PHOENIX – Hoops aficionados everywhere would agree that the University of Arizona Wildcats has the best basketball factory in the state of Arizona. The proof is in this year’s NBA draft.
Three players out of Tucson – Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Dalen Terry (Chicago Bulls) and Christian Koloko (Toronto Raptors) – heard their names called on draft night.
But the local basketball boom is happening well before the college level. Arizona is becoming a cornerstone of high school basketball prospects entering college and eventually reaching the NBA, as the state led the country with six first-round selections in June.
Canadian product Shaedon Sharpe, who the Portland Trail Blazers selected seventh overall this year, committed to the University of Kentucky after playing his last two years of high school ball at Dream City Christian School, one of Arizona’s rising prep academies in the last few years.
He was joined by fellow Dream City alum MarJon Beauchamp, who the Milwaukee Bucks selected with the 24th pick.
An argument can be made in Hillcrest Prep’s favor for starting the trend in recent years with top prospect Deandre Ayton, who moved from the Bahamas and has remained in Arizona for his entire playing career in the United States as a former Wildcat before going No. 1 overall to the Phoenix Suns in 2018. His example helped Hillcrest Prep gain a reputation to recruit more elite prospects, including Terry, the Phoenix native who transferred from Corona del Sol High School to Hillcrest. He also played for the Wildcats, before joining the Bulls this upcoming season.
“(DeAndre Ayton) is a testament of what we’re about, and we try to fulfill (their dreams),” Marcus Gantt, current Hillcrest Prep coach said. “These kids follow DeAndre Ayton’s footsteps, and that’s a great example to add. When you’re trying to recruit top players, they know that you really made it happen, because it has happened here.”
AZ Compass Prep is another prep academy with recent success and also strengthened its own reputation last month with alums TyTy Washington Jr. going 29th overall to the Houston Rockets and Jabari Walker going 57th overall to the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I gotta give it to the prep schools,” Gantt said. “I don’t know what they do. But I know what we do. We try to prepare these kids for college first. We try to put them on a platform. We have to travel all over the country, play and get that exposure, and get that experience. And I think our kids are really prepared, when they go to college, to be able to be in the college game, and make some things happen.”
Arizona’s NBA draft success also extends to alum beyond the local prep schools. Thunder rookie Jalen Williams became the 12th overall pick from Santa Clara University after attending Perry High School. Pumas head coach Sam Duane points to the state’s growth as another reason why Arizona has seen a spike in success.
“Arizona is becoming bigger and the Phoenix area is growing dramatically,” Duane said. “The talent level has gotten better. There’s very, very good coaching in the AIA at the high school level.”
The increase in population is not only making more competitive teams, but it is also increasing the number of teams at the top level.
“We’ve always had real good teams that could compete at the national level,” Duane said. “Now we just have more. We have more numbers. We have more teams that can compete. So our numbers are getting bigger. Our players are getting better. And I think that just helps the overall talent level of Arizona.”
Apart from Terry, another player who knows AIA high schools and prep academies well is Washington, who played at Cesar Chavez until his sophomore year and joined AZ Compass Prep as a junior. He agrees with Duane’s position.
“I feel like Arizona is definitely slept on (for their basketball talent),” Washington said. “This year, six people who went to high school in Arizona got drafted, so that just shows that in Arizona, we’re not a bummer state, we have a few hoopers out there.”
The NBA Summer League made possible a reunion between Williams and Washington. The products of Arizona’s pipeline played against each other in every stage possible.
“It’s kinda rare, especially in Arizona to be able to play against somebody you grew up with,” Williams said. “I’ve known TyTy (Washington) since we were like six, so it was a really cool experience to play against him.”
Now Arizona has the chance to maintain their recent tradition and improved status among the most desired destinations for up-and-coming basketball players. The surge of the state’s prep academies, and other favorable factors, can make Arizona a top basketball factory for the foreseeable future.
“Arizona is a great place to live, with great weather,” Gantt said. “The state of the sport, the fact that it is played indoors … So a lot of things can happen in Arizona for you.”
For Duane, the fact that there are successful teams and players from Arizona with a proven track record to reach the NBA will only attract more future talent. AZ Compass Prep, for example, still has that success. Every graduating senior from the 2022 class has committed to a D-I program, some including UCLA, Auburn and Texas Tech.
“I think the more success breeds success and winning breeds winning,” Duane said. “So kids want to go where players have had success so that is a very real possibility.”