Ben Carlson (23) of East Ridge drives in the lane in a game against Edina on Feb. 21. In the foreground is sophomore teammate Kendall Brown, who also is attracting recruiting looks. Photo by Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine
As college basketball recruiting heats up in Minnesota, this year’s junior class is deep and diverse, with nationally ranked future Division I players at every position.
Led by Jalen Suggs of Minnehaha Academy, one of the top-ranked junior prospects in the nation. they personify the surging emergence of talent in the state where as many as 15 players are seen as having Division I college careers.
Going back several years, “Minnesota high school basketball... had one or two guys here and there, but it just didn’t quite have the depth,” said Ryan James, national analyst for Prep Hoops. But today, with the growth of top-end play in the metro area, he said, Minnesota has become a hotbed for basketball talent.
“They say state of hockey, but I look at it like we’re just as big of a state of basketball too,” James said.
So far there is one junior — Drake Dobbs of Eden Prairie — who has committed to a Division I program at Liberty University. Most are not expected to decide until next summer and fall.
Here’s a snapshot of six top juniors in the metro, as they get into the heat of the recruitment process.
BEN CARLSON, East Ridge
What makes him special: The third-ranked prospect in the state according to 247sports, Carlson has superior rebounding skills and ability to cover all positions on defense. At 6-9 and 205 pounds, he added strength in the weight room over the summer, and he can play the 2 through 5 positions on the court. Averaging a double-double this season with 16.3 points and 11 rebounds per game. Feeds off two future Division I players in the Brown brothers: senior forward Courtney and sophomore guard Kendall, to lead the Raptors, ranked No. 4 in Class 4A.
Looking ahead: Carlson said he has 15 Division I offers, including Big Ten programs such as Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Recalling advice he received, he said, “Just keep all your options open so you don’t lose anything that you might want later. Just look at every school that wants to talk to you, and give everyone the consideration they deserve.”
DAIN DAINJA, Park Center
What makes him special: At 6-8 and 240 pounds, one of the state’s most complete junior power forwards, with 24 Division I offers that include schools such as Tennessee, Nevada and Marquette.
Park Center coach James Ware, who played college basketball at Texas Tech and served as the Gophers’ director of men’s basketball operations in the 2000s, called Dainja a “powerhouse.’’Ware called him “extremely skilled, and moves tremendously for a guy his size. The one compliment I give him is he’s one of the hardest working guys in our program in terms of a kid that maximizes his time on the court.” Averaging 18 points, 14 rebounds and three block shots per game.
Family in basketball: Dainja’s father, Dana Jackson, played for Minnesota from 1990-93. His grandfather, Don Jackson played at Northwestern in the early 1960s. “They just tell me do what’s best for me,’’ the younger Dainja said. “If Minnesota or Northwestern is the plan, that’s great and all, but they just tell me to do what’s best for me.”
Dawson Garcia (3) of Prior Lake. Photo: Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine
DAWSON GARCIA, Prior Lake
What makes him special: Has caught the attention of many top Division I programs as the state’s top power forward in the junior class. Though he’s 6-10 and weighs 200 pounds, he can move around the court and play point guard through center if needed. That versatility helped him receive 15 scholarship offers from Division I programs, including Iowa, Wisconsin and Baylor.
“It reflects the evolution of the game, where a lot of people now in the pros are moving towards positionless basketball,” Northstar Hoops reporter Alex Conover said. “Dawson’s one of the best reflections in Minnesota of that movement. Not only having size, but having mobility to go along with that size is really coveted.”
Sidelined by a foot injury since Jan. 22, Garcia is hoping to be back playing by sections. He had been averaging 28 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
Class of ‘77: Garcia and teammates talked with players from the Lakers’ 1977 state championship team, which won the program’s first state tournament, to get insight for this year. “They just kind of talked to us a little bit about how they did it, and just the day-to-day mindset and focus they had, and how we can’t even take a day off of practice,” Garcia said.
J'Vonne Hadley of Mahtomedi goes up for a shot. Photo: Earl J. Ebensteiner, SportsEngine
J’VONNE HADLEY, Mahtomedi
What makes him special: Having a breakout season with the Zephyrs, averaging 30. 1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. As one of the leading scorers in the state, he has recently drawn attention of major Division I programs while helping his team to a 12-5 record. As a 6-6, 185-pound guard, Hadley’s emergence with his scoring ability came after a season of development with the Gain Elite 16U team.
“He’s had low-major attention. Nebraska-Omaha and South Dakota have been up to see him. But now Minnesota has recognized this, and had him on campus for the last three, maybe four games,” said James of Prep Hoops. “He’s the definition of under-the-radar right now.”
Hockey family: Hadley’s cousin Stephanie Anderson won a gold medal in the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship, and his mom has Minnesota Wild season tickets, but he said he always gravitated toward basketball since he fell in love with the sport when he was young.
Jalen Suggs, Minnehaha Academy. Star Tribune photo by Aaron Lavinsky
JALEN SUGGS, Minnehaha Academy
What makes him special: Ranked as the No. 1 junior prospect in the state and the No. 2 junior combo guard in the nation by 247sports, averaging 24.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. A two-sport athlete, the 6-4, 185-pound Suggs led the Redhawks to the past two Class 2A state basketball titles and played quarterback for the Class 4A state champion SMB team. Suggs’ athletic family includes Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Terrell Suggs. He still doesn’t know if he will choose to play football, basketball or both in college, but he said he’d like to decide around the beginning of senior year.
“Right now, it’s all up in the air,” said Suggs, who has offers from 22 schools according to rivals.com, including top-ranked programs like Gonzaga, Nevada, and Marquette.
“I have no final cut, no final list, as of right now. There’s a couple schools that I talk to more than others, but I mean, right now I couldn’t put one school at first.”
Best part of recruitment: Building relationships. “These coaches have so much knowledge and wisdom, and all of them put together have so many years of basketball,” he said.
Kerwin Walton (12) of Hopkins goes up for basket against Minneapolis North. Photo: Cheryl Myers, SportsEngine
KERWIN WALTON, Hopkins
What makes him special: A 6-5, 170-pound shooting guard currently ranked as the No. 38 junior shooting guard in the nation by 247sports. Considered by coaches, teammates and analysts as one of the best shooters in the state. Making more than 50 percent of his two- and three-point shots, he’s averaging 16.7 points per game. “Probably the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” said Garcia, who played summer ball with Walton. “In practice too, the shots he makes are just very difficult, and he does a great job of leading his team to… their No. 1 [ranking] in the state right now, so he’s done a great job contributing to that.”
Looking ahead: Purdue handed Walton his first offer over the summer. Since then at least five other teams, including Minnesota, have offered him a scholarship.
“One of the best shooters in all of the Midwest,” James said. “The thing about Kerwin is, every day Kerwin seems to get a little stronger, get a little bigger. He’s growing into a guy who can play a couple spots.”
Jack Warrick is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.