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Isaiah Collier Rides Wave of Emotions to Reach College Destination

Arguably the No. 1 basketball recruit in the nation has a life-changing decision to make in the next week—and it comes at a time of mourning his late cousin.

MARIETTA — Marietta, Georgia covers just over 23 square miles—a stone’s throw from Atlanta and its infamous, traffic-ladened pop-and-glitz vibe. It might as well be clear across the country.

A rainbow coalition of leaves blows in the crisp October air as the sun dips behind the brilliant treeline on the city’s west side. The steady chorus of countless crickets blanket the woods as Chandra and Dwain Collier plop down on the padded wicker couches inside their screened-in porch.

Isaiah Collier

Collier, middle, discusses his college decisions with his mother, father and uncle on the family's porch.

The parents need to have a talk with their son, Isaiah Collier, that in all likelihood will be far less Zen, with realistic potential for points to be met with counterpoints, deliberation and agreeing to disagree.

“Gotta get down to business,” Dwain says with a smile.

Isaiah’s uncle and high school basketball coach at Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.) Larry Thompson joins, too, as Chandra lets out a deep sigh, slaps both hands on her lap and says, “Here we go.” Her anticipation is understandable.

Isaiah, 18, is widely regarded as the top high school basketball senior in the country. After racking up frequent flyer miles on official visits to colleges over the last few months, he had recently cut his inordinate list of potential college suitors to just four: USC, UCLA, Cincinnati and Michigan.

Wheeler High's star recruit plans to reveal his decision on Nov. 16, the last day of the NCAA Basketball Early Signing Period, but on this late October evening, he “has no idea” which program to pick. 

By and large, Chandra and Dwain prefer a “hands-off” approach to give Isaiah space to make his own college decision but push him to lean into which school is an organic fit, which has caused some surprises along the way. 

On Sept. 20, Isaiah tweeted “commitment date coming soon,” which sent the Twitter, fan bases from the four contenders and his own counsel into a frenzy.

“Talkin’ about he was bored,” Chandra says while shaking her head. “He’s just so laid back; none of this stuff bothers him at all. But it’s getting down to crunch time.”

“We talk about it sometimes,” Dwain says of discussions about the recruitment process. “But it’s an important conversation to have because this is a big decision.”

Big may not even capture the magnitude for a player of Isaiah’s caliber. He’s already a schoolboy legend in arguably the most basketball talent-rich state in the country, leading Wheeler to two state titles in three years. After dominating the competition last season, the 6’4” point guard turned it up a notch this past summer to lead the Nike EYBL in assists (6.5 a game) and finish in the top five in scoring (19 points a game), before a knee injury during USA Basketball tryouts sidelined him for the rest of the season. (The Nike EYBL is widely regarded as the most grueling summer circuit, with, by far, the most prep talent in the country.)

Isaiah returned to the court two months later in August at the Steph Curry Camp and took home the MVP hardware, then followed that up by winning MVP of the prestigious Under Armour Elite 24 showcase, both of which are known to be two of the top events of the summer.

“Isaiah makes the difference between the second weekend in the NCAA tournament and championship Monday, potentially," one NBA scout puts it. "He’ll be the reason coaches get extensions.”

Collier, who stands among the best recruits in the country, plans to make his college choice Nov. 16.

Collier, who stands among the best recruits in the country, plans to make his college choice Nov. 16.

That much, reasonable minds—and certainly college coaches—can agree on. It’s how Isaiah gets to the who that’s giving everyone besides him consistent stints of anxiety. It’s also the reason Collier has stepped outside for an all-hands meeting.

Mackenzie Mgbako can relate to the mental anguish that is the recruitment process. 

In April, the 6'8" senior forward committed to Duke over Kentucky, Memphis and Ohio State, but not before agonizing over the decision early on.

"Of course I know what Isaiah is going through; this is a big decision," Mgbako says. "It’s not easy. For me, it was easier when I found trust in the people I hold dearest to me and just let things be the way they are. It’s not too difficult when you have people by your side that can help you through it. That's the best advice I'd give him."

To this point, Isaiah's inquiries about the process to his family have been more sporadic. 

“He’ll just randomly ask us sometimes what we’re thinking,” Chandra says. “Then when we tell him, he’ll stop us and say, ‘You ain’t gotta tell me anymore.’ I always tell him it’s up to him. He doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but he’s a deep thinker, trust me. It’ll be good to talk it out. Our whole family went through a tragedy this summer. It really puts everything into perspective.”

On Aug. 14, two days after winning MVP of the Elite 24 in Chicago, Isaiah and his family went kayaking on the Chattahoochee River—the state’s longest-running river, which stretches 430 miles southwest toward Alabama from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“We were just on the kayak having a good time,” Dwain recalls. “There were some rocks that people were jumping off of and there was a whole line of people that were waiting to get on the rocks. Khalil got out to swim and went under. We just didn’t know what happened.”

A strong undercurrent pulled his older cousin, Khalil Hardison under. The 21-year-old drowned, according to Thompson. It was the third drowning in the Chattahoochee River since June, according to Channel 2 Action News.

“He was a strong swimmer,” Chandra says. “So it wasn’t that he couldn’t swim. They just said the undercurrent was so strong. It’s just hard to talk about.”

The aftermath has been devastating, to say the least; evident in the tears that stream down Chandra’s cheeks as she describes Isaiah’s and Hardison’s bond.

“They were more like brothers than cousins,” Chandra says. “He’s almost like our middle son. That’s how close they were. They did everything together—worked out, played ball all the time, everything.”

Khalil was Thompson’s son and played under him at Wheeler for two seasons before graduating in 2019. The perfect training partner for Isaiah, Hardison thrived as a defensive hound of a combo guard who terrorized opposing guards for 94 feet but was efficient enough from the perimeter to keep the defense honest.

“Khalil was just a great all-around guy,” Thompson says. “He meant a lot to so many people in so many ways. It’s just hard to believe that this is actually real. He attacked every day with purpose and passion. We just try to stay inspired by how he lived his life.”

Isaiah Collier

Collier, right, regularly worked to improve his skills on the court with Hardison before his accident.

To that end, the family now lives by the phrase “Live Like Khalil,” a call to action that they reference daily on custom purple rubber bands, the color of his beloved Baltimore Ravens.

Too fresh and too painful, Isaiah doesn’t talk about the tragedy. Instead, he throws his focus into his training, a relentless regimen that begins every day at 5:30 a.m. with voluntary rehab for his knee injury.

“He’s been released from rehab for months, but he still wants to go,” Chandra says. “It keeps him moving. I understand, it’s just too hard for him (to talk about Khalil) right now. I just tell him you have to take everything one second at a time because you never know what your mind frame is gonna be right now.

“We’re all just leaning on our faith in God. There’s nothing more important than that right now. He just tries to stay busy; we all do. Even the recruiting process has been a way for him to stay busy.”

Just then, Isaiah walks outside the backdoor into the screened-in porch wiping his eyes and yawning simultaneously. Three weeks prior, Isaiah came to his uncle about hosting a lock-in midnight practice for the team “to build team bonding and just do something different.”

“He’s tired,” Thompson says with a smile. “But, hey, it was all his idea.”

“We’re all together all the time anyway,” Isaiah says. “I don’t think any other team in the country had their first practice at midnight and stayed at the school.”

Problem was, the team was having so much fun they decided to stay up after the practice, play music and run routes on the football field into the wee hours of the morning.

“They were at school and forgot they had school the next day,” Thompson says with a laugh. “They had fun, but they paid for it this morning.”

The fatigue brought a whole new meaning to the cliché sports phrase pushing through for Isaiah when Michigan head coach Juwan Howard showed up at the school for a chat.

“I had less than four hours of sleep,” Isaiah says matter-of-factly. “It was rough man. I was just about to lay down when he got there, but it ended up being cool. I like talking to him.”

“Yeah, it’s easy to have a conversation with Juwan,” Chandra adds. “That’s how I gauge coaches. I look at whether I feel comfortable enough with you to leave my son with you. I would say all of the coaches pass that test.”

As much as Dwain gives his son a hard time for being “tight-lipped” about his thought process to this point, he’s “not worried” about Isaiah doing his due diligence.

“If there’s anyone that will do his research on a school, believe me, it’s Isaiah,” Dwain says.

Ever since he was 6, Isaiah has been accustomed to gathering intel. Back then, it consisted of him scouring YouTube for clips of his youth football team’s opponents for the coming week. That preparation positioned Isaiah—who played everything from running back to safety— to help lead the Atlanta Ducks to league titles every year from the ages of 8-12.

“He’d know the other team’s plays and get picks because he’d read the formations,” Dwain says. “Can you imagine asking how he knew where to be and your 6-year-old saying, ‘I read the formation.’ I mean c’mon.”

An hour into the chat, the dark October night air has graduated from brisk to cold and Chandra has had enough.

“Let’s take this inside,” she says. “It’ll only get colder, and we’ve got a lot to discuss.”

Isaiah Collier

Collier meets with his inner circle to discuss the contenders ahead of his pending announcement.

Isaiah, Dwain and Thompson park at the rectangular wooden dinner table as Chandra puts out a spread of tortilla chips, guacamole, salsa and bottled waters.

The conversation continues.

“Maybe we’ll learn some news now,” Dwain jokes. “He literally doesn’t tell anyone anything about his actual decision.”

There are poker faces and then there’s Isaiah. Isaiah’s vault-like approach has prompted daily prodding from friends and family. Even Chandra’s 92-year-old mother Ellevia Smith is shut out.

“My sorority sister called my mother and told her about an article she saw about Isaiah,” Chandra says. “So my mom, who takes a computer class, looks it up, prints it out and then mails it to people. She’s so proud of him and they talk all the time, but even she can’t get anything out of him.”

Official visits to schools are a time for coaches to roll out the red carpet for a prospect and his family. Think five-star dinners, car service, professional photoshoots in the respective school’s jersey, thousands of fans chanting his name at football games—and that’s just on Saturday.

Asked which school had the coolest official visit, Isaiah shoots an incredulous frown before saying, “Man, I don’t even like official visits. It’s just too much attention. I don’t like that kind of stuff.”

“Yeah, you can’t ‘wow’ Isaiah,” Dwain says. “He’s a different breed man.”

Isaiah cosigns with a wide-eyed shrug. Chandra thinks that’s a perfect segue into the discussion.

First up, Michigan.

“OK, Zay, let’s start with your likes,” Chandra says.

Isaiah defers to his mom to kick things off, and Chandra starts with Howard. She raves about how “genuine,” “straightforward” and “intentional” he is about building bonds, not only with Isaiah but with the entire family. Dwain is impressed by Howard’s stance of “whether Isaiah picks them or not he’ll want to maintain their relationship.”

“He really just wants what’s best for you,” Dwain says.

“It makes you feel good about leaving your kid there,” Chandra says.

Isaiah nods.

The group points to Howard having Phil Martelli—who served as head coach at St. Joseph’s from 1995-2019 and coached former NBA point guards like Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, and Howard Eisley, a point guard in the NBA for 12 years—on staff as “big pros.”

Mar 17, 2022; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard watches from the bench against the Colorado State Rams in the first half during the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Howard has formed a close bond with the Collier family and hopes to land the country’s top guard.

Isaiah opens the evaluation talking about the bonds he’s built with Howard and the staff and the players before he analyzes how well Michigan’s style of play fits him. That’s likely by subconscious design.

“That’s a big thing for me,” Isaiah says. “I want to be close to the whole staff. Not just the head man, the whole staff.”

Asked which schools check off that particular box, Isaiah replied, “Michigan and USC.”

“I won’t say it’s make or break,” Isaiah says. “But I’m a relationship kind of guy from the top to the bottom.”

Makes sense for a guy who still points to the bond he shared with his youth football coach Brandon Morton as his most memorable experience. When asked if Morton was his favorite coach of all time, Isaiah says it’s a tie between Morton and Thompson. Dwain playfully interjects to remind his son that, once upon a time, he was the play caller from the sidelines leading him.

“You’re supposed to be saying me!” Dwain says with a smirk.

Isaiah shoots him his trademark squint, then smiles before saying Dwain was “the worst coach I had.”

The table erupts into laughter.

“Yeah, I had to step back and just be dad,” Dwain says. “I saw what they saw in him, but I wasn’t the one to bring it out. It was the best decision I ever made.”

Isaiah breaks down the technical aspects of how he’d flourish in Michigan’s system using pistol action sets and ball screens to create. Thompson concurs.

“Their point guard has been 60% or better in ball screen usage rate since Juwan has been there,” Thompson says. “That’s huge.”

The group concludes that Michigan has no cons. “They hit on everything,” Isaiah says.

“OK, let’s talk about Cincinnati,” Chandra says.

This time, Isaiah defers to Dwain, who opens up about how passionate Wes Miller and his staff have been throughout the process while Chandra talks about being wowed by learning their history with legends like Oscar Robertson suiting up from 1957-60. Isaiah loves the energy there and lauds the relationship he’s built with Miller and his staff.

“I feel like I could go there and be successful,” he says. “It’s set up for me to step in and do what I have to do.”

When the conversation turns to the Bearcats’ move from the AAC to the Big 12, which will take effect July 1, 2023, Thompson concisely sums up the magnitude.

“I don’t think there’s much conversation with a player of your caliber if they didn’t make that move,” Thompson says. “The last two national champions came from the Big 12, so that was big for them.”

Thompson agrees that Miller and his staff have done “an amazing job” of building the relationship but interjects his pause about Isaiah being the first player of his stature in Miller’s career.

“That’s not to be negative at all, Wes is a great coach,” Thompson says. “It’s just a legitimate question since we haven’t seen it.”

Miller took over at Cincinnati last April after a decade as the head coach at UNC Greensboro and has yet to secure a top-25 prospect. In all fairness, landing a prospect of that caliber is no easy feat for even the most established Power 5 programs, but Isaiah isn’t just a top-25 prospect. He’s on a super shortlist for the No. 1 spot in the SI99 basketball recruiting rankings for 2023, which will be unveiled in early December.

“It’s just really an important decision,” Chandra says. “That’s legitimate. You just don’t know how they would handle a player like you if they’ve never had a player like you.”

Isaiah concedes the point, but his perspective is that it all adds to the passion in their pitch. “I feel like that’s why they go so hard,” he says.

“It makes sense,” Chandra says. “It’s just some of the questions we have.”

She pauses briefly, then moves on to USC. Isaiah starts this time, once again leading with how grateful he is to have built a relationship with every coach on Andy Enfield’s staff. “Every single one of them,” he says.

He talks about how impressed he is with their style of play even dating back to Enfield’s Sweet 16 run with Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.

“Bernard (Thompson) was on that team, and I know him,” Isaiah says. “So we talked about his experience with coach. I’ve actually had conversations with players at every one of the schools.”

“Yeah, I know,” Chandra says. “I was proud of you for that.”

Thompson initially questioned how USC would handle the development of a point guard of Isaiah’s caliber when the Trojans’ expertise seemed to point to developing stretch-fours like Onyeka Okongwu, now with the Atlanta Hawks, and Evan and Isaiah Mobley, both with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Just studying on synergy and going back to see their system I learned a lot about how their lead guards excel,” Thompson says. “Y’all know I’m a basketball nerd, and that option makes basketball sense for Isaiah.”

Andy Enfield coaching USC.

Enfield's style of play could be a perfect fit for Collier at USC.

Chandra has served in the no-nonsense role throughout the process, firing off legitimate pushback questions early and often with each coaching staff.

“It’s always you,” Isaiah says while shaking his head.

“Hey, I mean I love all you dads, but moms are the ones that have to mentally prepare,” Chandra says. “I know I’m gonna be the one to get the call if there’s any issues. I’ve gotta know whose butt I may have to come kick. I’m sweet, but don’t mess with my baby.”

Chandra grilled the head coaches and their staff about the importance of education, much in the same way her parents, who were first-generation college graduates, instilled in her.

“It’s not just something to say; it’s real when it comes to us,” Chandra says. “Zay knows. I always tell him, 'You have to have something to fall back on,' and I’ll make sure that he does. USC was on top of it I’d say.”

Isaiah glances at his phone for a split second before hopping up and making a beeline to the microwave to warm up a plate of macaroni and cheese. Upon returning, he recalls his first visit to UCLA last August, when the family made the trip out west for his grandfather’s funeral.

“It wasn’t a real visit,” Isaiah says. “We were just riding through.”

Shortly thereafter the Bruins began recruiting him. Last month, Isaiah and Dwain accompanied Chandra on a pre-planned trip to Los Angeles, and while they were there the group took an unofficial visit to UCLA. Thompson met the trio in Westwood after finishing up a visit at USC with Arrinten Page, a center at Wheeler. 

Isaiah felt he needed another look after his official visit in the spring.

“It was cool to see the style in an official practice,” Isaiah says. “They get up and down like I like, so I feel like I would be able to have success in that system.”

The prevailing issue around the table with UCLA is the reassuring examples of former players like Isaiah who have had success—like Russell Westbrook, who most compare Isaiah too, Darren Collison, and Lonzo Ball—weren’t with Mick Cronin’s staff.

“On the basketball side, Mick Cronin didn’t play freshmen a whole lot at Cincinnati, and he liked to control the game by calling a lot of sets,” Thompson says. “Now, that could be because of a lack of personnel, but it’s something we certainly have to look at.”

Isaiah was perplexed as to why the staff consistently plays up the Bruins’ 11 national titles, the last of which came in 1995, five coaching staffs ago and nine years before he was born. “It’s been a while,” Isaiah says before cutting his next sentence short. “I mean if it was recent…”

“These kids don’t know those people,” Dwain says. “We may give a school credit for what they’ve done in the past, but teenagers don’t think like that.”

Chandra agrees that the pitch in Westwood is a little out of touch, but, in true fashion, was quick to praise the educational aspect.

“That part is great,” Chandra says. “The assistant coaches are great and, of course, the campus is beautiful. Then, of course, you love Russell Westbrook.”

“I feel like that last trip kind of reinforced some things,” Isaiah says. “It’s hard because all four of them are great options. I would’ve had a top five though if it were up to me.”

Collier continues to weigh out his future on the hardwood and plans to announce his decision soon.

Collier continues to weigh out his future on the hardwood and plans to announce his decision soon.

Isaiah goes on to tell the story about how he reached out to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to express interest in the program, then picked up an offer on the same day and told the coach about his grand plan to recruit other elite players to potentially join him. Chandra had preached about the HBCU close-knit family experience to Isaiah his whole life as a graduate of Bowie State, an HBCU in Maryland.

“I’m not gonna say which HBCU I talked to, but they said they were coming to visit me, then I never heard from them again,” Isaiah says. “I was so serious about it, too. I know a lot of guys say this, but I always wanted to do it. I literally had about three other elite players in my class who were down to do it.”

“They had the current-day Fab Five ready to go,” Dwain says. “Never heard back.”

“I would’ve gone through the process with all the schools for sure,” Isaiah says. “But I 100% would’ve had them in my final list right now. I’m telling you I wanted to do it.”

Chandra shrugs. Dwain shakes his head and Isaiah lets out a deep sigh.

“Their loss,” she says.

Isaiah concedes that formally talking through his options with his inner circle has helped him process his decision better but adds that, with weeks to go until he has to make the call, he's putting the mentally draining thought process on the back burner. 

Chandra throws her head back in disbelief, then holds up her phone to show him that Howard has just sent her a text after calling earlier earlier in the evening.

“Well, I can tell you Juwan is thinking about it,” Chandra says with a laugh. "Which is a good thing."

Dwain reveals that Cronin called him during the talk, and Thompson stepped out briefly to take a call from Miller.

“It never ends,” Chandra says. “Well, we’ve raised you to be strong-willed and thorough, now we’re feeling that. I guess we can’t be too mad.”

Isaiah pauses then smiles and grabs a handful of chips. He paces around the table slowly as if he’s about to reveal something. Anything. 

Chandra and Dwain lock in on him as he munches away, his purple Live Like Khalil bands peeking past the sleeves of his navy blue USA Basketball hoodie every time he puts a chip in his mouth.

“I definitely don’t know (where I'm going),” Isaiah says. “I’ll tell y’all when I do. It’ll probably be like the day before though. I mean, it’s a lot to think about.”

The table let’s out a collective sigh.

Isaiah shrugs and smiles.

“Soon,” he says. “Soon.”

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