HIGH POINT, N.C. – There comes a point in every day of a pre-sunrise start that feeling drained would constitute the understatement of understatements; Keith Gatlin has reached said point at 4:45 p.m. on this overcast Tuesday afternoon.
Gatlin’s been up since 5 a.m. preparing for early morning workouts with his Wesleyan Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.) boys’ basketball players and fielding countless calls and texts from college coaches trying to get information on his open gym later in the afternoon.
“Long, long day,” Gatlin says, while watching the girls’ volleyball team finish up practice. “But it’s for my guys; no complaints from me.”
College coaches have been racking up frequent flyer miles since Sept. 9 when NCAA rules permitted them to attend open gym sessions.
Wesleyan Christian Academy has been a hot spot for coaches wanting to catch a glimpse of their six Division I prospects.
Just as the volleyball team concludes its practice, Arizona assistant coach Mark Phelps walks through the gyms double doors and greets Gatlin.
Shortly after that, Louisville assistant Mike Balado, Liberty assistant Kyle Getter and California assistant Tracy Webster enter.
Most are here to see new French import Jaylen Hoard, a 6-foot-8 junior wing who garnered “next big thing” buzz after averaging 22.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game at the FIBA U17 World Championships in Spain this past summer.
“I didn’t know what to expect from the open runs; this is all new to me,” Hoard says. “When the coaches first started coming I was shocked that these schools really come to watch this stuff. But this is why I came over here. I love it.”
Still, on the first play of the first game, it’s clear that 6-6 combo guard Aaron Wiggins is dead-set on stealing the show.
Wiggins blows past his defender on the left wing and when another defender reaches in to swipe the ball away, he throws it behind his back, takes flight and rocks the rim on a monster two-handed dunk.
“Oh my goodness,” one coach says.
“Who is THAT!” another asks.
He reminds the coaches that Wiggins is the kid he’s been telling them about for the last month.
A few coaches double check how Wiggins spells his first name and make note of it in their smartphones.
“I told you,” Gatlin says. “He’s got ‘it.”
That much is evident throughout the open run.
Wiggins wins over each coach with his ability to score on all three levels, rebound and create easy scoring opportunities for his teammates.
“That kid’s a star,” one coach says. “I mean he’s really impressing me.”
It’s precisely the scenario Wiggins was hoping for when he decided to transfer from Grimsley (Greensboro, N.C.) to Wesleyan Christian Academy this year. Wiggins averaged 15 points a game last season and pumped in eight points a game this past summer for Team Charlotte on the Under Armour circuit.
“All I wanted was a chance like this,” Wiggins says. “Just a chance to be seen by coaches. I’ve always been a hard worker so I knew I’d put in the work, but I needed the coaches to be around to see it. That’s what you get at these open gyms. That’s all you can ask for.”
Throughout the quick scrimmages to seven, coaches begin to inquire about DeAndre Wilkins, a 6-10 sophomore whose motor seems to remain in overdrive, and Ian Steere, a 6-8 junior that attacks the rim with a refreshing aggression.
Periodically, Gatlin praises his players’ efforts and offers suggestions between games. North Carolina private school rules don’t permit Gatlin to go beyond that until the Trojans start their first practice on Nov. 1.
“This is the best team I’ve had in my eight years here,” Gatlin says.
High praise for a program that won back-to-back state titles in 2013 and 2014 with McDonald’s All American Theo Pinson, now a junior at North Carolina, and last year’s top ranked senior Harry Giles III, now a freshman at Duke.
“I say that because all of the kids are on the same page with wanting to get better,” Gatlin explains. “All of them are in the gym before the sun is up getting up 500 jump shots and doing skill work. They shower here and then start school. That takes commitment. In the past I’d have a couple guys here and there that would do that. To have everyone on the same page with that is special.”
Just then Steere muscles through for the game-winning layup to end the session and Gatlin pops up to gather his team together at center court.
When they break, each player walks down the line of coaches parked in the padded “Wesleyan Christian Academy” embroidered chairs along the baseline and shakes hands.
Coaches pull Wiggins, Hoard and a couple of other players to the side for a little face time.
Webster achieves the coaches’ coveted lasting impression goal appointing Wiggins with the nickname “Milk.”
“That’s because you remind me of a cross between Magic (Johnson), Isiah (Thomas), Larry (Bird) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar),” he says.
Wiggins bursts into laughter and thanks Webster for the compliment.
The coaches slowly begin to trickle out of the gym while the players linger and break out into an impromptu trick shot competition.
Gatlin pulls Wilkins to the side and offers encouragement and pointers, Hoard jokes around with teammates and Wiggins begins to loosen his shoes; still grinning about his new nickname.
“It’s crazy to think about how things have changed in such a short time,” Wiggins says. “This is all I’ve wanted was to be playing at an open gym with coaches watching. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s just basketball; you can’t worry about the coaches being here. I just play my game and that’s been working out for me. It just makes me want to work harder and be more humble though. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything.”
Notwithstanding the “Milk” moniker.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY