PHOENIX – Hoops aficionados around the world would agree that the University of Arizona Wildcats have the best basketball factory in the state of Arizona. The proof is in this year’s NBA Draft.
Three Tucson players — Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Dalen Terry (Chicago Bulls) and Christian Koloko (Toronto Raptors) — had their names called on draft night.
But the local basketball boom occurs long 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 final two years of high school prom at Dream City Christian School, the one of Arizona’s rising prep academies in recent 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 favor of Hillcrest Prep for starting the trend in recent years with top prospect Deandre Ayton, who left the Bahamas and remained in Arizona throughout his playing career in the United States as a former Wildcat before becoming No. 1 overall at the Phoenix Suns in 2018. His example helped Hillcrest Prep gain a reputation for recruiting more elite prospects, including Terry, the Phoenix native who transferred from Corona del Sol High School in Hillcrest. He also played for the Wildcats, before joining the Bulls this coming season.
“(DeAndre Ayton) is a testament to who we are, and we’re trying to achieve (their dreams),” said current Hillcrest Prep coach Marcus Gantt. “These kids are following in the footsteps of DeAndre Ayton, and that’s a great example to add. When you’re trying to sign the best players, they know you’ve been really successful because it happened here.
AZ Compass Prep is another prep academy with recent success and also boosted its own reputation last month with former TyTy Washington Jr. ranking 29th overall for the Houston Rockets and Jabari Walker 57th overall for the Portland Trail Blazers .
“I have to give it to prep schools,” Gantt said. “I don’t know what they are doing. But I know what we’re doing. We first try to prepare these children for university. 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 participate in the college game and make things happen.
Arizona’s NBA draft success also extends to the alum beyond local prep schools. Thunder rookie Jalen Williams became Santa Clara University’s 12th overall pick after attending Perry High School. Pumas head coach Sam Duane says the state’s growth is another reason Arizona has seen a spike in success.
“Arizona is growing and the Phoenix area is growing dramatically,” Duane said. “The level of talent has improved. There are very, very good coaches in the AIA at the secondary level.
The increase in population not only makes teams more competitive, but it also increases the number of teams at the highest level.
“We’ve always had really good teams that could compete nationally,” Duane said. “Now we have more. We have more numbers. We have more teams that can compete. So our numbers are getting bigger and bigger. Our players are improving. And I think that just helps Arizona’s overall talent level.
Besides Terry, another player familiar with high schools and AIA prep academies is Washington, who played 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 asleep (for their basketball talent),” Washington said. “This year, six people who went to high school in Arizona were drafted, which just goes to show that in Arizona we’re not a disappointing state, we have some hoopers there.”
The NBA Summer League made a reunion between Williams and Washington possible. Arizona Pipeline products have gone head-to-head at every possible stage.
“It’s pretty rare, especially in Arizona, to be able to play against someone you grew up with,” Williams said. “I’ve known TyTy (Washington) since we were about six, so it was a really cool experience to play against him.”
Now Arizona has the chance to maintain its recent tradition and enhanced status as one of the most sought-after destinations for up-and-coming basketball players. The rise of state prep academies and other favorable factors may 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’s played indoors… So a lot of things can happen to you in Arizona.”
For Duane, having successful Arizona teams and players with a proven track record of reaching the NBA will only attract more future talent. AZ Compass Prep, for example, still has that success. Every senior graduating from the Class of 2022 has committed to a DI program, some of which include UCLA, Auburn, and Texas Tech.
“I think the more success breeds success, the more winning breeds win,” Duane said. “So the kids want to go where the players have had success, so that’s a very real possibility.”