MOUTH OF WILSON, Va. – Oak Hill Academy sits 365 miles west of the glorious Atlantic coastline surf, atop a winding road of country homes and mom-and-pop shops; here in rural-town Virginia, where cell phone reception goes to die, the country’s top high school basketball players come to win.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the school sits 2,900 feet above sea level since its basketball team has been looking down on the high school basketball world posting a 1,118-72 record and nine national titles, more than twice the amount of any other school, since head coach Steve Smith took over the reins in 1985.
On this drizzly, overcast afternoon, two days prior to Hurricane Florence’s pummeling of the southeast, sneakers squeak on the shiny hardwood that is Steve Smith Court, while a bevy of college coaches sit scattered about in the stands.
The scene is intimate and fun; college coaches slap hi-fives and laugh amongst each other while Smith makes his rounds with them.
The coaches have been racking up frequent flyer miles since Sept. 9 when NCAA rules permitted them to attend open gym sessions.
Naturally, Oak Hill is a hot spot for coaches with their plethora of Division I prospects, including the No. 1 player in USA Today Sports’ Chosen 25 for 2019, Cole Anthony.
Not only is the 6-foot-3 point guard the biggest star in the country, but he’s also the loudest person in the gym, motivating his teammates with playful trash-talk and offering coaching tidbits as he dribbles up and down the sideline during the pick-up game.
“He can’t check you Kofi!” says Anthony, who’s sitting out due to a minor wrist injury. “Oh yeah, give him the ball and that’s two points. All day! Dunk that Kofi! Yeeeeeeah boy!”
Still, midway through the first game, it’s clear that Cam Thomas is dead-set on stealing the show.
The 6-3 combo guard blows past his defender at the top of the key and before anyone can get over to help on defense, Thomas takes flight and rocks the rim on a monster one-hander.
“That kid’s just got it,” one coach says.
“Yeah he’s so skilled and so athletic,” another says. “He had a big summer too.”
Thomas turned heads running with Boo Williams (Va.) in the Nike EYBL, averaging 21 points per game. He upped that to 27 points per game at the Peach Invitational in July.
As a rising junior, Thomas’ mindset for open gym season is very different from his teammates.
“I always feel like I have a lot to prove,” Thomas says. “I like this setting better because the coaches are focused specifically on you. It’s just us in here so they really get to see everything we can do so I keep that in mind.”
It’s a lot less stressful for the upperclassmen, especially B.J. Mack since he committed to South Florida earlier in the day.
“I’m way more relaxed now,” says Mack, a senior forward. “No stress; I already know where I’m going so I’m not trying to show anything really. I just work hard. I like it better this way.”
Kofi Cockburn is one of the most sought-after big men in the country with everyone from Kansas to Kentucky, among many others, all giving spirited chase, yet he doesn’t feel the pressure to perform for the coaches either.
“I realize they’re here, but I don’t get nervous because of it,” says Cockburn, who averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds a game for Renaissance (N.Y.) this summer in the Nike EYBL. “This setting isn’t like that. For me, it’s just about working on things I really know I need to improve on. By now I’m used to seeing coaches.”
After the third pick-up game, Oak Hill assistants blow their whistles and start the players on station work; everything from medicine ball slams to stairs to sprints and jump ropes.
Amidst the organized chaos, one of the few spectators in attendance makes his way over to Smith and asks him where North Carolina coach Roy Williams is.
Smith has been expecting Williams all afternoon since he’s applying the full-court recruiting press on Anthony. He learned later in the day that Williams had to reschedule.
The news doesn’t affect Anthony; he sees coaches’ attendance at open gyms as a mere formality.
“It’s not like we’re gonna show them something new at this point,” Anthony says. “I don’t care whether the coaches are here or not, I’m not gonna change how I do things. Whether it’s the Peach Jam or open gym I’m out here trying to dominate everybody. That’s how we all get better.”
Players and coaches migrate to center court to recap the open gym session as Oak Hill’s volleyball team begins to trickle into the gym.
When the team breaks, coaches pull select players off to the side to chop-it-up.
By and large, the coaches keep things light; there’s no pressuring for commitments or pinning players down to lock in a visit date, it’s downright serene and jovial.
After roughly 20 minutes, the coaches get their last few jokes in with the players and start to file out of the gym.
A handful of players linger while the volleyball team warms up.
Anthony throws on his bookbag and glasses then walks over to the metal bleachers, plops down and smiles.
He looks more Spelling Bee champ, less future NBA lottery pick, a welcomed observation since he’s just learned today that his hard work in the classroom is already paying off.
“I just checked my grades,” Anthony says proudly. “And I’ve got all A’s! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! This stuff with the coaches coming is cool, but, honestly, open gym is like babysitting for the college coaches. They’ve gotta do it, they’ve gotta come, but for the most part, they know what they need to know. Like I said, it’s all a formality.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY