People in the basketball circles I run in often argue about the best class of players from Nebraska.
It’s a generational argument and one that can ultimately be determined by actual data, once the most recent bunch of hyped players moves out of high school and into the college ranks. But it goes beyond that.
There’s an even bigger argument among the more well-traveled basketball glitterati who wonder, jokingly I assume, whether Nebraska even has enough basketball talent to argue about.
I hate to spoil their fun, but yes, Nebraska produces basketball players. It’s not comparable to Illinois or North Carolina or other states with higher populations that love basketball, but per capita it’s pretty good now, and has been pretty good for a long time — even if you don’t see many Nebraskans performing on national television in major conferences each winter.
The most recent wave of prep talent finished its run in the state with the graduating class of 2017. It’s one that will be remembered. The best? A stretch of talent in the 1980s and a nice run in the early ’90s would need to be part of that conversation. And there surely are other good years that someone will bring to my attention (hello, Class of 1982).
But understand this about Nebraska talent: This is a state with a small population, which means the numbers will ebb and flow. High-talent classes are cyclical. Every four or five years there’s a group of at least five or six players from Nebraska who end up playing Division I. It seems we are now entering an era where those cycles are starting to run closer together — meaning the pool of high-level players is deepening.
Sign up for daily headlines from NEPrepZone
Get a daily roundup of game recaps, player features and more in your inbox.
Allow me to jump further into the weeds and go back to that 2017 class.
Few will remember, but one of the greatest assemblages of Nebraska talent gathered on a Sunday afternoon in Omaha in the summer of 2016 during an AAU open period warm-up tournament. On opposite courts in northwest Omaha, talent from the classes of 2017 and 2018 (a few guys were playing up) was on full display.
The tournament was the River Cities Shootout and the four teams involved in 17-and-under semifinal matchups were Omaha Elite vs. Team Nebraska Express and the OSA Crusaders vs. Nebraska Bison Red.
I know there have been other high-powered AAU teams in Omaha that could and did play with anyone. Still, what stands out from that day was the depth of talent.
Team Nebraska Express would go on to defeat OSA to claim the tournament championship. TNE’s roster of future Division I players was impressive, and several spent most of that summer as “fly-ins” with Adidas-sponsored Billups Elite out of Denver on the Gauntlet circuit. The TNE roster included Aguek Arop, Ed Chang, Shereef Mitchell and Junub Char. David Wingett, a recent Memphis commit, was also on the team but didn’t play that day.
Chang — on loan from Nike-sponsored MOKAN Elite in Kansas City — was on his way to an All-Nebraska junior season at Papillion-La Vista. He later committed to Washington, decommitted and is now down to a final three of Mississippi, San Diego State and Nebraska.
Arop, after a year at Atlanta prep school The Skill Factory, picked San Diego State over Texas and Wichita State.
Mitchell, then heading into his junior season at Omaha Burke, now holds nine Division I scholarship offers and recently decided to attend prep school at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas. Ironically, after reclassifying, Mitchell is playing for OSA this summer.
Char, also heading into his junior year at the time, ended up leaving Omaha Burke for Village Christian in North Carolina and currently holds offers from Massachusetts and Wyoming.
Another player on that team, uber-talented Anthony Bratton, just finished a year at Butler County (Kan.) Community College, though his next stop is unknown.
What’s scary is TNE wasn’t even considered the favorite in that tournament. The most-hyped team was Omaha Elite, which featured:
» Papillion-La Vista’s Ayo Akinwole, who just finished his freshman year at UNO.
» Norfolk’s Logan Strom, who transferred to UNO after a year at UC Davis.
» Omaha Central’s Isaiah Poor Bear Chandler, who is headed to Wichita State following a year at Sunrise Christian.
» Aguir Agau, who recently committed to Fresno State. He had stops at Omaha Creighton Prep and Omaha Central before attending Cathedral Prep in Los Angeles and The Skill Factory in Atlanta.
» Marques Wilson, who played high school ball at Edmond North in Oklahoma and just finished his freshman year at Lehigh.
Folks, that’s a load of talent between those two teams, and all of those players were on the court in Omaha at the same time. It was a high-water mark for Omaha Elite. It was that group of players who put the program on the AAU map.
“It was a group of kids that just understood what it was going to take and they knew they had to meet expectations daily,” Omaha Elite director and Omaha North boys basketball coach Thomas Liechti said. “They were a very focused group and they really were a unit from top to bottom. Everybody understood and embraced their role, because they knew if each individual excelled in their role, we as a group would win and ultimately reach our goals and potential.”
TNE and Omaha Elite were stacked, no doubt. But there’s more.
OSA had Boys Town star Teddy Allen, who played a season at West Virginia, then transferred to Wichita State. Another OSA player was Elkhorn South’s Justin Costello, a freshman walk-on at Nebraska this past season.
Nebraska Bison Red had a surefire Division I prospect of its own, 6-foot-8 Austin Allen from Aurora, though he chose to play football and will be a redshirt freshman tight end at Nebraska. A side note: Allen’s longtime AAU teammate with Bison Red, Nebraska quarterback Noah Vedral, was on the Omaha Elite team his last year on the AAU circuit.
That all makes for fun anecdotes, and when best classes are bandied about in future conversations, that is a group that likely will be remembered for a long, long time.
Now, let’s look at some numbers.
There were 550,305 boys playing high school basketball nationally in 2016-17, according to the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations. There were 7,162 boys basketball players in Nebraska that year, including 1,394 seniors. It is widely accepted that only about 1 percent of high school basketball players go on to play Division I.
So far six players who graduated from Nebraska high schools in 2017 have played or signed to play Division I basketball: Teddy Allen (West Virginia/Wichita State), Arop (San Diego State), Poor Bear Chandler (Wichita State), Strom (UC Davis/UNO), Akinwole (UNO) and Wingett (Memphis).
That is below the national average, but consider this comparison with the state of Iowa, which has a stronger reputation for producing Division I basketball talent. Nebraska has a population of 1.92 million to Iowa’s 3.14 million. Iowa had five players in the 2017 class sign with Division I schools. Iowa has produced more high-major or power conference talent, but Nebraska has produced a similar number of Division I prospects since 2013, with far fewer people.
Since 2013, Nebraska has produced 26 players who signed with Division I schools, an average of 5.2 per year. For you old-timers, I acknowledge that the former North Central Conference schools (UNO, South Dakota, etc.) used to be Division II — a fact that does skew in-state comparisons to the 1970s and ’80s.
Admittedly, 2013 is a good year to start skewing numbers in favor of Nebraska. That was the last big wave of Nebraska talent before 2017. In 2013, there were 1,375 seniors who played. Seven went on to Division I schools. There were also some very strong Division II players in this class.
That was the year Omaha Central graduated Akoy Agau, Tra-Deon Hollins, KJ Scott and Nick Billingsley. All four played Division I ball. Agau signed with Louisville, transferred to Georgetown and finished as a graduate transfer at SMU. Hollins started at Central Community College, finished at UNO and is now in the NBA G-League. Scott had a nice career at Texas Southern and is transferring to finish his college run. Billingsley went to New Mexico Junior College, then Texas-San Antonio.
Others from 2013: Omaha South’s Cam Williams, who started at North Platte Community College, then went to Division I Northern Kentucky before finishing at Division II Metropolitan State. Williams’ high school teammate, Buay Tuach, started at Northeast Community College, finished at Loyola Marymount and is now in the NBA G-League. Creighton Prep’s Alex Allbery walked on at UNO and saw some playing time.
The 2014 in-state class had six players eventually sign Division I letters: Omaha Benson’s Khyri Thomas (Creighton after a year of prep school, now expected to be an NBA first-rounder), Kimball’s Mike Daum (South Dakota State), Omaha Central’s Tre’Shawn Thurman (UNO/Nevada), Fremont’s Mitch Hahn (Holy Cross/UNO), Omaha Benson’s Thik Bol (Southern Illinois) and Chadron’s Spencer Eliason (North Dakota State).
The 2015 class had four go Division I: Omaha North’s Justin Patton (Creighton and eventual NBA first-rounder), Norfolk’s Tyler Hagedorn (South Dakota), Fremont Bergan’s Adam Dykman (South Dakota State) and Bellevue West guard Malik Hluchoweckyj (Bowling Green). Two players from the class walked on at Nebraska — Elkhorn South’s Johnny Trueblood and Gothenburg’s Tanner Borchardt, who later earned a scholarship.
An outlier was 2016. Only one of the 1,325 seniors who played that year signed with a Division I school: Lincoln North Star’s Triston Simpson (South Dakota). Two more would go on to earn Division I scholarships: Gretna’s Jared Samuelson walked on at North Dakota State but is now on scholarship, and Omaha Burke’s Wanjang Tut spent a year at prep school, signed with Arkansas-Little Rock but was released from his letter of intent and spent last season as an academic redshirt at UNO.
Can Nebraska keep up the pace and produce at least five Division I players each year?
In the 2018 class, only two players have signed with Division I schools: Platteview’s Brady Heiman (Nebraska) and Sam Griesel (North Dakota State). The numbers are skewed downward by Mitchell going to prep school, plus Chang and Char leaving the state to finish high school. Those three definitely are Division I players, but they can’t be counted for this exercise.
The 2019 class has only two players with Division I offers. Creighton Prep’s Akol Arop has offers from UNO, Drake and UC Davis. Aurora’s Baylor Scheierman is committed to South Dakota State.
No player in the 2020 class holds a Division I offer yet, but it’s only a matter of time with Lincoln North Star’s Donovan Williams in the class.
If 2019 and 2020 are soft years, you know the next big wave is coming, and that appears to be 2021. It’s a strong group, and two sophomores-to-be already hold Division I offers: Elkhorn South’s Preston Murphy (Buffalo and UNLV) and Millard North’s Hunter Sallis (Drake). This class likely will go above the average. As I have written before, there are a load of good players in this class.
Nebraska doesn’t have the numbers of many states, nor a mega-city that churns out elite prospects every year. But Nebraska, with a decent-sized city (Omaha, on the cusp of having NBA first-rounders in back-to-back years), holds its own.
The basketball talent in Nebraska is underrated nationally and undervalued by many. But not by me.