When Paradise Honors boys basketball coach Zach Hettel first started to work with transfer guard Nate Pickens in the summer of 2019, there were reasons to look forward to years working with the standout sophomore-to-be.
But prep basketball in the 21st Century is a year-to-year — if not month-to-month — proposition, particularly in a hotbed for national prep school teams. And Hettel only ended up coaching Pickens for one season.
Pickens announced July 1 that he transferred to AZ Compass Prep in Chandler, after receiving Division I offers from Robert Morris, Loyola Marymount, UC-Santa Barbara and Southern Utah. He led the 2019-20 Panthers in scoring with 16.4 points per game, and added 4.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
“All these preps are recruiting kids based on the offers they are already getting,” Hettel said. “With Nate, the understanding I got was, this was the next step in his development.”
While sympathy may be too strong of a word, Dysart coach Keegan Cook has a better idea of Hettel’s predicament than most. Pickens led the Demons in scoring as a freshman in 2018-19 at 15.6 points per game before transferring to Paradise Honors.
Cook had a different focus this offseason. His second-leading scorer in 2019-20, junior guard Riley Fornerette (15.7 ppg), announced on May 9 that he was transferring to the PHH Prep program and will play for the Fire’s Canyon Athletic Association open division squad.
The Demons coach said he had no qualms with the star and son of his JV coach Tobie Fornerette.
“Riley’s dad had talked to me before Riley made the decision to go to PHH Prep. I know they put a lot of thought into it and I respected their decision and understood why they made it,” Cook stated in an email interview. “I was disappointed of course because it’s hard losing a player in our program. But I wish the best for Riley.”
Cook was philosophical about the situation — even though the potential of Fornerette, Pickens and forward Daryian Matthews together only was glimpsed for one season when all three were underclassmen.
“For me it’s not frustration with players leaving to go to prep. My calling as a coach is to help players become better men while teaching them the game of basketball and being a part of something bigger than themselves,” Cook stated.
Fornerette is not the only local player to head to PHH Prep, a Phoenix-based basketball factory that does not have a related high school education program. The Fire have a national team that competes in the Grind Session and the CAA team.
Logan Pohl, a 6-10 center who played for Paradise Honors as a sophomore last season, also joined the PHH team in the CAA. Hettel said his Pohl’s departure was more surprising to him than Pickens.
In an email interview Pohl’s mother, Angie, stated that the decision for Logan to go the prep team route had much more to do with his high school educational experience than basketball.
“Because he wouldn’t need to sit out any games because of transferring to a different high school, playing for a prep team made sense to allow him to have the high school experience he wanted without losing out on basketball,” Ms. Pohl stated. “We also were unsure how the pandemic would affect high school sports this fall. The trainers, competition, etc., the PHH Prep team affords its players was the right way to make this transition.”
Logan Pohl will attend nearby Shadow Ridge High School in Surprise while playing for PHH Prep. Since that team is not governed by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, he will not have to sit out half of the season — like he would if he played at Shadow Ridge.
“When we were discussing as a family the possibility of Logan making a school change, we met with Coach Ortega to learn more about the program,” Ms. Pohl stated. “Logan was already playing club with AZ Select, so it was a natural fit to go with PHH Prep. We knew he would be on the CAA team before making any final decisions.”
Hettel said while having a player transfer out is always a possibility, he does not go into seasons thinking about who may leave. He said he heard of Pickens’ transfer a day or two before the guard received offers June 15.
Pickens is the first Panther to head to Compass Prep, but PHH Prep has developed a Paradise Honors pipeline. In recent years players like Wyatt Bell, Matur Dhal, Roy Eze, Jerry Iliya and Pickens transferred to play for the Panthers.
But Dhal, Eze and Pohl headed for PHH Prep. Even Kiran Oliver made a summer 2019 pit stop at Paradise Honors before winding up with the Fire.
“I think kids develop better in a high school setting,” Hettel said. “It’s starting to be on all-year prep school/AAU experience.”
Cook said he understands the allure of playing for teams like Phoenix’s Hillcrest Prep, IMG and Montaverde academies in Florida, La Lumiere in Indiana or Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. But players on those teams, and the Grind Session schools, are sacrificing things to be part of the nationwide prep traveling circus.
“I think players like the idea of playing a national schedule and being able to play with and against tough competition. I understand that mindset,” Cook stated. “But I believe high school offers players an opportunity to compete with their teammates for four years where they can develop a sense of school and program pride. It gives them an opportunity to build and be a part of something great that they had to work for and gives them a real sense of accomplishment.”
While the level of talent and competition game in and game out has tilted decidedly to prep schools from traditional high schools in the last decade, Hettel said the narrative of prep schools getting players “college ready” is less airtight than it may seem.
National prep competition provides for better competition, but Hettel said many of these new prep school players will miss out on the opportunity to be the focal point of the team, particularly in late game situations. For example, Pickens will share a backcourt this year with TyTy Washington, a high scoring point guard and top 100 senior nationally, according to ESPN.
“All these kids are going from getting 30 minutes per game to 15-20 minutes per game,” Hettel said. “I don’t 100 percent buy into the belief that it’s a benefit with how their roles are shifting.”
Washington, Pickens and another scoring guard, Mekhi Mason, came to Compass Prep from Valley high schools. In that respect the local schools are behind the 8 ball.
The Grind Session circuit features 25 teams, including six from Florida and four from California. But those teams are more spread out in those more populous states. Meanwhile metro Phoenix sports four Grind Session teams.
Two of those teams — Bella Vista Prep in Scottsdale and Dream City Christian in Glendale — have not recruited established players from Arizona high school teams. Neither has Hillcrest in recent years. But Compass Prep and PHH Prep sport largely local rosters.
“We’re fine and I don’t know how this whole prep thing is going to work out. I know Hillcrest has built a great program without looking at any Arizona kids,” Hettel said.
The CAA also provides serious competition for players with second squads from Compass Prep and PHH Prep, plus Tri-City Christian Academy in Chandler . This year, the Canyon association added an open division format with a 35-second shot clock in hopes of attracting more high-level players.
While the AIA has taken part in cursory discussions about a shot clock, that aspect of play is governed by the National Federation of High Schools, which voted against a shot clock proposal on May 12. An open division is more likely, as the AIA executive board can implement one and has done so for football.
“I believe the AIA is long overdue for implementing a shot clock. It’s good for the game and high school needs to prepare these players for college,” Cook stated.
Hettel said he likes both ideas. With Grind Session teams like Compass, Dream City and PHH planning to partner more with CAA open division schools, the Paradise Honors coach had a proposal for boosting the attractiveness of special events like Hoophall West.
He thinks one particular local prep, combined with top California teams that usually come in for the December basketball festival in Scottsdale, would allow top AIA teams some intriguing matchup possibilities. And perhaps keep bigger name players at those AIA schools.
“I would be open to both. I actually sent a proposal to giving associate member status to preps in the state that don’t have Arizona kids — like Hillcrest,” Hettel said. “That’s how Nevada handled Findlay Prep. That way Hillcrest only agrees to play AIA teams from Arizona.”