Houston has become synonymous with big time high school basketball.
Maybe it's because the Kingwood Classic, the world's biggest and baddest AAU is held there. Maybe it's because the Academy National Invitational is one of the best high school basketball tournaments in December. Maybe it's because the eight big-time AAU programs that call H-town home. Maybe it's because 34 players signed with Division I schools last year from the greater Houston area.
Whatever the reason, Houston is one of the nation's best places for high school hoops. It's certainly earned that reputation.
When talking about Houston high school basketball, it's impossible to begin a conversation without Hal Pastner. Over a dozen college coaches all said the Jersey-born hoops promoter has turned Houston into one of their first stops on the recruiting trail.
Pastner is the foundation of the Houston Kingwood Classic. Starting as a 12-team event over 10 years ago, Pastner has watched his creation build into a 72-hour around the clock extravaganza in April. Over 500 17 and under teams invade the Lone Star State in the spring.
"When you have the Kingwood Classic and the Academy National (in a high school tournament December) and then Jim Hick's Icebreaker event in the spring, you have a lot more national media attention and more coaches coming to Houston than ever before," says a Big 12 assistant. "When (coaches) come down they see the kids down in Houston and start recruiting them. There are usually more names you go home with."
"Going even beyond that, I think the Houston Hoops program had something to do with (Houston's emergence)," Pastner said. "With the success of the Hoops, the attention has come from all over because of the players we've had."
Rashard Lewis, Emeka Okafor, Kendrick Perkins, Ndudi Ebi, Jake Voshkul and then the likes of NFL players Marcus Spears and Robert Ferguson all played for Pastner and the Hoops program. And that is just the alumni list playing in the pro ranks.
With the growth of the Hoops, the city has elevated it's AAU participation. At least eight different programs are amongst the best AAU programs in the state and compete nationally. Each team generally has at least two high-major players on it's rosters. Texans aren't spending as much time on the gridiron like year's past.
"Look at Gary Johnson," says Pastner. "He didn't start playing basketball until he was in the eighth grade. He was a football guy before that. Then I think he saw a tournament like the Kingwood and loved it so much that he wanted to experience that for himself."
With the Kingwood less than four months away, Pastner said he is working around the clock for this year's event.
"Now you've got nine and 10 year olds wanting to play in the Kingwood Classic," Pastner said. "That's the reason why we've grown."
And that is why Houston is becoming one of the power cities in high school hoops.
Mother Nature transforms hoops scene
Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape of Houston basketball. The mother of all natural disasters sent New Orleans natives to Houston with little on their back and even less in their pocket. The top player in New Orleans, D.J. Augustin, relocated to Hightower High School. Ironically, the team mascot there is a Hurricane.
Augustin isn't the only one. Westfield High School, the top team in Houston, added a key starter to it's rotation in 6-foot-5 wing Brandon Dison, a likely mid-major late signee in 2006. Wheatley High School added one of the top sleeper prospects in the country in 6-foot-7 wing Lawrence Gilbert.
Future USC wing Dwight Lewis is shining at Katy High School this year. Biko Paris, a dynamic scoring point guard from 2007, has taken the reigns at Cyprus Community.
According to Jim Hicks, a Houston high school hoops maven, the city's competition level was already good but now it's teetering on the best overall in the country.
"You already had a corvette in Houston but when we had that storm, we added a hemi engine and new rims and tires," Hicks said. "No disrespect to our neighbors next door but the kids are getting a higher overall level of competition here."
Houston has evolved into one of the most fruitful areas for blue chippers and college coaches continue to raid the nation's fourth largest city for prospects. In 2005, 34 players from Houston signed with Division I prospects.
The class of 2006 may not have that same kind of production but it's certainly strong enough to hang with any city in the country.
"You can spend two or three days in Houston and regardless of what level you are in, you can find six, seven, eight kids that can play for you," says one Big 12 assistant coach.
There is something to be said in the recruiting world about protecting your borders. The Texas Longhorns have done that and circled the wagons like Beltway 8 around the greater Houston area.
Three of Texas's six recruits in the class of 2006 come from H-town. Rick Barnes and his staff locked up three key recruits from the senior class in point guard (Augustin), mammoth center (Dexter Pittman) and scoring guard (Harrison Smith). The trio help make up the one of the nation's top ranked recruiting class.
After committing to Arizona as a freshman, Nic Wise helped bring the national attention to H-town. Wise has helped his Kingwood squad climb into the national rankings and he justified that once again this year at the Academy National.
After having his worst game of the year against Wheeler (Ga.) High School, Wise came back and raised the level of Kingwood's play.
"With Nic, it's like everyone is playing checkers and he's playing chess," Hicks said. "He is one of the most cerebral kids to come out of here in a long, long, long time. Nic is thinking five or six moves ahead of everyone."
Wise has set the bar for point guards in Houston.
In 2007, there are a host of floor generals that will go on to the next level. Highlighting the point guard crop is Jai Lucas of Bellaire High and B.J. Holmes of Hastings High.
Lucas, the son of former NBA player and coach John Lucas, is amongst the best players overall in the city. Holmes may not get the recognition that Lucas or Wise but he's having a great season and helped Hastings climb up the Houston rankings.
Also in the junior class are two of the nation's top big men in Gary Johnson and DeAndre Jordan. Johnson has attracted the likes of Coach K, Tubby Smith and Rick Barnes to his Aldine High School while nearly every Big 12 has checked in on Jordan, a bouncy 6-foot-10 forward from Episcopal.
They got next
Looking ahead to the sophomore and freshmen classes, the player to know is J'Covan Brown, a potential five-star prospect from Beaumont's Kelly High School. The 6-foot-1 guard from the class of 2008 has all of the tools of being an elite level guard.
Get to know the name Steve Tchiengang. The 6-foot-8 small forward from Cyprus Community Christian is one of the most intriguing players in the Houston area. He's got the size, athleticism and potential to becoming a high-major guy.
Houston has been the place to find point guards for the last couple of years and the class of 2009 is shaping up with tradition. According to Hicks, three of the best players in the freshmen class are point guards.
Leading the way is Tommy Griffin, a 5-foot-9 well-built freshman from Madison High School. Griffin made a splash a couple of years ago when Pastner brought the youngster to the Peach Jam as a seventh grader.
Because of Hurricane Katrina and because of the overall depth in the class of 2006, recruiters are still able to find some impact guys in H-town. Leading the way for the top unsigned players is Lawrence Gilbert of Wheatley. The 6-foot-7 wing will likely land at a high-major school in the late signing period.
Also hailing from New Orleans is Brandon Dison, a 6-foot-5 wing at Westfield High School. Dison is a solid mid-major prospect. At Aldine High School is sharp-shooting Brandon Brown, a tremendous scorer but limited because of his 5-foot-9 size.
Playing alongside Gilbert at Wheatley is point guard Dewayne Reed. He's still getting his academics in order and could very well land in a mid-major or better come April. Unsigned Kodi Augustus is one of the best unsigned seniors in the class of 2006 but he'll likely land at a prep school next year before going off to college.
Houston's Top 15 prospects
D.J. Augustin, 2006 (Texas)
Nic Wise, 2006 (Arizona)
Dewayne Reed, 2006
Dexter Pittman, 2006 (Texas)
Harrison Smith, 2006 (Texas)
Dale VanWright, 2006 (Colorado)
Dwight Lewis, 2006 (USC)
Junior Treasure, 2006 (Houston)
Lawrence Gilbert, 2006
Kodi Augustus, 2006
Gary Johnson, 2007
Jai Lucas, 2007
DeAndre Jordan, 2007
B.J. Holmes, 2007
J'Covan Brown, 2008
Top Five Teams
Westfield - The Mustangs returned four starters from last year and enjoyed the luxury of two new starters moving into their area in Brandon Dison and junior Josh Simmons. Senior Chris Hagan leads the backcourt while 6-7 forward Albert Turley maintains the paint. The Mustangs may not have that headliner Division I prospect but they are a well-oiled machine with all of the pieces to the puzzle.
Kingwood - Nic Wise is doing his best to leave his Texas prep career on a high note. The future Arizona point guard has made his team full of fairly unathletic players into a state contender. Junior wing Mike Singletary is improving his wing skills and gives the Mustangs another scorer on the floor.
Hastings - Led by junior guards B.J. Holmes and Larry Davis, the Fighting Bears love to push the ball and with a rotation of at least 10 players, the team will just run teams into the ground.
Bellaire - With all five returning starters back, it was easy to understand why the Cardinals were picked by many to be one of the best in Houston. A couple of bad losses to start the season has set them back some. The trio of Jai Lucas, Isaiah Rusher and Dale VanWright, who is playing within himself this season, is a tough 1-2-3 punch for anybody to defend.
Aldine - With the city's top junior and the hardest working post player in Houston on the roster, it's easy to see why the fans pack the house to see Gary Johnson and his Mustangs go to work. Brandon Brown is a dead-eye shooter and senior wing Dustin Hawkins is one of the city's best athletes.