Cassius Stanley finds himself at a crossroads one morning before a team shootaround. The 6-5, five-star senior shooting guard is sitting down near his locker for an interview and is having trouble deciding how to answer.
What’s your response to those who say you guys can’t do it again?
After asking for the question to be repeated, he pauses before he finally gives an answer.
“We’re just going to do it,” Stanley says. “For the people who say we can’t do it again, you’ll see the show.”
Last season’s talk around California high school hoops was about all the transfers who enrolled in Sierra Canyon School, a prestigious private Pre-K-12 college preparatory in Chatsworth. Located on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, Sierra Canyon has a reputation for being a school attended by children of A-list celebrities.
Stanley, son of Jerome Stanley, the first black sports agent to represent a No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, transferred to Sierra Canyon from Harvard-Westlake for his junior year. Scotty Pippen Jr, whose father needs no introduction, made the cross-country trek from Pine Crest (FL) HS. Kenyon Martin Jr, ditto, enrolled from nearby Chaminade. In total, there were six transfers and a head coaching change at the school.
At a time when superteams are now the norm in the NBA, Sierra Canyon has followed suit, putting together a big-name-heavy team that was both glorified and scrutinized for its newly formed roster. Some had the squad as favorites to win it all; others prayed for their downfall.
“We were a bunch of individuals and that was a big thing throughout the year,” says Stanley. “Everyone knew us—but as a team it was a big question mark.”
In the first 10 games of last season, the Trailblazers went 9-1. A three-point loss to Bishop Montgomery in January had many questioning Sierra Canyon’s validity after falling to a team that was missing three key starters. As the season progressed, Sierra Canyon went undefeated in league play to capture another Gold Coast title and began the postseason in the CIF-SS Open Division 1A playoffs, which is regarded as one of the toughest divisions in interscholastic sports.
And as the horn sounded and the game clock read all zeros inside the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento last March, the Trailblazers celebrated everything doubters said they couldn’t do as they hoisted the CIF-SS Open Division State title to conclude a memorable 27-4 season.
Stanley led all scorers with 23 points while Pippen Jr added 21 as Scottie stood courtside, ecstatic of what his son had accomplished. Andre Chevalier, an assistant coach who took over the reins after former coach Ty Nichols resigned, credits last season to making him an overall better person, but, most importantly, a better coach.
“It was a great learning opportunity for me,” Chevalier says. “I became better as a coach as a result of having to coach these guys, and as they came together as a group throughout the year, we began to see that it was going to be a special run.”
Chevalier, who hails from Maryland, relocated to Southern California with his mother in middle school. He starred at Cleveland HS in Reseda before earning a scholarship to Cal State Northridge, where he was the Matadors’ point guard in the early ’90s. He has the second-most assists (481) in school history and was inducted into the Matador Hall of Fame in 2016. Now the 2018 L.A. Times Coach of the Year is at the helm for one of the most high-profile basketball teams in the nation in a digital age where almost all grassroots hoops fans who own a cell phone have chimed in about his team.
“I just stay silent because our actions will speak louder than words,” Chevalier says. “Never do I have to respond to anything. We work to accomplish our goals.”
“I really don’t feel that much pressure,” says Kenyon Martin Jr, who prefers to be called KJ. “Growing up and seeing [my dad] play and just seeing how the guys are and what they do at that level, it gives me expectations for the future, so I follow the steps.”
Having a father who was a former No. 1 NBA Draft pick and made a career off playing with tenacity for 15 years in the League has given the younger Martin an appreciation for the type of work that needs to be done to reach that level.
“Coming in every day—even if you don’t play well—just play hard,” KJ says, reflecting on his dad’s advice. “No one can teach you how hard to play. [My dad] just tells me to go out and play hard.”
This season, KJ continues to do that. At 6-6, the power forward’s motor is a clear indication that he’s from the Martin bloodline. He hovers from the short corner to each block for any openings to receive passes off penetration from his teammates. In the Trailblazers’ 2-2-1 full-court press, where the team goes from defense to offense in a matter of seconds, KJ surveys the court like a safety on a football field, looking to intercept anything in his vicinity.
When he gets a steal, he dribbles en route to the basket with a full head of steam or advances it to his teammates as he trails for the alley-oop or cleans anything around the rim. And on defense, he patrols the paint, usually swatting shots a few rows into the bleachers.
Martin Sr, who’s normally sitting in the front row at home games, is perpetually present to offer his son on-the-fly advice on the intricacies of the game or later in detail during film sessions, where missed assignments and late rotations (and not huge dunks) are the focal points.
For Pippen Jr, there can be two types of pressure—being the point guard on a top team and bearing the surname of a six-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer.
“I feel like being the point guard for one of the top teams in the nation and [being] Scottie Pippen’s son comes with a lot of pressure,” says Pippen Jr. “Everybody wants to know who I am and how do I perform night in and night out.”
The 6-2 guard is the engine of the Trailblazers’ high-powered offense. As a facilitator, playing with guys like Cassius and KJ makes his job much easier. Many times, Pippen Jr can call his own number and break down defenders straight to the rim, but he usually likes to connect with the aforementioned pair on plays that cause raucous cheers throughout the gym and inevitably end up on social media.
“I still get shocked at times because this only happens once,” says Stanley, a viral sensation who has amassed over 360,000 followers on Instagram. “I get hyped every time I see something, whether it’s me, my teammates and seeing who comes to the games, because this is high school basketball.”
Despite their short time together, the trio plays as if they’ve known each other since childhood.
“Their off-the-court camaraderie is amazing,” Chevalier says. “They hang out with each other, love each other, fight as brothers. That transitions to the on-the-court camaraderie that helps us win games.”
The Trailblazers are 30-3 and attract flocks of fans from all over whenever they hit the court. Their games are typically standing room only, and home games are streamed live online. Plus, the status of fans coming to see the most electrifying HS team West of the Mississippi can vary on any given night. Aside from Pippen Sr and Martin Sr, who are regulars, Kanye West and multiple Kardashian/Jenners have made appearances over the last year.
Stanley has his top-5 list—Barack Obama, Travis Scott, Drake, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant—of stars he’d like to come through this season. As of this writing, James, Kendall Jenner and close friend Taco (of Odd Future fame) have been some of the big names to make an appearance.
It’s the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving break and the triumvirate plus Chevalier are filtering through the locker room for interviews for a docu-series that’s scheduled to air in the coming months. Shortly after, the Trailblazers go through a team shootaround, a game day ritual, before they pose for SLAM photos throughout campus.
About six hours after our shoot, Sierra Canyon hosts Hollywood HS and completely obliterates them, 105-28. Stanley, who throws down an insane Eastbay dunk during the game’s first half, refers to these types of games as “aggressive scrimmages,” and pays them no mind after they’re over.
The only thing he’s worried about during his final year is to make his mark on HS basketball and attain the individual accolades that come with being a top basketball prospect—Jordan Brand Classic and Gatorade POY—while he makes a decision on which college he’ll suit up for in the fall.
Oh, and lead Sierra Canyon back to the Golden 1 Center come this March.
“Everybody on the team has the same goal,” he says. “We’re all just trying to win state.”
Drew Ruiz is an Associate Editor for SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewRuiz90.
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.