There's been nothing normal about prep basketball this year.
For many high school hoopers, the most pivotal portion of last season was cut short. The summer circuit, at least as players, coaches, scouts and fans across the country have come to know and love it, barely existed. This season the sweeping effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have made high school basketball look far different than ever before.
But don't tell that to Sports Illustrated's top-10 players in the SI99. Under unprecedented circumstances, these current and future stars have emerged as the cream of the crop from the high school class of 2021.
Each player was named as a finalist for the SI All-American teams to be named next month.
This is how they got here.
10. Nathan Bittle, Prolific Prep (Napa, Calif.) – Oregon
A longtime veteran of USA Basketball's youth teams, Bittle exploded on the summer hoops scene in 2019, showcasing his rare blend of length, mobility and skill with every deep triple and towering block. He built on that momentum as a junior at Crater High School (Central Pointe, Ore.), earning Class 5A Player of the Year honors after averaging 25 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game.
Bittle transferred to national powerhouse Prolific Prep in August, following his coach with West Coast Elite, Mark Phelps, to Napa. The 6-foot-11, 200-pounder has been impressive with his star-studded squad.
9. Moussa Diabate, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) – Michigan
There was talk of Diabate reclassifying to 2020 during his breakout junior campaign at IMG Academy. Instead, the athletic 6-foot-10 big man is back in Bradenton, showing off the burgeoning two-way prowess that's made him a longtime fixture for France on the amateur international circuit.
In late October, Diabate led his squad to the championship of the Top Flight Invite, going head-to-head against several other elite prospects in his class. The Michigan commit's rare versatility was on full display during the title game, when he totaled 18 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks against an opponent featuring Jaden Hardy, the third-ranked player in the SI99. Diabate has continued his strong play this season for the Ascenders.
8. A.J. Griffin, Archbishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.) – Duke
It surely comes as no surprise to high school hoops aficionados that Griffin ranks among the top-10 players in his class. He led Archbishop Stepinac to its first state title since 1960 as a freshman, and won a gold medal with Team USA at the FIBA U16 Americas in June 2019.
The entirety of Griffin's senior season is at risk due to the pandemic, an especially disappointing reality considering his junior campaign at Stepinac was interrupted by a knee injury. But don't assume the athletic 6-foot-7 wing is resting on his laurels with his prep basketball career likely finished. As the son of Adrian Griffin, a former NBA veteran and current Toronto Raptors assistant coach, Griffin no doubt has the training tools at his disposal to continue improving before arriving at Duke next fall.
7. Kennedy Chandler, Sunrise Christian Academy (Wichita, Kan.) – Tennessee
Chandler is one of the most decorated players in the history of Tennessee high school basketball. The 6-foot-1 floor general is a two-time reigning Division II-AA Mr. Basketball in The Volunteer State, and last season led Briarcest High School to a state championship by averaging 24 points, five assists and five rebounds per game.
Following his junior season, Chandler left Briarcrest for Sunrise Christian Academy, a prep hoops giant who currently sits at No. 2 in the country. Teaming with fellow SI99 honorees Kendall Brown and Zach Clemence, don't be surprised if Chandler adds even more team and individual accolades to his resume this season prior to returning home to run point for the Volunteers.
6. Jabari Smith Jr., Sandy Creek (Tyrone, Ga.) – Auburn
A teammate of Griffin's at the FIBA U16 Americas, Smith was Team USA's second-leading scorer, averaging 13.8 points per game on efficient shooting marks from the field and beyond the arc. The 6-foot-10 big man followed up that impressive showing on the international stage by dominating for Sandy Creek, dropping 24.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game as a junior.
Smith, whose father played four NBA seasons in the early 2000s, committed to Auburn in October, becoming the most decorated incoming freshman of the Bruce Pearl era.
5. Patrick Baldwin Jr., Hamilton (Sussex, Wis.) – Undecided
It's hardly like Baldwin failed to live up to expectations during his junior campaign at Hamilton. The 6-foot-9 sharpshooter averaged 24.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, propelling his team to the sectional final before the season was canceled, as well as earning Gatorade Player of the Year honors.
As Baldwin told Sports Illustrated in September, though, a streamlined summer of basketball has apparently made him even better—a scary thought for his future defenders in college. Baldwin had a dominant start to the season before an ankle injury sidelined him for the year.
4. Michael Foster, Hillcrest Prep (Phoenix, Ariz.) – Undecided
Foster was staking his claim as one of the best high school basketball players in Wisconsin history before announcing his transfer to Hillcrest Prep in spring 2019. The explosive 6-foot-8 forward led Milwaukee Washington to consecutive state runner-up finishes his sophomore and freshman seasons, earning First Team All-State honors in 2019.
Foster was even better during his debut campaign at Hillcrest, averaging 26 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks a game en route to becoming the lone underclassman to be named SI All-American Second Team. His standout play against superior competition prompted Foster to consider reclassifying to 2020, a decision he ultimately opted against. Regardless, pro basketball could still be in Foster's future sooner than later. He's currently mulling G-League and overseas options for his immediate future, in addition to offers from Florida State and Georgia. This season, Foster is pumping in 28 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and three blocks a game.
3. Jaden Hardy, Coronado (Henderson, Nev.) – Undecided
Coming into the 2020–21 season, it was difficult to imagine Hardy's well-earned reputation as arguably the best player in his class getting any stronger. He was named First Team All-State as a freshman and sophomore, and last season won Player of the Year honors in Nevada after averaging 30.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game.
Even the biggest proponents of Hardy's present and future, though, were undoubtedly left in wide-eyed shock after the 6-foot-4 guard exploded for 46 points—and nine three-pointers!—during Air Nado's win over Prolific Prep at the Border League in late October. At an event featuring mega-talents like Chet Holmgren and Mikey Williams, Hardy was the most dominant force in attendance, a potential harbinger of what's to come wherever he ultimately elects to play college basketball next season.
2. Paolo Banchero, O'Dea (Seattle, Wash.) – Duke
Banchero's junior season ended in disappointment with a Class 3A title on the line, and a summer supposed to be spent proving his chops across the globe—including during a tryout for the Italian national team—was instead marked by pickup games at local Seattle gyms. The reigning Washington Gatorade Player of the Year's final campaign at O'Dea High School seems far likelier to never tip-off at all than culminate with a chance at redemption in the state championship game, too.
But just because Banchero's last summer circuit and high school season have played out far differently than anticipated hasn't changed his standing in the class of 2021. The 6-foot-10, 230-pound big man looked more comfortable than ever with the ball in his hands running with Seattle Rotary over the last three months, further staking his claim as a prototype offensive fulcrum for the modern game. Banchero seems on track to prove it during what's likely to be a single season at Duke.
1. Chet Holmgren, Minnehaha Academy (Minneapolis, Minn.) – Undecided
Seven-footers with Holmgren's blend of skill, mobility, instincts and intensity remain few and far between, even as the game grows more and more position-less. Holmgren's résumé has long been littered with notable feats, too, from leading Minnehaha to a state title as a sophomore to crossing up Stephen Curry in an ultra-viral moment before his junior season.
Nothing Holmgren had done to burnish his sterling reputation before Nov. 12, though, quite compared to the show-stopping performance he put on in front of a national audience at the GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase. Against a talented Ypsi Prep team led by superstar junior Emoni Bates, Holmgren made his case as the best long-term prospect in basketball, dominating from all over the floor en route to 31 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks while leading Team Sizzle to victory. This season he's averaging 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocks a game.
The basketball label of "unicorn" has grown a bit tired of late, often inaccurately used to describe superlative prospects of any physical stature or playing style. But it's truly embodied by the sweet-shooting, rim-protecting, court-wrecking Holmgren, a reality bound to be on full display no matter where he continues his career before hearing his name called early in the NBA draft.