Game on: Hillcrest Prep poised for first season in Overtime Elite league

The Hillcrest Prep Bruins will make their Overtime Elite league debut Friday against the YNG Dreamerz. (Photo by Derrian Carter/Cronkite News)

BUCKEYE – Hillcrest Prep turned the Sequoia Pathfinder Academy gym into a blacktop game.

Competition was fierce at the Bruins’ 5-on-5 practice scrimmage with expletives flying, bodies diving for loose balls, shoes scratching the hardwood and buckets dropping. The session nearly escalated to a boiling point, but the team remained composed.

Bruins coach Marcus Gantt loved every moment.

“You’ve got to be prepared like a fight,” Gantt said. “We’re building them up (and) stacking the days. We have bad days. We have good days. The things that we’re trying to embed into them is defense.”

Gantt and Sherrell want to toughen up the Bruins for the Overtime Elite (OTE) league, which is a professional basketball league for 16- to 20-year-old national and international players. Hillcrest Prep joined two other teams in September for the second season of the six-team league that features the Word of God Holy Rams, Our Savior Lutheran Falcons and Overtime’s City Reapers, Cold Hearts and YNG Dreamerz. Teams will play one another three or four times.

Hillcrest Prep will face YNG Dreamerz at 6 p.m. on Friday in Atlanta in its OTE debut.

“It just means better competition for me,” five-star Baylor commit Jason Asemota said about playing in OTE before breaking down his areas of improvement. “I got to show up more, and I need to play harder (and) more physical. I need to be more knowledgeable about where I am (and) what I’m about to do.”

Overtime Elite allows “non-scholarship players” to earn at least $100,000 annually and has built a 103,000-square-foot facility in Atlanta that hosts its games. The star-studded league possesses four-star to NBA-level talent, such as projected 2023 lottery picks Amen and Ausar Thompson and Connecticut commit Youssouf Singare.

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The league has investments from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and NBA stars, including Trae Young, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, and signed a three-year deal with Amazon Prime Wednesday to stream 20 OTE games this season.

Although Bruins players won’t receive a salary to preserve their college eligibility, they benefit from the immense exposure Overtime Elite provides. The league built a presence online by creating highlights and content on TikTok (1.3 million followers), YouTube (74,600 subscribers), Instagram (460,000 followers) and Snapchat that revolve around high school and amateur athletes.

“Since social media and basketball are one and one, this league has both together, where kids can get exposure with NBA scouts coming to the game instead of watching on TV,” Gannt said. “It’s just a little bit different, and we’re happy to be a part of it for the first time.”

Last season, Hillcrest Prep played against Team OTE in February and lost 71-35 in Atlanta.

“The kids were nervous,” Gantt said. “I think the lights were very bright, and it was a test to our mentality. As a team and as coaches, we weren’t prepared to compete the way we wanted to when things got bad, but it was a great experience.

“I’m happy that they invited us back. We’re coming a little bit stronger this year. We’re going to be ready.”

Asemota credited the Bruins’ history of winning and building NBA prospects, like Suns center Deandre Ayton and Bulls guard Dalen Terry, for Overtime Elite inviting the program to its league. OTE added more credibility to Hillcrest Prep’s program since joining, which has allowed the prep school to recruit even more talented players after graduating Louisville commit Kamari Lands, Emmanuel Kanwei and Ziare Wells.

The Bruins added size, ball-handling and physicality with the additions of Aiden Sherrell, the No. 4-ranked Arizona player in the class of 2024, in July, four-star center Jayden Quaintance in September and guard K.J. Perry in October. They join a team that finished 31-3 last season as an independent program and features Asemota, Saint Joseph commit Shawn Simmons, four-star guard Malachi Palmer and three-star guard Adam Njie.

“We tell them what the exposure is, how the platform is and the opportunity to be seen by college coaches and NBA coaches,” Gantt said. “We have a real strong pitch for kids to think about, ‘Hey, maybe I want to do this instead of playing in high school, where I’m on a school bus and going to different schools. I want to get on a plane and go to these big arenas and play.’”

Even with the increased cross-country travel, Hillcrest Prep head of player development Austin Sherrell is on top of players’ academics.

“We want them to have a customized schedule to focus on basketball but also get their studies done,” Austin said. “We have a classroom, as well, here at Sequoia Pathfinder. I do some of the academic advising, and (Hillcrest Prep program director Nick Weaver) oversees it as well. So when we’re on the road, we predominantly have our laptops with us, and we make sure we have study hall sessions on the road.”

Hillcrest Prep has endured high-intensity practices, scrimmages and games against each other and teams (like Arizona Sol and Ascending Life Academy) to prepare for OTE.

Once the ball goes up Friday, only time will tell if the hard work paid off.

“I expect great talent, great teams, great coaching (and) a great environment,” Asemota said. “I expect high-level basketball.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Derrian Carter expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Carter, who has interned with Tuscaloosa News and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, was a research associate for the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, a fellow for Front Office Sports and a copy editor and reporter for the Poynter Institute.