[Ed. Note: This is the second installment of KSR’s “Next Man Up” series profiling Kentucky’s 2020 signees. Previously Jack Pilgrim wrote about Lance Ware]
It’s a dark, gloomy, evening, cold by California standards – somewhere in the upper 40’s. The winds that whip through the pristine high school campus, tucked in the San Fernando Valley, make it seem even colder.
Inside the high school’s gym a game tips off, with no more than a few hundred fans in stands, there to celebrate “Senior Night” for the girl’s basketball team. Yet while the girl’s game goes on indoors and in relative anonymity, outside the masses begin to line up. One by one they form a line that eventually morphs into thousands, all here to see the most famous high school boy’s basketball team, maybe ever.
We are of course talking about Sierra Canyon High School, a school in Chatsworth, California that has quickly morphed into a basketball power in recent years. Four years ago they had eventual lottery pick Marvin Bagley. Last year it was current Duke freshman Cassius Stanley. And this year the hype has been taken to another level, thanks to the very pulicized arrival of the sons of future Basketball Hall of Famers LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
But while Bronny James and Zaire Wade are the most well-known players on the team, the true hoop heads know who the real stars are on this year’s Sierra Canyon roster. They’re a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, BJ Boston and Ziaire Williams.
Unfortunately Boston isn’t playing on this evening, after suffering a minor hand injury the game before. But even as he bounces around the lay-up line in oversized sweats, you can start to see the makings of a kid that already has big-time NBA potential. There is his long, thin 6’6 frame, which seems like it was perfectly crafted to help him one day evolve into an NBA wing. The fluid movements that get him from one spot to the next on the floor, even if he is just going through the motions in lay-ups lines without a ball. The long strides that – when healthy – allow him to get to the basket in a few short steps, and throw down ferocious dunks.
And it’s those God-given natural gifts, mixed in with a whole lot of hard work that has Boston where he at that moment in time: Arguably the best player on arguably the most talented high school basketball team in the country. A soon-to-be announced McDonald’s All-American (even if the game ultimately was never played) and a consensus Top 10 recruit in the country.
Those gifts are also what could allow Boston to evolve into what many people expect him to become as well. And that “something” is “the next great freshman of the John Calipari era at Kentucky.”
Those who know high school and college basketball best think it’s inevitable.
“He would’ve been the best player on this year’s team,” a prominent AAU coach recently told me off the cuff, without knowing that I was working on a profile piece about Boston.
“He reminds me of Brandon Ingram,” said a prominent high-major assistant coach who once recruited the former Duke star.
Unprompted, a second high-major assistant coach texts just minutes later, with essentially the same message. “Whe was young, he reminded me of Brandon Ingram,” the coach said, unaware that one of his peers just made the same comparison. “BJ hasn’t quite grown to the height Brandon is. But you can see the similarities.”
For those who may have forgotten, Ingram averaged 17 points per game in his one season at Duke and was an honorable mention All-American.
He also made his first NBA All-Star team just a few months ago.
Ask Brandon Boston Jr. (now more commonly known as “BJ”) about the role that basketball has played in his life, and he hesitates. He can’t really answer that question because, to be honest, he never really remembers a time when basketball wasn’t in his life.
“Basketball,” he says, “That was the first thing I really did. I had a ball since I was three-years-old. My dad had me in the basement dribbling, helping get my handle right.”
It’s only appropriate that Boston mentioned basketball and his father in the same sentence, since his family and the sport are the two pillars that his life is seemingly centered on.
The line to get into a Sierra Canyon game circled around the block
We all know about the basketball already, so let’s get into the family side of things. Boston grew up in a loving home in Atlanta with his parents and three sisters. The two older sisters are both back East, but the younger one holds the key to the question that everyone is probably wondering right now: How does a kid who was born and raised in Atlanta, end up playing his senior year of high school basketball 3,000 miles away in California?
Well, the seeds were planted last summer when according to Boston, he and his father came out to Los Angeles to visit an uncle. At the time, Boston was already considering leaving his high school (Norcross High) for another in the Atlanta area, to team up with Sharife Cooper, a friend, fellow McDonald’s All-American and Auburn signee. But it was while he was in Los Angeles, hanging with family and training, that topic of moving to California to play high school basketball was first broached to him.
Boston immediately warmed up to the idea, but it wasn’t necessarily for the reasons you might think. He wasn’t looking for more exposure, since after all, he already had scholarship offers from Kentucky, Duke and pretty much every program in college basketball at that point. It also wasn’t about joining a super-team at Sierra Canyon. The school he’d previously attended in Georgia was already a state power, one which has put a number of players into the NBA in recent years including former Kentucky Wildcat Jodie Meeks.
Instead, the reason Boston uprooted his entire family was his younger sister.
Had he decided to transfer within Georgia, the move simply would have been about him, and the chance to hoop with a few friends before going off to college. This was about her. It was the chance for her to attend a high school where she should could network and attend school with sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and those some of the most prominent figures in Hollywood. It was the chance for her to build a network that would last her the rest of her life, not just four years of high school.
Boston’s path to success was hopefully already set with basketball. Now it was time to help her create her own.
“Me and my parents discussed it,” Boston said, “And I just wanted to go wherever my sister would be better off.”
A few months, and a few thousand miles later, the family was in Los Angeles.
Looking back on the move in January, Boston said that the transition was easy, though he also admits that he is probably the wrong person to ask about the topic. He explains that outside of focusing on basketball and sleep – “I love to sleep,” he says – he really hasn’t ventured out much in Los Angeles.
His Instagram page verifies as much, as there isn’t a single picture of well, pretty much anything other than basketball. There are no pictures of LA’s famous beaches or tourist attractions. Nor are there of the normal trappings of a normal high school kid’s IG page, no fancy shoes, new clothes or nights out with friends.
Instead, it’s all basketball all the time, which is just the way Boston wants it.
It also makes the next question that much easier to answer.
“My little sister loves it here,” when asked how she has liked California.
Just a week after Boston made the move to ensure the best future for his sister, he made the move that ensured the best future for himself. Seven days after announcing that he would play his senior year at Sierra Canyon, he announced that he would attend the University of Kentucky to play his college basketball.
Unfortunately though, if you’re looking for a good recruiting story on how Boston landed at Kentucky, well, you’ve come to the wrong place.
The reality is that Boston had been ranked as an elite recruit, pretty much as soon as rankings began for the class of 2020. By the time his sophomore season ended he was on the radar of virtually every major program in the Southeast, and eventually took visits to places like Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Georgia Tech. And by the end of his junior season he had been through enough of the recruiting meat grinder that he had things narrowed down to just four schools. Those schools were Auburn, Duke, Florida and Kentucky.
He would visit Lexington on the last weekend of July. As it turned out, it would be the last recruiting visit Boston ever took. He committed to Kentucky before leaving campus.
In terms of why the choice was Kentucky, well, again if you’re looking for a great story, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.
The bottom-line was that from the beginning, Boston knew what he was looking for in a school. To be perfectly blunt, they were a lot of the same things that most of the elite recruits who commit to Kentucky want. He wanted a place where he had a good relationship with the coaching staff. Where he would be challenged every day, not only in practice but in games. A place where he could go against other elite players to hone his skill. A place that would best prepare him for the NBA.
Boston warms up prior to a Sierra Canyon practice in January
He found it all at Kentucky, which is why he decided right then and there that he didn’t need to take any more visits.
Beyond the obvious reasons – the ones listed above – there were a few other reasons the choice was Kentucky as well.
First there was the tough and honest, but also open communication that the Kentucky staff had with players. Yes, the coaches not only expect the players to get better, but demand it.
What Boston liked however, was that the staff actually showed those players exactly how to get there.
“[While I was there] I saw players come in and actually ask Coach Cal ‘how can I get better?'” Boston remembered. “And he actually showed them how to do it.”
The second was the simple work ethic of the players in Lexington.
Boston takes pride in how hard he works. And can’t wait to get around another group of players (similar to those at Sierra Canyon) who have the same commitment.
“I’ve been doing three-a-days my whole high school career,” Boston said. “I get up at 6 a.m., get a workout in, go to school, practice and then work out later at night after practice.”
Despite not needing any further clarification, Boston provides some anyway.
“That’s everyday work,” he added, something that has to be music to John Calipari’s ears.
While Boston’s future is unlimited, his present – like everyone else’s – is much more uncertain. The coronavirus brought an end to his senior year nearly a month ago, just hours after Sierra Canyon picked up a win over Etiwanda High School in the California state tournament. Boston could have never known it at the time, but it would go down as the final game of his high school career.
Yet while Sierra Canyon won’t be able to add a state title banner to its gym in the off-season, it doesn’t mean that this season wasn’t productive. It’s actually quite the opposite. You could argue that there wasn’t a single place that could have better prepared Boston for his future at Kentucky than spending last season at the school.
As John Calipari likes to say, Kentucky is “the biggest stage in college basketball” and there is little debate that Sierra Canyon was the biggest stage in high school basketball in 2019-2020. It’s not only that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade routinely show up to practices and games (LeBron was in the gym watching his younger son the day BJ Boston was interviewed for this piece), but that Sierra Canyon games turned into every bit the spectacle Kentucky’s did this past winter. The Trailblazers played in NBA gyms and in front of packed houses every night, no different than what Kentucky gets every time they go on the road. This season, Sierra Canyon had more games on ESPN’s family of networks than some NBA teams. And celebrities (depending on what your definition of “celebrity” is) routinely came to their games unannounced. For example, on the night Boston sat out with a hand injury, seven-time NBA champ Robert Horry was in the building. As best I can tell, he has no affiliation to the school. He just showed up to see what all the hype was about.
Beyond just the bright lights, there is the basketball stuff too. At Sierra Canyon, Boston had the chance to practice against some of the best high school aged basketball players in the world. Every day he lined up against Ziaire Williams, a fellow McDonald’s All-American who will likely either end up at Arizona or USC next season. The roster was filled out by another senior committed to TCU (Terren Frank), one of the top high school sophomores in America last season Amari Bailey, and Bronny James, who while young, is one of the top freshmen in America. Zaire Wade is a prospect with power conference offers and Harold Yu is a 7’3 center from China with Pac-12 offers. Put simply, it’s hard not to get better when competing against that level of talent every day. Just like at Kentucky.
And finally, there are the games themselves.
Yes, Boston is one of the best scorers in high school basketball, a fluid 6’6 slasher who can not only get to the rim at will, but one who can also step back and hit three-pointers as well. But as talented as he is, at a place like Sierra Canyon, his number isn’t going to be called every time down the floor.
It will be the same at Kentucky. And Boston doesn’t have a problem with it at all.
“If Terrence Clarke scores 30 in a game next year,” he says, “I’m going to be the first one cheering.”
The man who coached Boston this past season, Andre Chevalier, backed up what Boston said. Sure, there are things that Boston needs to work on according to Chevalier, a former DI player himself. Boston needs to bulk up and get physically stronger, per his coach. He needs to make more of a commitment on the defensive end, something that Chevalier has no doubt Boston will improve upon when he gets to Lexington.
But the things you can’t teach, and the things that make someone not just a great player, but a great teammate, are the things that come naturally to Boston.
“He definitely wants to win first,” Chevalier said. “Winning is a priority for him. Whether he scores 10 or 30, he’s happy about it [as long as we win].”
When asked how Boston handled an environment like Sierra Canyon, and how it could translate to a place like Kentucky, Chevalier didn’t hesitate.
“He is going to thrive in that environment,” the coach said. “For sure.”