by Ryan Jones / portraits by Darren Hauck

He was barely into middle school at the time, but even then, Kevon Looney knew he and his AAU teammates were in over their heads. “We played against a bunch of the top guys in the country our age, like the Harrison twins, and they blew us out by 30,” Looney remembers. “It was really ugly.”

Looney and his young teammates on the Milwaukee Running Rebels weren’t quite ready for their first taste of big-time hoops, but as he’s quick to point out, “We’ve made some strides since then.” Few players in the country have made more progress than Looney. Now a senior at Milwaukee (WI) Hamilton, the 6-10, 210-pounder is a consensus top-15 prospect in the 2014 class. He says he started to realize how far he’d come a few years ago, first when he stepped up to the U17 level as a freshman. But it really hit home after his sophomore year. “That summer, I went to all the camps—LeBron Camp, NBA Players, all of ’em,” he says. “I was playing against all those guys who are on TV right now—[Andrew] Wiggins, Jabari [Parker], Julius Randle—and I held my own. That’s when I knew I could play.”

There’s no doubting that now. A long-limbed combo forward with versatility and range, Looney—his first name is pronounced “Kuh-VON,” but you can call him Loon—tries to do a little bit of everything when he’s on the court. “I think I’m a great rebounder and a good scorer—I’m steadily improving my shooting, hitting a lot of threes this year,” he says. “I’m focused on getting to be more athletic, stronger, get in a little better shape, and trying to become a better leader on the court.”

Improving in all those areas would seem to be a matter of dedication. At Hamilton High, that’s built into the schedule—coach Randy Williams runs 6 a.m. weekday practices—but Looney seems plenty motivated on his own. For example: Skinny as he is, he’s steadily getting his weight up. “I’ve been lifting weights my whole high school career, and I usually gain 10 or 20 pounds each summer,” he says, “so I’ll just try to stay on pace with that.”

All of which points to a dude who’s more than ready to make an immediate impact at his next stop. New UCLA coach Steve Alford is counting on it. “I remember watching them on TV when they had Kevin Love, Westbrook and [Darren] Collison,” Looney says. “It’s a great place, great campus, great education, and I like Coach Alford’s system. I’ve seen how all the players gravitate to him.”

Not that a Milwaukee dude needs an excuse to dream of sunny SoCal, but Looney even has “a little bit of family” out West: Nick “Swaggy P” Young is a distant cousin whom Looney has met “a couple times.” His fam back home has been fully supportive of him leaving for UCLA, a move that saw him choose the Bruins over Florida, Tennessee, Duke and home-state power Wisconsin. “I had a great relationship with all those coaches,” he says, “but I felt like I wanted to try something new.”

The scenery will be different, but the sight of Kevon Looney dominating opponents won’t really be anything new. The difference? Next year, the whole country will be able to see the strides he’s made.