Boys BB: Top 8th Graders Since ’82

Ricky Butler (right) was a highly-regarded middle schooler in 1982-1983 and developed into a three-time all-state player at Huntington Beach Ocean View. His son Harrison will contribute as a freshman to a Mater Dei team looking to win its fifth consecutive CIF state title this winter. Photo: Ronnie Flores

Ricky Butler (right) was a highly-regarded middle schooler in 1982-1983 and developed into a three-time all-state player at Huntington Beach Ocean View. His son, Harrison, will contribute as a freshman this season to a Mater Dei of Santa Ana team looking to win its fifth consecutive CIF state title this winter. Photo: Ronnie Flores.

Our post-summer rankings are now complete and with the Class of 2018 now ready to make an impact at the high school level, we decided to take a detailed look back at California’s top incoming ninth-graders since before the fathers of the current crop of standouts were in high school. This is the type of high school and grassroots basketball coverage for Gold Club VIPs that cannot be found anywhere else.

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With our post-summer player rankings now updated, the Class of 2018 introduced, and with a handful of those incoming ninth-graders expected to make an immediate impact at the high school level, we figured it would be a great time to take a year-by-year look back at nearly two generations of the state’s top eighth-graders.

We actually covered youth basketball as part of Cal-Hi Sports Magazine coverage from 1990 through 1994. We even named all-state teams for four years. At that time, our input from coaches and league directors focused on traveling teams, which at the time were centralized in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Since then, of course, the number of grassroots leagues and travel programs has exploded. Two things remain the same since then. One, California has a plethora of middle school talent ready to make an impact in its first year of high school and, two, middle school success does not always translate into high school and college success.

Some take up another sport and focus on it, some mature early and stop growing and see less-heralded players pass them as college prospects, and others lose focus on their quest for a college scholarship, whether it be grades, discipline or family issues that cause them to play less than their full potential.

The Buzz 150

Some interesting trends emerge looking at the groups of top eighth graders over the years. An exceptionally talented group of eighth graders is a good sign that the group will be highly-regarded as college recruits four years later as well. Top middle school players tend to attend the state’s very best high school programs in bunches at the time of their enrollment, whether it be Mater Dei in the 1980s or Dominguez of Compton beginning in the early 1990s.

Athletes with a football background who are physically dominant forwards or post players in middle school tend to excel at high school basketball, but typically find more success in college or pro football than pro basketball. The 1995 Mr. Football, Chris Claiborne Riverside North, or Grid-Hoop stud Johnny McWilliams of Pomona are good examples.

Lastly, a talented group of players that win an AAU national title as middle schoolers and choose to attend the same high school tend not to stay together through the duration of their high school careers. Which brings us to the talented group of sophomores at Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth that played and won an AAU national title with the California Basketball Club in the summer of 2013.

Point guard Remy Martin wasn’t part of last season’s team and was at Chaminade of West Hills for a majority of the 2013-14 school year, but has since transferred back to Sierra Canyon. Will the Sierra Canyon group stay together for the next three seasons and win CIF Southern Section Open Division and/or CIF State titles together? Time will tell.

Below is a comprehensive list of the state’s best eighth graders, beginning with the players that made up California’s strong high school Class of 1986.

Over 30 Years of Great California 8th
Graders Entering High School Basketball

(Players listed in year in which they originally were in eighth grade and by high school they originally enrolled at.)

Sean Fleming (Fremont, Oakland), Greg Foster (Skyline, Oakland), Khari Johnson (El Toro), Gary Payton (Skyline, Oakland), Stevie Thompson (St. Anthony, Long Beach), Bryant Walton (Saddleback, Santa Ana), Trevor Wilson (Cleveland, Reseda).
Synopsis: Foster and Payton were both all-state selections at Skyline as seniors, with Foster being a first five selection and the higher ranked recruit. Payton, however, kept developing in college and is a NBA Hall of Famer.

Ricky Butler (Ocean View, Huntington Beach), Damon Greer (Cleveland, Reseda), Sean Higgins (Fairfax, Los Angeles), Kraig Kluge (Edina, Minn.), Bobby Joyce (Santa Ana), Eric McDonough (San Ramon, Danville), Matt Muehlebach (Bishop O’Dowd, Oakland), Phil Palmer (Bishop O’Dowd, Oakland), Chris Patton (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Tony Rocco (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Chris Roscoe (Poly, Long Beach), Ray Tillis (Blair, Pasadena), Stevie Ward (Calabasas).
Synopsis: Butler was a dominant high school player and his son, Harrison, is one of the state’s top incoming freshmen this season. Some of the players in this class didn’t live up to expectations while Roscoe became more of a big-time football recruit. Muehlebach moved out of state as a senior and played at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City before returning West to play for Lute Olson at Arizona.

Eric Bamberger (Ygnacio Valley, Concord), Dell Demps (Mt. Eden, Hayward), Kason Jackson (Bishop O’Dowd, Oakland), Don MacLean (Simi Valley), Darrick Martin (St. Anthony, Long Beach), Chris Mills (Fairfax, Los Angeles), James Moses (Alemany, Mission Hills), Ron Reis (Monta Vista, Cupertino), Kevin Rembert (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Rex Walters (Piedmont Hills, San Jose).
Synopsis: This class had star power and lived up to expectations. MacLean, Martin and Mills were McDonald’s All-Americans and played many years in the NBA. Walters teamed with all-state player Lucius Davis (UCSB) at Piedmont Hills and went on to a strong collegiate and pro career. Moses was one of the greatest shooters of his era and finished at Serra of Gardena before moving on to Iowa.

Mitchell Butler (Oakwood, North Hollywood), Calvin Byrd (St. Joseph, Alameda), Tony Clark (Valhalla, El Cajon), Sean Colter (Hayward), Renaud Gordon (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Zan Mason (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Tracy Murray (Glendora), J.R. Rider (Encinal, Alameda).
Synopsis: Gordon and Mason came into high school with tremendous reputations and even though Westchester opened the 1988-89 season ranked No. 1 in the state, the Comets failed to win an L.A. City Section title in the three years the duo played there. As many of the highly-touted freshmen did in this era, both began at Verbum Dei. As a 14-year old freshman, Byrd started for a NorCal Connection travel team that advanced to the semifinals of the John Farrell Las Vegas Invitational. Byrd developed into a McDonald’s All-American and teamed with Rider, the eventual No. 5 pick of the 1993 NBA Draft, on the San Francisco Spring Development League travel team that won the Slam ‘N Jam Invitational in ’88. Clark developed into a fine MLB player for the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees and is now the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Dwayne Fontana (Riordan, San Francisco), Derek Harrison (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Allen Hunter (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Dana Jones (North Hollywood), Nkosi Littleton (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Ed O’Bannon (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles).
Synopsis: Verbum Dei had great individual middle school talent come through its program in the 1970s (Raymond Lewis, David Greenwood, Dwayne Polee Sr., Eldridge Hudson, etc.) and this group was supposed to revive the dynasty. Some coaches we spoke to felt Hunter may have been the state’s best ever eighth grader, but he didn’t have a strong career after middle school. The group actually broke up after the 1986-1987 season, as Littleton moved on to Carson and eventually earned a football scholarship to UCLA. O’Bannon, meanwhile, developed into a two-time high school All-American at Artesia of Lakewood and was generally considered the nation’s top recruit in 1990. He led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA title and is even more well known as the face of future NCAA reform.

Gerald Walker entered Hayward highly regarded and ended up as a two-time divisional state player of the year for the Farmers. Photo: Elaine Shepard

Gerald Walker entered Hayward highly regarded and ended up as a two-time divisional state player of the year for the Farmers. Photo: Elaine Shepard.

Michael Avery (St. Monica’s, Santa Monica), Kevin Dempsey (Bellarmine, San Jose), Chris Ford (Fremont, Los Angeles), Tyus Edney (Poly, Long Beach), David Harbour (Camarillo), Barnabus James (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Johnny McWilliams (Pomona), Erik Meek (San Pasqual, Escondido), Cherokee Parks (Marina, Huntington Beach), Joel Rosborough (Jordan, Long Beach), Robert Thomas (McAteer, San Francisco).
Synopsis: James was once called the best middle schooler in the nation by Sports Illustrated and compared to former Crenshaw legend John Williams. He didn’t quite develop into that type of player, but signed with New Orleans out of high school after transferring to L.A. Washington, the school in the district he grew up in. Parks and Meek were teammates on Duke’s 1992 NCAA title team as college freshmen. Ford was a three-time all-L.A. City Section pick and one of many standouts from the section at the time who entered high school in 10th grade because LAUSD high schools didn’t add a ninth-grade in many instances until the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Jahi Bacon (St. Monica’s, Santa Monica), Lamont Conway (Fremont, Los Angeles), Adrian Ealy (St Joseph, Alameda), Robert Hill (North Hollywood), Jason Kidd (St. Joseph, Alameda), Joe McLean (De La Salle, Concord), Gerald Walker (Hayward).
Synopsis: This was considered a slim year and four years later the class was considered weak by college recruiters and scouts. Kidd, of course, stood out in this class in high school and in middle school. Ealy, his teammate since the third grade, also was considered a great youth player. He joined Kidd, who repeated the fifth grade, in the St. Joseph starting lineup as a freshman. Walker was also a great four-year high school player in NorCal while none of the three SoCal standouts developed into all-staters.

Stais Boseman (Morningside, Inglewood), Antonio Carrion (Crenshaw, Los Angeles), James Cotton (Artesia, Lakewood), Avondre Jones (Artesia, Lakewood), Charles O’Bannon (Artesia, Lakewood), Darnell Robinson (Emery, Emeryville), Robert Sasser (Oakland), Jacque Vaughn (Muir, Pasadena), Jaha Wilson (Riordan, San Francisco), Eric Wright (South Gate).
Synopsis: This turned out to be a great high school class led by a majority of these players plus some others who developed later such as Isaac Fontaine (Jesuit, Carmichael), Michael Stewart (Kennedy, Sacramento) and Kenya Wilkins (L.A. Dorsey). Boseman was a Grid-Hoop standout at Morningside who started as a freshman in football, while the “Super Sophomores” at Artesia broke up after Cotton transferred to St. John Bosco for his final two years of high school. Carrion eventually became a All-American — in football at L.A. Dorsey.

Toby Bailey (Loyola, Los Angeles), Terry Basey (James Logan, Union City), Travon Carmichael (Fontana), D.D. Cooper (El Cerrito), Fred Cotton (Walnut), Jelani Gardner (Bishop Amat, La Puente), Kenny Jackson (St. Monica’s, Santa Monica), Lorenzo Lieuluai (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Alex Lopez (Campbell Hall, North Hollywood), Damon Ollie (North Hollywood), Cameron Murray (Glendora), Ricky Price (St. Anthony, Long Beach), Tarik Turner (Charlottesville, Va).
Synopsis: Real talent exposed itself off of Rich Goldberg’s ARC Mid-Valley travel club that featured, Ollie, Bailey, Gardner, Murray and Lopez. We had a chance to see Lopez many times at Porter Jr. High in Granada Hills and he was expected to be a cinch all-stater and potential NBA player. It didn’t work out that way, but his younger twin brothers Robin and Brook did make the league many years later. Turner might have been as talented as any guard in this class, but moved out of state before high school and joined Gardner and Price at the McDonald’s All-American Game in New York representing famed Oak Hill Academy after also playing at St. John’s Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md.

James Brown (Long Beach Poly), Ryan Clements (DeMatha, Hyattsville, Md.), Calvin Criddle (St. Joseph, Alameda), Phil Fonua (Mira Costa, Manhattan Beach), Howard George (McClymonds, Oakland), Antoine Henderson (Los Angeles), Raymond King (El Cerrito), Frank Knight (Fremont, Oakland), John Martinelli (Servite, Anaheim), Larry McCann (Long Beach Poly), Gabe Pagtama (St. Monica, Santa Monica), Tommie Prince (Dominguez, Compton), Eddie Ramirez (St. John Bosco, Bellflower), Scott Teaberry (Notre Dame, Sherman Oaks).
Synopsis: Criddle played with Ealy and Kidd on St. Joe’s ’92 Div. I state title team and played with Knight on Fremont’s team that advanced to the ’95 Div. I state title game. Fonua developed into an all-state level football player before suffering a brain aneurysm prior to his senior year. This is the era we began to see youth players receive more attention from the media, especially around Los Angeles and Orange County, and a number of them who couldn’t quite meet the expectations bestowed upon them.

When there's a discussion about great youth basketball players from California, a good name to start with is Schea Cotton. Photo: Cal-Hi Sports Archives

When there’s a discussion about great youth basketball players from California, a good name to start with is Schea Cotton. Photo: Cal-Hi Sports Archives.

Marquette Alexander (Balboa, San Francisco), Corey Benjamin (J.W. North, Riverside), Chris Claiborne (J.W. North, Riverside), David Castleton (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Greg Clark (Grossmont, La Mesa), Schea Cotton (St. John Bosco, Bellflower), Chris Funderburk (Lynwood), Ortege Jenkins (Jordan, Long Beach), Harres Karim (Mira Mesa, San Diego), Brian Laibow (Agoura, Agoura Hills), Michael Lewis Jr. (Dominguez, Compton), Olujimi Mann (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Eddie Miller (Notre Dame, Sherman Oaks), Dylan Pope (Poly, Riverside), Ricky Sanders (Millikan, Long Beach), Danny Walker (Westchester, Los Angeles), Donny Wilcher (Fremont, Los Angeles), Brad Williams (Mater Dei, Santa Ana).
Synopsis: This was a watershed group that is still considered the best group of youth players ever to hit the high school scene together. It’s hard to find a trio that was more highly-regarded in the same year as Cotton, Mann and Miller. All three had their moments as high school players, but four years later, none of the three were all-state players. Cotton, arguably the most ballyhooed youth player in state history, repeated eighth grade and ended up part of the ’97 class. Mann might be the most talented player in our research that never played a second of D1 basketball. Some excelled in football (Claiborne, Jenkins, Williams) and there are some success stories (Benjamin), but this group still serves as a cautionary tale about players with the “can’t miss” label who actually miss.

Kevin Augustine (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Joe Barker (St. Joseph, Alameda), Kevin Bradley (Crenshaw, Los Angeles), Jamont Brooks (Rancho Bernardo, San Diego), Kenny Brunner (Dominguez, Compton), Jarron Collins (Harvard-Westlake, North Hollywood), Jason Collins (Harvard-Westlake, North Hollywood), Baron Davis (Crossroads, Santa Monica), Tommy Gales (Faith Baptist, Canoga Park), Erron Maxey (Temescal Canyon, Lake Elsinore), Mike McDonald (Poly, Long Beach), Brandon Payton (St. Joseph, Alameda), Danny Pulido (Newport Harbor, Newport Beach), Travis Reed (Crenshaw, Los Angeles), Isaiah Thomas (Notre Dame, Sherman Oaks), Anthony Woolridge (San Leandro).
Synopsis: This turned out to be a fantastic high school class and it did add Cotton. Augustine, Bradley, Brunner and Davis all came in as highly-regarded point guards and Brunner made an immediate impact, leading Dominguez to a win over Oak Hill Academy as a freshman and helping the Dons take the mantle from Crenshaw as the state’s top program. Davis had the best senior season and the longest NBA career. Wooldridge came in highly-regarded as did Barker, but neither NorCal standout developed into a top level all-state player.

David Abramowitz (University, San Diego), Keith Bean (Fontana), Willie Hearst (Dominguez, Compton), Brandon Granville (St. Bernard’s, Playa del Rey), Donovan McCrary (Nogales, La Puente), DeAndre Moore (Artesia, Lakewood), James Murdock IV (Lynwood), Tayshaun Prince (Dominguez, Compton), Walter Small (Artesia, Lakewood), Jason Thomas (Dominguez, Compton), Juni Williams (Burbank), Ray Young (St. Joseph, Alameda).
Synopsis: This is when many of the state’s top youth players began attending Dominguez in droves. Hurst and Thomas developed into major football prospects, while Prince eventually developed into the state’s best player his senior season. Thomas made the biggest immediate impact and was the National Sophomore of the Year in 1995-96.

Mike Breland (Marist, Ga.), Michael Carson (Dominguez, Compton), Manny Evans (Faith Baptist, Canoga Park), Jason Kapono (Artesia, Lakewood), Kevin Gaines (Clark, Las Vegas), Marvin Isaac (West Torrance), Keith Kincaide (Dominguez, Compton), Chris Osborne (Inglewood), Marlon Palmer (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Leon Pinky (Birmingham, Van Nuys), Jaime Sanchez (De La Salle, Concord), Ryan Shelby (Fontana), Alvin Steen (Serra, Gardena), Jeremiah Turner-Lampley (Sylmar), Garrett Valentine (South Torrance).
Synopsis: This is the era we began to see some of California’s best youth players move away from the inner cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles to other areas of the state, and in many cases, to other states. Phoenix and Las Vegas, in particular, saw an influx of talented players who lived in California as youngsters or had relatives who were standout athletes at inner-city schools. Gaines is a prime example.

Keith Brooks (Dominguez, Compton), Doyle Cole (Serra, Gardena), Leroy Dawson (Los Angeles), Branduinn Fullove (Simi Valley), E.J. Harris (Crenshaw, Los Angeles), Rasheed Hayes (Menlo Park), DeShawn Stevenson (Washington, Easton), Felipe Williams (Crossroads, Santa Monica), Andrew Zahn (Redondo Union, Redondo Beach).
Synopsis: Many coaches and players from the Fresno region touted Stevenson as a “can’t miss” prospect and they were correct. He was the State Senior of the Year (junior Tyson Chandler was Mr. Basketball in 99-00) and the No. 23 pick of the 2000 NBA Draft. We recall hearing Stevenson being the Central Valley’s best high school player — when he was in seventh and eighth grade. Many of the other players in this class didn’t have the high school careers expected of them.

Cedric Bozeman (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Tyson Chandler (Dominguez, Compton), Josh Childress (Mayfair, Lakewood), Keilon Fortune (Dominguez, Compton), Isaiah Fox (Crossroads, Santa Monica), Jamal Sampson (Westchester, Los Angeles), Erik Soderberg (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Jamaal Williams (Centennial, Corona).
Synopsis: Just as his Performance Training Institute teams featuring Cotton, Mann, Wilcher and Williams did, Pat Barrett’s Southern California All-Stars travel club won AAU national age group titles with a talented team that made a big impact in high school and beyond. Fortune might have been the most highly-regarded, but off-the-court issues kept him from becoming a D1 standout. The final addition to that SCA team was Chandler, one of the most ballyhooed middle school prospects ever from the state. Chandler was featured on “60 Minutes” before ever playing a game for Dominguez and developed into the No. 2 pick of the 2001 NBA Draft.

DeAngelo Collins (Tustin), Bobby Jones (Dominguez, Compton), Josh Rhodes (Santa Cruz), Darius Sanders (Dominguez, Compton), Lance Soderberg (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Brandon Worthy (Mitty, San Jose), Adam Zahn (Redondo Union, Redondo Beach).
Synopsis: The plight of Collins nearly resembled that of Chandler, except the ending wasn’t the same. He grew up in Stockton (Chandler was from Hanford) and ended up in Orange County to live with travel ball coach Bob Gottlieb to steer him down a path leading to a potential pro career instead of potential trouble. It didn’t work out and Collins ended up at Inglewood High School. Some of his troubles at Tustin were chronicled on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” before the 2002 NBA Draft and it may have scared off some teams because he wasn’t selected. Rhodes and Worthy were two highly-regarded NorCal middle schoolers whose high school career tailed off after bright beginnings.

Mark Bradford (Fremont, Los Angeles), Richard Cobbs (Canyon Springs, Moreno Valley), Shaun Davis (Lincoln, San Diego), Trevante Nelson (Fontana), Leon Powe (Oakland Tech), Harrison Schaen (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Steve Smith (Taft, Woodland Hills), Wesley Washington (Fontana), Trayvon Williams (Fontana).
Synopsis: Similar to the ’86 Verbum Dei group, Nelson, Washington and Williams were supposed to elevate Fontana to unprecedented heights. It didn’t work out that way, however, as Nelson and Washington ended up transferring to Mater Dei of Santa Ana. Smith and Bradford were both all-L.A. City Section choices as freshmen, but ended up as big-time football recruits. Smith is still Taft’s all-time leading scorer and one of the state’s best ever all-around athletes.

Curtis Allen (Rolling Hill Prep, San Pedro), David Burgess (Woodbridge, Irvine), Thomas Herring (Monrovia), DeMarcus Nelson (Vallejo), Dwight O’Neil (Washington, Easton), Gino Pomare (El Camino, Oceanside), Gabe Pruitt (Centennial, Compton).
Synopsis: Herring is like a lot of the bruising forwards before him (Jason Thomas, Chris Claiborne, etc.) in that he developed more into a big-time football recruit. He ended up at L.A. Fremont. Nelson also had a football background, but gave up quarterbacking to become the state’s all-time leading scorer. He finished at Sheldon of Sacramento. Allen helped Long Beach Poly win a CIFSS title in 03-04.

Brian McTear (Crenshaw, Los Angeles), Mike Gerrity (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Bryan Harvey (Carson), Dior Lawhorn (International Studies, San Francisco), Dwain Williams (San Joaquin Memorial, Fresno).
Synopsis: Williams came in as one of the state’s most hyped guard prospects ever. He ended up transferring to Chaparral of Temecula and ended his high school career reclassifying to the Class of 2005 at IMG Academy in Florida. For the most part, this group didn’t live up to expectations.

Jervaughn Johnson (Centennial, Compton), Korad Reuland (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Matt Shaw (Verbum Dei, Los Angeles), Jerren Shipp (Fairfax, Los Angeles), Tre’Von Willis (Washington, Easton).
Synopsis: This class has many players that fit the mold of being physically mature early but not growing much thereafter. Reuland moved on to Mission Viejo where he developed into a football wideout. Johnson was a four-year standout at Centennial and probably would have been a big-time football recruit had he suited up for the Apaches.

Jordan Block (Claremont), Pierce Brooks (Taft, Woodland Hills), Daniel Hackett (St. John Bosco, Bellflower), Dash Harris (Crossroads, Santa Monica), Taylor King (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Jaydee Luster (Hoover, San Diego), Wendell McKines (Richmond), Tim Shelton (Bakersfield), Quinton Watkins (St. John Bosco, Bellflower), Jesse Woodard (Centennial, Compton).
Synopsis: This group is a mixed bag of results, including some that didn’t grow much (Brooks, Luster) and some who transferred, including Watkins to Dominguez and Harris out of state. Harris, whose younger brother Amani is currently one of the state’s better eighth graders, was the first Californian to play at Florida’s Montverde Academy. King lived up to expectations in high school, scoring 3,216 points and leading Mater Dei to a Div. II state title in ’07, but his college career wasn’t as noteworthy.

Oscar Bellfield (Taft, Woodand Hills), DeMar DeRozan (Compton), Drew Gordon (Mitty, San Jose), Brandon Jennings (Dominguez, Compton), Malik Story (Artesia, Lakewood), Elston Turner (Roseville), Zach Zaragosa (Northwood, Irvine).
Synopsis: Ever since he began dunking in sixth grade, DeRozan was expected to be a big-time high school player. Growing up across the street from Compton High, DeRozan stayed at his local high school all four years, was a McDonald’s All-American and today is a NBA All-Star. Jennings transferred to Oak Hill Academy and was the first California native to earn Mr. Basketball USA honors since John Williams in 1984. Story and Turner didn’t finish high school at Artesia and Roseville, respectively.

As a freshman at Fontana, Demetruis Walker already had a mature body and disposition on the court. Physically, he didn't grow much thereafter. Photo: Ronnie Flores

As a freshman at Fontana, Demetruis Walker already had a mature body and disposition on the court. Physically, he didn’t grow much thereafter. Photo: Ronnie Flores.

Jerry Brown (Sacred Heart Cathedral, San Francisco), Joe Burton (West Valley, Hemet), Terran Carter (Taft, Woodland Hills), Justin Cobbs (Bishop Montgomery, Torrance), Rome Draper (Etiwanda), Justin Hawkins (Taft, Woodland Hills), Aaron Moore (Dominguez, Compton), Roberto Nelson (Santa Barbara), Demetrius Walker (Fontana).
Synopsis: The majority of the players listed here won the 2004 AAU 14U national title playing for Team Cal, a travel program put together by Joe Keller, who runs the popular Junior Phenom Camps. That camp played a big role in cultivating the reputation of the state’s top middle school players for the past 10 years. The relationship between Keller and his players is chronicled in the book Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. The book focuses on the plight of Keller and Walker, his star player. Walker is a “hold back” (repeated eighth grade) as many of the kids in this class and subsequent classes are. There was a plan for Carter, Draper, Hawkins, Moore and Nelson to join Walker at FoHi, but it could never materialize and Walker couldn’t meet lofty expectations despite eventually leading St. Mary’s of Phoenix to an Arizona state title as a senior. This is also the first class that didn’t produce a Californian McDonald’s All-American pick since the game’s inception in 1978.

Gary Franklin (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), James Johnson (Campbell Hall, North Hollywood), Tyler Lamb (Colony, Ontario), Dwayne Polee Jr. (Westchester, Los Angeles), Jeremy Tyler (San Diego).
Synopsis: Tyler was the big name and big talent in this group. Tyler lived up to expectations for the most part, earning Cal-Hi Sports Player of the Year honors in his class for his first three seasons at San Diego. There were rumors of Tyler transferring to a basketball academy program for his senior year and of having impending academic problems for college eligibility, so in April of 2009 he decided to become the first high school player to bypass his senior season to turn professional. Brandon Jennings decided to bypass college and sign a pro contract to play for Lottomatica Virtus Roma of the Italian Serie A League, but that was after his graduation from Oak Hill. Despite a rocky start to his pro career with Maccabi Haifa of the Israeli Super League, Tyler eventually played in the NBA. Tyler’s (and Jennings’) move to pro ball was the exception rather than the rule and success at the next level was a mixed bag for this group.

Jabari Brown (Salesian, Richmond), Damien Cain (Harvard-Westlake, North Hollywood), Angelo Chol (Hoover, San Diego), Ramon Eaton (Sheldon, Sacramento), Cezar Guerrero (St. John Bosco, Bellflower), Austin McBroom (Harvard-Westlake, North Hollywood), Darius Nelson (Sheldon, Sacramento), Ronnie Stevens (Orange Lutheran), Josiah Turner (Cordova, Rancho Cordova).
Synopsis: After a fantastic group entered high school in the fall of 2004 (DeRozan, Jennings, etc.), this was the third straight group of California players that were shut out of the McDonald’s All-American Game. Tyler would likely have been selected in 2010, but this group’s lack of development was a microcosm of California’s “drought.” At one point in middle school, Eaton was considered the nation’s best player in the 2011 class, but his high school career didn’t match up. Nelson, Eaton’s cousin, had a bit stronger high school career but not nearly to the level of his older brother DeMarcus. Eaton signed with Pepperdine and Nelson with UTEP out of high school. Brown and Turner were other NorCal standouts who ventured out of state in search of greener pastures with mixed results.

Dominic Artis (Salesian, Richmond), Brandon Ashley (Bishop O’Dowd, Oakland), Michael Avery (Crespi, Encino), Landon Drew (Taft, Woodland Hills), Anthony January (Compton), Xavier Johnson (Chaparral, Temecula), Jamaree Strickland (McClymonds, Oakland), Robert Upshaw (Edison, Fresno).
Synopsis: Artis and Ashley spent their senior seasons at Findlay Prep of Henderson, Nev. Since capturing the first ever NHSI tournament in 2009, the Pilots’ program has become a popular destination for many elite California players. The situation is even more peculiar because Findlay Prep cannot compete against CIF member programs. Other post-graduate programs have popped up in California with varying degrees of success since Findlay Prep’s emergence. Avery turned headlines after committing to the University of Kentucky before ever playing a game for Crespi. The fact Avery ended up playing for Sonoma State underscores the ridiculousness of trying to project college success for a majority of middle school-aged players and the race for college coaches in building relationships with players at the youngest age possible.

Eric Cooper Jr. (Lutheran, La Verne), Stephen Domingo (St. Ignatius, San Francisco), Aaron Gordon (Mitty, San Jose), Isaac Hamilton (Crenshaw, Los Angeles), Roschon Prince (Poly, Long Beach), Tyree Robinson (Lincoln, San Diego), Tyrell Robinson (Lincoln, San Diego), Malik Thames (Pleasant Grove, Elk Grove), Bryan Velasco (Servite, Anaheim).
Synopsis: Domingo left high school for Georgetown University after his junior season of high school. Gordon and Hamilton developed into McDonald’s All-Americans. Hamilton finished at St. John Bosco and sat out his freshman season of college at UCLA. A year younger than the majority of the players in his high school class (2013), Gordon made an immediate impact at Arizona and was recently drafted No. 4 overall by the Orlando Magic. Prince was considered the nation’s best middle school player and a top prospect after leading travel clubs to the Final Four of AAU Nationals for five consecutive years. He had a stellar high school career, but has not found the same success so far at the college level. He began his career at USC, but is now at Long Beach State.

Shaqquan Aaron (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Bryan Alberts (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Devin Burleson (Pacific Hills, Los Angeles), Parker Cartwright (Loyola, Los Angeles), Ajon Efferson (Taft, Woodland Hills), Marsalis Johnson (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Stanley Johnson (Mater Dei, Santa Ana).
Synopsis: Aaron and Johnson were highly-regarded as so many young Mater Dei players have been over the years. Aaron actually made the bigger impact early (including a 19-point game at the City of Palms Tournament in Florida) but Johnson ended up starting in four straight CIF state title games. Even though he was highly-regarded in middle school, Johnson continued to develop his ball-handling and perimeter game and his high school career actually exceeded expectations. He was a two-time All-American and the first player to win four CIF state titles in the highest classification. Aaron had a rough sophomore year, but he did rebound to have an outstanding senior season at Rainier Beach of Seattle. Burleson was a typical bruiser who eventually realized the gridiron likely provided a brighter future. He signed with San Diego State.

David Awolowo (Gunderson, San Jose), Sedrick Barefield (Chaparral, Temecula), Tyler Dorsey (Ribet Academy, Los Angeles), Aaron Holiday (Campbell Hall, North Hollywood), Jeremy Hemsley (Damien, La Verne), Brodericks Jones (St. Bernard, Playa del Rey), Jerron Love (Clovis West, Fresno), Marcus LoVett Jr. (Providence, Burbank), Mason Shepard (Windward, Los Angeles), Kendall Small (Mayfair, Lakewood), Cameron Walker (Righetti, Santa Maria).
Synopsis: These are players that are currently high school seniors and the group generally has lived up to expectations, although the early thought that four or five McDonald’s All-Americans would emerge has not come to fruition. The only two players that are not of all-state caliber are Awolowo and Love, who latter who is no longer playing high school ball in the state. After a spectacular freshman campaign at Providence of Burbank, LoVett Jr. will be at his third school in four years. He played at San Gabriel Academy last season and will spend his senior season at Morgan Park of Chicago.

Point guard Elishja Duplechan is just one of many talented young players in the program at Sheldon of Sacramento. Photo: Ronnie Flores

Point guard Elishja Duplechan is just one of many talented young players in the program at Sheldon of Sacramento. Photo: Ronnie Flores.

Michael Cage Jr. (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Christian Ellis (Modesto Christian), Leland Green (Redondo Union, Redondo Beach), Vance Jackson (St. John Bosco, Bellflower), Justin Moore (Mission Bay, San Diego), Ryan Murphy (Fairfield College Prep, Westport, Ct.), Devearl Ramsey (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Trevor Stanback (Chaminade, West Hills), Colin Slater (Clovis North, Fresno), Derryck Thornton Jr. (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Devin Young (Sacramento).
Synopsis: This group has performed quite well through its first two years of high school. Ramsey and Thornton Jr. were spectacular as freshmen, but both are point guards so Thornton Jr. moved on to Findlay Prep, where he’s a potential All-American. Jackson, Stanback and Cage Jr. are also All-American candidates, while the rest of the group are all-state level players.

Li’Angelo Ball (Chino Hills), Elishja Duplechan (Sheldon, Sacramento), Jaylen Harris (Windward, Los Angeles), Ira Lee (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Remy Martin (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Terrence McBride (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Damari Milstead (Moreau Catholic, Hayward), Devin Newton (View Park Prep, Los Angeles), Billy Preston (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Cody Riley (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Adam Sieko (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Mehki Williams (Natomas, Sacramento).
Synopsis: The quintet that enrolled together at Sierra Canyon was the latest group to play together on a travel club (California Basketball Club) that won the 14U AAU National title. Riley was the best of the lot and was mentioned by Clark Francis of the Hoop Scoop as arguably the best middle school player he’s ever seen. Since then, Riley hasn’t grown much but he’s still a big-time recruit. It will be interesting to see if the Sierra Canyon group (which will open the season as a top five ranked team in the state) will stay together for three more years. Martin actually left and was headed for Chaminade, but he’s back at Sierra Canyon with his best friend Lee, who reportedly considered a transfer this off-season.

Wayne Arnold (Dominguez, Compton), Riley Battin (Oak Park, Agoura Hills), Jules Bernard (Windward, Los Angeles), J’Raan Brooks (Seattle Prep, Seattle), Jordan Brown (Woodcreek, Roseville), Harrison Butler (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Michael Feinberg (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth), Elijah Hardy (Bishop O’Dowd, Oakland), Jamal Hartwell (Fairfax, Los Angeles), Spencer Freedman (Santa Monica), Antwuan January (Mater Dei, Santa Ana), Kris “Scooter” Smith (Bellflower), Cassius Stanley (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth).
Synopsis: Overall, this group is already showing promise led by Brown, the dominant player at last year’s Pangos Junior All-American Camp. As an incoming eighth grader, Brown was the top prospect we evaluated at the final Pangos All-West Camp, which included Class of 2014 players. Stanley is one of the best athletes and finishers in this group, but will repeat eighth grade to mature and shore up on academics. Despite joining a loaded high school team, Feinberg gained a ton of valuable experience this summer playing 17U travel ball and could push Sierra Canyon veterans for major playing time as a freshman.

Five Best From NorCal Since 1982:
Jordan Brown (’14), Calvin Byrd (’85), Jason Kidd (’88), DeShawn Stevenson (’96), Jaha Wilson (’89).

Five Best From SoCal Since 1982:
Tyson Chandler (’97), Schea Cotton (’92), Allen Hunter (’86), Olujimi Mann (’92), Cody Riley (’13).

Most Hyped Since 1982:
Schea Cotton (’92), Keilon Fortune (’97), Zan Mason (’85), Demetrius Walker (’05), Dwain Williams (’01).

Five Best Who Moved Out Of State:
Kevin Gaines (’95), Brandon Jennings (’04), Lorenzo Lieuluai (’90), Matt Muehlebach (’83), Tarik Turner (’90).

10 Great Middle School Players Pre-1982:
(Listed by year of high school graduation)

Brett Crawford, Riordan (San Francisco) ’80; Terry Davis, Lincoln (San Jose) ’80; Darren Daye, Kennedy (Granada Hills) ’79; Eldridge Hudson, Carson ’82; Nigel Miguel, Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks) ’81; Mike Norman, St. Francis (Mountain View) ’80; John Paye, Menlo (Atherton) ’83; Dwayne Polee Sr., Manual Arts (Los Angeles) ’81; Ray Whiting, Poly (Long Beach) ’79; John Williams, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’84.

Special thanks to Kathy Fitzgerald for her original reporting on this subject in May of 1992. Frank Burlison, A.J. Diggs, Clark Francis, Joel Francisco, Gerry Frietas, Ruben Luna and Dinos Trigonis also contributed to this report.

Ronnie Flores is the managing editor of He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores

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  1. jbtransport
    Posted October 22, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Great write up

  2. Ronnie Flores
    Posted October 22, 2014 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks jb

  3. Seth Thomas
    Posted August 11, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I WAS IN cal hi magazine for Honorable mention in 1993 summer LAS VEGAS Classic and 1992 summer Classic Las Vegas I played AAU Basketball for K&E Bulls android ARC can email me the list of names thank you, The age group 12 u 13up

  4. James
    Posted August 17, 2015 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I liked your list and your comments. I do believe that Ivan Raab was a major ommision.

    • Ronnie Flores
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

      Ivan Rabb could have been added for sure. I appreciate the feedback. Thanks!

  5. McDaniels
    Posted December 2, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    What happen to Juni Williams? that kid was talented!

    • Ronnie Flores
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

      Good question, have to ask my Valley contacts. He was talented, but was not an all-state player at Burbank. He may have moved out of the area.

  6. Bill Hannity
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    82-83 8th grade class…Sean Higgins went on to become one of the top 3 players in the nation (class of 87) McDonalds All-American, won NCAA Natal title (89), played 8 seasons in the NBA drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2nd rd. One of the best high school players to ever come out of Los Angeles. Avg 26ppg without a 3pt line…FACTS!!!

    • Ronnie Flores
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      I agree, he was a great youth and HSBB player Thanks Big Bill!!!

  7. Mo Bailey
    Posted August 5, 2018 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Your 1982-83 synopsis lacks validity considering there was no mention of c Sean Higgins career. He was one of the top 4 recruits in his class, 1st McDonalds All-American, won a National Championship in college and played several years in the NBA. Much better career than anyone on your list. Where’s the love, or I’d Cal- Hi Sports still butt hurt over him not attending UCLA? Check your list, not a lot signed with the Bruins. I am just a fan and making a point. No bias, the guy was just a flatout beast on the court in HS. #Facts

    • Ronnie Flores
      Posted April 16, 2019 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Not sure why I or anyone else who worked on this would care if Sean went to UCLA. He was a great high school player. I just couldn’t mention every single player. I tried to mention a trend or something that stood out from each group. Higgins being a beast is like, yeah, duh, lol

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