

Rhea was leading the Eagles in scoring average (14.4 points per game) and rebounds (4.8) and was second in assists (3.4) behind point guard Jay Marshall (3.5) through 12 games. Rhea also led the team with 23 3-pointers.

"My dad played in college at (Division II) Tiffin," Rhea said. "He was a post player, but he's the one who really taught me how to shoot. I remember as a kid I'd go watch him play in the (3-on-3) Gus Macker tournaments."

On the strength of seven 3-pointers, Rhea scored a career-high 37 points when New Albany defeated Columbus West 81-44 on Dec. 30. He led the Eagles in scoring in eight of the first 12 games, and his effort against Bradley marked the eighth consecutive game and 10th time overall he reached double figures.

Rhea shot 75 percent from the field that night, made two of his three attempts from behind the arc and all four free throws while scoring 22 points. He also contributed three assists and four blocks.

"That's a pretty good stat line," Davis said. "I can't say those numbers are typical quite yet, but he's certainly getting there."

•DOWNTIME - The Eagles are coming off a rare weekend off after the Bradley game was moved from Jan. 20 to accommodate the wrestling team's home tournament. However, the coaching staff was at work on Jan. 20 and 21.

"We'll use (the first day) to scout for the league (games) and (the second) to scout for the (postseason) tournament," Davis said beforehand.