The star player blends right in here.
Marcus Bagley is one of the guys, sweat dripping off his chin, as he hustles up and down the court in scrimmages and drills. He is a 6-foot-8 national recruit bursting of skill and good cheer, an ego-less fellow on an ego-less team.
Perhaps the most unassuming player on the Sheldon High School roster is the diminutive one with the shock of perfectly coiffed black hair that goes with his smooth release and quick, controlled dribble. That would be Justin Nguyen, the unflappable 5-9 point guard, the catalyst that makes the Huskies roar and roll.
He averages 10 a game, though he has been the team’s leading scorer in recent games. Nguyen has no idea where he will attend college, or if he’s about to play his final game.
It’s not about body size or recruiting portfolio that makes this such a unique team. It’s the collective effort of relentless defense and sharing the ball that has Sheldon in its third CIF state championship game since 2013 and second in succession in the prestigious Open Division.
It will take a lot of Bagley, a lot of Nguyen and a lot of effort from all hands for the Huskies (28-6 on the court) to derail the express that blasts into Golden 1 Center on Saturday night. Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth is the opponent.
The 31-3 Trailblazers of Los Angeles County represent a new order in high school sports, well beyond their national No. 1 ranking by MaxPreps. This is a private school with a roster dotted with the sons of retired NBA players Kenyon Martin and Scottie Pippen, and where celebrities such as Sean “Diddy” Combs, Kevin Hart, Kris Jenner, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith have sent their children.
Oh, and tuition is a tidy $36,000 a year.
Sheldon? Public school to the core.
Homegrown and 1
The Sheldon roster is made up of students from within the Elk Grove Unified School District, except for Bagley. He’s new.
He arrived at the same time older brother Marvin Bagley III did with the Kings, as the second pick in last June’s NBA draft. This is a family that stays together. Bagley III was a star at Sierra Canyon three years ago, his teammates including Marcus.
Bagley III had a standout freshman season at Duke. His family – mom, dad, two brothers – moved to North Carolina to remain united. It’s happening now, too. Bagley’s parents wanted their son to go to the best school and best basketball program around. Hello, Huskies.
It’s not every day a regional school has a 6-11 NBA guy attending local games. Bagley III is a regular at Sheldon games.
Sheldon was already the best team in Northern California before Bagley, and then became that much better. The Huskies have played great with Bagley in motion, and did so with him sidelined with a sore back during a 4-0 romp through the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. With Bagley back in play, Sheldon beat storied programs in De La Salle and Modesto Christian in the Northern California playoffs.
“Marcus coming here, any player like that coming to Sacramento, is an anomaly – it just doesn’t happen,” said Sheldon assistant coach Mike Bradley. “That’s how unique it is.”
Public vs. Private
Here’s what else would be unique: A public school winning the Open Division.
The only boys squad to do it since the concept was introduced in 2013 was Chino Hills in 2016.
“This game Saturday, we understand the significance of a public school like us competing against basically a recruited team with kids coming from 3,000 miles away,” Bradley said. “I think the general basketball fan in Sacramento understands that, too. The Open was created to separate the public and private schools, but we’ve been an Open team, and we like it. We belong here.”
Legacy and Roots
Bagley said he feels “at home here” at Sheldon. This is his third high school in as many years. The junior would rather not bounce any more.
“I want to leave a legacy here,” Bagley said.
He blended in seamlessly with new faces that became fast friends at Sheldon. Of course, it didn’t hurt when the new guy is suddenly the best player in Northern California and hits 3-pointers, passes, posts up and dazzles as a thunder dunker.
Bagley averages 19.9 points and 7.9 rebounds. He likely will become the region’s most heavily recruited player next season since Bill Cartwright at Elk Grove in 1975.
Sacramento has had a few players reach the NBA, but not truck loads of them like the Bay Area and Southern California. Among the NBA alumni from Sacramento: Cartwright, Kevin Johnson (Sacramento High), Jim Eakins (Encina), Matt Barnes (Del Campo), Rich Manning (Center) and first-round picks since 2008 in Ryan Anderson (Oak Ridge), Marquise Chriss (Pleasant Grove) and DJ Wilson (Capital Christian).
Sheldon has soared where no area programs have before and now has a generational player to go with the momentum.
“High school ball is so much different now than when I played 30 years ago,” said Manning, a longtime assistant coach at Sheldon. “When I played (at Center High in 1988), I often had to do it all by myself. Our Sheldon teams, everyone’s involved, or they sit.”
Manning added, “Think of Bagley and all the schools recruiting him. That’s what Cartwright, Kevin Johnson and I went through. He knows he’s good, great, but he doesn’t act that way. No ego, and he’s hungry.”
Rollings in charge
The Huskies are coached by Joey Rollings, a demanding sort who snarls when he isn’t grimacing.
In his 10 seasons with the program, Rollings has won five section and three NorCal titles. He grew up in Canada, in hockey country, fell in love with basketball, earned a scholarship to the University of Winnipeg and knew he wanted to coach in far away places.
How about in Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation, at St. Michael Indian School? He drove team vans six hours one way for games, won four state titles with the girls and had his boys in the running several other times. He came to Sheldon in 2001, eager for new challenges.
A 600-game winner, Rollings, 51, has no visions of slowing down.
Rollings treats his players like sons, which is to say he gets on them about homework, about eating right, about not remaining glued to their phones. He will scold them for not icing down sore limbs, telling players after Thursday’s practice, “some of you are walking around here like old ladies!”
Sheldon principal Paula Duncan has said, “Joey truly cares for the kids. He wants to save the world. He wants to save every kid.”
Rollings and his staff of Manning, Bradley, Brandon Gouveia and Rich Viano-Nitschke are involved in the community, be it toy drives or feeding the needy. Real-life stuff.
Big roster, big expectations
Rollings has a team that goes 11 deep. That’s a lot of players, making for intense practices, where game minutes are earned.
And it’s a young team. Returning next season are key cogs Xavier and Xavion Brown, Pierce Davis, Marquis Hargrove, Dontrel Hewlett, Darren Tobias and Josh Williams, none of them shorter than 6-2 and each of them versatile and skilled. Nguyen and fellow guard Kaito Williams are the only seniors in the main rotation. Josh Morgan was a key player earlier this season before the 6-11 senior center was sidelined with a knee injury.
“These kids, love them, but they’re different than me,” Rollings said. “I’m old school. I understand kids want to play, and they know they have to bust their butts in practice and games to get minutes.”
Players ask Rollings in soft tones about their roles. Parents will do so in louder tones. Rollings never flinches, never compromises.
“I know that parents are protective and want what’s best for their sons,” Rollings said. “But they don’t always see the big picture. Every parent wants their kid to shine, to be the man, to be the star player. That’s just not real life. It takes everybody to make it work.”