Over the past five months, surprises have defined Missouri’s experience on the recruiting trail. The bulk of the chatter rightly fixated on the Tigers reeling in the nation’s No. 4 class for 2017, a group buttressed by three top-50 prospects.
Maybe one of the more intriguing moves in Cuonzo Martin’s tenure, however, was the commitment of Javon Pickett. The Belleville East product had been pledged to Illinois for nearly two years, but he requested a release in early April on the heels of Brad Underwood’s arrival in Champaign.
At the time, Pickett’s exit was painted as mutually beneficial. One Division I coach, speaking anonymously, was blunt in his assessment: “He was not good enough (to be in the Big Ten),” the coach dished to the Chicago Tribune. “He’s more of a Missouri Valley guy. (The scholarship release) was probably more Illinois getting out of it.”
Then comes the other wrinkle: Pickett’s plan to reclassify and fall back to the 2018 class, spending a year fine-tuning his game at a prep school.
Plenty of players treaded along this path. Pickett, though, doesn’t match the typical profile of a player taking what amounts to a gap year. Academically, he was set to go for Illinois. And it’s not as if he was waiting for a high-major offer — he inked his letter of intent last November.
In essence, Pickett agreed to be a sign-and-stash player for Martin. All that was left to do was pick a school where he’d spend a year. Once again, Pickett bucked the trend. Instead of heading to the East Coast, a common move, the wing opted to go west. Last week, word filtered out that he chose Sunrise Christian Academy.
Sunrise, based in Wichita, rose over the last decade to become an elite high school program, headlined by alumni like Sacramento Kings guard and former Oklahoma gunner Buddy Hield. The school’s prep program is still trying to gain traction as a viable option for talented prospects in need of a gap year.
Last Friday, Rock M Nation stole 10 minutes from Sunrise coach Achoki Moikubu, chatting about the program and what awaits Pickett this upcoming season.
ROCK M NATION: How old is your prep school program at Sunrise Christian Academy? The high school program is well known by now.
ACHOKI MOIKUBU: It’s been around for four years. This will be its fifth year. I’ll actually be the third coach in five years. That’s not because of quick turnarounds or losing records. It’s just because guys have guys have moved up. Coach (Kyle) Lindsted was our elite high school, and now he’s at Wichita State. And coach Kyle Bankhead just took a new job recently.
RMN: How did Javon Pickett wind up on your radar as the spring unfolded? Traditionally, a kid like him may look to go to the East Coast and more traditional prep programs out there.
AM: The word was just kind of bouncing around that there was a talented kid still out there that needed an extra year, and I’m soon as I heard about it I jumped all over it. We needed a guy at that position and needed it bad. We looked at our big board, and it said we needed a wing, we needed a scorer. He fits that mold. We were lucky that the timing worked out. Really lucky.
RMN: When you made contact with Javon, what the gist of your pitch to him about joining your program in Wichita? For as much success as you all have had at the high school level, I could see a kid being a bit apprehensive with the prep program.
AM: That’s been the stigma on our program right now: We don’t do it as well as programs on the East Coast. But we’re a school that undersells and overproduces. We can do it just as big and just good as they can out there. Prep school was born on the coast, but we can do it just as good as anyone.
RMN: Have you all put money into facility upgrades or increased the dollars you sink into the program to any degree? I’ve seen some of it for the football program, to a degree.
AM: I tell kids that prep school, it’s not really going to be about facilities and all of that. You’ve got seven months, and it’s all about getting better. We think this is the best place in the country to develop. It’s not about the glitz and the glamour. Where can you anywhere in the country and come out a better player?
RMN: Can you walk me through briefly what systems you guys have in place, what you run, what you hang your hat on?
AM: We try to start on the defensive end. These kids are gearing up and trying to get ready for college. The big thing that most freshmen basketball players struggle with is at the defensive end. They’ve never been drilled, never been taught — demanded to guard the ball, demanded to play off the ball and know what the heck they’re doing. Our culture is built around that defensive-first mentality.
Offensively, we try to teach the game. We try to, for example, put them in more ball-screen, two-man situations — just things they’re going to see more of at the college level. We don’t make it too complicated. Again, it’s a defensive first mentality. But offensively, we do what we can. It’s a four-out, one-in offense that a ton of college teams are running.
RMN: From having watched Javon a little bit and reading up on him, the common phrase that kept popping up was “three-level scorer.” When you guys broke down tape, what jumped out at you all?
AM: You hit it right on the head. He’s a really, really good scorer at all three levels. We try to ask the kids first, “What do you need to get better at?” That way I can put together a plan of attack to get them better. Again, this is about him leaving a better basketball player than he came in.
There are a number of things he can improve on. I think he’s a good shooter from the 3-point line, but that’s one thing he admitted to me he needs to improve at if he’s going to be an impact player from Day 1 at Mizzou.
RMN: The one knock you might hear is that he’s a smooth player, but not really fast-twitch quick. He knows how to use his body to play through contact, but he’s not exactly an explosive guy. So the critique is that he’s got the skills, but is he athletically going to be a player that can hang in at the high-major level. From what you’ve seen, how valid are those points?
AM: I think that’s fair. He’s certainly not a guy that can touch the top of the backboard like you see in the SEC. But for me personally, I like guys that can play, that have a natural feel for the game. I will take that over athleticism 10 times over 10. But I believe in our weight room, and I believe in our strength and conditioning coach. That can be taught.
Everything that he’s coming in with can be cleaned up a little bit. I think he can have better ball skills. I think he can become a better shooter. I think he can get better in the mid-range.
I’ve spoken with coach Cuonzo Martin, and I think we can improve on all that in a year.
RMN: How much do you plan to check in with Cuonzo? Does he want regular updates? Or just as needed?
AM: It’s not really a structured thing.
RMN: Javon’s situation may be different than some players typically following his path. He’s got a spot secured and is likely signing in November. How much anxiety does that lift and mental space does it clear out for him to focus on getting better?
AM: It can be a blessing, or it can be more of a curse. Some kids can move it aside, make their decision and focus on just basketball. Others, and I’m not saying this is gonna be Javon, are going to have to be self-motivated players. They’ll have to look themselves in the mirror and understand the sole purpose they’re here is to get better and to get ready for the next level.