The big games generally feature the biggest names, and that will play out Saturday night in the CIF State Open Division Championship when men disguised as teenagers take the Sleep Train Arena floor.
National No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana is led by Stanley Johnson, a powerfully built 6-foot-7 guard who seeks a state-title four peat.
He'd be the only one in state history to do so, which tells you a bit about his talent and how hard it is to win titles.
In his way is state No. 2 Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland and 6-10 junior center Ivan Rabb. Mark Tennis of Cal-Hi Sports said that if Mater Dei repeats as Open champions, Johnson would go down as perhaps the top player in state history.
Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight, the state's winningest coach with 994 victories and seeking his 11th title in 15 appearances, said Johnson is "the best player we've ever had. Period." McKnight said Johnson's versatility and drive sets him apart. Johnson played center as a freshman, forward as a sophomore, shooting guard a year ago and now leads the team at the point.
MaxPreps National Basketball Editor Jason Hickman said that the Open final is the most anticipated one in the country because of two players who are seemingly destined for the NBA some day.
Johnson, an Arizona commit, has competed against Rabb for years, and he said this week that Rabb is the best athlete he's faced, adding, "I've seen him from just a standing start jump up and pin the ball at the top of the backboard square. Incredible."
Said McKnight of Rabb to Mitch Stephens of MaxPreps, "He's a fantastic player, agile and athletic. He's definitely one of the premiere players in the country. Just fantastic, the real deal."
Here's a sampling of players who used the state-title games as a launching pad of sorts to the NBA (could Rabb and Johnson be next?):
Tracy Murray, Glendora, 1989 - Murray had unlimited shooting range and an unlimited green light, going for a state-title game, all-levels record 64 points in the Division II finals at the Oakland Coliseum against Menlo-Atherton in an 89-83 loss. Murray said not winning a state championship was his greatest regret. He played 11 NBA seasons.
Jason Kidd, St. Joseph-Alameda, 1992 - He looked NBA ready by his junior season with the powerful 6-foot-4 build and fast dribble. Kidd spearheaded two state D-I title teams for the small school in the East Bay, the second one at Arco Arena in an electrifying effort that promoted CIF officials to want to keep the title games in that venue. Kidd logged 19 NBA seasons and is a sure-bet Hall of Famer.
Jaron and Jason Collins, Harvard Westlake-Los Angeles, 1997 - Skilled and defensive minded as twin 7-footers, Brothers Collins powered their team to back-to-back D-III titles, including one over Grant at Arco as juniors. They have been in the NBA since 2001.
Baron Davis, Crossroads-Santa Monica, 1997 - Unstoppable on the dribble and able to score inside and out, Davis keyed a state D-IV title romp over Encina of Sacramento at The Pond in Anaheim. Davis played 13 NBA seasons.
Tayshaun Prince, Dominguez-Compton, 1997 - Long and active, Prince was especially effective on defense and a versatile score for the national powers that won two state titles, including one at Arco. In the NBA since 2002, Prince now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Tyson Chandler, Dominguez-Compton, 2001 - A 7-foot shot-blocking wonder, Chandler was a three-time state champion, all at Arco. He is one of the NBA's top shot blockers now with the Knicks and said last year that he delighted in his state-title wins.
Chuck Hayes, Modesto Christian, 2001 - Strong inside and a team captain, Hayes powered the Crusaders to the D-I title game, falling to Mater Dei by three at Arco. He now plays for the Toronto Raptors.
Ryan Anderson, Oak Ridge, 2005 - Long at 6-10 and skilled enough to handle the ball and make three-pointers, Anderson keyed one of the state-title game's biggest upsets, a 60-44 effort over national No. 5 Mater Dei in the D-II finals. Anderson, The Bee's Player of the Decade for the 2000's, is now one of the NBA's top shooters, with New Orleans.
Jru Holiday, Campbell Hall-North Hollywood, 2008 - A remarkable leaper, driver, dunker and defender, Holiday won three state D-IV titles at Arco. He is now an All-Star with the 76ers.
Jeremy Linn, Palo Alto, 2006 - The pre-Linsanity era included his Bay Area era as a great scholar with a game to match. He powered a decades-old public school over nationally renowned Mater Dei 51-47 in D-II. Lin now plays for the Rockets.
James Harden, Artesia-Lakewood, 2006 - Well before "The Beard" took off in the NBA, Harden was a prolific scorer who keyed a state D-II title run. You could sense NBA talent even then. He's now with the Houston Rockets.
Klay Thompson, Santa Margarita, 2008 - The son of a former NBA overall top pick in Mychal Thompson, young Thompson torched Sacramento in the D-III finals with a state title-game record seven three-pointers and 37 points. Chase Tapley of Sacramento had 35 in the 72-55 loss. Thompson is with the Golden State Warriors.
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