Three of the state’s top high school basketball seniors are gone to prep schools. On the bright side, three spots opened up on the IndyStar Indiana All-Star team.
Right? Is that a big deal anymore? The defections of Southport’s Paul Scruggs (Prolific Prep), Park Tudor’s Jaren Jackson Jr. (La Lumiere) and Pike’s Justin Roberts (Findlay Prep) might suggest it’s not. There’s obviously a lot more to it than that. Jackson Jr. and Roberts both cited a chance to play better competition, day in and day out in practice, as a primary reason to transfer to prep school.
To each their own. But I also wonder, too, how much they’ll miss it 10, 20, 30 years from now. Scruggs played in front of two of the most electric crowds I’ve seen in 16 years of covering sports — the packed house at Southport against Evansville Reitz in February of 2015 and the semistate game against Romeo Langford and New Albany in March at Richmond.
Maybe Prolific Prep is the best place for Scruggs, but I guarantee it can’t offer an environment like those two games. Will he become a better player at Prolific Prep? Is Roberts better off at Findlay Prep or Jackson Jr. at La Lumiere? That’s what we hear, but it’s impossible to say yes or no.
I asked Trey Lyles. Multiple times a year, beginning with his freshman season, I’d hear rumors that Lyles would transfer to a prep school. All the way up to his senior year. But Lyles never left Tech, winning the school’s first state championship and IndyStar Mr. Basketball in 2014.
“A couple of prep schools came after me and wanted me to take a look at their school,” Lyles said. “It was never a thing that was on my mind. I knew Tech was where I wanted to be. I never wanted to leave at all.”
Lyles said he can understand it, though. One of his grassroots teammates with the Speice program, JaQuan Lyle, transferred from Evansville Bosse to Huntington Prep (W. Va.) for his senior year. Tech beat that Huntington Prep team twice that season.
“I understand where guys go from a high school to a prep school to try to get those college looks or better competition,” Lyles said. “For me, Tech was the best option. I wanted to build something with IPS and do something for the team and the community. I didn’t want to end any friendships or relationships that I had already, and I already had my college offers. Playing at Tech, we basically played a national schedule. It was just as good as a prep school.”
There are reminders everywhere in the Tech gym of Lyles and that 2014 team. That won’t be the case at Southport for Scruggs, who would have been a surefire Indiana All-Star. His All-Star jersey will never hang in Southport’s fieldhouse. Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
I asked D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. When Smith-Rivera was a junior at North Central after the 2010-11 season, he was probably the frontrunner for Mr. Basketball going into the following season. And that was a stacked class with names like Gary Harris, Yogi Ferrell, Kellen Dunham, R.J. Hunter and Glenn Robinson III.
Instead of coming back to North Central, Smith-Rivera transferred to Oak Hill Academy. Smith-Rivera had a strong senior year at Oak Hill, one of the most reputable prep school programs in the country. But looking back, after the completion of his college career at Georgetown, Smith-Rivera does wonder what might have been. North Central won a state title in his sophomore year of 2010 and there was talk of a potential “three-peat.” But Bloomington South and Dee Davis upset the Panthers in the Class 4A semistate in 2011.
“I don’t regret the decision,” Smith-Rivera said. “But I do think about it a lot. North Central is close to my heart. Coach (Doug) Mitchell is close to my heart. The capability of that team my senior year would have been something special. I definitely would have been in the running for Mr. Basketball and would have had a great chance to win it. It’s a decision I made that I felt like was the best for me at the time. And I love Oak Hill as well.”
Scruggs, Jackson Jr. and Roberts are the latest, but players have been leaving for prep schools for a while. In addition to Lyles and Smith-Rivera, there’s Rapheal Davis, A.J. Hammons, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Mitch McGary, Justin Martin, Davon Dillard, Evan Gordon and several others who have gone the prep school route in the past seven or eight years.
Charlie Hall, the Indiana All-Star director, isn’t necessarily concerned.
“I’m not naïve enough to think being an All-Star would keep a family from making a move in their best interest,” Hall said. “But we’re not going to run out of good players. We’ve had a lot of kids who have fought to work with their college coaches to be a part of the All-Stars. So I think it does still mean a lot to them.”
Prep schools are recruiting from the same pool of players as major college programs. Trevon Bluiett, a 2014 Indiana All-Star at Park Tudor, was recruited heavily by prep schools from his sophomore year on. His father, Reynardo Bluiett, said the prep school route wasn’t considered “for one second.”
“He had offers,” Bluiett said. “But were very confident in our circle we had here.”
For some, the prep school experience worked out great. Davis had a strong senior year at La Lumiere before coming to Purdue. Smith-Rivera and Hammons both thrived at Oak Hill Academy.
John Murry was a different story. Murry transferred from North Central to a prep school called CCSE Prep in Sacramento, Calif., in 2012. The “school” was just 10 players living in a house with Francis Ngissah, the “president and CEO” of CCSE. Murry, now going into his senior season at Austin Peay, left after just seven games to attend another prep school in Florida.
A month after Murry departed California, Ngissah was arrested on suspicion of child abuse involving corporal punishment and willful cruelty, battery and false imprisonment of some teens in his basketball program. Murry wasn’t one of those involved. In 2014, Ngissah was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender.
“I was sold some false advertising,” Murry said in 2013. “Most likely, I should have just stayed (at North Central).”
More high-profile basketball players will be recruited by prep schools. For some it will be the right decision. For others, maybe not. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
“I think about (the 2014 Tech team) every day,” Lyles said. “The relationships that I built with those guys and the relationships we continue to have. That’s lifelong stuff. Everybody on the team will remember that the rest of their lives.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.