WESTFIELD, Ind. — Last fall, Davion Bradford confronted a choice that, on its face, appeared simple: Should he spend his junior season with CBC or Mehlville?
Over the previous eight months, the St. Louis native embarked on what amounted to a basketball sojourn. In January 2018, he decamped from CBC and embarked west to Hillcrest Prep in Arizona. And when summer arrived, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center picked up his bags again, venturing back east to play with Oklahoma PWP on the grassroots circuit.
Returning to his home base, though, stemmed less from finding an optimal roster fit than from heartbreak. Last summer, Bradford’s mother died unexpectedly, a tragedy that ultimately drew him back closer to his family.
Upon returning, Bradford, who averaged five points, three rebounds and less than half a block per game at CBC, could have picked back up with the Cadets. Instead, longstanding ties pulled him South County, where swingman Dylan Branson prepared to suit up for the Panthers.
The duo’s bond stretches back to elementary school and playing on the same youth team coach by Branson’s father. The paths diverged in high school — Branson spent his freshman season at Chaminade — but now was a chance to reunite. For Bradford, a move to Mehlville was more than an opportunity to evoke nostalgia. It could be an incubator for stability.
“After my mom passed away, I had to fond a decision on my own,” Bradford said Sunday. “I wanted to be comfortable. I’ve been playing with Dylan since my fifth-grade year. We had more chemistry.”
So far, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Behind the quartet of Bradford, Branson, Lamontay Daughtrey and King Waller, Mehlville claimed its first district crown in 22 years on a run that led a reunion against CBC in the Class 5A quarterfinals — one that ended the Panthers’ season. Still, Bradford averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 rebounds, production that drew the interest of high-major programs, including Missouri, which extended an offer on May 1.
He’s part of a trio of big men, which includes the fast-rising Ryan Kalkbrenner and Lyndhurst (Ohio) Brush’s John Hugley, who formally joined the Tigers’ recruiting board. While Mizzou’s offer only came in recently, coach Cuonzo Martin and assistant coach Chris Hollender, who instructs MU post players, had been keeping watch on Bradford over the winter.
“They’re my guys,” said Bradford, who has also drawn offers from Iowa and Nebraska to this spring to go with those from Oklahoma, Kansas State, Illinois and Oklahoma State. “I mean, they’re a really good coaching staff. I really like Mizzou. I haven’t got a visit down there yet, but I’m pretty sure I will be.”
While the Tigers’ chances with high-profile targets Caleb Love, Cam’Ron Fletcher and Josh Christopher dominates recruiting conversations, how MU addresses frontcourt depth might be more intriguing.
Reed Nikko is graduating and moving on, creating the need for at least one slot in the Class of 2020 to go to a bigger body. If junior Jeremiah Tilmon, who would be testing the NBA draft waters if not for a paperwork snafu, decides to pursue a paycheck, a second post may be needed.
It’s far too early to predict what Bradford will do, but he made it clear he wants to take official visits to Kansas State and Missouri. He didn’t outline when those might take place, it’s evident MU’s made a solid first impression.
Now the next step is for Bradford to carry his momentum forward. This spring he opted — along with Branson — to commute west on Interstate 70 and play for MoKan Elite. The pair even coaxed Chaminade guard Luke Kasubke, another childhood teammate, to join them.
“Now that I kind of settled down with the team, I actually feel like I’m adjusted,” Bradford said. “Right now, MoKan is like the best AAU team I’ve ever been on. The coaching staff is very (good), we get treated well. They all love us. We all get great experience on the court and stuff like that.”
Picking MoKan, though, meant Bradford adopted a reserve role behind N’Faly Dante, who sits at No. 10 recruit in 247 Sports’ composite index. Yet if the sample size from the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League session is any indication, Bradford’s maximizing his minutes. Against The Family Detroit, for example, he piled up 24 points on 10 of 11 shooting and yanked down seven rebounds — all in just 16 minutes of game action.
EYBL Profile | Davion Bradford, Post, 6-foot-10, 240 pounds
The blend is also optimal. Point guard Kennedy Chandler, the No. 22 prospect in 2021, runs the show, while MoKan can spread a bevy of shooters in Kasubke, Samson Ruzhentsev and Coban Porter — yes, of that Porter clan — around the perimeter.
Options abound with that personnel.
Chandler can use a ball-screen to get downhill and decide whether to attack the rim, toss a lob to a rolling big or kick to an uncovered shooter. At the same time, MoKan will move its bigs around. Against The Family, for example, they would have a guard cross-screen at the high-post, allowing Dante or Bradford to get a switch and dive bomb toward the bucket.
Or either big can get rip screen on the block, a clean post touch and a high-percentage finish. If the defense collapses, a pass-out from the block leads to the ball popping around the perimeter. At worst, Bradford and Dante can subsist by crashing the class.
After leading the EYBL in defensive efficiency last season, MoKan is on track for a repeat performance. Exiting the second session, they’re allowing 0.907 points per possession, only .01 — or 1 point over 100 possessions — behind Expressions Elite. An imposing frontline of Dante and Bradford patrols the paint and corrals misses, of which there are plenty when you’re only giving up a 24.1 percent clip behind the 3-point arc.
To watch Bradford defend goes beyond seeing a man throw his weight around. On Sunday against Team United, Bradford held up consistently in pick-and-roll coverages, understanding when to hedge or drop based on the spot on the floor, all while clearly calling out directions to help his guard navigate the screen. He also showcased a nuance of the scouting report, coming out of the paint to contest face-up 3-balls by forward Josh Rubio.
The consistent settings, systems and approach have also helped round Bradford’s body into form. While his gait can be a little stilted when running the floor, he can more than hold up when fighting in the paint, and his stamina is steady.
“Now I’m blocking shots,” said Bradford, who averaged 11.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks over four games last weekend. “At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t blocking shots as well. Now I’m blocking some more shots, rebounding more, being more aggressive. I’m going more into the body as I’m finishing at the basket. Things like that..”
While Bradford concedes his jump-shooting needs to improve, his dimensions are college-ready and could prove useful if the Tigers need to plug a body directly into Tilmon’s allotment of minutes. If that plays out, there would be a certain symmetry. Growing up, Bradford just so happened to work out with Tilmon occasionally.
Proximity and personal history proved have already proved to be alluring, which raises the question of whether Bradford will take it into account when picking a campus.
“For sure,” Bradford said. “I feel like that’ll be one of the factors.”