Oakland Soldiers coach Mark Olivier describes his summer basketball club as one big family. He says ex-Soldier Kyle Wiltjer is “like a nephew to me.”
Perhaps the next family reunion will be in Lexington.
After plucking Wiltjer and Terrence Jones off the West Coast, John Calipari has made California kids Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson two of his biggest targets in the next two classes. Olivier, who coaches both players, says the feeling is mutual.
Gordon, one of the top five players in the class of 2013, has been on UK’s radar for a while. It’s Johnson who’s been getting all of the attention over the last few days. The 2014 forward picked up an offer from Kentucky last week, and told Rivals.com on Monday that “Kentucky is the best program in college basketball right now.”
Olivier called Johnson a “student of the game,” and said the 6-foot-6 forward fully understood the importance of UK’s early offer. He’s only the fourth player in the class of 2014 to receive one.
“Stanley knows. He watches a lot of college basketball, and he’s looked at the schools,” Olivier told Next Cats. “That’s one of the biggest things about Stanley. He might be 16 years old, but he’s really like 19 mentally. Very mature kid. When you meet the kid and you talk to him, he has so much information. He really studies the game.”
Johnson has been compared to former Wildcat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for his win-first demeanor. It’s usually unfair to lay those expectations on a 16-year-old, but Olivier had no problem with the comparison.
“No question. I think the common denominator is, they don’t worry about stats. They worry about winning. And people want to be around winning,” Olivier said.
“Stanley Johnson is going to win,” he continued. “I think Calipari knows that A) He’s fundamental, B) He doesn’t turn the ball over and he’s just so young and he already has those qualities in him. He plays hard every game. He’s going to play harder than anyone else. He’s got that in him. And when you have that in you, I think Calipari sees that. He plays so freaking hard.”
Olivier says he does the recruiting for the Soldiers program, and he noticed that winning attitude early in Johnson, who was 15 years old when he joined the club. Instead of starting him with the players in his age group, Olivier pushed Johnson to the 17-year-old team, where he played with older players like Brandon Ashley and Dominic Artis.
Olivier said he knew Johnson could handle playing against top recruits who were a year or two older than him.
“He does whatever it takes to win,” he said. “And the reason I really liked him when I saw him play in high school is that’s what he meant to his high school team. He just does everything. He’s so fundamental. I don’t go by how many points you have and all of that stuff. I go by what kind of teammate you’re going to be. What kind of guy you are on the court. Are you a leader?
“Like I told his mom when we recruited him, I’m looking for him to be the leader of this team.”
Olivier says he has talked to Calipari and UK assistant Kenny Payne about Johnson’s progress, and he expects to watch as much UK basketball as possible again this season with Wiltjer playing for the Cats.
Gordon has also said he’ll be keeping tabs on UK over the course of the season. The San Jose native is considering Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Kansas, New Mexico and Stanford, with Kentucky as the only school east of the Mississippi still on his list.
Olivier said UK’s recent success under Calipari makes them a desirable destination for any young recruit, no matter what region of the country he’s from.
“Well, I think the reason why Kentucky sticks out is because you’re national champions,” he said. “And No. 2 is you look at all the players that have come out of there and gone pro. I think that administration really supports their sports and their student-athletes.”
Gordon, who has had a UK offer for months and lists the Cats among his top three, will wait until the spring to make his decision. He’ll use the upcoming season to evaluate the remaining schools on his list. So what’s he looking for?
“I think he’s looking at the winning attitude and if it’s continuing with each one of the schools that he’s going to consider,” Olivier said. “And he’s going to look at the best fit as far as academics. One thing about both Aaron and Stanley, school is very important to them. They’re not just basketball guys.”
Gordon’s brother Drew endured a much-publicized recruitment, eventually committed to UCLA and played two seasons there before deciding to transfer to New Mexico. He was one of the subjects in Sports Illustrated’s not-so-flattering look at the Bruins earlier this year. Drew showed his maturity in the aftermath of that article, and had already enjoyed two stellar seasons with the Lobos. He wasn’t selected in June’s NBA Draft, but he did play for the Mavericks summer league team last month.
Aaron’s sister Elise will be a junior on Harvard’s basketball team this season. His father Ed played basketball at San Diego State and later played football for the New England Patriots.
“I think through all the recruitment that family has had, he’s learned a little. And he wants to do it his way,” Olivier said. “The biggest decision you make in your young life is to choose a college, and he really wants to take the time to do that. It’s commendable.”
Olivier said Wiltjer has spoken to both Gordon and Johnson, though he didn’t think the UK sophomore was in full-on recruiting mode yet. But when the decision time gets nearer, Olivier fully expects the ex-Soldier to try and sell the duo on Lexington.
“No question, no question. He’ll do it.”