Deep in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where churches and Christmas tree farms line a narrow two-lane highway, and where cell phone service goes to die, you will find Oak Hill Academy.
The small, co-ed, Baptist-affiliated prep school sits all alone in Mouth of Wilson, Va., on the western banks of the New River, just a few miles from the North Carolina border. And though it’s hard to believe once you see the area, that tiny school, secluded from much of the outside world, is where several of basketball’s biggest names got their start.
In fact, Oak Hill is regarded as the best prep basketball program in the entire nation, and has been for some time.
Current NBA stars like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Brandon Jennings and Rajon Rondo honed their skills in Oak Hill’s gymnasium, before growing up and moving on to prominent basketball careers. Or you can go further back to guys like Rod Strickland, Jerry Stackhouse, Ron Mercer and Stephen Jackson.
The school’s All-American banners that hang in the gym show an incredible list of former student-athletes, many of whom went on to become college or NBA stars and household names.
This year’s Oak Hill team, like many before it, is one of the favorites to win the national championship. With only one loss in 41 games so far this season, and a roster of full of future Division I talent, including four starters who have already signed with high-major programs, Oak Hill is living up to its storied reputation.
One player in particular is having an outstanding senior season with the Warriors, and has already signed on with the University of Kentucky for next fall.
You know who he is: five-star guard Keldon Johnson, the highest-rated of John Calipari’s three incoming players in the Class of 2018, and the one you should be the most excited about.
Johnson transferred to Oak Hill from Huntington Prep in Huntington, Wv., for his senior season; but he grew up not too far from Oak Hill, in South Hill, Va. One could argue that Huntington Prep had more to offer in the way of a social life and plenty more to do, see, and eat outside of school; but Johnson believes he made the right decision in moving completely off the grid to the prep school that has produced so much basketball talent.
“I really enjoy it and it was the best decision I could’ve made,” Johnson said of the move to Oak Hill. “It’s peaceful. It makes you focus. When in doubt, you have to be focused on basketball and schoolwork. It’s like family up here.”
Like all Oak Hill students, Johnson lives in a dorm on the school’s campus, with a roommate. His roommate is teammate Maurice Calloo, who is still being recruited and holds offers from the likes of Florida, Mississippi State and many others.
Johnson and Calloo spend a lot of time playing video games and goofing off with their other teammates and classmates, whenever they’re not in the gym or the weight room.
“We joke, but it’s mainly school and basketball,” he told KSR. “We’re all a pretty tight-knit group. We all get along and play with each other, joke around. It’s all fun.”
Johnson also has a close friend in his head coach, Steve Smith. Smith has been a coach and mentor to hundreds of players in his 30-plus years at Oak Hill, and he considers Johnson to be one of the more likeable ones he has had over the years.
“I’m pretty close to Keldon,” Smith said. “He comes in and hangs out in my office all the time. Some players don’t want to do that. He comes in here all day long. He’s very likeable, his personality; he’s very fun to be around. Anybody who has ever coached Keldon, I’m sure is pretty close to him, from his younger days on up.”
Smith also likes what Johnson has brought to his team this season, considering Johnson contributes over 20 points per game and is one of two players who will represent Oak Hill in the McDonald’s All-American game next month. (The other being David McCormack, a four-star center committed to Kansas.)
“For us, guys don’t normally average 20 a game,” Smith said, in speaking of Johnson’s scoring prowess. “I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. He’s starting with four other Division I players and he’s averaging a little over 21 per game. We haven’t had anyone average over 20 in three or four years. We’ve had McDonald’s All-Americans not average that. He’s a focal point of our offense. He’s gifted, just because how skilled on offense he is.”
Offense is definitely Johnson’s strength, and though he considers himself a well-rounded player, he is best when he is attacking the rim. When asked to describe how he likes to score the ball, Johnson smiled and said, “Get downhill. Get in somebody’s chest. A lot of contact.”
Coach Smith described him as “a multi-faceted player” on the offensive end. “He can really score the ball,” Smith said. “He attacks the basket. He’s aggressive. I like that he’s a very good passer as well, and has a nice one-two dribble pull-up game. He’s good offensively.”
Johnson is so good and aggressive offensively, John Calipari recently told him he wishes he had him on this year’s team, although the current Cats have since found some offense of their own. And even though he can’t have him just yet, Calipari has high expectations for Johnson as a scorer when he finally does suit up for Kentucky. Coach Smith does, too. He said Johnson is physically ready, when many freshmen aren’t.
“He’s worked hard and his style of play will allow him to play a lot as a freshman,” said Smith. “Once he learns Kentucky’s system and what Coach Cal expects out of him, I expect him to have a big year as a freshman.”
Nobody has higher expectations than Johnson himself, though. The kid is as confident as they come and he expects to have a major impact on next year’s Kentucky team, regardless of who he shares the backcourt with. In a recent discussion with Smith about the possibility of many UK players returning for another year, Johnson told him, “It doesn’t matter, Coach. I’m starting.”
Smith said, “He’s going in with the mindset that he’s a starter, and whether he does or not, he’s going to work. It’ll be hard to keep him off the floor because he’s really a team player, and he’s good enough.”
If Steve Smith believes Keldon Johnson is good enough to shine in Lexington, we have every reason to believe Keldon Johnson will shine in Lexington. After all, the man has sent over 200 of his players to Division I programs, while winning well over 1,000 games over his career with fewer than 100 losses.
Oak Hill will soon need more wall space in its gym to hang all of the jerseys and banners that celebrate Smith’s and the program’s success over three decades.
But leaving Smith’s resume aside, there is another reason we should trust him.
He’s a Kentucky guy.
Born 12 miles outside of Lexington in Wilmore, Ky., Smith is a graduate of Asbury College and a Kentucky boy at heart. His father held UK basketball season tickets from the day Rupp Arena first opened its doors in 1976, until this past season, when he decided it was time to give them up.
“I would go to games with my dad and I’ve always been a Kentucky fan,” Smith admitted.
But with Smith’s lifelong ties to Kentucky, he has been wrongfully accused of feeding players from Oak Hill to UK. There have been some Warriors in his past who have gone on to become Wildcats — Ron Mercer, Rajon Rondo, Jules Camara, Cliff Hawkins, Rashaad Carruth, and, most recently, Doron Lamb — but no more than have gone on to other top tier programs in college basketball.
“I’ve had as many kids go to North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas and those schools; just as much as I have Kentucky,” he said.
Johnson will soon become the next Oak Hill great to play in Rupp Arena, and Smith wasn’t the least bit surprised by Johnson’s decision. He told KSR, “Throughout the recruiting process, his dad and his family were wondering who is going to be where, and will there be too many players, but Keldon never cared. When he met with Kentucky the first time, he was like, ‘I want to go to Kentucky.’”
“I felt like that’s where he was going to go all along… He felt like he would fit in at Kentucky and develop there. Everybody’s goal is to go to the NBA, and for most of them it’s sooner than later. It’s hard to argue what Kentucky’s done with their young kids.”
Johnson said more of the same.
“As soon as I got to sit down and talk with Coach Calipari, it was just like something clicked and I knew it was the right spot for me, and that I had to be a future Wildcat,” he said. “It felt like he was very honest with me from the beginning, no matter what the situation or topic we were talking about. With my aspirations and dreams that I want to accomplish, and with his knowledge and having so many great players, I think he can get me to where I want to be at.”
Johnson is on the right path to one day reach his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA. But first, he has his eyes on a national championship with Oak Hill this spring, and then another at the University of Kentucky.
“For the fans of Big Blue Nation, I’m coming… and we’re going to win a national championship.”
And having been there to see him score 20 points in a recent Oak Hill win, I wouldn’t doubt anything he says.