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Shoot First, Pass Later

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: February 2019
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Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix helped produce the top two picks in the 2018 NBA draft and has already spawned a Scottsdale competitor. Is the Valley’s first “basketball factory” a slam-dunk for hoops prodigies, or an academic foul-out waiting to happen?

It’s just minutes before Saturday night’s basketball game in the Hoophall West High School Invitational, and Kyree Walker – a highly recruited, 6-foot-5 junior forward for Phoenix’s Hillcrest Prep – strides down the hall of Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School gym to shake hands with Pinnacle High School’s Nico Mannion, the swift, 6-foot-2 redheaded guard nicknamed “the Ginger Ninja.”

Given that the two teens are both among the top-rated players in the state – Walker is, in fact, the third-rated forward in the country, per ESPN – you’d expect them to exchange a little friendly trash talk before meeting up on the court.

But Hillcrest and Pinnacle can’t actually play each other, according to the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the regulatory body that sets state rules for maintaining a level playing field in high school athletics. While Mannion’s Pinnacle qualifies for AIA membership as a traditional public high school, Walker’s Hillcrest is quarantined from mainstream competition – a victim of its own unconventional and, some might say, mercenary success.

Founded by Matt Allen, a former high school track and field star from the Arizona mountain town of Eagar, Hillcrest is the Valley’s first and most successful “basketball factory” – the somewhat derisive name given to the rising tide of hoops-heavy private academies “where the only real test is basketball,” as a New York Times headline once put it. Other pundits have more charitably dubbed them “basketball finishing schools.” The academies themselves prefer “national high schools.” But the formula is always the same – light-coursework traveling teams where players handle their academics either online or through an outside charter school while spending most of their days playing ball.

In just its fourth year of existence, Hillcrest is a powerhouse in Arizona high school athletics. Last summer, former Hillcrest players Deandre Ayton (currently lighting up scoreboards as the Phoenix Suns’ starting center) and Marvin Bagley III went No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the 2018 NBA draft – an unprecedented accomplishment for a prep school. In addition, Hillcrest has graduated numerous players to Division I NCAA programs, and this season has a roster larded with premium talent. Its success also spawned two competitors in Scottsdale, Aspire Basketball Academy – which has since relocated to Louisville, Kentucky – and Bella Vista College Prep.

But the school’s brief history is also tainted by scandal, and an academic mission so specious that even ESPN takes a pass on broadcasting its games. It’s also why arguably the two best high school players in the Valley can’t go head-to-head on this balmy winter evening in Scottsdale. The Ginger Ninja’s Pinnacle squad is playing another accredited high school from California, while Hillcrest is playing a school from Texas, which has fewer restrictions on competition.

The best Walker and Mannion can say to each other is “Good luck.”

Photo courtesy AP Images; Hillcrest Prep forward Kyree Walker shoots at last summer’s Pangos All-American Camp in Norwalk, California. ESPN ranks the junior scorer as the No. 3 player at his position in the class of 2020.Private high schools packing their basketball teams with top talent by recruiting aggressively from outside the state, or even the country, is nothing new. For years, elite East Coast prep schools like Oak Hill (Virginia) Academy – which produced future NBA greats Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo, among others – did exactly that.

But those were also functioning, high-performing academic institutions – not just basketball factories. The Hillcrests of the world are a relatively recent invention.

The template was set in 2006 by Henderson, Nevada’s Findlay Prep, a basketball program started by a wealthy auto dealer where the academics are handled at nearby Henderson International School and none of the players is actually from Nevada, a loophole that allows the state’s athletic association to give it membership but forbids it from playing in state championships. (Hillcrest has a similar, but even more limiting, arrangement in Arizona.) Whatever you want to call it, Findlay has already cranked out more than a dozen NBA players in as many years and 52 NCAA Division I players.

Like Findlay, Hillcrest doesn’t have any organic connection to its home city, and doesn’t pretend to. Although it maintains offices at Sequoia Choice Precision School, a charter school near 40th Street and Broadway Road in Phoenix, where it currently farms out its academics, and recently announced plans to open a second campus called Hillcrest Prep North using Anthem’s North Valley Christian Academy for coursework, its website features the Manhattan skyline as its main background image and its physical address is buried on the contacts page. They’re selling big-city glory, not community or Arizona.

Nor do they be appear to be selling academics. Hillcrest recruiting director Nick Weaver doesn’t push the school’s educational bona fides in his sales pitch. “Our [founder and] athletic director, Matt Allen, handles all the academic stuff,” he says. (Allen did not respond to repeated PHOENIX interview requests.) Weaver verifies that some players take classes at Sequoia Choice Precision School, but he’s scant on details. “I don’t know where the majority of our students go – they can also take courses online. But we’re thriving and we’re doing great over here,” he adds.

One might surmise that the absence of academic impetus is itself part of the sales pitch at Hillcrest, which sent its team to China for a series of games in the fall and affords its players many of the perks of a top-tier college program, including corporate sponsorship, an aggressive travel schedule and exposure to scouts and agents – all without restrictive class schedules.

“I suppose, to a certain extent, [students] are chasing that desire to get to the NBA,” says Joe Paddock, the AIA’s assistant executive director. “But our emphasis is on educational athletics, as opposed to simply pure competition for competition’s sake.”

To be sure, Hillcrest offers certain advantages and shortcuts to aspiring NBA stars. For example: Walker’s game minutes in China could potentially allow him to claim status as an international player by the time he graduates in 2020, allowing him to enter the NBA draft straightaway and skip college altogether.

But there’s also a downside risk for an elite high school player who chooses to forego his final year or two at a traditional high school and go the for-profit prep school route. (Hillcrest Hoops is registered as a domestic limited liability corporation in the state of Arizona.)

Upon opening in 2015, Hillcrest used Phoenix charter school StarShine Academy for classes. Unfortunately, the arrangement failed an eligibility audit by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organization that sets the criteria for high school students to participate in college athletics. Hillcrest scrambled to find an alternative, NCAA-compliant partnership, but not before incurring something of a public black eye.

To wit: ESPN has passed on providing national TV coverage of Hillcrest’s games in the Hoophall invitational, and will still only air their matches on its streaming subscription service, ESPN+. “It came to a point, based on the stories that have been written, [where] there wasn’t a level of comfort from the television side to put them up on the air,” said Greg Procino of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which operates the showcase, in a 2015 Arizona Republic article.

“The invitation to Hillcrest still is on the table,” Procino said – providing the school gets on more solid academic footing. “It would be a good thing for their program, as well.”

Though the ESPN blackout would seem to deny potential Hillcrest recruits one of the core perks of a basketball prep school – exposure – the school has not appeared to suffer. Star players like Walker along with recent graduates K.J. Hymes and Demarius Jacobs, now freshmen at Division I programs University of Nevada and Saint Louis University, respectively, have continued to enroll at the school, undeterred by its $35,000 annual tuition – which, according to a 2017 investigation by 3TV/CBS 5, makes Hillcrest “one of the most expensive high schools in Arizona.”

Then again, few if any of the school’s elite recruits actually pay the tuition – a reality of the basketball-factory model that goes back to the celebrated schoolboy power forward who started it all.

At 19 years old, Marvin Bagley III is already being hailed as a rising superstar in pro basketball. In an early October NBA preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the new Sacramento Kings power forward from Tempe astonished even LeBron James, deftly dodging the Lakers’ new hire to sink a spectacular jump shot, even while being fouled. Bagley’s nearly invisible quickness left the hoops legend comically examining his empty hands, as if wondering how the quixotic young player managed to slip through his guard.

But perhaps Bagley’s most nimble moves so far have been his academic leaps, transferring in and out of three high schools in two states over a three-year period before going to play for coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University. One of those three high schools was Hillcrest, which in 2015 was sponsored by Nike and used that connection to pluck a 15-year-old Bagley from Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, where he played his freshman season. According to a story in Portland’s The Oregonian, the player’s family received financial help from Nike that covered a scholarship not only for Bagley but also for his brother, Marcus, and secured a coaching job for his father, Marvin Bagley Jr., a former union plumber and pipe fitter.

Nike has refused to comment on the issue, confirming only that it “provides some financial support” to club teams competing in its Elite Youth Basketball League, which included Hillcrest. But Bagley Jr. admitted in a 2016 Sports Illustrated interview that the family, which had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy during the 2008 recession, was relying on the Nike sponsorship “to make ends meet.” In the same story, SI talked to Allen, who admitted, “I don’t know that we hire him if his son isn’t Marvin Bagley III. That’s the truth. I knew he wanted to be involved with his son, so we hired him to coach.”

Soon after the family signed on with Hillcrest, however, the NCAA paid a visit to Phoenix’s StarShine Academy, which Hillcrest had been using as its home base. The financially troubled K-12 charter school had partnered with Hillcrest upon its inception, trading the use of dorms, trainers, equipment and a gymnasium for a share of the hefty tuition Hillcrest charged enrollees. The NCAA rejected the setup, however, stating, “Coursework from this school/program does not meet NCAA non-traditional core-course legislation.”

Bagley responded by withdrawing from classes – but remaining on Hillcrest’s roster – to enroll in Arizona Connections Academy, an accredited online school with coursework approved by the NCAA. Hillcrest followed its star player, recommending all its student-athletes fulfill their academic requirements through ACA.

Photo by Barry Gossage, NBA/Getty Images; Hillcrest prep alum Deandre AytonBut ACA has not partnered officially with Hillcrest, and its principal, Heather Noto, was concerned to learn Hillcrest’s website still touts ACA as its academic anchor. “We have to be careful about the word ‘partnership,’” she says. “We had a few students from Hillcrest who we agreed to let take courses with us, but we don’t have an official partnership with them.”

Bagley bolted quickly on ACA, too, transferring, finally, to Sierra Canyon School in suburban Los Angeles, where he was able to reclassify himself as a senior a year early. That propelled him to Duke upon graduation, where he excelled as a classic “one-and-done” college superstar, declaring for the NBA draft as soon as humanly possible – in the locker room following Duke’s loss in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament – and foregoing the rest of his collegiate career.

In the end, it was the ESPN brushoff that prompted Hillcrest’s then-star player to leave for sturdier schooling, with his dad citing “the negativity following the program” as reason for the separation, according to the 2015 Arizona Republic article.

“When ESPN refuses to play your team... that’s really bad,” Bagley Jr. said. “We just needed immediate separation from that negative crowd.”

It’s now three days past the Hoophall West Invitational, and Pinnacle High’s basketball coach, Charlie Wilde, is reflecting on the first of two non-conference games his team played in, a Thursday night contest against California’s San Joaquin Memorial High School that, like many of the showcases, was broadcast live on ESPN+.

Throughout most of the game, ESPN’s announcers focused their attention on Pinnacle’s Mannion – he of the “Ginger Ninja” moniker – and San Joaquin guard Jalen Green, a formidable shooter currently fielding offers from 18 NCAA Division I colleges. The announcers’ laser focus on Mannion and Green was so singular that at one point near the end of the second quarter, Mannion passed the ball to forward Spencer Allen, who stroked a poetic deep-three from the corner – only for the sportscasters to praise Mannion’s “high-level assist” to a “ready, able and willing teammate,” barely mentioning Allen but calling Mannion an “expert level playmaker” for making the pass.

“The funny thing is, I gave them so much information about every one of my kids,” Wilde says. “They could have talked up anyone on the team like that, but they decided to focus on Nico. That’s part of why basketball is the way it is right now. It’s all about selling a product. And to ESPN, that product is the star players.”

Wilde, who’s been working as a coach in the Paradise Valley Unified School District for 28 years and also doubles as Pinnacle’s math teacher and girls’ golf coach, sees the rise of basketball prep schools like Hillcrest as a major disruptor in high school athletics, and worries the focus on breakout players is changing basketball from a team sport into a promotional showcase for star recruiting prospects.

“Whether it’s because of social media or the prep schools kind of making their players think they’re a little bit better than other high school players, it’s all about the individualized players now,” he says. “You know, being able to put yourself out there on social media and streaming videos – you’re selling yourself all the time.”

As a result, the high school basketball star system, largely fueled by rising dominance of the prep schools, is creating a new species of players. “They’re tougher to coach, and it’s harder to get them to buy into the team system nowadays,” Wilde says. “It’s not just me – I’ve heard college coaches at clinics complain about the same thing. They all say it’s harder to get kids to become a team.”

Many young players become focused early on an NBA career, a situation that’s not helped by the growing corporate sponsorship of school programs, which sometimes funnels down to the families. Before transferring to Hillcrest, Ayton was wooed by Adidas in much the same way Nike courted Bagley, but with legal repercussions. A former consultant to Adidas testified in federal court that in 2015, he had given a family friend of Deandre Ayton $15,000 to pass along to Ayton’s mother, Andrea, to persuade the student to enroll at Adidas-sponsored Balboa City School in San Diego. Additionally, the consultant, Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola, admitted he had also tried to line up housing and a job for some of Ayton’s family members.

Ultimately, Gassnola’s payoff only kept Ayton in California for one Adidas-sponsored tournament. He transferred to Hillcrest six months later, while it was still backed by Nike (in 2017, Hillcrest switched its sponsorship over to Adidas, too). Unfortunately for Adidas, this apparent effort at grooming did not pay off – Ayton eventually signed a lucrative shoe sponsorship with Puma shortly before being drafted by the Suns.

All this business wheeling and dealing can be taxing on a high school player, no matter how much easier the coursework appears.

“I think one appeal of the prep schools is they make it easier to handle the academic part,” Wilde says. “Students figure they don’t have to be in school all day, they can just do it online.” But Wilde adds that the NCAA still requires student-athletes to take a minimum of four credits each in math, science and social studies, and that sometimes the prep academies (what SI once snidely called “pop-up schools”) don’t meet the NCAA’s standards.

“I lost one student to the prep schools,” Wilde says, declining to name either the student or the school. “He went there and within three weeks, he could see that the education piece wasn’t going to work with the NCAA. So he tried to come back here and found out he was ineligible to play high school basketball again. He had to sit out for a while, and it hurt him.”

Bagley and Ayton – both currently enjoying Rookie of the Year-caliber seasons in the NBA – were obviously not handicapped professionally by the academics at Hillcrest. But they’re extreme outliers as athletes go. Every season, approximately 1,700 freshmen join the NCAA’s 353 Division I men’s basketball teams. Of those, about 60 will ultimately be drafted into the NBA – and fewer will actually play in a game. The remaining 1,600-plus will actually have to earn and use their college degrees – and for them, substandard instruction in high school might prove ruinous. “Prep” schooling minus the preparation.

Wilde acknowledges that playing in a basketball prep school has its advantages. “Most of those kids are high-level players, and they get to travel around the country playing against other high-level competitors. But it’s kind of funny,” he adds. “All the prep schools want to play the traditional high school teams. I mean, Hillcrest is always bugging the AIA to get to play us.”

Watching the Hillcrest team interacting with the Pinnacle players – hanging out by the snack bar, watching the gym fill up with excited fans – the coach theorizes that the prep school model, which many see more as a platform to help talented players make the fastest jump possible to professional NBA careers, can often force kids to leap past valuable high school experience.

“Nico would never go to a prep school,” Wilde says of his top player, who’s already committed to an offer from the University of Arizona after graduation, “because he likes having that high school atmosphere. He likes having the gym packed every time he plays at a home game. You know, sometimes when you’re on the road and play another prep school, there’s just a small gym with a handful of people in there – mostly parents and basketball junkies. There’s no student body or anything. And I think, ultimately, the kids end up missing that.”

That’s the takeaway on the prep school system Wilde got from watching the Hillcrest and Pinnacle players interacting in the Chaparral gym.

“It’s forcing the kids to grow up too fast,” he says. “Obviously the talent at Hillcrest is tremendous. But I think they sometimes miss having that high school atmosphere, and being able to see all the other kids in the gym, instead of always being on the road.

“They’re all kids,” he adds. “No matter how exceptional some of them may be on the court, in many ways, they’re all the same.”

DIAPER DANDIES
Every year, two to three dozen Arizona boys’ basketball players sign with NCAA Division I college programs. Here are the top graduating seniors from the 2018-2019 class, according to 247sports.com, along with their destinations.

1. Nico Mannion
Pinnacle HS (PG)
6-foot-3/180 lbs.
By some scouts’ reckoning, the pride of the North Valley is the country’s top point guard in the class of 2019. Headed to the University of Arizona.

2. Chol Marial
Compass Prep (C)
7-foot-1/210 lbs.
Racking up big numbers for a Chandler-based charter school, the Sudanese big man is believed to be leaning toward the University of Connecticut for his college ball.

3. Terry Armstrong
Bella Vista Prep (SG) 6-foot-6/185 lbs.
Currently playing for ex-Hillcrest coach Kyle Weaver at archrival Bella Vista, the lithe shooting guard will play alongside Mannion as a Wildcat next season.

4. Carl Lewis
Hillcrest Prep (C)
6-foot-9/250 lbs.
A transfer from Henderson, Nevada’s Coronado High School, Lewis is a Zion Williamson-style bruiser believed to be considering Oregon State, St. John’s and USC.

5. Jaelen House
Shadow Mountain HS (PG) 6-foot-2/160 lbs. The state’s second-rated point guard will keep his talents in the desert – he’s the jewel of Arizona State University’s 2019 recruiting class.