BELOIT—Carlos Harris is accustomed to road trips for tournaments with his AAU basketball team.
He has never experienced one like this, however.
On Saturday night, the Beloit teen will travel to Phoenix, Ariz., where he will begin his junior year as a member of Hillcrest Prep, one of the top basketball-heavy private academies in the country.
“I’m excited,” Harris said. “They’re ranked as one of the top programs around. I think this will bring the best out in me.”
The 6-foot-7 inch Harris said his recruiting came down to a “right place, right time” scenario. A member of the IBA Illinois Stars AAU program out of Naperville, he was playing in a tournament in Fort Wayne, Ind., over the summer when the right person was in attendance.
“We have a couple of guys on our 17U team who go to Hillcrest,” Harris said. “The Hillcrest coach was there waiting for the 17U team to play and he watched the 16U team I play for. I happened to have a real good game. I think I was 3-for-3 on threes, had a couple of dunks and some good passes. Overall it was a really good game for me. But I was surprised when he offered me a scholarship to Hillcrest.”
That was heady stuff for a still-raw post player who as a sophomore was a backup for a Beloit Memorial High School varsity team that won just five games.
“I think I’ve improved a lot during AAU ball,” Harris said. “I’m always working on different things to improve my game. I’ve also been lifting to get stronger. I’m eager to get started (at Hillcrest). The competition, even in practice, should be great.”
So what exactly is Hillcrest? Detractors would label it a “basketball factory” where a $35,000-a-year tuition guarantees that academics will be devalued and hoops will be the primary focus. Others might label it more kindly as a “basketball finishing school” which routinely churns out Division 1 and pro talent.
Hillcrest recruits players from all over the country. Some are four or five-star talent showing up on every recruiting service. Some, like Harris, are diamonds in the rough recruited for their upside.
The concept isn’t new. East Coast prep schools such as Oak Hill (Virginia) Academy produced future NBA greats Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo.
Hillcrest’s history isn’t that long, but it is impressive. Founded by Matt Allen in 2015, Hillcrest was the first private academy specializing in basketball in the Phoenix area. Former NBA star Mike Bibby coached the team for a short time. It produced the No. 1 (Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns) and No. 2 (Marvin Bagley III) choices in the 2018 NBA draft.
The current team includes such future D-1 prospects as 6-10 forward Michael Foster, 6-8 junior Keon Edwards, 6-4 Devontes Cobbs. 6-1 Chianti Clay, 6-7 Issac Hymes and 6-10 Sadraque Nganga.
The team’s schedule will include top showcase tournaments across the country. Last season the slate included the Battle in the Apple in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Hoophall West Classic in Arizona, the Chick-Fil-A Classic in South Carolina, the John Wall Invitational in Raleigh, N.C., the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., and the St. James Invitational in Maryland. Teams you won’t see on the schedule belong to the Arizona Interscholastic Association. The organization has banned Hillcrest from playing Arizona public schools, no matter how good they are.
Where Hillcrest does fall short of academies like Oak Hill or others is in academic reputation. The Phoenix charter school Hillcrest originally used for classes, StarShine Academy, failed an eligibility audit by the NCAA. Arizona Connections, Hillcrest’s current academic affiliation, apparently does meet all NCAA criteria for non-traditional coursework, however.
Harris and his family considered all the positives and negatives and believes it will be a good fit. He plans on staying with coach Chianti Clay Sr., his son Chianti Jr. and the coach’s nephew, Foster. Both Clay and Foster are transfers from Milwaukee Washington High School.
“It was kind of a difficult decision to make, but I think this is best for me in terms of my future,” Harris said. “The exposure this team offers is the best.”