Located on the campus of Nova Southeastern University, two of America’s top recruits have been quietly building a powerhouse at University School right in the shadows of a DII collegiate program in South Florida.
Just a couple of years ago the school’s basketball program wasn’t even on anyone’s radar. U-School was mostly regarded for its football culture, yet that all changed last season when the hoops program, led by Vernon Carey Jr and Scottie Barnes, made a huge splash on the national stage. The Sharks finished with a 36-2 record, claimed the 5A state championship (the program’s first state title), won the City of Palms Classic title (arguably the toughest tournament in the national high school calendar), and then made it all the way to the championship game of the GEICO Nationals tournament, a run that included an upset victory over Oak Hill Academy in the semifinals.
The program ultimately finished No. 2 in the country in USA Today’s Super 25 final rankings for the 2017-18 season. It was especially impressive considering that the team’s two best players were both still underclassmen.
Carey Jr, a 6-10 senior center, committed to Duke last December. He averaged 26.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a junior. As a sophomore, before Barnes transferred in, he averaged 22 points and 8 boards per game while helping lead the Sharks to a 20-7 record and the district championship.
As a freshman, Carey Jr played football, taking after his father—Vernon Sr—who played football at the University of Miami and then the NFL with the Miami Dolphins.
“Defensive end and tight end,” says Vernon Jr of what positions he used to play on the gridiron. “Yeah—I had hands,” he adds, while sporting a huge smile.
Although choosing football over basketball would have easily made sense considering his dad’s background, something happened right before he entered high school that made going with hoops the obvious route.
“Eighth grade summer, I went from 6-3 to 6-8 in, like, over two months,” Vernon says.
Nothing has been the same since.
“Vernon’s combination of size, athletic ability, power, the skill level that he has—it’s frightening. He’s a tough player, could score on just about anybody,” says University School coach Jim Carr. “Vernon is different. He’s a stoic guy. Quiet. He leads by example. He’s well-liked. He has a good sense of humor. I think the guys appreciate how hard he works on and off the court. It’s not easy being the biggest and baddest guy out there every time. He gets everybody’s best punch.”
For proof of his sense of humor, look no further than the “secret language” he uses to communicate with close ones.
“Something y’all don’t know about Vernon—he has his own language with his friend. And it’s, like, weird,” Barnes says.
“Sure, I hear it all the time. They communicate like whales back and forth to each other,” Carr says. “I have no idea what’s going on with that. But, you know, it’s Vernon. I’ve seen footage of whales communicating. It’s very similar.”
Carey Jr wouldn’t confirm nor deny the secret language.
Ranked among the top 5 recruits in the Class of 2019, Vernon has already claimed two gold medals while playing with the USA Basketball program the past two summers. In 2017, while with the U16 National Team, he was named MVP of the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina, averaging a team-high 14 points and 6.2 rebounds as the American team went a perfect 5-0 in the tourney.
Last summer, while at the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup in Argentina (again), he earned All-Tournament Team honors for averaging 11 points and 6.9 rebounds, helping USA to a 7-0 record.
After considering his dad’s alma mater along with Michigan State, North Carolina and Kentucky, the future Blue Devil will be joining top 20 recruit Wendell Moore and top 40 prospect Boogie Ellis in Durham.
“I think [Vernon] chose Duke because he likes that challenge,” says Carr. “They were an incredible team this year. They were must-watch TV. And they’re losing all those guys. I think Vernon saw what those guys did and wants to try to challenge himself and do similar things. He wants that challenge. He wants to step in and keep them exactly where they are at right now.”
Barnes, a 6-8 wing ranked among the top 5 prospects in the Class of 2020, actually transferred into the program just last season as a sophomore. He attended Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, FL as a freshman, where he helped lead his team to the 5A regional semifinals and a 19-8 record. Last season, after transferring to University School, he quickly emerged as a clear-cut blue-chipper. He played a huge role in University making it to the GEICO Nationals title game, averaging 21.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in the three games of the tourney (a significant increase from the 15, 8 and 6 he averaged throughout the season).
“I think Scottie is a great competitor, and that’s really an understatement. I think he has a great knack for getting everyone involved in the game offensively, defensively, the bench kids—he cares about his teammates in a really deep way and it shows on how he plays,” Carr says. “Scottie’s leadership—got great empathy for people, he holds himself to an incredibly high standard, and he has a charisma that people are attracted to [and] they want to be around him and his energy. He’s such a good athlete. His size—he’s able to attack the basket, but now he’s able to beat you in a number of ways. And defensively he just accepts every challenge on the floor, whether it’s guarding the leading scorer guard or a big kid.”
Aside from his skill set, Barnes has also been highly heralded for his ultra-assertiveness and confidence, which according to him can at times paint the wrong picture to others.
“People mistake me for being cocky,” Barnes says. “But when I get excited that’s not really coming from a cockiness standpoint. That’s just me being really locked into the game and my emotions just taking over.”
While player comparisons for both have varied widely depending on who you ask, for their coach, having the opportunity to watch them so closely has narrowed down the list of suitors to just a couple.
“We were watching clips the other day when they were announcing the All-Americans and they were showing Penny Hardaway,” says Carr, referencing Barnes. “Penny loved to pass the ball. The flare. People say [they see] a lot of Ben Simmons in him, but I always go back to Penny Hardaway.
“Vernon is a little different because he really is unique. Especially being a lefty. I’ll go very old school—Wayman Tisdale. Vernon is very unique in his game. It’s really hard to find a great comparison for him.”
“I would say Giannis, because I’m very long, get to the basket, I’m athletic, and I could rebound the ball and do multiple things,” Barnes says.
The sudden national spotlight on the program has also been an adjustment phase for everyone at University, especially Vernon, who has always been more reserved and lowkey.
“You know what’s been great this year and even last year? We’ve been traveling and I’ve seen these guys grow and how they interact with the fans,” Carr says. “We just played a local game here and the kids were almost getting on the bus with [Vernon] and posing for pictures. The way he’s handling that, coming out of his shell—he’s really not comfortable in the public eye. He’s starting to learn and grow.”
While Florida powerhouses like Montverde Academy and IMG Academy have been national staples for some time, Vernon Carey Jr and Scottie Barnes are responsible for placing U-School on that same level in just the past 18 months. They went 27-5 this season, finishing in the top 20 according to USA Today and once again making it to GEICO Nationals.
“They’ve built something really special here,” Carr says. “They had a chance to put on a jersey of an established program, [but] those guys chose to build something. They’ve laid the foundation for some great years.”
Adds Barnes, “Last year, that was unbelievable. We had a great group of guys and we devoted our time into becoming something big. I think we really put this school on the map.
Franklyn Calle is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.
Portraits by Joseph L. Sherman.