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Pickerington Central stars Sonny Styles, Devin Royal major in chemistry on the court

Styles is the Tigers' primary playmaker, Royal is the leading scorer, and their friendship away from basketball contributes to their success.

By Aaron Blankenship | Photos by Gabe Haferman

Devin Royal and Alex “Sonny” Styles have been close friends since they met playing basketball more than seven years ago.

The Pickerington Central duo’s teamwork is so smooth and cohesive that it sometimes appears as if they can read each other’s minds.

“Sonny’s my best friend, and our chemistry is really strong,” Royal said. “We’ve been playing together for so long that we just know how each other plays, and we know each other’s games so well that we can anticipate where the other guy is going and where we need to be.”

Styles — who often sets up Royal’s dunks, layups and jump shots with nifty passes — agrees with his teammate.

“We’ve been really good friends going all the way back to fourth grade, and we definitely play well together because we’ve known each other for so many years,” Styles said.

The duo’s chemistry and production have paid major dividends for the Tigers this season, as they are 24-2 overall after capturing league, district and regional championships.

Central will square off against Lakewood St. Edward in a Division I state semifinal at 5:15 p.m. Saturday at the University of Dayton. The winner will face defending state champion Centerville or Cleveland St. Ignatius in the final at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

“Sonny and Devin definitely have great chemistry, and their leadership has played a major role in our success,” said eighth-year Central coach Eric Krueger, who has led the Tigers to six district titles and three regional championships. “They have different skill sets, but they work really well together, and they have a lot of similarities, too. They are both Alpha leaders, who the other kids respect and defer to; and off the court, they’re both goofy, funny, fun kids.

“Chemistry is important this time of year, and this group in general has a lot of fun and enjoys spending time together.”

Royal improvement

Royal is Central’s leading scorer this season, averaging 19.1 points per game.

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior power forward also averaged a team-best 8.2 rebounds along with 1.6 assists per contest en route to being named the Ohio Capital Conference-Buckeye Division Player of the Year and first-team all-Central District.

“Devin’s a stud offensively,” Krueger said. “He’s averaging over 19 points a game on a team where no one else averages 10 or more points, and he’s our leading offensive rebounder, even with having everyone’s attention on him.”

As a sophomore post player, Royal averaged 13.9 points and was third-team all-district.

Royal has continued to energize his teammates with thunderous dunks, but he has developed into a much more versatile offensive player this season, as he's added mid-range jump shots and 3-pointers to his game.

Royal learned the fundamentals of basketball from his father, Daryl, who played running back at the University of Cincinnati (1994-97).

He also credited coaches Jason Dawson, Devin Howard, Krueger and Marcus Stewart for helping him become the player he is today.

“I’ve trained with a lot of great coaches who have helped me add range to my game,” Royal said. “I’ve improved my outside shooting and my dribbling so I can take the ball to the rim.

“I’ve also improved my footwork in the paint. I’ve got one or two guys coming at me at all times, so I’ve learned to use my feet instead of my hands to get around them to the basket.”

Royal — who also worked with strength and conditioning coach Chuck Gresham to gain muscle and drop 10 pounds of excess body weight — already has 21 Division I college basketball scholarship offers. 

Ohio State, Butler, Dayton, Florida State, Illinois, Iowa State, Kansas State, Marquette, Penn State and Xavier are among the schools heavily recruiting Royal.

“I was slow when I was younger, so I had to slim down and get into shape,” Royal said. “I’ve been on a meal plan for a year-and-a-half now where I’ve cut down on my carbs and I eat more protein. Chuck Gresham has helped me get stronger, and I’ve grown my game outwards, which I needed to do to be able to play in college.”

Facilitating Styles

Royal also has benefited greatly from the deft passing of Styles, who often draws defenders to him while he drives to the basket, before dishing the ball to teammates for a dunk, layup or shot from the perimeter.

“Sonny’s a special athlete who has the ability to play any position, including point guard,” Krueger said. “Sonny has the ability to score more, but he’s extremely unselfish and he’s always looking to set up his teammates as well. Sonny and Devin have this great, unspoken chemistry where they know how to connect without either of them saying a word.”

Styles learned the fundamentals of basketball from his father, Lorenzo Sr., and he improved his toughness and athleticism by playing one-on-one with his older brother, Lorenzo Jr., in the driveway of his family’s home.

Lorenzo Sr. played linebacker at Ohio State from to 1992 to 1994, before being drafted in the third round of the 1995 NFL draft and playing for the Atlanta Falcons for two seasons and the St. Louis Rams the following four seasons.

Lorenzo Jr. was a star wide receiver at Central for four seasons, and he had the game-winning touchdown catch in the Tigers’ 21-14 victory over Cincinnati Elder in the 2019 state final. The 2021 Central graduate contributed at wide receiver and on special teams as a freshman at Notre Dame in the fall.

“I started working out with my dad when I was 4, and he helped me so much in sports when I was younger,” Sonny said. “Me and my brother used to play outside a lot, and he didn’t take it easy on me, because he didn’t want to lose to his younger brother. But we have great respect for each other, and having him push me as my older brother helped me do great things.”

While Styles has made a name for himself as a five-star college football recruit at safety, he’s continued to work hard to improve his basketball skills, training with former Oklahoma point guard Andrew Lavender and Dawson to improve his ball-handling and shooting.

Besides receiving scholarship offers from nearly every top college football program in the nation — before signing with Ohio State on Dec. 15 — Styles also received college basketball scholarship offers from Akron, Duquesne, Kent State, Ohio and Toledo.

“Football is my first love, but a few schools gave me the opportunity to play college basketball, and that meant a lot to me,” Styles said.

While starting at small forward this season, Styles has been Central’s second-leading scorer, averaging 9.2 points per game.

The 6-4, 215-pound athlete who boasts a wingspan of 6-9 also averaged a team-best 2.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds while being named third-team all-district.

“It’s hard to put in perspective the value that Sonny brings to our team because he does so many things well,” Krueger said. “The way he handles the ball and sets up his teammates really stands out, and he obviously has the ability to score well, too.

“Sonny’s definitely huge for us defensively, too. He’s versatile enough to guard every position one through five, because of his strength, quickness and athleticism.”

Styles showed off his versatility in Central’s 59-42 victory over Gahanna Lincoln in a regional final March 12, as he racked up 13 rebounds, eight points, six assists, three blocks and two steals. Royal finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.

“I just do whatever my team needs me to do, depending on who we’re playing,” Styles said. “I try to affect the game in a lot of different ways. When I was younger, I did a lot more rebounding and blocking shots. Now, I’m handling the ball more and setting other people up, and defensively, I feel like I can match up with almost anyone.

“Sometimes I’m told that I’m maybe a little too unselfish, but that’s just the way I play. I get it from my parents (Lorenzo Sr. and Laverna) because they have done so much for us over the years.”

The state tournament will mark the final chapter in Styles’ high school basketball career, as he reclassified into the 2022 football recruiting class in the fall and is on pace to graduate from Central a year ahead of schedule in the spring.

“It hasn’t totally hit me yet that this will be my last bit of basketball,” Styles said. “I didn’t decide to reclassify until about halfway through the fall, so I’ve had to develop a senior mentality. This is a special group of guys I’m playing with, and we want to do something big in our last season together.”

Royal said he’s proud that the Tigers have been able to win league, district and regional championships in Styles’ final season, but he is hoping to send him on his way with one more parting gift.

Central is making its first state tournament appearance since 2018, and the Tigers captured their lone state title in 2012.

“Sonny’s taught me a lot about team sports and leadership,” Royal said. “I’m a little bummed that Sonny won’t be here for my senior year, so we really want to win out for him while we’re all together. We’ve been blessed to win some championships this season, and playing in the state tournament together is going to be real special.”

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