Prep school hopes to lure elite hoop talent
By Kyle Odegard
East Valley Tribune
Findlay Prep is the gold standard for high school basketball powerhouses on the West Coast.
The school on the outskirts of Las Vegas regularly boasts players who go on to star in college and play in the NBA. Nick Johnson, the former Gilbert Highland guard, played there his final two high school seasons before moving on to Arizona.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jeff de Laveaga, the new director of operations at Phoenix Westwind Prep, points to Findlay as the blueprint he wants to follow.
It’s also easier said than done.
Earlier this week, five players — Desert Vista’s Connor MacDougall and John Marshall, Anthem Boulder Creek’s Josh Braun, and de Laveaga’s sons, Kye and Tate, who played for Horizon — officially joined Westwind’s newly created national team.
It’s a group wholeheartedly focused on basketball in order to compete on a national level. De Laveaga believes this is the start of a game-changing philosophy in Arizona that has been used for years in New England.
The team will scrimmage against local junior colleges and then play a 45-game season, including four matchups with Findlay Prep and a game with national power Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.
The players will work on skill development six days a week while having their sleep and eating patterns closely monitored. De Laveaga said the top players from the state have encouraged him for years to start a team like this, and now he’s ready.
“My goal is for the national team to be ranked in the top-20 in ESPN Rise in the next three years,” de Laveaga said, “and my goal is to prove we can do it with Arizona kids. I believe in the Arizona kids.”
De Laveaga said East Valley standouts Torren Jones, Jaron Hopkins and Joe Boyd have been contacted to join the team. Hopkins and Jones transferred from Basha to Dobson on Thursday, but he believes all three are still open to the possibility of playing for Westwind.
“They’re all interested and entertaining (the idea),” de Laveaga said.
None of the five current players have a high-major scholarship offer, so more talent will be needed to compete with a team like Findlay.
It remains to be seen how many of the state’s elite will be interested in joining. De Laveaga knows there is a culture change from high school basketball to the national team.
There is no state title to shoot for and the regular life of a high schooler is altered dramatically.
It’s why Corona del Sol’s junior-to-be point guard Casey Benson has little interest.
“I’m really happy at Corona,” he said. “I’ve never thought about going to a prep school. I really want to enjoy the high school experience. Just have fun. That’s the main thing.”
But De Laveaga believes that, for the cream of the crop, it’s a necessary step to maximize the player’s ability.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, they have a higher calling,” he said. “They’re not like most normal high school kids. They have the ability to play four years in college and some after that, whether that’s in the NBA or overseas. They can play this game for a long time.”
MacDougall has played for de Laveaga in club basketball, and his father, Lonny, is on board with the plan. Lonny said missing out on a state title was not a hindrance when making the decision with his son.
“Connor’s gotten so many trophies and medals, and he gives them away,” Lonny said. “The state titles and all that don’t mean nearly as much as having fun and playing with and for people he likes.”
If the national team does gain steam, a potential mass migration would severely affect the high school landscape.
No East Valley standouts followed in Johnson’s footsteps until now, and there have been opportunities. Former Mesa standout Jahii Carson was asked to play for Westwind Prep as a senior, but he stayed with the Jackrabbits.
Moving forward, De Laveaga envisions a setup where the state’s best freshmen and sophomores would play against AIA-sanctioned varsity teams, then get promoted to the national team as upperclassmen.
If that happens, high school coaches may constantly be losing their best players. Desert Vista coach Dave Williams has already been hit hard with the departures of MacDougall and Marshall.
“I don’t know what to make of this prep school and what they are promising these kids, but what can you do?” he said.
“You can’t sanction them. I can’t believe this is a good thing for Arizona basketball as a whole, but you love (the kids) just the same and you wish them luck.”
Red Mountain coach Greg Sessions doesn’t mind the idea of a national team outside the realm of the AIA. The trend lately — highlighted by the recent decision of Jones and Hopkins to join Kodi Justice at Dobson — is for the state’s elite players to join up on high school teams, and this could be a way to even the playing field again.
Sessions and many in the basketball community are in a wait-and-see approach.
“In this day and age they are jumping from school to school,” he said. “Now, maybe they’ll jump out of the system completely.”
De Laveaga has two sons on the team, and he has coached the other three players. If elite players don’t consistently join the team, it won’t come close to the status of a Findlay Prep.
Last year Westwind Prep was an offseason favorite in Division I, but the team’s two star players and coach left, decimating the program.
“I still have to see Westwind make a go of it on a consistent basis,” Sessions said. “A year ago I was concerned about Westwind coming in to Division I and making a complete change of it, but that never happened.”
While Benson believes a player can continue to improve during the high school basketball season, de Laveaga disagrees.
He thinks the development on the national team will greatly raise a player’s skill-set and his exposure.
De Laveaga said it takes Gilbert Christian standouts Sam Jones and Roberto Reyes a couple weeks of club ball to adjust to the higher level of play.
“They go backwards for four months because they’re playing Division III kids,” de Laveaga said. “The game is then so much faster.”
That’s the big pitch, and it may come down to how many players and parents prefer a national team over the high school experience. Lonny MacDougall agreed with it, and it’s why Connor has made the move.
This could be a pivotal summer, because adding a couple more big names could give the team some momentum. If the stars stay away, the operation may not gain solid footing.
“I needed some assurances, because this cannot be a fiasco,” Lonny MacDougall said. “My son would do better if he just stayed at D.V. then going there and having it implode. But if these can be the pioneers and become high-level prospects, then people are going to clamor to get in.”