In a season with a lot of uncertainties, there was one certain: the constant, spectacular play of Sierra Canyon’s Amari Bailey. Today, the elite junior is named California Mr. Basketball by Cal-Hi Sports, becoming the second straight honoree from the well-known San Fernando Valley private school power. Can he now become a two-time Mr. Basketball honoree, like Onyeka Okongwu, Aaron Gordon, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and just a handful of others?
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When Amari Bailey made his debut on a statewide level as a freshman during the 2019 CIF State Championships, many longtime Northern California media members and CIF officials were thoroughly impressed.
Sierra Canyon was the favorite over a strong Sheldon of Sacramento team, and after a series of high-flying dunks (12 to be exact), the Trailblazers rolled to a 76-52 victory. On one particular explosive dunk where Bailey went through a defender’s torso for the conventional 3-point play while landing on his back, Cal-Hi Sports editor Mark Tennis, longtime Sacramento Bee writer Joe Davidson and CIF state tourney director Pete Saco (a former basketball coach himself) were all shaking their heads.
By that time, some of the things Bailey could do on the court was commonplace to SoCal writers and scouts, even though he didn’t always play tons of minutes on a star-studded team that captured its second straight CIF open state championship. That dunk was just one of the many spectacular plays Bailey made that season, and ironically, it came during a game in which Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier told the media he didn’t think his team played all that particularly well, despite its 24-point victory.
Sierra Canyon was that good and the excitement among those who hadn’t seen Amari play before turned out to be spot on.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2019 was the last time state champions were crowned and over that time frame Bailey’s game and overall dominance has blossomed. While Sierra Canyon was unable to claim a SoCal open championship or finish as the state No. 1 ranked team for the fourth consecutive season in 2021, Bailey carried a team that finished ranked No. 4 in the state with a series of dominant performances and today has been honored as California Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports.
The 6-foot-5 left-handed junior, the state’s most explosive player horizontally and vertically, put up terrific individual season numbers: 29.2 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 6.5 apg for a 16-2 team that advanced to the CIF Southern Section open championship game. Even more clear than any statistical output in this abbreviated spring season was the fact in each of Sierra Canyon’s games, all against in-state competition, Bailey was clearly the best individual talent in each game.
“I’m honored to be receiving this award especially carrying it on after my brother B.J. (Boston) had it last year,” Bailey said on Wednesday when informed he had won. “Honestly, this year gave me a chance to fully display my game at the highest level and it’s just a moment I’ve been waiting for. I’m humbled and thankful.”
“Amari did whatever we needed, whenever we needed, whether it was triple-doubles or making big plays,” Chevalier said. “He took it to another levels in the playoffs; to do what he did was simply amazing.”
After a pedestrian scoring game (12 points) versus St John Bosco of Bellflower where Ramel Lloyd Jr. picked up the scoring slack (25 points), check out these post-season numbers for Bailey: 28 second half points and 38 for the game to lead a 17-point deficit, comeback win over Ribet Academy, clutch shots down the stretch and 25 points in the six-point win over Etiwanda, 34 points in the section title loss to Centennial and 28 points in the SoCal regional opening win over L.A. City champ Birmingham. Sierra Canyon pulled out some close playoff games against talented teams behind Bailey’s spectacular play, but even his 37-point performance wasn’t enough to get the Trailblazers over the hump against a resilient Etiwanda club in the SoCal open semifinal.
Aside from his individual talent and show-stopping performances, the second main factor in choosing Bailey as Mr. Basketball was his consistency in an otherwise inconsistent and awkward season for all. Sierra Canyon endured a season where it had multiple lineup changes, injuries and departures that could have derailed it. Instead, the Trailblazers only lost to the state’s two best teams: eventual CIFSS open champ Corona Centennial and eventual CIF SoCal open champ Etiwanda, whom it split with. At one point in the season five expected rotation players in the preseason were not available (Harold Yu, Bronny James, Max Allen, Chance Westry, Alpha Chimbabe) and when the season was in the books, only James and Chimbabe were available for the CIFSS open title game and two regional games.
Despite the constant lineup changes, as long as Bailey was on the floor, keen observers always felt as if Sierra Canyon had a chance to win.
“Absolutely (we felt like that) and sometimes Amari willed us back in games by himself,” Chevalier said. “We felt like he can get on the roll, maybe block some shots or get steals, and as long as he was healthy and on the floor, we had a chance to win. He showed that in several big games this year.”
Looking over the top candidates, the top two seniors in the running just happened to be from the same league. Damien’s Malik Thomas and Etiwanda’s Jahmai Mashack had plenty of battles in the Baseline League over the past four years. This year, Etiwanda bested Damien twice, but Thomas was individually spectacular in both games. The two high major D1 players (Thomas to USC and Mashack to Tennessee) were named co-Baseline League Players of the Year. In some respects, their candidacies cancel each other out and not much separated the two.
Sierra Canyon didn’t play Damien, but it did play Etiwanda twice and it was evident Bailey had to pull more of the load for his team to win than Mashack did. He did it once, and the second game he went for 37 points in a close game. In those games, the sentiment was the same. Bailey, with his ability to come up with big blocked shots, explode in the open court, jump defensive passing lanes, or finish through contact in spectacular fashion, was playing an an individual level a notch above the competition.
Bailey is now the second consecutive Mr. Basketball from Sierra Canyon, joining 2020 recipient B.J. Boston. Before the Sierra Canyon duo, the last San Fernando Valley player to earn the state’s most prestigious individual honor was Jrue Holiday of Campbell Hall (North Hollywood) in 2008. It’s not very often a junior is named Mr. Basketball, but it was only four seasons ago when Onyeka Okongwu of Chino Hills earned top honors. Okongwu is now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the next season he beat out a terrific group of Sierra Canyon seniors, including unofficial runner-up Cassius Stanley, to repeat as Mr. Basketball. Stanley is now in the NBA, as is teammate K.J. Martin. Two other seniors on that team have a solid shot to one day log NBA minutes: Scottie Pippen Jr. and Christian Koloko.
When Okongwu was a lottery pick by the Hawks last year, TV commentators repeatedly mentioned his two straight Mr. Basketball of California honors, especially since the last two were Aaron Gordon from Archbishop Mitty of San Jose and Tyson Chandler from Dominguez of Compton. Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd (Alameda St. Joseph) was the previous two-timer before that for 1991 and 1992. Bailey now has a chance to join that exclusive club next season.
We recall telling Chevalier how the balance on that team and how the whole being greater than the sum of its parts probably played a factor when it came to individual honors. The evidence of that is starting to emerge. Bailey might well be on his way to being among the third, fourth and even perhaps fifth, NBA player off that 2018-19 Sierra Canyon team. Remember, he was only a freshman, so his role was limited at times. The talent, however, was always there.
That talent has now blossomed.
“Amari is the ultimate team player basketball player,” Chevalier said. “He adapts to the role he needs to be in for us. The last two years, he was a great defender but not a primary scorer. This year, it was his turn to show what he was capable of doing offensively and he did that with flying colors.”
MR. BASKETBALL STATE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
Note: All selections by Cal-Hi Sports; All-time list before 1978 compiled by our founder, the late Nelson Tennis, based on research.
2021 – Amari Bailey, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, 6-5 Jr.
2020 – Brandon Boston Jr.,
Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, 6-8
2019 – Onyeka Okongwu, Chino Hills, 6-9
2018 – Onyeka Okongwu, Chino Hills, 6-9 Jr.
2017 – Ethan Thompson,
Torrance Bishop Montgomery, 6-4
2016 – Lonzo Ball, Chino Hills, 6-6
2015 – Ivan Rabb, Oakland Bishop O’Dowd, 6-10
2014 – Stanley Johnson, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-6
2013 – Aaron Gordon, San Jose Archbishop Mitty, 6-8
2012 – Aaron Gordon,
San Jose Archbishop Mitty, 6-8 Jr.
2011 – Ryan Anderson, Long Beach Poly, 6-8
2010 – Allen Crabbe, Los Angeles Price, 6-6
2009 – Kawhi Leonard,
Riverside Martin Luther King, 6-7
2008 – Jrue Holiday,
North Hollywood Campbell Hall, 6-3
2007 – Taylor King, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-8
2006 – Chase Budinger, Carlsbad La Costa Canyon, 6-8
2005 – Amir Johnson, L.A. Westchester, 6-10
2004 – DeMarcus Nelson, Sacramento Sheldon, 6-3
2003 – Trevor Ariza, L.A. Westchester, 6-8
2002 – Hassan Adams, L.A. Westchester, 6-4
2001 – Tyson Chandler, Compton Dominguez, 7-1
2000 – Tyson Chandler, Compton Dominguez, 7-0 Jr.
1999 – Casey Jacobsen, Glendora, 6-6
1998 – Tayshaun Prince, Compton Dominguez, 6-8
1997 – Baron Davis, Santa Monica Crossroads, 6-2
1996 – Corey Benjamin, Fontana, 6-6
1995 – Paul Pierce, Inglewood, 6-7
1994 – Jelani Gardner, Bellflower St. John Bosco, 6-6
1993 – Charles O’Bannon, Lakewood Artesia, 6-7
1992 – Jason Kidd, Alameda St. Joseph, 6-4
1991 – Jason Kidd, Alameda St. Joseph, 6-4 Jr.
1990 – Ed O’Bannon, Lakewood Artesia, 6-9
1989 – Tracy Murray, Glendora, 6-8
1988 – Chris Mills, L.A. Fairfax, 6-7
1987 – LeRon Ellis, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-11
1986 – Scott Williams, Hacienda Heights Wilson, 6-10
1985 – Tom Lewis, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-7
1984 – John Williams, L.A. Crenshaw, 6-8
1983 – John Williams, L.A. Crenshaw, 6-7 Jr.
1982 – Tony Jackson, Oakland Bishop O’Dowd, 6-4
1981 – Dwayne Polee, L.A. Manual Arts, 6-5
1980 – Ralph Jackson, Inglewood, 6-3
1979 – Darren Daye, Granada Hills Kennedy, 6-7
1978 – Greg Goorjian, Crescenta Valley, 6-2
1977 – Cliff Robinson, Oakland Castlemont, 6-7
1976 – Rich Branning, Huntington Beach Marina, 6-2
1975 – Bill Cartwright, Elk Grove, 7-1
1974 – Bill Cartwright, Elk Grove, 7-0 Jr.
1973 – Marques Johnson, L.A. Crenshaw, 6-5
1972 – Cliff Pondexter, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 6-7 Jr.
1971 – Roscoe Pondexter, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 6-6
1970 – Bill Walton, La Mesa Helix, 6-10
1969 – Keith Wilkes, Ventura, 6-5 Jr.
1968 – Paul Westphal, Redondo Beach Aviation, 6-2
1967 – Curtis Rowe, L.A. Fremont, 6-6
1966 – Dennis Awtrey, San Jose Blackford, 6-9
1965 – Bob Portman, S.F. St. Ignatius, 6-5
1964 – Russ Critchfield, Salinas, 5-10
1963 – Edgar Lacey, L.A. Jefferson, 6-6
1962 – Joe Ellis, Oakland McClymonds, 6-5
1961 – Gail Goodrich, L.A. Poly, 5-11
1960 – Paul Silas, Oakland McClymonds, 6-6
1959 – Steve Gray, S.F. Washington, 6-4
1958 – Billy McGill, L.A. Jefferson, 6-9
1957 – Tom Meschery, S.F. Lowell, 6-5
1956 – Fred LaCour, S.F. St. Ignatius, 6-4
1955 – Fred LaCour, S.F. St. Ignatius, 6-4 Jr.
1954 – Willie Davis, Alameda, 5-11
1953 – Bill Bond, Long Beach St. Anthony, 6-1
1952 – Willie Naulls, San Pedro, 6-5
1951 – Ken Sears, Watsonville, 6-7
1950 – Don Bragg, S.F. Galileo, 6-3
Note: List extends back to 1905 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and Almanac.