In his final season with the Jackson boys basketball team, 6-foot-8 senior post Clayton Ernst has cemented himself in program history as a 1,000-point scorer.
Reaching this milestone shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, though, as Ernst has been playing on the varsity level ever since he stepped foot on campus. Clayton has also been one of the tallest players in Southeast Missouri over the past four years.
On Senior Night last Tuesday, the Jackson coaching staff surprised Ernst with a souvenir ball celebrating his 1,000 points as an Indian, which he reached last month against Lindbergh Jan. 10. Clayton went on to finish with a team-high 14 points in the Indians 72-49 win over Seckman after receiving his 1,000-point ball.
“It means a lot to me — honestly I had no clue because I thought I was at like 800,” Ernst said. “Some of the guys were kind of teasing me the last couple of days, ‘What do you think you’re at?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know — I’m not sure.’ When I saw that ball I thought, ‘That’s gotta be for me I guess.’
“When they said my name, my emotions just all opened up, and I was so excited. Credit goes to the past four years of these guys helping me get through everything because I couldn’t have done it without them for sure.”
While he always produces plenty of points inside the painted area, Ernst has also expanded his offensive game to the mid-range area with his pull-up jumper. This makes someone of his stature even more difficult for opposing post players to guard.
“All it took to improve my mid-range game was putting game shots up — I could always make it, I just wasn’t consistent with it because I wasn’t confident in myself,” Clayton said. “Getting that confidence level up and being a senior, you have to do everything you can and know you have to make that shot.”
Ernst is currently averaging the second-most points for the Indians as he’s scoring 12.1 per game with a 50.7% shooting percentage. The Jackson big man is also nearly averaging a double-double with a team-high 9.4 rebounds per contest, along with having 1.4 blocks per game.
Clayton has helped lead the Indians to an overall record of 17-8, which is the most wins Jackson has recorded since 2019 when the team finished 18-11 overall. The Indians are hoping to win their first district championship since 2020 with players like Clayton and juniors Blayne Harris (15 points per game) and Judd Thoma (10.5 PPG) leading the way.
Even though Ernst’s experience has played a big role in his success this winter, Indians first-year head coach Kory Thoma brought in a former Division-I basketball player to help Clayton reach his full potential. This assistant coach is former Southeast Missouri State Redhawk Luther Bonds, who is only one inch shorter than Ernst.
“Clayton is a big talent and, of course, there aren’t a lot of 6-8, 230-pound centers in the ball game today at the high-school level,” Coach Bonds said. “Kory had been talking to me about him for a long time, so he wanted me to work with him on his post skills and foot work — basically turn him into a beast. He’s grown in his leadership skills — he’s a leader off and on the court and is our go-to guy when it comes to that.”
Ernst and Bonds have formed quite the relationship over the season as Luther even describes Clayton as being like a son to him. “Clayton is kind of like my kid — I adopted him,” Coach Bonds joked. “He belongs to me solely because I’m responsible for him. … He’s my guy, and I have a lot of high expectations for him. I want him to succeed.”
This means Coach Bonds can become irritated by officiating when opposing players are “beating on” Ernst down low, but he still wouldn’t trade the experience of coaching and making memories with a player like Clayton for anything. Also, Bonds knows Ernst is as tough as they come, though, so he’s been more than proud of how Clayton has handled everything.
“He got banged up earlier in the season because he’s a big guy and is very strong, so it doesn’t look like he’s getting fouled,” Coach Bonds said. “He got a couple of stitches from the Vianney game, and he had his eye busted open in the Christmas Tournament.
“He’s taken a lot of unfair treatment from the officiating, so I think if he can get that he can really dominate. He’s the key to our inside game because with him dominating in the post, it makes easier for our guards.”
Ernst’s can’t-quit attitude is what Bonds believes will help him out the most if Clayton should play college basketball. For example, if Ernst is “banged up,” he keeps going, which is what it takes to compete at the next level, Bonds said.
“Luther and I are so tight — first moment I saw him I was like, ‘I’m going to like this guy,’” Ernst said. “He works with me and all of the other post players every practice, and he’s just a guy who’s in my corner at all times. He’s always helping me out, and I really feel like that’s pushed me more to become a lot better of a player this year.”
When Ernst first started playing basketball, it was actually because he wanted to lose weight for baseball since Clayton has described himself as being big and “a chunky kid” in the third grade. Ernst said basketball means a lot to him, though, because of how it’s created individual skills such as team bonding that will only help him in the future.
Clayton is quite the standout for Jackson on the diamond, too, but if you ask him, he doesn’t have a favorite sport between basketball and baseball. Ernst says he likes them equally and enjoys the different aspects of competition each sport brings.
Following seventh grade is when Clayton said he started becoming heavily focused on his basketball career and played for Bradley Beal Elite his eighth-grade year. Ernst traveled all across America with BBE, which was when he met a few NBA stars.
“I got to see some professional sports players at the tournaments we played in like LeBron [James] and Shaun Livingston,” Clayton said. “I got to dap up with Bradley Beal. He comes down from the bleachers, puts his hand over my shoulders and says, ‘Hey man, what’s going on?’ It’s experiences like those that have really helped me grow, and I hope I can continue to do sports in college as well because I don’t know what I’d do without them right now.”