Remember Jordan Brown? The slender, soft-spoken, but wildly gifted 6-foot-11 forward who led Woodcreek to a CIF State championship game last year after dominating the region for three seasons?
He dropped off the map, the local map. But grab a map of America, and the landscape changes dramatically.
As a starting forward this season for Prolific Prep, a basketball academy that attracts elite players to its Napa campus with the promise of superior competition and national exposure, the Roseville native dipped a sneaker inside opponents’ gyms in cities such as Dayton, Orlando, Phoenix, Memphis, and Benton and Owensboro, Ky.
The winter circuit isn’t quite up to NBA standards, but the idea is to plant the seed and nurture its growth. The idea is to get there from here. Brown, who made the excruciating decision a year ago to transfer from his neighborhood school and has been hampered by a fractured right hand, has no regrets. What he has is an invitation to the McDonald’s All-American showcase Wednesday in Atlanta and a long list of text messages from several major college recruiters, among them UCLA, Arizona, Cal, Gonzaga, Kansas and St. John’s.
Stanford is making a strong late pitch. Nevada, fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and desperate for a big man, is in the mix as well.
“I’m not really leaning toward anyone,” Brown said. “I am just focused on the McDonald’s game. After that we’ll break it down. My parents are helping a lot, taking the calls. They just want me to make the right decision and do what’s best for me.”
His career aspirations are famously familiar. He is thinking NBA, and contemplating the fastest route to the pros. Assuming the policy allowing players to enter the draft after one year of college endures for at least another year – and there is no guarantee if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has his say – Brown envisions himself enjoying an exceptional freshman season and then declaring for the draft.
But he has a few issues to take care of first, starting with his health. He broke a bone near the bottom knuckle of his right hand during Woodcreek’s loss to Bishop Montgomery in the state final last year and continues to experience occasional discomfort and swelling. A flareup last summer caused him to return early from the tryouts with the under-19 Team USA. He also was sidelined for most of January with a lower back strain.
The hand, though, remains the concern.
“Any time I get hit,” Brown said, “I feel it. It threw me back a little bit. It’s hard to hold the ball on free throws. After the McDonald’s game, I’m going to take it easy for a while, give it time to heal.”
Neither the injuries, the missed games, the extensive travel or the academic demands at the Napa Christian School, where the Prolific Prep players attend classes and earn their diplomas, appear to have hindered his progress. He has a 3.6 GPA in the classroom, and on the court, he averaged 21.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.8 blocks, and finished with rave reviews.
Brown is the top college prospect in California and the No. 4 power forward in the country, according 247Sports' rankings, reinforcing his parents’ belief that transferring to Prolific was the right move. Their major issue with Woodcreek, they hasten to add, had nothing to do with the school or the coach, Paul Hayes, who days ago announced his retirement. Rather, their concern was a lack of competition against other tall, skilled bigs, and the fact the Sacramento region produced only two premier frontcourt players of late, with Cameron Oliver of Grant High and Marquese Chriss of Pleasant Grove graduating in 2015.
“When Jordan was with the USA national teams the last few summers, he was playing with guys like Wendell Carter, Kevin Knox of Kentucky, all those big kids, and I liked it,” said his father, Dion Brown. “When he played other countries, he was going against guys who were 6-foot-11, 7-foot. There was no time to slack off. He had to play hard every game. Woodcreek was cool, but he was dominating guys who were 6 inches shorter. How was he going to get better?”
This is the brave new world of prep basketball. The motto might as well be “Have Skills, Will Transfer.” Last week alone at Golden 1 Center, the sons of former NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Kenyon Martin and Duane Washington, all of whom transferred to high schools with superior basketball programs, won CIF State championships with their new teams.
Prolific Prep, as one of 22 core members of the Grind Session, operates outside the normal high school structure and functions similar to European club teams. This past season’s schedule, for instance, consisted of 16 games against comparable programs, with an average of two trips per month. It culminated in a semifinal loss to Victory Rock Prep (Fla.) two weeks ago in the World Championships in Owensboro, Ky.
Coach Billy McKnight, who previously coached professionally in China, has turned Prolific into a powerhouse that in recent years landed the likes of McDonald’s All-Americans Gary Trent Jr. (Duke) and Josh Jackson (Kansas, Phoenix Suns). With Brown, the emphasis has been on nudging him out of his low-post comfort zone and developing him into a modern-day stretch four.
"He’s a thin kid," McKnight said. "He is not going to dislodge bigger bodies out of there."
As he worked out in a fitness center gym in McClellan Park last week, his talent was unmistakeable. Long and slender, he moves with the grace of a natural athlete, yet explodes to the rim and finishes with authority. Jump hooks, runners, bank shots. He uses either hand, has excellent footwork and is an instinctive rebounder and shot blocker.
But the skill he has improved the most, McKnight says, is passing.
"People are going to be surprised to see what a great passer he is," the coach said.
While his son worked out under the supervision of a personal trainer, Dion Brown sat in the bleachers, watching intently. The two share a tight bond, forged by hours spent in the gym, with the father tutoring the son.
Dion Brown, a nuclear medicine technician, is an accomplished basketball player in his own right. Recently inducted into the Louisiana-Lafayette basketball Hall of Fame, he once played for the All-Armed Forces team and roomed with a skinny left-handed center named David Robinson.
“I got drafted back then, too, by the San Antonio Spurs,” Brown recalled, “but I wound up in the CBA, what is now the G League. I actually played against Bill Musselman when he was coaching Albany, which is kind of funny. Now I’m dealing with his son (Eric). Nevada was the first school to offer Jordan a scholarship. So we’ll see.”
Regardless of where Jordan goes to college, there is no question he needs some natural heft to his 205-pound frame. It’s not a stretch to describe him as skinny. The Kings’ Skal Labissiere by comparison looks like Superman.
“We have been talking about the pros,” continued Dion, “but I don’t want to give this kid unreal expectations. I tell him, ‘Dude, you have no idea how much tougher it is going to be in college. I’m hoping he can pack on 15 pounds before his first game. Then throughout college, they lift, have weight programs, and feed these kids all day. So you never really know. If he can get to 220, have the muscle. Who knows what he’ll look like a year from now?"
Jordan says he knows. Or maybe he just dreams. “The NBA,” he replies, with a boyish smile. “The sooner the better."