Every great team has characters. The best teams have a roster full of them, players with distinct skill sets and personalities that make their on-court success that much more memorable.
All of which is to say, you could build a binge-worthy Netflix hit around the 2018-19 lineup at IMG Academy (see above and below).
Characters? This squad has a full cast, with a starting 5 that hails from five states (and Australia—we’ll explain in a minute). Some of them are talkers, some keep mostly to themselves. Some are serious, some stay with the jokes. They’ve got a paint-eating big man, an explosive point god and an array of versatile inside-out athletes. Sit them down together for a group conversation, and you’ll see the differences come out.
But get them on the court together, and you’ll quickly see what they have in common.
“I came here because I wanted to be around like-minded people, people that have the same dreams and goals as me,” says Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. “We all have the same goals in life, and we’re getting better every single day.”
Robinson-Earl hails from Kansas City, where he grew up the son of former Kansas and LSU standout Lester Earl. As such, he’s the one guy on this roster who came up with an inherited understanding of how the game works—on and off the court—at the highest level. That’s the benefit of having a dad who beat Kobe Bryant in the dunk contest at the 1996 McDonald’s All-American Game—and who, if not for persistent knee injuries, likely would’ve joined Kobe as one of the most exciting players in the NBA.
“It’s just cool to have the same dreams your father did,” Robinson-Earl says. “Obviously he got injured in college, but he said if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have had me, so everything happens for a reason. Now we’re the sixth father-son McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s kind of a cool stat to be a part of.”
The 6-9, 230-pound forward and top-20 prospect arrived at IMG after his junior year at Bishop Miege (KS) High, and like all of his fellow starters, he brings impressive credentials: 2018 State POY honors in Kansas and a spot on the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 gold-medal winning USA Basketball squad, where he averaged 10.7 ppg and a team-high 8.5 rpg. He scored a team-high 13 points at the McDonald’s All-American Game—one last accomplishment before he heads to Villanova as part of the Wildcats’ loaded 2019 class.
There’s another soon-to-be Wildcat and fellow McDonald’s honoree in IMG’s starting 5, but this one’s headed to Arizona. At 6-6, 210, Josh Green might be the squad’s best pure athlete, gifts he first showed off on the football field in his native Australia—Aussie rules football, to be exact. If he hadn’t relocated, there’s a good chance he’d be a star-in-the-making in that rough-and-tumble sport. “I loved it—I miss it so much,” says Green, traces of his Down Under accent still audible five years after he and his family moved to the States. His father, Delmas Green, is an American whose pro basketball career took him to Australia, so it’s a sort of poetic justice that his son ended up in the US to chase his own hoop dreams.
The family landed in Arizona, where Josh played a couple of seasons of prep ball—including a year at Phoenix Hillcrest Prep alongside Deandre Ayton—before making the switch to IMG. He’ll head to Tucson next year to team up with Nico Mannion, his long-time AAU teammate and fellow top-10 prospect in the 2019 class. Like Robinson-Earl, Green cites the standard of excellence at his current school as invaluable. “We wake up every morning, we see tennis players, we see football players, everyone has the same goals,” he says. “It’s just being around that environment, and it doesn’t matter what sport you play.”
At 6-10 and pushing 240 pounds, Armando Bacot was only ever playing one sport. The bruising big man from Richmond, VA, landed at IMG last summer with the stated goal of winning a high school national championship. The North Carolina signee, who joined Robinson-Earl on the victorious USA U18 team last summer, gives IMG a trio of top-20 seniors and McDonald’s All-American selections, and while he flat-out states “I’m the muscle” in the lineup, understand there’s more to Bacot than just brawn. “Armando is much more skilled than people know, a much better passer than people give him credit for,” says IMG head coach Sean McAloon. “But he’s also a very good rebounder, low-post threat and shot-blocking machine.”
As a trio, they make up arguably the scariest concentration of 2019 talent in the country, all the more effective because of how they complement each other. McAloon calls Green “one of the best transition players I’ve ever been around,” while sizing up Robinson-Earl as “the type of guy that brings his helmet to work every day and just keeps chopping. A double-double machine.” Collectively, they’re just too good, too strong, too much. And that’s even before you get to their junior backcourt.
Gather these five for a group convo, and Jaden Springer will be the quiet one. It’s probably because he’s too busy thinking about how he’s going to beat you. Says McAloon: “Jaden’s probably the most competitive kid I’ve coached in my life.” The 6-5, 190-pound guard is that dude who will score from anywhere, anytime, a complete offensive skill set that’s reflected by his offer sheet—pretty much every SEC and ACC program, not to mention quite a few others, have made their pitch to the Charlotte, NC, native.
And then there’s the point guard, the man who, as McAloon puts it, “is like the battery pack—he provides the energy that we feed off of.” At 6-1, 165, Newark, NJ, native Noah Farrakhan is the least physically imposing of the group, but he more than makes up for that lack of size with his explosiveness and that trademark Jersey swagger. Similar to Green, he built his athletic rep playing (American) football: “I was always the littlest guy on the field,” he says, “but I always had the most heart.” His heart and hops are now regularly on display on the hardwood, where he makes no apologies for his habit of putting hapless defenders on posters.
Put it all together, and it’s no wonder IMG finished its regular season at 28-1 and ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Super 25. With an opening round win at GEICO HS Nationals on Thursday, the school’s first-ever national championship is in striking distance. Given IMG’s resources, it’s not exactly shocking that the team is playing at such an elite level—but that overlooks just how quickly the program has claimed a place among the best in country. The rise really started back in 2016-17, when Trevon Duval led IMG to a 26-2 record before heading to Duke. “That’s really when I first heard about IMG,” Springer says. “That’s what put me on notice.”
McAloon says that run helped the school realize that a championship-caliber basketball program “was something they could capitalize on as far as putting resources and effort into. There’s a group of schools at the top echelon of high school basketball, and we wanted to force our name into that conversation. We’re now in that conversation. It’s just a matter of staying there.”
The coach arrived in 2017, and after viewing last year largely as a chance to establish the program’s identity and identify the sort of players he hoped to attract, this was the year they really established themselves as a national contender. Of his 2018-19 squad, the coach says, “It’s a good group of kids. They’re talented, but they also play the right way.”
Coach to players, players to coach, the relationship is symbiotic, and the feeling is mutual. “As talented as everybody is on the floor, he knows what we’re capable of doing,” Robinson-Earl says. “As long as we’re unselfish and go out there and play hard, he just lets us go.”
The collective buy-in makes that easy, but the talent makes it possible in the first place. Of course, if you know anything about IMG’s history—it’s real history, way beyond basketball—this comes as no surprise. The school opened more than 40 years ago as an elite tennis academy before branching out to other sports, only adding hoops in 2001. The basketball program has exploded since, both at the high school and post-grad levels, building on the model that the school first established with tennis: draw high-level talent from all over the world to a warm-weather campus with terrific facilities and great coaches, then watch those kids make each other better.
“Everybody here’s got the same common goal, that’s to get better. It just gives you motivation,” Farrakhan says. “The tennis players are up before you, like 6 in the morning, already getting their reps in. The lacrosse team, you see them running. Everything, day in and day out, everybody’s working. That just gives me motivation, every single day, just to go harder.”
Not surprisingly, the competitiveness that drives all these athletes individually means there’s friendly competition across sports, as well. Hang with them on campus and you’ll find yourself bumping into a top-ranked junior golfer or future pro tennis player; they all root for each other, but they all want to be the best of the best. “I feel like we kind of took over the ranks in the school, as far as the top program,” Bacot says. “At first it was a football school, but I feel like IMG’s more known as a basketball school now.”
Adds Farrakhan, “Just look at us, bro. It’s a powerhouse. Nobody can stop us.”
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Portraits by Joseph L. Sherman.