Shawn Cotton Jr. knew early in the basketball season he was primed for a breakout year. Playing in Hillsdale’s annual preseason alumni game, Cotton put on show against some guys who were his mentors his first three years in high school.

[The alumni players] were like, ‘Dang. Was this the guy we played with [his] freshman year?’” Cotton said. “I was clicking. I had like 32 (points).”

That set the tone for the whole season for Cotton, who would go on to lead the Peninsula Athletic League in scoring with a 19-point average and fell a whisker shy of averaging 20 points for the season, finishing with 19.9. He also added 6.8 rebounds a game, 2 steals and 1.7 assists. All this while playing nearly every minute of every game, helping lead Hillsdale to an overall record of 21-8 and leading the Knights to their first Central Coast Section title since 1997.

For his efforts, Cotton is the Daily Journal’s Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year.

“He’s a senior. It was his year,” said Hillsdale head coach Brett Stevenson. “He knew it and he took advantage of it.”

Cotton’s career year did not magically appear. It was the result of hard work throughout his four years at Hillsdale. Already known to be lightning quick and a nightmare in the open court and on the break, Cotton still had work to do. Adept at driving to the bucket in the half court, there was one thing missing from his arsenal — a jump shot.

It takes a savvy player to understand his weaknesses and to work on them. Cotton wasted no time in adding a 3-point shot in the offseason.

“Starting from junior year, when we lost in the CCS semis, I was right (back) in the gym,” Cotton said. “Last year, I couldn’t really shoot that good. That was another element I put into my game. I put in a ton of work over the summer.

“That was the last one. I knew if I hit that shot, I knew it just completed my game.”

So it did. Now, teams could not sag off of Cotton defensively, daring him to shoot a jumper. They had to play him straight up, which gave him a lot more options because he still had one of the quickest first steps on the Peninsula. Get up in his chest? Cotton could take his defender off the dribble. Drop back a bit? Cotton didn’t hesitate to pull the string on his jumper. Overall, he shot 44% from the field this season and was 51 for 167 from behind the 3-point line, good for 31%.

“The kid worked relentlessly on his outside shot,” Stevenson said. “This was the year he was really hitting the 3. He just became a hard guard.”

Cotton had become the complete offensive player. While still a menace in the open court, he now excelled in the half-court offense. While not the primary ball handler for Hillsdale, Cotton inevitably would assume the point guard position to set the half-court offense in motion, knowing he would get the ball back in a spot to do some damage.

“I think that the real growth area for him was in the half court. The more you move the ball, the defense starts to break down. When Junior would get that second touch in the possession, he was unstoppable,” Stevenson said. “That’s what makes him special. If the game is going up and down, Junior can play that game. If it grinds to a half-court game, Junior can play in the half court.”

Cotton, however, is far from a one-way player. As good as he was offensively this season, he was just as good on the defensive end. Nearly 7 rebounds a game from a shooting guard shows how tenacious he was in getting his hands on the ball. And a lazy pass from the guy he was guarding? It was getting picked and Cotton was going the other way for an uncontested layup.

“What an asset to have — a guard who rebounds like that,” Stevenson said.

After a third-place finish in the PAL South Division, the Knights received the No. 1 seed in the CCS Division II bracket. After playing at such a high level during the regular season, Cotton carried it over into the playoffs. In CCS play, Cotton opened with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 4 steals as Hillsdale escaped with a 53-51 quarterfinal win over Wilcox-Santa Clara. In the semifinals against Willow Glen-San Jose, a 77-67 victory, Cotton posted a double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds.

The championship game, a 59-40 blowout win over Christopher-Gilroy, almost felt like a coronation. In front of a packed Sequoia gym, filled mostly with Hillsdale fans, Cotton scored 22 points — going 2 for 3 from 3-point range and 6 for 7 from the free throw line. He also pulled down 8 rebounds, added 3 assists and came up with 2 steals and received a standing ovation when he came off the floor in the final minutes.

In a pair of Northern California regional tournament games, Cotton kept up his strong play, basically hitting his season averages in a 78-77, double-overtime win over Urban-San Francisco before having the season end with a 60-58 loss to Hoover-Fresno.

“I think being on varsity for four years, it showed me what to expect. How to play in a packed gym or what to do in crucial moments. I feed on the pressure. I think it makes me a better player,” Cotton said. “I felt like … I always turned it up during playoffs, (during) crucial moments. This was my senior year. I had something to play for. I didn’t want the season to end. We played as a team in CCS and Nor Cals.”

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