More than 10 months into a pandemic-induced shutdown of the 2020-21 high school sports calendar, many boys basketball players have sought exposure to college coaches during a key stretch of their recruitment. And some who are already committed to a college just want to play high-level competition.
For most Division I prospects in Washington, those opportunities are found out-of-state. That’s the case for King’s forward Tyler Linhardt, Seattle Prep guards Braeden Smith and Tyler Mrus and several other high school standouts from Washington playing with BFL Prep in the Grind Session, a grassroots winter circuit populated by prep schools and club teams.
Lately, that’s meant spending weeks in rural Paducah, Ky., where the team recently wrapped up a two-week tournament, which followed a two-week tournament in Phoenix in November. Tournaments are structured in “bubbles,” which include COVID-19 safety protocols. The team went 10-2 both weekends, picking up wins over teams like nationally-ranked West Oaks (Fla.).
BFL Prep, an upstart prep basketball team based in Seattle — not affiliated with the WIAA — is coached and run by Barry Jones, a one-time Cleveland High School standout whose Seattle basketball connections run deep. After a standout Division II college career on the East Coast, Jones worked in the NBA for a couple of years before returning to Seattle, where he spent two years as the head coach at Cleveland (2012-14) and was an assistant on Brent Merritt’s staff at Eastside Catholic last season.
In recent years, he founded BFL Prep, an off-shoot of Kings Basketball Academy, a Seattle-based training outfit that provides private skill development (not to be confused with King’s Schools in Shoreline). To qualify as a prep school, Jones said some of his players — all juniors and seniors — are in running start programs at community colleges in the Seattle-area. But such enrollment isn’t required, allowing already-enrolled high school students to play at a time when high schools in Washington are largely in online-only learning.
And while some high school off-shoot teams and well-established club programs like Seattle Rotary have found tournaments out of state to compete in through the winter months — Rotary sent two teams to Arizona last weekend and played national powerhouses Findlay Prep, Hillcrest Prep and Mater Dei — Jones saw the postponement of high school sports as an opportunity to jump-start his program with players who would otherwise be playing high school basketball.
Through a connection with one of the organizers of the Grind Session, Jones’ BFL Prep was selected as the only Washington team to compete in the circuit.
To fill a roster, the pitch was simple.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a high school season this year,” Jones said. “I called (the Grind Session) up and asked if I was able to put a team together, ‘would you let them play?’ And they said ‘yeah.’ And from there it was just contacting everyone and providing that opportunity.”
Mrus and Linhardt have played in several tournaments with BFL Prep, as have O’Dea’s John Christofilis, Seattle Prep’s Braeden Smith, Auburn’s Tre Blassingame (and Maleek Arington for a brief spell), as well as Lakeside’s Kamal Muhammad. Fort Vancouver’s Kahlil Singleton played in the Grind Session with two other teams — SoCal Institute of Sport and now Minnesota Prep Academy. The rest of the team is filled out with players from other states.
“It’s definitely a little random group, but we play really well together,” said Linhardt, the reigning 1A state player of the year who holds offers from Washington, Washington State and Boise State.
Mrus helped Seattle Prep reach the 3A state quarterfinals (where the Panthers lost to O’Dea in overtime). Since the pandemic broke out, he’s taken a blitz approach to training to make up for a lost AAU spring and summer. Typically days would start at 5 or 6 a.m. with a lift, he said, following by getting up 500 shots at a park nearby his house. He’d end his day with another 500 shots.
When Jones came calling, he was quick to leap at the opportunity with BFL Prep and the competition the Grind Session presented.
“It was just great to play ball again,” Mrus said. “Especially in a time like this where everything has been shut down. You don’t get to see a lot of people. It was just great to play some real basketball. Working out is one thing, but I miss playing the game for sure.”
Jones played at Division II St. Augustine in Raleigh, N.C., where he graduated and worked his way into a tryout with the San Antonio Spurs after college.
A knee injury slowed his professional prospects in 2006, but he spent two years working for the Spurs and its G-League affiliate in a player development internship role before he was hired as an assistant coach at Word of God Christian Academy, a prep school in Raleigh that produced John Wall, T.J. Warren, among others. He moved back to Seattle in 2011.
To Jones, who likely won’t return to the high school coaching ranks in 2021, the name emblazoned across the team’s jersey is deeply personal.
BFL stands for “brothers for life,” which Jones found the inspiration for to honor his brother, Isaiah Jones, who died in a drowning accident in 2018, leaving behind his wife and two young children. Jones and his brother were very close. Growing up watching the NBA at a young age, Allen Iverson was the first player they had seen with tattoos. So they would write “brothers for life” on themselves out of inspiration. After Isaiah died, it became clear to Barry that he had to honor their bond through his team name.
He’s taken Mrus, Blassingame and Capital Christian (Sacramento) prospect Darrion Williams on a recruiting trip to Belmont. Blassingame was offered by Long Beach State in early December on the heels of the team’s first two-week bubble in Arizona.
“It’s doing exactly what I said it would,” Jones said. “The goal was to have these guys be evaluated against the nation’s best talent.”
And the near future looks to provide more of the same.
Before BFL Prep heads back down to Arizona to kick off another bubble in early January with games against AZ Compass and Prolific Prep, Jones is in the process of scheduling two one-off games on the East Coast against nationally regarded prep schools. The first, which he says will take place Jan. 8, is against Combine Academy (N.C.).
“It’s basically just an opportunity to get some good competition in a really good league with a bunch of good players,” Linhardt said. “It also provides colleges that are recruiting me to tune in to watch, see what I’ve been doing, see how I’m playing. We’ve got a couple guys that committed but almost all the guys on the team still haven’t committed. They’re still looking for a college and for new opportunities.”
SBLIVE’S RECRUITING RANKINGS BY DAN DICKAU