Less than a year ago, Devin Young was playing eighth-grade basketball in North Sacramento.
In his first high school game for Sacramento High on Nov. 24, Young found himself staring up at Deer Valley of Antioch's Marcus Lee, a 6-foot-10 senior headed to Kentucky on scholarship.
"He's long he towers over you," said the 6-6 Young. "But I wasn't scared, and I didn't listen to all the hype. I was more worried because it was my first high school game. I wanted to play my best."
The feisty freshman forced Lee to earn his 22 points. Lee made only 9 of 31 shots as Deer Valley held off the Dragons 97-96 in double overtime of the marquee game of the NorCal Tip-Off Classic at Newark Memorial High School.
Young finished with eight points, gained valuable experience and walked away proud "that Marcus Lee didn't block my shot."
Through 12 games for the No. 2 Dragons, the athletic, hard-working and crowd-pleasing Young is averaging 11.1 points and six rebounds in leading what is an unprecedented group of area ready-for-prime-time freshmen this season.
Among the others:
Devin Greene, Sheldon The 5-9 point guard racked up a team-high 20 points in a 71-65 loss to nationally ranked Archbishop Mitty of San Jose on Dec. 8 and has carved out a key role on one of the state's most talented teams.
Jordan Ford, Folsom The 5-11 point guard and leader of a mostly underclass team is averaging 15.7 points and 3.7 assists. He's made two all-tournament teams during nonleague play.
Cole Taira, Kennedy The 5-6 point guard and perimeter shooter scored a game-high 19 points and hit the winning shot in overtime to beat No. 11 Burbank 61-59 in the Titan Holiday Classic at Antelope High School on Dec. 15.
Christian Terrell, Sacramento The 6-3 wing scored eight points, including a buzzer-beating 19-foot jumper to lift the Dragons over Southern California power Chaminade of West Hills 70-68 in the championship game of the St. Hope Elite Classic on Dec. 22 at Sac High.
While the area has produced its share of impact freshmen through the years from former Kings center Michael "Yogi" Stewart of Kennedy and NBA veteran Matt Barnes of Del Campo to current Sheldon senior standouts Dakarai Allen and D'Erryl Williams veteran coaches can't remember a collective group of ninth-graders this talented.
Coach Derek Swafford has made a habit of playing talented freshmen through the years at Sac High, including current San Diego State star Chase Tapley, but even he's upped the ante this season.
Swafford has six freshmen on his varsity roster, with Young a starter and Terrell a key reserve.
"I get some heat for it, but I believe in playing the best," Swafford said. "We go with the guys who are going to work the hardest and buy into the program, not the ones who expect to play just because they're juniors or seniors."
Folsom coach Mike Wall understands what Swafford is saying.
Despite Folsom's success through the years the Bulldogs won back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section Division I titles in 2008 and 2009 it's getting more challenging for multi-sport athletes to stay the course in basketball at his school, especially with Folsom's highly successful football team.
Players such as Kori Babineaux, Jordan Richards and Tanner Trosin, who were varsity basketball contributors as underclassmen, stopped playing before their senior years to focus on football. Richards (Stanford) and Trosin (Cal Poly) are playing football in college, while Babineaux (Drake) switched back to basketball after spending a season at a prep school in Illinois.
That's meant that programs such as Wall's are getting younger by necessity. In addition to Ford, Wall has six sophomores on his 12-man roster.
But while there is a loss of maturity and physicality that older players offer, it's countered with the advanced skills younger players bring into high school.
"It used to be you'd get these physical anomalies as freshmen, kids that were bigger and more mature," Wall said. "But with the proliferation of AAU and kids traveling and getting more experience, they're bringing advanced skills beyond their years."
The baby-face Ford is a perfect example. He looks like a typical 14-year-old but plays like a polished senior.
"He's skilled in all phases of the game," Wall said. "He handles the ball and shoots it as well as any player I've ever coached. He makes very good decisions and plays well in big situations."
Longtime Kennedy coach Robert Fong had not before put his program into the hands of a freshman point guard. But like Ford at Folsom, Taira is a special talent.
"He's perfect for our system because we are so small," Fong said. "With Cole having played so much church, school and AAU basketball growing up, he has had all this progression. He's ready for this level."
Fong's only concern is how the 130-pound Taira, who plays nearly three quarters each game, will hold up physically during the grind of upcoming Metro Conference play.
"We'll just see how it goes guarding guys three years older and that are 50 pounds heavier," Fong said.
Taira said his biggest challenges initially were adjusting to the speed of the high school game and working to get his shot off quicker against taller players, something not as big a deal last season playing at Sutter Middle School.
The transition to playing with seniors and juniors hasn't been a problem.
"I fit right in from the get-go," Taira said. "I already knew these boys from playing around the neighborhood. We're family out here. We love each other."
Young, who expects to grow to 6-9 or 6-10, also is feeling comfortable with his older teammates at Sac High.
He says it helps having five freshman teammates on the varsity but also credits senior leaders James Hadnot, Aaron Cameron and Joseph Barnes for making his transition to the high school game easier.
He is third in scoring and rebounding for the Dragons and the recipient of plenty of nice passes that enable him to score mostly around the basket.
"When we first started practicing and playing, they weren't too sure about my abilities," Young said. "But once they saw that I could score and play like them, they started passing me the ball more. Now we're family; everything's cool."
Young has been playing basketball since the third grade and has traveled extensively on the AAU circuit. He credits the advances in equipment, coaching and training for helping him to be an immediate varsity standout after playing last season at Norwood Junior High.
"I think parents are learning more and more about ways that their kids can excel, whether it's technology, training techniques or traveling to different states while playing AAU," Young said. "It's a new generation."