Column: Harvard-Westlake's Nikolas Khamenia is a player to watch now and in the future

Nikolas Khamenia changes before your eyes. Maybe it’s the haircut he got during the season that provides the illusion. More likely is that he’s a growing 17-year-old becoming stronger, feistier and more confident every time he steps onto the basketball court.

He’s the Man of Steel for Harvard-Westlake, a 6-foot-8 junior whose physicality, versatility and adaptability is so distinctive that it singles him out as a star in the making.

For those who remember last season, it was his development as a bona fide standout that helped propel the Wolverines to their first Open Division state championship. It was like a light switch was turned on because he suddenly was a different player late in the regular season.

“I feel like last year, I was still trying to find myself taking that starting role as a sophomore,” he said. “We were really good my freshman year and even better last year. Finding my role early in the year was complicated but toward the end, I found that confidence and had trust in my coaches and teammates. Once I found my rhythm, that’s when I started to show it in games.”

The improvement has continued this season. He entered this week averaging 15 points, six rebounds and four assists for the 20-1 Wolverines, ranked No. 1 in Southern California. He scored 21 points on national television Monday in Harvard-Westlake's overtime win at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., against McEachern (Ga.).

“He’s an incredible worker,” coach David Rebibo said. “He’s gained muscle, worked on his shot. He’s always had a great handle and feel and post skills and improved that.”

Khamenia’s parents are from Belarus and his father coaches basketball at Los Angeles Valley College. His whole offseason was devoted to making his mind and body stronger.

“I had the mindset, ‘Get better, get better, get better,’” he said. “I hit the weight room. I thought a lot about my body, eating wise, stretching wise, treatment wise.”

It shows on the court, where he has the option of going inside or outside depending on the needs of the team and is willing to bang and scramble for loose balls.

Harvard-Westlake began what is the most challenging week of the season on Monday with its overtime win in Springfield, Mass., then has Mission League games on Wednesday at home against unbeaten Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and on Friday at Sierra Canyon .

One reason the Wolverines have been so successful this season is the improvement in their big three returnees — Khamenia, Trent Perry and Robert Hinton. When your veterans are still improving, it’s a good sign of a program developing players to their fullest.

The USC-bound Perry is much stronger than he was as a freshman. He finishes plays and outmuscles opponents inside. His outside shot is way more consistent.

Hinton, who is headed to Harvard, might be the most improved player. His athleticism is way up. He can score from anywhere and is contributing dunks that are rare for guards.

“Robert put in an incredible amount of work in by himself and has done an unbelievable job,” Rebibo said. “Robert has grown by a tremendous amount.”

It’s that competitive fire among the big three that keeps everyone getting better at a time the Wolverines have become the target as the team opponents want to beat.

Just know the Wolverines welcome the challenge.

“I feel we have the same or better team chemistry than last year,” Khamenia said.

Those who get to watch Khamenia are seeing a teenager with the size and skills to play the game at a high level for a long time.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.