Is this the golden era of talent in Wisconsin high school basketball?
The short answer: almost certainly.
The state’s four highest-rated recruits — Sussex Hamilton sophomore Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee Washington sophomore Michael Foster Jr., and Nicolet juniors Jamari Sibley and Jalen Johnson — all play in and around Milwaukee, and form as good a group as Wisconsin has ever seen.
Coaches battle to recruit them. Fans pack gyms to watch them. And opponents struggle to defend them.
Baldwin Jr. is the No. 1-ranked player in his class by three major recruiting websites, ESPN, 247 Sports and Rivals. Foster is right behind him, slotting in as the No. 3 player per 247.
Johnson is the No. 9 player in the 2020 Chosen 25 and Sibley, whose stock is fast-rising, has worked his way into the top 100 of 247Sports.
“There’s never really been this many high, high-level players in the state at one time, much less all around Milwaukee,” longtime area head coach Tom Diener said. “This is pretty unique. There are three or four kids in the state that are among the best in the country.”
So how did they get to this point? And what does it take to stay at the top?
Living, breathing and sleeping basketball
Of course, the most common link is an obsession with basketball.
“I’ve been around basketball my entire life,” Baldwin Jr., the son of UW-Milwaukee head coach Pat Baldwin, said. “With my dad being a coach my whole life, I was honestly too young to remember when I fell in love with basketball.”
Having access to NCAA Division I facilities throughout his life was a perk for Baldwin Jr. that few of his peers had.
“The greatest thing that Patrick had going for him was the opportunity to get into the gym any time he wanted to,” Baldwin Sr. said. “He would come up with me to work and would spend countless hours in the gym. He worked on ball-handling, shooting and footwork drills to help encourage his development.”
Similarly, basketball lined Johnson’s DNA with two parents that played Division I in college.
“Our boys have played basketball since they were babies,” said Jalen’s father, Rod, whose oldest son, Rod Jr., plays at University of Chattanooga and youngest, Kobe, is a fast-rising guard at Nicolet. “I played basketball while they were growing up and they were in the gym and they were shooting. It’s definitely a family thing.”
Development, however, isn’t always linear; Foster Jr. and Sibley were also around the game from a young age, but started hitting their strides later.
“When (Foster) first walked into the gym, he was 12 years and about 6-5, but didn’t have a clue what was going on,” said Chianti Clay, Foster’s former coach with the Milwaukee Spartans. “I remember the first game we played, the other team said, ‘Don’t even guard him. Leave him alone.’”
Watching Foster average 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, dunk with ease on opponents and pick up offers from the likes of Kansas, LSU and Marquette as a sophomore (that skipped eighth grade nonetheless), it’s hard to imagine him being left open on purpose only four years ago.
But, yet, that was the case — albeit not for long.
“He was a gym rat from the very beginning,” Clay said. “You make it a habit. Once you get the habit, you don’t let them break it.”
Sibley was the late bloomer of the group
Out of the four players, Sibley was least-polished coming into high school. Nicolet head coach Allan Hanson remembers a gangly 6-foot-6 freshman walking into the gym with immense potential but an unrefined game.
“We saw the skill set he could develop to be good, but he didn’t have the strength or the understanding of how to play basketball,” Hanson said.
Watch Sibley now, and it’s apparent that he knows how to get every inch out of his frame and take full advantage of his versatile skill set. Sibley now stands at 6-foot-9 and has added some strength to be able to play more physical.
“He thinks he’s muscle man now,” Hanson joked.
Many years, Sibley would be the premiere recruit coming out of the state. In the 2019 high school basketball scene, he’s not even the leading scorer on his own team.
A large part of that development has been simply maturing. Once colleges starting inquiring, Sibley locked into making basketball a serious commitment.
“He’s really turned a corner as far as being a goofy freshman who really just came to play basketball for fun, to now he really loves basketball,” Hanson said. “He’s taking it more seriously. He’s more mature about his approach, taking care of his body, all the little things. That’s the biggest factor to where he is today.”
Accountability is also key. Best friends even before becoming teammates at Nicolet, Johnson and Sibley were best friends and AAU teammates for Phenom University, also the club that Baldwin Jr. also plays for. The two shoot, lift, study and hang out together on a regular basis.
“They’ve held each other accountable that’s the biggest thing they do they push each other on the court, off the court, in the classroom,” Hanson said.
Committed to excellence
For all four, an early love of basketball turned into a relentless work ethic.
They are in the gym, the weight room, the track nearly every single day—and often multiple times in the same day.
In the summer, Baldwin Jr. wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to the UWM facilities with his dad to lift and shoot, then does an AAU workout in the afternoon three times per week and finishes with a practice or game with the Hamilton summer team.
Baldwin Jr. isn’t alone in that work ethic. Foster does two-a-day workouts and is notorious with Milwaukee Washington head coach Fred Riley for sneaking in a third. Johnson and Sibley are together in the gym as much as they are outside of it.
That isn’t a typical high schooler’s summer schedule.
“To achieve what (Baldwin Jr.) wants to achieve, he knew what he had to sacrifice and that’s hanging out and doing those things sometimes,” Hamilton head coach Andy Cerroni said. “He’s mature enough to see the bigger picture. He knows he’s got special abilities and that he can play at the highest, highest level. Nothing’s going to stop him from getting that.”
Finding the right ‘circle’
Diener has coached plenty of talent in his time—try four Mr. Basketball winners and multiple other D-I players, for size—and understands the relationship between high-profile high school players and the attention they receive.
“There’s a lot of people that are going to try to be invested in these kids,” he said. “They’re going to be hearing a lot of things from a lot of people. Not all of it is in their best interest.”
Social media adds another dimension. The standouts have followings on social media accounts that aren’t typical of other high school kids, either; Johnson alone has over 32,000 followers on Instagram. On a daily basis, followers flood them with messages, whether positive or negative.
For reference, here are just a few snippets of tweets directed tweeted at Johnson’s account over the past year.
- “If pick duke or uk you suck.”
- “No one wants to see your feminine hygiene routine.”
- “Sun Prairie got back to state without him clearly overrated.”
- “I and many others will forgive you for the way you left Sun Prairie, if you come play for Coach Gard at Wisconsin. But it’s up to you.”
Shawn Baldwin, Patrick’s mother, handles his media requests, a task that required her to intervene when a fan, posing as a media member, reached out to him under the guise of setting up an interview.
“My parents definitely help with handling that stuff, making sure people are there for the right reasons,” Baldwin Jr. said. “They’ve been the main people in my ear talking about how people might act differently around you because what you do. It’s important to be humble and grounded with people around you.”
There is more to handling the noise than simply closing social media apps, as well.
Riley has seen his fair share of young athletes get sidetracked and have promising careers slip away.
“The peer pressure from a metropolitan city like Milwaukee, that peer pressure can challenge young men every day to walk down the wrong path with drugs, alcohol and crime,” Riley said. “Guys get swallowed up.”
Riley says his sophomore forward is fully basketball-focused, however.
“He’s a kid at heart,” Riley said. “Some guys get 15 and they want to be 21. He’s not that kid. You watch him in the classroom and he excels. The people around him keep Mike humble, and that’s huge on his success. That’s very important that he keeps his circle small and with people that understand the situation that aren’t out for personal gain.”
The phrase ‘small circle’ rings true with all four.
“We have a very, very small circle,” Rod Johnson said. “We don’t let too many people in that circle and let people influence (Jalen) and butter him up.”
That also can mean setting boundaries with college coaches.
On any given day, Rod Johnson’s phone might be flooded with messages from Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard. Sometimes, though, those big-name coaches may have to be put on hold because Jalen has a big test coming up.
“We, and I think all the other parents of these kids do this, set boundaries on the contact coaches have with Jalen,” Rod said. “At first it was a little overwhelming but we’ve navigated it.”