On NBA All-Star Weekend, it’s a good time to realize that this may be the best time ever for California players in the NBA. No less than three of the league’s top four MVP candidates are from Southern California and there’s also a strong contingent of players from Northern California as well.
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We are in the middle of a golden age in the NBA for the Golden State and this doesn’t have anything to do with the Warriors.
Players from California are currently dominating in the NBA like perhaps never before. And while most of those superstars are from south of the Tehachapis there is at least one from Northern California and there are other grads from both SoCal and NorCal schools making key contributions on many teams.
Three of the Californians are legitimate MVP candidates as this weekend;s All-Star festivities are being held in New Orleans.
Russell Westbrook, who is from Leuzinger of Lawndale, is leading the league in scoring for the Oklahoma City Thunder at more than 30 points per game and also is trying to average a triple-double.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets, who helped lead Artesia of Lakewood to a CIF state title during his senior season there, isn’t far behind his former OKC teammate in scoring (29.2 ppg). He’s also been leading a team with a better record than OKC and has been among the league leaders in assists as well.
From a scoring standpoint, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs is “only” getting around 26 ppg, but the former Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year from M.L. King of Riverside is leading one of the league’s top three teams and if anybody saw him score 41 when the Spurs beat the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in late January his MVP credentials are as strong as anyone.
Two others from California actually have been scoring at a higher clip than Leonard for most of the season, although Leonard just went past one of them for the eighth highest average at the break.
The one player that he didn’t pass is Compton’s DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors. DeRozan, who is now up at 27.3 ppg for the sixth-best average in the league, hopes to lead the Raptors into this year’s Eastern Conference finals.
Also in the top 10 at No. 10 and giving California five of the top 10 is Oakland High’s own Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. Lillard, who was not highly recruited as a prep player and went to Weber State, is averaging nearly 25.7 ppg and has become one of the NBA’s best point guards. Lillard was chosen to the elite 30-player Cal-Hi Sports all-state team despite that lack of recruitment and his ascent into NBA stardom has to be an inspiration to any high school player who’s not getting much recruiting attention.
That’s a great list already, but that’s not all. Three other top 30 scorers in the NBA from California — all who’ve been over 20 ppg for most of the season — are Paul George (Palmdale Knight) of the Indiana Pacers, Klay Thompson (Rancho SM Santa Margarita) of the Warriors and Brook Lopez (Fresno San Joaquin Memorial) of the Brooklyn Nets.
Thompson’s scoring is down a little from last season due to the arrival of Kevin Durant to the Warriors, but his status as one of the game’s elite shooters hasn’t diminished. His former school at Santa Margarita just last month retired his number.
You also can’t mention Lopez without also mentioning his twin brother Robin, who is getting nearly 10 ppg this season for the Chicago Bulls.
After Lillard and Lopez (we count Fresno as being part of Northern California for Cal-Hi Sports), there are even more NBA players from NorCal schools who have made big contributions this seasons, including recent two-time Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year Aaron Gordon (San Jose Archbishop Mitty) for the Orlando Magic, who became well-known to many in last year’s slam dunk contest during All-Star weekend.
There is also Tyler Johnson (Mountain View St. Francis) of the Miami Heat, Ryan Anderson (El Dorado Hills Oak Ridge) of the Houston Rockets, Matt Barnes (Fair Oaks Del Campo) of the Sacramento Kings, Marquess Chriss (Elk Grove Pleasant Grove) of the Phoenix Suns and Jeremy Lin (Palo Alto) of the Brooklyn Nets.
Who will ever forget Anderson and Lin leading their teams to CIF state titles in upset wins over Mater Dei of Santa Ana?
Barnes also has always been one of our favorites for many years because he’s in our Cal-Hi Sports state record book for catching 21 touchdown passes in one season in football.
Other current NBA players from Southern California high schools include seven former Mr. Basketball State Players of the Year: Jrue Holiday from Campbell Hall of North Hollywood (16.3 ppg for the New Orleans Pelicans); Trevor Ariza from Westchester of Los Angeles (11.7 ppg for the Houston Rockets); Allen Crabbe from Price of Los Angeles (10.4 ppg for the Portland Trailblazers); Stanley Johnson from Mater Dei of Santa Ana (5 ppg for the Detroit Pistons); Tyson Chandler from Dominguez of Compton (still blocking shots for the Phoenix Suns); Amir Johnson from L.A. Westchester (playing for the Boston Celtics) and Paul Pierce of Inglewood (the future Hall of Famer in his final season in the league playing for the L.A. Clippers).
In addition to those seven, both Nick Young from Cleveland of Reseda (13.8 ppg for the Los Angeles Lakers) and Darren Collison of Etiwanda (13.7 ppg for the Sacramento Kings) have been frequent double-figure scorers for their teams.
Chriss would be the top rookie among that group and it will be interesting to see if a rookie next year — Chino Hills’ Lonzo Ball — makes an impact like some of the others have made.