When we reported on the Oakland Soldiers summer league basketball team for our June feature, Swoosh Dreams, its best player, Aaron Gordon, was sidelined with a broken foot. It's second best player, Jabari Bird, was also out with an injury.
So when the Soldiers took the court against the Houston Hoops, in front of around 300 spectators at the fourth weekend session of Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League, there was an empty spotlight waiting. A 15-year-old from southern California eagerly jumped into it. Stanley Johnson would be the best player on the court during this game, scoring 23 of the team's 68 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Fans and college recruiting bloggers would buzz all weekend about "That Johnson kid."
He's continued to impress. In another example of the Soldiers' dominance of the California basketball scene, Johnson's Mater Dei High School met Gordon's Archbishop Mitty High School over the weekend in the California Interscholastic Federation Open Division State Championship game.
It was an epic match-up. Mater Dei, a school known for its athletic prowess, had won two straight Division-I state titles. And Gordon had led Mitty to two straight Division-II titles. Traditionally, schools are divided up by population, with the biggest ones in D-I and so forth. Mitty's success, however, may have party inspired the CIF's decision to create a new state title tournament, the Open Division championship.
As the Sacramento Bee explained: "The Open division was designed... to put all the heavyweight programs in an elite field, and in this case, it presented a final pitting of programs of national renown heavy on scholarship talent of outlandish ability."
The headliners lived up to the hype. Gordon, a 6'8" double-double machine and one of the top senior blue chips in the country, scored 22 points and corralled 20 rebounds. Johnson, a 6'7" junior, notched 26 with 12 boards. He got the win too. Mater Dei beat Mitty 50-45.
In a sense, it was a fitting cap to the Soldiers' extended season: the Soliders won the Nike EYBL championship, Gordon and Bird were named to the McDonald's All-American team, and now their new headliner will enter his final summer with the Soldiers fresh off a state championship. The scouts will come to the games. New players will trek to Oakland, the way Johnson did, for the exposure. The virtuous cycle of summer league basketball success continues.