Washington, D.C.: The nation’s high school basketball capital

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted longtime DeMatha boys’ basketball coach Morgan Wootten in a reference to the high school that he played at and graduated from. Wootten was referring to Montgomery Blair, not ­Episcopal. This versions has been corrected.

Despite all that was at his disposal at Arlington Country Day, from the school’s rich basketball history to the recruiting hotbed that sizzled under the Jacksonville, Fla., sun, Junior Etou often longed for the offseason. It was then that the 6-foot-7 forward would suit up for the D.C. Assault Amateur Athletic Union team, joining what he saw as the nation’s top talent while getting tips from Michael Beasley, Keith Bogans and other prominent high school alums prone to show up at any given practice.

With the likes of Maryland, Clemson and Temple showing increased interest and a growing desire to prove he was more than just a shot blocker, Etou moved to the D.C. area this past spring and enrolled at O’Connell for his senior season.

“Playing AAU, I saw [the D.C. area] was the best competition in the country and I thought it would be the best place to grow as a player,” said Etou, who is averaging 15.3 points and 11.9 rebounds for the Knights this season. “The guys play harder and have more skills here.”

Etou isn’t alone in his assessment of the boys’ basketball talent in the region, one with roots of national prominence that reach back some 40 years. So far this season, five D.C. area teams (DeMatha, Gonzaga, Montrose Christian, O’Connell and Paul VI) have made appearances in ESPN’s top 25 high school basketball poll while DeMatha’s BeeJay Anya leads nine local players who hold a four-star rating or better across ESPN’s junior and senior class rankings. This weekend, DeMatha, Gonzaga and Montrose Christian will take to the national stage at the Spalding Hoophall Classic, an annual tournament known for drawing the country’s best teams onto the floor and top college coaches into the stands at Springfield College in Massachusetts for the nationally televised showcase.

The area’s perfect storm of nationally regarded talent, respect and expectations is why Marcus Derrickson, a Maryland native, found himself counting down the days until he could join the high school basketball scene. And now that he’s a sophomore at Paul VI with offers from Georgetown, Indiana and Maryland, Derrickson welcomes the prospect of facing a top team or recruit each time he takes the floor, as was the case for him and Paul VI in December.

B.J. Koubaroulis and Brandon Parker discuss the growth of basketball and the wealth of talent in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. (Nick Plum for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

After opening the season against Gonzaga , a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference rival featuring the nation’s No. 73 senior in Kris Jenkins, the Panthers knocked off national power Oak Hill Academy, 56-54, in double overtime five days later at the National High School Hoops Festival. The result marked the first loss in 56 games for the Warriors, who boast Nate Britt, a senior guard bound for North Carolina and a D.C. native.

“Before I started playing in high school, I knew the talent level in this area was high with guys like Kevin Durant playing at Montrose [Christian] and all the WCAC schools around, so there’s sort of a responsibility to live up to what they accomplished in high school,” said Derrickson, who averages a team-high 12.6 points. “Beating Oak Hill felt good. Nobody wants anybody to come in and outcompete them because we take pride in representing this area.”

How basketball took over

In the minds of many teenage players and middle-aged coaches, the D.C. region has always been a high school basketball hotbed. But before the likes of Durant, Elgin Baylor, Adrian Dantley and Rudy Gay graced this area, legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten can remember a time when basketball was a one-season afterthought.

“If you go back to when I played at Blair and graduated in 1950, basketball was three months, about 20 games, and that was it,” said Wootten, 81. “I like to think one of the things that got the area going was when me and Joe Gallagher started the Metropolitan Area Basketball School in 1961, and that was the first day basketball camp. People said the kids wouldn’t come because it was too hot in summer, but we had 24 kids the first year for nine weeks. It grew to the point of a year-round philosophy where in the mid-60s, Red Auerbach said there’s not a better area for basketball than D.C.”

Around that same time, Wootten’s DeMatha squad had shaken up the high school basketball landscape by beating Lew Alcindor’s (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Power Memorial Academy in 1965, ending the New York school’s 71-game win streak. The contest marked Alcindor’s lone high school loss as well as the first sellout in the history of the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.

“That was the first high school game that brought national attention,” said Wootten, who went 1,274-192 in 46 years leading the Stags. “After that, the impact was tremendous and all of a sudden, a great interest developed in this area.”

The game’s waves spread beyond the private sector. One season after USA Today broke ground with its high school hoops rankings in 1982, DeMatha finished the season atop the rankings. What’s more, three of the first four USA Today coaches of the year hailed from the D.C. area in Wootten, Spingarn’s John Wood and Flint Hill’s Stu Vetter, whose team won the 1986-87 national crown.

“When I started at Flint Hill, we just wanted to be a solid basketball team in our area,” said Vetter, who now coaches at Montrose Christian. “When the USA Today poll started, we happened to have a few good players and Dennis Scott helped make us into a national power. Once that attention comes, you find good players want to play at good programs and this area is fortunate to have a lot of great programs.”

Track record of success

Because of this, the D.C. area has been able to remain relevant amid the recent emergence of basketball-based academies such as Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Huntington Prep (West Va.). While many of the country’s top recruits are drawn to the national exposure and AAU-like approach of these teams, talented players and their parents find comfort in the strong structure and foundation of the region’s private schools.

“Schools in this area are still in the business of educating kids,” longtime Magruder Coach Dan Harwood said. “Not that the private schools here don’t get transfers, but when kids enroll in the DeMathas and Gonzagas, they know they are joining a program where the coach is in the building, the academic foundation is strong and there’s an opportunity for these kids to build a team chemistry that can allow you to reach that national level.”

College coaches flock to the area as a result, knowing they can find players with talent as well as a grasp of the rigors that come with stiff national competition and high expectations.

“I had a college coach tell me he’s never seen a team play as fast as we do,” Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello said. “Kids learn how to go through the grind and we want kids who aren’t ‘me’ players but are about team, like the Spurs in the NBA or the Patriots in the NFL. In those ways, they are ready to make an immediate impact when they get to the college level.”

Mark Turgeon saw these traits even before he took the Maryland head coaching job in 2011 following four seasons at Texas A&M. That’s why he can often be seen at local high school games, hoping to establish the same connection that’s helped him land commitments from Suitland senior Roddy Peters and O’Connell junior Melo Trimble this year.

“People in this area love basketball and to me, that’s what makes this area unique, because kids play year-round and specialize in the sport,” Turgeon said. “There are lots of good coaches and good players, and it’s nice to have quality kids in our backyard where I don’t always have to get on a plane to see good talent.”

With this concentrated wealth of talent comes a nightly grind featuring top-notch competition, an aspect that Duke sophomore Quinn Cook still cherishes from his days at DeMatha within the nationally respected WCAC.

“One night we’d be playing Tyler Thornton and Cedrick Lindsay on Gonzaga and the next night we’d play Kendall Marshall and O’Connell. You never had a night off,” said Cook, who played three years at DeMatha before transferring to Oak Hill. “Guys from the area have a certain toughness, swagger and love for the game, and that’s why you see so many of us become successful at the next level.”

The importance of coaching

As Wootten found out when he began his day basketball camp in 1961, this area’s love for the game is often cultivated through the coaches. Not only do the coaches invest in their own players but they make sure to develop and enhance their own skills through camps and clinics across the nation.

“You see Steve Turner from Gonzaga and Mike Jones from DeMatha coaching at the Chris Paul camp and guys like Stu Vetter and the Woottens have their camps, too,” said Paul Biancardi, ESPN’s director of basketball recruiting. “These guys are always looking for ways to improve and the players see that and feed off that because they want to improve and already love the game.”

Of course, there’s no better motivator for student-athletes than seeing players such as Durant and Cook excel at the next level. They are proof that the extensive training, competitive schedule and coaching demands common to the D.C. area’s teams can pay off, giving this generation’s players a sense of pride and further motivating them to back up the region’s impressive reputation.

“I’m from Ohio but I knew what I was getting into when I came to coach here because it’s a basketball-driven area and everybody knows that,” said Farello, who has coached in the area for 20 years. “From a young age, these kids have a basketball in their hands and when you match that love with the solid programs here, it’s clear that this area will always be rich with talent.”

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