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Making A Five-Star: Collin Sexton’s rise from unranked to MVP of Team USA

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — When covering an event like Peach Jam, it can be hard, at times, to remember that the kids playing in these games are just barely old enough too legally drive a car.

These kids are doing things athletically that I can only dream about with the kind of build that makes it obvious they don’t spend their summers sipping cold beers while shoveling hot dogs, burgers and chips and dip down their gullet. I’m also 6-foot-3, and it’s rare when I interview a player that is shorter than me.

Put another way, these kids don’t look like the 16 and 17 year olds you’re used to seeing.

And that’s before you consider that the players at the top of every class are already aware and conscious of their image and branding. The best of the best are going to end getting picked in the NBA Draft within two years, and even the kids that are destined to end up as role players in college have dealt with enough interviews over the years to be media savvy and know the right things to say.

These kids don’t always talk like the 16 and 17 year olds you know, either.

Which is why it was so refreshing to hear Collin Sexton tell an NBCSports.com reporter how excited he is to get to AAU Nationals in Orlando to … ride Go-Karts?

“Go-Karts, that’s what I do,” Sexton said, without so much as trying to contain a grin stretching ear to ear. He checks out the best spots to ride Go-Karts everywhere he travels, which makes me worry for the parents of a young man that doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. “They’re some fun. I can’t wait to get down to Florida because there’s a Go-Kart place called Fun Spot. It has like a four story track. It’s huge.”

Sexton’s exuberance is palpable. He’s genuinely excited that reporters want to interview him after games. Even games that he plays poorly, like the one I saw him play in Augusta. He’s blown away by the fact that the likes Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self and Sean Miller are leaving the Peach Jam to drive 15 minutes, literally into a different state, in order to watch him play.

“I didn’t see none of this coming,” his father, Darnell, said. “Nowhere close. This wasn’t in the ball park at all.”

There may be a reason behind that.

For everything that Sexton is as a player today, six months ago, even the best recruiting analysts in the business didn’t know much about him.

And, when you know the story behind the growth, you’ll know that says more about who Sexton is than it does anything else.

———-

Collin Sexton is the best scorer in the Class of 2017, and that’s really not up for debate.

A 6-foot-2 guard that played for Peddlebrook HS (Georgia) as a junior this past season, Sexton averaged 29 points during the high school season, a number that looks paltry compared to the 31.7 points he averaged on the Nike EYBL circuit. That was nine points better than Michael Porter Jr., the second leading scorer on the circuit. His ability to put up a massive amount of points in a hurry earned Sexton a trip to Colorado Springs for the U17 trials. He played his way into a spot on the team, where he averaged 17.2 points, 4.8 boards and 3.4 assists off the bench to win MVP of the U17 World Championships in Spain.

That’s quite a résumé for anyone to have put together, but it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that Sexton was a relative unknown outside the state of Georgia prior to his junior year. He didn’t climb his way into the national rankings until midway through last season, and he only really came under consideration as a potential McDonald’s All-American and a top ten prospect in the last month. He has scholarship offers from North Carolina, Kansas and Arizona. He’s spoken on the phone with coaches from Duke and Kentucky.

“I haven’t seen a guy like him make a rise like this ever in Georgia,” said Justin Young, a longtime, Atlanta-based scout that is now the editor of HoopSeen.com.

It’s uncommon anywhere for a player to make a jump like this. Anthony Davis did it once upon a time, but his rise came as he sprouted up from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-11 without losing any of his coordination or perimeter skill. John Wall also exploded onto the national scene after getting cut from his high school team, but his status as an unranked prospect had everything to do with his attitude and little to do with his ability.

With Sexton, he wasn’t exactly a nobody. He played in Peach Jam with the 17s last summer. He was an honorable mention Class 6A all-state player as a sophomore, one of just two underclassmen to get recognized in Georgia’s largest division. And it’s not like he suddenly turned into a freak of an athlete. He has been competing at the state championship-level in the high jump and the 4 X 400 relay; his career-best jump of 6-feet-8.5 inches would have won him a state title if he didn’t miss the meet to play in the EYBL in Brooklyn.

Sexton didn’t have a come-to-Jesus moment like Wall did. He didn’t suddenly turn into a player that has one of the most valuable physical profiles in basketball like Davis.

He just got better.

Can it really be that simple?

“A wild horse got tamed,” Young says. “Now he’s using that ‘put your head down, get to the foul line’ skill, channeling his aggression. He couldn’t draw fouls before because he wasn’t strong, he was making bad decisions. And he improved on it.”

“He’s been on a mission.”

Both Sexton and his dad back that up. According to Sexton, the last year of his life has centered around this schedule: He’s up before 6 a.m. and in the gym, lifting weights and working on his conditioning. Then it was off to school before he would head to high school or AAU practice. After practice was over, it was time for the skill-work, getting up jumpers or working on his handle or running through the same move until it becomes nothing but muscle memory. Step-backs, euro-steps, finishing through contact. All of it.

And it paid off.

But there was more to it than just adding to his skill set.

Because Sexton had a rep prior to his junior year, and it is what kept a lot of people from buying in on him.

Off the court, he’s bright and engaging, but even to this day, he’s something of a lunatic on the floor. He talks to himself. He curses himself out when things don’t go his way. In the game that I watched, the game that had 18 high major head coaches in the stands, he never once sat on his team’s bench, choosing to instead sit on the floor or on the stairs of the bleachers when he wasn’t on the court.

And this is the toned down version?

That is something the family has worked hard on.

“What it really was was understanding how to redirect his energy to reflect what he’s able to do on the floor,” Darnell said. His intensity is a good thing. Keeping that intensity focused and under control isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

But the end result is a player who is in the midst of becoming a nationally-pursued recruit, whose ability to get into the paint and draw fouls is unmatched at this level. Sexton made 181 free throws in the EYBL this season, which is more than No. 2 and No. 3 on that list combined.

There are questions about whether or not he is truly a point guard or a simply a scorer that can handle the rock. There are concerns about how he’ll be able to handle being on a team where he can’t simply dominate possession.

But the bottom-line is this: When you can get buckets the way that Sexton can get buckets, the big boys will come calling and figure the rest out later.

———-

Part of the reason that a story like Sexton’s is so interesting to us is that it doesn’t happen all that often.

Between the accessibility to information that the internet provides and the profitability of aligning oneself with an elite prospect, we typically know who the best players in the country are when they enter high school. If a kid gets labeled as a high major prospect as a freshman, he’ll stay there. If he’s slotted as a mid-major guy, he’s probably going to end up being considered a mid-major guy by the time he graduates.

Diamonds In The Rough are, by definition, hard to find.

But they do exist. Steph Curry is the best example today. His story has been told a million times by now. He had no ACC offers coming out of high school — not even Virginia Tech, his dad’s alma mater — and he would go on to become one of the most prolific college scorer we’ve ever seen and one of the best players in the NBA today. Kawhi Leonard made a similarly meteoric rise, as has Draymond Green and Russell Westbrook.

Those guys have a couple things in common as well. Curry and Leonard both have a legendary work ethic, bordering on clinical insanity. They were seen in high school. As legend has it, Curry scored six points in six games at the NBPA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va., prior to his senior season in high school. Leonard was Mr. Basketball in California and a top 50 recruit in 2009, the same year that five top 30 recruits came out of the state.

Green’s story is a little different. He’s gotten better since he was the No. 35 pick in the draft in 2012, but he also found a role that fit him better than a tailored suit. Westbrook grew — and grew into his athleticism — later in his development than most kids.

They were all known. They weren’t considered good enough. They got better.

It happens.

Just like it happened with Sexton.

“We make snap judgements in high school,” Young said. “If you’re not a high major by your sophomore year, that’s who you are. It’s not intentional, but we forget just how much better kids can get. When it happens, we go nuts. Sexton is a perfect example. He didn’t come out of nowhere, he just kept adding pieces. He’s always been talented. He played with Kobi Simmons. He’s been around.”

“He’s just gotten better, to the point we can’t ignore it.”

Collin Sexton, USA Basketball
Collin Sexton, USA Basketball

From the Top of the World to the Edge of a Dream: Kamaka Hepa’s journey from Alaska to Division I hoops

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Kamaka Hepa’s pursuit of becoming the first Inupiaq (Eskimo) to play in the NBA took him to Nike’s Peach Invitational last week, where he stepped on the court as a top 50 prospect being pursued by Shaka Smart, Mark Few and a dozen other coaches 3,700 miles from his hometown of Barrow, Alaska.

A town located 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the northernmost community in the United States, made up primarily of Inupiat.

A town that Hepa didn’t leave until tragedy struck.


Barrow, Alaska, is as unique as it is isolated.

Only accessible by plane, Barrow is as far North as you can get while remaining within the boundaries of the United States. When the thermostat cracks 50 degrees during the summer, it’s a scorcher. The temperatures during the winter months hover around -20 degrees and can drop as low as -50. The sun never sets in June and early July and residents go more than a month, from Thanksgiving through early February, without seeing the sun rise above the horizon.

One of eight villages that make up the North Slope region of Alaska, Barrow is steeped in the traditions of the native population. “The Inupiat people lived there for thousands of years,” said Roland Hepa, Kamaka’s father who is of Hawaiian and Filipino descent. “It’s their land.”

And the Inupiat live off of it.

It’s not easy, or cheap, to ship the processed food found at every grocery store in the Lower 48 states up to Barrow, meaning much of the population relies on subsistence hunting. It’s a means to survival in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

“People attack our subsistence lifestyle because we kill animals,” Kamaka said. “It’s not something we do for game or just because. It’s how we survive.”

One of the animals that the Inupiat hunt is Bowhead Whales, a species that was nearly driven to extinction by intense commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whale hunts are local tradition, a cultural norm that is inextricably woven into the fabric of the community.

“It’s a really long process, like two or three weeks,” Kamaka explained. “There’s different crews, and a whole bunch of people that will go out onto the Arctic Ocean while it’s frozen and set up camp where the ice meets the water. They’ll set up camp there for however long they have to until they get a whale.”

“It can feed a whole community. Whenever there’s a whale caught, the crew that caught it will put a flag on top of their house and the whole community will come and get their share of the whale. Everybody can come and get some. It kind of goes quick, but because there are multiple crews, multiple whales are caught. It continues for a whole process. They’ll save some and have a big gathering, called Nalukataq. It’s basically where the whole community will gather in one area, and we’ll do different cultural things, like dancing and games, and different crews will serve on different days, the elders and their families. It will continue for a weekend. I miss it.”

Basketball in Barrow is unique as well. When the warmest summer temperatures still require jackets, kids aren’t exactly clamoring to play baseball or football. Basketball, however, is hugely popular, because, as Roland put it, “the kids would rather stay in the gym and play basketball.” Only about 225 kids attend Barrow High School, the only high school in the area, which makes traveling to games a logistical nightmare. The Whalers have to fly to every game in every sport, and they fly in opponents that play in Barrow, including the other three high schools in their conference — Nome, Bethel and Kotzebue.

To ease the burden of travel costs, whenever the Whalers would play games in their league, they would play on back-to-back nights, flying in on Thursday, playing on Friday and Saturday and returning to Barrow on Sunday. They also played in quite a few tournaments in bigger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks during the season in order to fill out their schedule. The relative scarcity of home games and the fervor with which the community supports basketball creates a raucous environment whenever a team did make the trip up to Barrow.

“The games are crazy,” Kamaka said. “The whole community is there, supporting. It makes it easy for us to feel passionate about the game.”

That community support is part of the reason it took Kamaka so long to make the decision to pursue the sport at a higher level.


Alaskan high school basketball is better than you realize, but even then, Kamaka had likely outgrown it by the time he reached his sophomore season in high school. A 6-foot-9 stretch-four that needs to develop toughness, strength and the ability to finish through contact and over length is only going to get so far playing at that level. Kamaka began attending exposure events as early as sixth grade, and according to his father, offers to play in the Lower 48 were rolling in before he had even reached high school.

Everyone — Kamaka, his family, his community — knew that, eventually, he would leave. The family often talked about when the right time to move south would be, but actually making the decision to move away from the only place you’ve ever called home is not easy for anyone, let alone a 15-year old.

“Our high school boys basketball team had never won a state championship, but when him and his classmates became freshmen, they had a couple of really good players,” Roland said. “Our community expected us to win a state championship. Our whole town was counting on us. So we weren’t going to make him move his freshman year.”

“Our community would have probably disowned us,” he added with a laugh.

So Kamaka stayed.

He won a state title as a freshman.

And the discussions began anew.

“There were options out there,” Roland said, but Kamaka wasn’t yet ready to leave.

Kamaka Hepa, Jon Lopez/Nike

Then came November 23rd, 2015, when Kawika Hepa, Kamaka’s oldest brother, died unexpectedly in Anchorage. He was just 29-years old. The family did not want to discuss Kawika’s death, but the tragedy shook Kamaka. He was a teenager, invincible on the court and a hero in his community. He never realized how fleeting life can be.

“Before he passed away, my brother wanted me to get out of Alaska,” Kamaka said. “The competition’s not terrible, but we thought there was more out there for me. He was always a big factor in that. He wanted me to play against the best players I could and get my game as good as I can. He thought that by moving, I would be able to do that.”

“When he passed away, I just had to do that for him.”

Kawika died a few days before the start of Kamaka’s sophomore season. In early December, he received a call from Reggie Walker, the director of Portland Basketball Club, a Nike-affiliated team that plays on the EYBL circuit. In February, Kamaka visited a few high schools in Portland, and a week after winning his second straight state title in Alaska, Kamaka was en route to Oregon with his family.

It’s been nearly 16 months since the Hepa family made the move, and Kamaka is thriving. From a personal standpoint, the adjustment that comes with moving to a city from a village of less than 5,000 people in the Arctic has been relatively easy for him. Basketball has allowed him to travel constantly throughout his younger days, and he would often visit his father’s family in Hawai’i. The family has, for the most part, remained together — Kamaka’s two older sisters are both living on their own, and his mother commutes between Portland and Barrow — knowing that the sacrifice they are making is what is best for their son.

“The only thing we miss is the family. When [my wife]’s home alone, you start missing each other,” Roland said. “We have a lot of family up there as well. Growing up in a family atmosphere, all of a sudden we move to a city where you make new friends, which is fine, we can make new friends, but that’s just not the same when you have family. That’s the only area where we feel the sacrifice.”

“My oldest son, he went to a private school and when [Kamaka] was ready to travel, we decided it’s probably best that we move with them.”

From a basketball perspective, things are going even better. Kamaka’s played on the most competitive circuit in high school basketball, the EYBL, in the spring and summer the past two years. He enrolled at Jefferson High School in Portland and won the 2017 state championship, his third ring in three years. He’s been working out two and three times a day since moving south and has slowly been climbing up the recruiting rankings; 247 Sports currently has him as the No. 50 player in the composite Class of 2018 rankings.

Best I can tell,* he is on track to become the first Inupiaq to play Division I basketball and the first Native Alaskan to play since former Oral Roberts forward Damen Bell-Holter graduated in 2013-14. Bell-Holter spent some time with the Celtics after he graduated, but was waived before the season began. Kamaka, who has the talent to one day do so, would be the first of his people to reach the NBA, and to my knowledge, Bell-Holter is the only Native Alaskan to spend time on an NBA roster.

*(I cannot find anyone else in my research. If you know of anyone I am missing, please email or tweet me.)

But Kamaka is not worried about that right now.

He’s mostly worried about the rain.

“Snow is better than rain,” Kamaka, chuckling, said of his new digs. “I’d take snow over rain any day. It just changes the whole mood.”

Forward leaving Kansas program

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Kansas’ already thin frontline took a hit Wednesday night when it came to light that Jack Whitman will not suit up for the Jayhawks.

Whitman, a transfer from William & Mary, will leave the Kansas program, according to multiple reports.

The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 10.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season for the Tribe before deciding to graduate transfer, committing to the Jayhawks in May.

“I know I can play with these guys, contribute and help us win games this year,” Whitman told the Kansas City Star last month.

Instead, the Jayhawks will have to make due with a frontcourt that will be lacking much depth. Udoka Azubuike is back after missing most of last year with an injury while Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot will also be expected to be contributors. Whitman wasn’t expected to put up huge numbers for the Jayhawks, but his departure does leave them vulnerable should injury or foul trouble find the Kansas big men at some point.

As the KC Star points out, though, Kansas is in contention to land top recruit Marvin Bagley, who is considering classifying to 2017, a class in which Kansas now has an open scholarship that could conceivably go to the 6-foot-10 five-star prospect.

 

Duke’s Grayson Allen underwent offseason ankle surgery

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Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went on a podcast with ESPN’s Seth Greenberg this week and casually mentioned that Grayson Allen, who was banged up for most of last season after entering the year as the Preseason National Player of the Year, underwent a procedure on his ankle.

“We had him away from basketball for about three months,” Krzyzewski said of Allen. “He had a minor operation on his ankle. He’s now fully recovered, so his athleticism is back. He’s happy, he’s in shape and he’s sharing that.”

Allen struggled with his confidence and his emotions last season, and that ankle issue never quite went away, bothering him from the start of the year throughout the season. Time away from basketball — and from the limelight, after a third tripping incident — was good for Allen, according to Krzyzewski.

“I’m really happy where Grayson is at emotionally, physically and he’s really excited about leading these guys.”

“Gary Trent, talking with him after a workout yesterday, I said, ‘What do you think?'” Coach K’s story continued. “He said, ‘Coach, I didn’t know G was that good.’ Well, he’s healthy. ‘You didn’t think he could shoot that well, did you?'”

Minnesota lands in-state 2018 forward

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Minnesota is building its frontcourt of the future in its 2018 class without even leaving the Twin Cities.

Jarvis Thomas, a four-star forward, committed to the Gophers on Tuesday evening, becoming the second in-state frontcourt player in Richard Pitino’s newest class.

The 6-foot-7 forward hails from the Minneapolis suburbs and joins another local product, four-star center Daniel Oturo, to forge a potentially formidable future frontcourt for Pitino and Co., who are coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons at Minnesota. Both Thomas and Oturo play for the Howard Pulley program.

I’m headed to Minnesota & I picked them because it’s home. I have a good relationship with the staff. I’m just comfortable,” Thomas said, according to Ryan James of Gopher Illustrated. “I made a decision for myself, but Daniel was a plus to it. Me & Daniel room every tournament we play.We are always together.”

Landing two high-profile in-state recruits is a major development for Pitino after the Gophers went 0-for in the 2017 class despite offering numerous Minnesota prospects. In fact, Thomas’ commitment, presumably, sent Pitino to Twitter to celebrate with a Gopher GIF from ‘Caddyshack.’

While this is a strong tweet from a sitting head coach, the response it generated from Xavier assistant Luke Murray, son of ‘Caddyshack’ star Bill Murray, might have been just as good.

Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun assists cast in play about recruiting

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WATERFORD, Conn. (AP) — Actor Sam Kebede went to rehearsal hoping to get some insights about what it’s like to be recruited by a big-time college basketball coach. Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun was happy to assist.

The coach who led UConn to three national championships before retiring in 2012 is serving as a technical adviser on the production of a new play, “Exposure,” which is being put on this weekend at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

Kebede portrays a player experiencing the world of AAU basketball and the dark side of recruiting.

Playwright Steve DiUbaldo played Division I basketball at Winthrop under Gregg Marshall, now the coach at Wichita State. Director Wendy Goldberg grew up in Michigan and watched her friend, retired NBA star Chris Webber, deal with choosing a college before he wound up at Michigan.

But both sat in rapt fascination with the cast and crew for well over an hour prior to rehearsal Tuesday as Calhoun answered their questions and regaled them with stories, drawing on more than a half-century of experience in basketball. He offered insights and opinions on the NCAA, the recruiting process, shoe companies, players, parents, other coaches and even fans (“They love you, win or win,” he joked).

“It made it all a lot more real,” said Kebede. “He just put me in those shoes. He gave me a fuller idea of what it means to be a recruit.”

Calhoun talked about forming personal relationships with recruits and their families, showing them the formula he used to help players like Ray Allen and Kemba Walker fulfill their dreams. But he also addressed the games flaws.

Calhoun talked about the struggles the NCAA has governing institutions as diverse as Harvard and Alabama. He told the ensemble about coaches who thought they were doing things the right way by only giving players “used cars” and teenagers who feel entitled to fame and riches because they’ve “worked hard all their lives for it.”

“All your life? You’re 18,” he said.

“Have I ever been offered, ‘You give us this, and we’ll give you that?’ Yeah,” Calhoun told them. “I always said, ‘I’m never going to own a kid, but a kid is never going to own me. It was never worth it, ethically, morally or otherwise to do those things.”

Calhoun said he tried to get across that basketball can’t be portrayed in black-and-white terms — good guys and bad guys. It’s about human beings, relationships, mistakes and trying to do what’s right for the players and doing it the right way, he said. And, he said, there is a lot of gray area.

The vast majority of college basketball, he said, is great, “but in the midst of millions and millions of dollars, things happen.”

“Something that I found enlightening was how much he loved his kids and how much the game is at the base of basketball,” said DiUbaldo. “And amidst all this stuff that will make us cynical with the recruiting process and other things, at the end of the day we love the game and we love the kids that play it.”

DiUbaldo said he hopes all of that comes across in his play.

Calhoun, who sits on the board at the O’Neill Theater, said being involved in the production is exciting for him as a long-time fan of the performing arts. He said he marvels at the athleticism of dancers and the discipline it takes for actors to learn how to portray a character.

He also sees a lot of parallels to basketball — the ensemble feeling, the work ethic and the joy that comes from pulling off a great performance.

“I’ll come Saturday and Sunday nights to see it,” he said. “I want to see how they handle it.”

___

Follow Pat Eaton-Robb on Twitter @peatonrobb