As summer ramped up in the Valley with triple-digit temperatures, so did the Valley’s high school basketball fever.
There is growing competition.
Powerhouse Hoops, an AAU program with its own “Phacility,” started a prep program that will play in national grind sessions, forming a roster of in-state players who last season played for schools in the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Glendale’s Joy Christian, once part of the AIA, recently renamed itself Dream City Christian, featuring a national high school basketball team directed by church member Kyle Weaver, who formerly was head coach at Phoenix Hillcrest Prep and Scottsdale Bella Vista Prep.
Two years ago Bella Vista started a national basketball team after the short-lived Aspire team used its facilities for a national team. Then, last year under Weaver, Bella Vista won a national grind session tournament with Terry Armstrong leading the way.
Planet Athlete and Taylor Made field national teams in the Valley as well.
Phoenix Westwind Prep was first to really start a prep program in the Valley, first coached by Gary Trousdale, then by Jeff de Laveaga in 2011 and ’12. But that was short-lived, mainly because academics didn’t line up with the NCAA Clearinghouse, forcing players, such as former Zylan Cheatham, to retake courses in order to catch up and be Division I college eligible after graduating.
But what de Laveaga started then — elevating the play in Arizona — isn’t much different than what is going on now with most of the prep teams taking Arizona players.
Hillcrest was started in 2015 by Matt Allen (former principal at Westwind) and Nick Weaver (who coached at Westwind) and their No. 1 guy became Marvin Bagley III, who had come off a freshman year at Tempe Corona del Sol where he was The Republic‘s Player of the Year, leading the Aztecs to a fourth consecutive AIA title.
Bagley only lasted a few exhibition games, before he left. But he teamed up with 7-foot-1 center Deandre Ayton long enough to get Hillcrest on the national map. Ayton and Bagley ended up being the top two picks of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Hillcrest landed Nike a sponsorship, and has only gotten bigger with Kyree Walker and a slew of five-star prospects on the now-Adidas sponsored team. Hillcrest takes pride in knowing it has had 60 players who have committed to Division I colleges in a short time.
Former Corona del Sol point guard Dalen Terry and former Mesa Red Mountain power forward Andre Harris are at Hillcrest now. Harris played at Bella Vista last year, before transferring to Hillcrest.
Dream City is the seventh prep academy playing in the Valley and already it has a five-star recruit MarJon Beauchamp from Seattle, four-star Arthur Kaluma from Irving, Texas and and three-star Jalin Anderson from Chandler’s AZ Compass.
With Findlay Prep in Nevada shutting down for at least next season, Pete Kaffey came over to AZ Compass Prep in Chandler as a recruiter this year. He was a recruiter for Findlay Prep, the prep basketball academy that changed the high school basketball landscape in the West, rolling up national titles.
“It seems to be popping up more in Arizona than other places,” said David Hines, executive director of the AIA. “We as an association will have discussions on that as we move forward. We’re educational athletics. That’s our mission. Their missions may be a little different. That’s what they do. We’re going to have a state championship. I’m certainly not going to bad mouth any group.”
Why does the AIA resist prep teams?
What kind of threat do these prep academics present to the AIA?
The AIA can take pride in the fact that it produced the best player in Arizona (national prep teams included). Last season in Phoenix Pinnacle point guard Nico Mannion didn’t need to take the prep route to become one of the nation’s top prospects and sign with the University of Arizona.
Mannion had no need to go to a prep team because he had one of the state’s best coaches in Charlie Wilde to help him develop. And Pinnacle was playing a strong schedule that included a top holiday tournament in California.
There are only so many Charlie Wildes coaching in the AIA, and, if a school’s administration doesn’t value athletic success and the right coaches aren’t leading them, then top-10-type players are going to be looking for the next best thing, and that is bypassing the high school experience.
Here is the irony: Some of the AIA’s biggest crowds came during a December weekend at Scottsdale Chaparral, when the gym was overflow for the Hoophall West that featured Ohio’s Spire Institute, a national team led by point guard LaMelo Ball.
That should be a carrot for the AIA.
But the AIA has resisted letting the local prep academies in since basically kicking Orme School out after it won a 1A championship with international players in 2011. After that title, the AIA created a rule banning international students from varsity competition.
None of the seven current prep teams in the Valley are permitted to play an AIA team because the AIA has not allowed them to be even association members. But AIA member teams been able to play Findlay Prep, because the Nevada high school sports governing body made it an associate member, meaning it couldn’t play in the state tournament but could play other Nevada teams as long as it didn’t recruit Nevada high school players.
Weaver, a recruiter and co-founder of Hillcrest, has tried to get the school into the AIA. He would like Hillcrest’s national team to play against AIA teams during the season without playing in a state tournament.
Weaver said he would not recruit Arizona players if the AIA allowed Hillcrest in as an associate member.
“I can’t speak for the board, but I think it’s important to hear from the membership,” Hines said. “It’s frustrating to lose Arizona kids because there are a ton of kids across the country who play for their high school team and play club and get highly recruited.
“We’ll have to see what the direction the membership wants to go with that. It’s going to be a membership and board decision. … If we’re going to look to approve an affiliation as a member, they’re going to have to follow our rules. We’re opposed to recruiting kids and that’s what they do. That’s part of their model. That’s not a knock on them. That’s just what they’re going to do. Our kids deserve the right to play against the same people who have the same type of rules.”
‘An extension of club ball’
There are AIA coaches who would like to play the current mix of prep teams in the Valley. During Arizona State’s team camp this summer, AZ Compass Prep with its full team played in the tournament that was won by DaRon Holmes-led Goodyear Millennium. Surprise Paradise Honors beat AZ Compass Prep by 20 points in the tournament. And Paradise Honors competes on the 3A level in the AIA.
Over time, if the AIA allowed these prep teams to be associate members, AIA teams would start beating them. And it would put the AIA teams on a greater platform for exposure for its student-athletes seeking scholarship opportunities.
“The addition of a couple prep teams can be a positive to the Arizona-based basketball players,” Paradise Honors coach Zach Hettel said. “However, most players aren’t here over the summer so it limits the opportunity for those kids to compete against each other.”
Hettel said he doesn’t have a problem with out-of-state players joining a national prep team in Arizona.
“I am interested in seeing if the AIA will come up with something similar to what Nevada did,” he said. “I have talked to a couple coaches for those teams and they would absolutely be open to operating under those same rules if it meant a chance at a national title.
“That said, outside of Hillcrest and maybe Compass Prep, the level of talent in the prep teams aren’t far off from what you see in your better Arizona high schools. I do think the AIA needs to be proactive and make some changes and remove some of the excuses that some prep teams are using to pull kids away from their high schools.”
Glendale Ironwood coach Jordan Augustine believes that ultimately many of these national prep schools are driving the recruiting in Arizona. More college coaches are coming to Arizona. While checking out Hillcrest, Bella Vista and whoever else that might have a top prospect, they’re more apt to stop by an AIA school to an open gym.
“Many of them are getting highly sought after prospects from other states, which is creating a better recruiting environment in the state,” Augustine said. “More college coaches are coming here and realizing how under-recruited the state is for the talent and athleticism we possess. There is always going to be a lane for high schools who are doing it the right way. Prep schools are not all equal. The preps who provide a good product and help kids at a high level will challenge more high schools to do more to provide a great environment and competitive resources for students and student-athletes.”
He said ultimately he would endorse whatever is in the best interest of the student-athletes.
“I believe prep schools and traditional schools can both do this and can co-exist,” Augustine said.
Mesa Community College men’s basketball coach Sam Ballard, a former head coach at Phoenix Mountain Pointe, calls these prep teams “an extension of club ball.” He doesn’t believe they should be allowed to compete as equals with local high schools through the AIA.
“Club ball, through the years, has become the single most destructive force for high school coaches to deal with,” Ballard said. “Young people play in many more games with their club than they do with their high schools, sometimes many games in one day. They learn how to pace themselves, which will drive their high school coaches, who want maximum effort, nuts.”
Ballard also said parents are a driving force in the club seen. Parents will move their child to another club team if the player isn’t getting enough time on the court.
“That has caused an epidemic of transfers from high school all the way up to the NCAA Division I level,” Ballard said. “Some high school coaches feel it imperative to have their own club teams mainly to not lose their best guys to another school where a particular club guides the players. Recent events in Arizona have shown us that goes on.”
Ortega, who brought in Mountain Pointe coach Kirk Fauske to lead the Powerhouse Prep team, said he feels like the AIA is “handcuffing” players and coaches. Ortega points out the lack of a shot clock and a lack of three-men referee crews at all games, although the AIA last year made an effort to get more three-man crews to games.
“I want to take Arizona players only and put them up against the toughest national competition out there,” Ortega said. “The high school coaches are playing for their state championships. The AAU and now moving into the prep school, I don’t care if we win or lose the game. I want to test them against the best. Fauske is one of the top coaches in the state. He’ll coach those guys and get them ready. Our whole goal is to get them ready for the next level of college basketball.”
Not everybody will be able do what Powerhouse is trying. Powerhouse has its own building with conditioning and tutoring programs, while the players stay in their high schools for academics.
But people will be watching closely.
“If that model works and I’m the AIA, I would be worried about it, because the top talent is going to be exposed,” said Don Brown, athletic director at Bella Vista College Prep.
A parent’s perspective
DaRon Holmes, a 6-foot-9 junior-to-be, led Millennium to the 5A final, coming a couple of points from beating Gilbert, with his extraordinary shot-blocking abilities and athleticism around the basket. He has about 20 college basketball offers, including Arizona, Arizona State and Grand Canyon.
His father, DaRon Sr., said there is no rush to put his son in a prep setting. He feels his son is getting what he needs from his AIA school.
“Honestly, both high school and prep schools have their pros and cons,” DaRon Holmes Sr. said. “For us to go to a prep, it would have to be a very established prep program that can really develop him and get him ready for high level Division I basketball. Right now, there’s no urgency to put him in a prep school. It has to be the right situation. It has to be in a situation where he’s really being challenged from a day-to-day standpoint, where elite-caliber players on that prep school roster will really challenge him. Until something like that opens up, there’s no need to make a change. He’s getting a lot of good competition at Millennium.”
Holmes plays for Powerhouse Hoops during the club season in the spring and summer. But John Ortega, a co-founder of Powerhouse who started the prep team with Arizona players this summer, says Holmes is getting what he needs at Millennium with the exposure coach Ty Amundsen provides with a challenging high school schedule that includes the Hoophall West and this coming season a trip to South Carolina for the Beach Ball Classic that features prep schools.
“I truly believe if you’ve got a strong enough program and you’re on a platform to play top competition, as long as you’re getting college coaches to your practices and getting kids seen at high-level tournaments, I think your kids will be satisfied,” Amundsen said. “If you’ve got a strong relationship with your players and their parents and you’re secure with your future, I don’t think (the influx of prep teams) is any threat.”
Ed Gibson, who coaches AZ Compass Prep and is a former assistant at Robert Morris University, said there are no days off when competing in the national prep scene, because almost every game they’re going up against Division I-recruited players.
“They respond to the competition,” Gibson said.
Kyle Weaver, who was Ayton’s coach at Hillcrest, says he doesn’t want to see one prep program become a monopoly in the state. He welcomes the influx of prep teams.
“Iron sharpens iron,” he said. “I love it. I hope Bella Vista wins a championship next year. It’s going to help all programs. There’s only going to be more prep schools. Basketball is getting so competitive. Kids want to play year-round. Prep schools are going to be the main thing. I don’t want high schools to disappear. You can have both.”
Brown, who takes pride in Bella’s high academic standards, has embraced the prep scene.
“At the end of the day in Arizona, wouldn’t it be nice to have strong basketball that starts to rival the East Coast, so people don’t think the East Coast is the only place to be for good basketball?” he said.