How the path from the Triangle to the NBA detoured through New Hampshire

Charlotte’s Devonte Graham (4) is defended by Boston Celtics’ Guerschon Yabusele (30) in the fourth quarter during their NBA exhibition game on Friday, September 28, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Graham, a former Kansas player is from Raleigh, N.C.
Charlotte’s Devonte Graham (4) is defended by Boston Celtics’ Guerschon Yabusele (30) in the fourth quarter during their NBA exhibition game on Friday, September 28, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Graham, a former Kansas player is from Raleigh, N.C.

It didn’t take Dwayne West long to realize that T.J. Warren was special on the basketball court when he was in high school.

West, who heads the Garner Road AAU program, began to look around at prep schools for Warren to attend his senior season after playing at Riverside in Durham and Word of God in Raleigh.

Warren, as West describes it, was a “different dude” from his peers.

“We were just trying to get him ready,” West said. “T.J. was trying to find a place where he could be comfortable and play at a high level without a whole lot of distractions.”

Eight hundred and eighteen miles away from Raleigh, Warren found Wolfeboro, N.H., where distractions were not an issue but the weather was. And he wasn’t the last to head north from the Triangle to Brewster Academy. He was just the first.

Brewster was founded in 1820 It serves 350 students, grades 9-12, settled across 80 acres along Lake Winnipesaukee. The town of Wolfeboro has a population of 6,269, about 458,489 less people than Raleigh, but more than its share of college basketball prospects.

At Brewster, the basketball program rivals that of some small colleges. There are early morning practices, weight-lifting sessions and a travel schedule that takes players across the country.

One hundred and twenty Brewster alumni have played Division I basketball. Twelve have played in the NBA, with 10 of those 12, including Warren and Broughton alum Devonte Graham, another Garner Road product, selected in the NBA Draft since 2010. Graham followed Warren to Brewster before heading to Kansas. He just completed his rookie season with the Charlotte Hornets.

Over the next few years, three more former Garner Road players — Isaac Copeland, Thomas Allen and Mike Okauru — made the transition from the Triangle to Brewster to Division I hoops. There isn’t a shoe connection between the two — Garner Road is sponsored by Adidas, while Brewster wears Under Armour — and West provides feedback, but the final choice is up to the players.

Graham said he went because of Warren, Allen went because of Graham, with the deal sealed once Okauru, who like Copeland did his own research, decided to go. But it was Warren who paved the way, even though early on it appeared it wasn’t an ideal fit.

“He’s reaction was ‘Coach this is real different, I don’t know,’” West said, laughing as he recalled that conversation. “It was probably a week or so.”

It also didn’t help that Brewster head coach Jason Smith had Warren coming off the bench. Smith knew Warren could score in bunches, so he wanted that scoring production coming in so that the second unit would have instant offense, comparing Warren to former Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. Plus, Smith wanted Warren to become a better defender.

Warren would go on to become a McDonald’s all-American before returning to the Triangle for two years at N.C. State. Warren was named the ACC player of the year in 2014 before heading to the NBA, where he just completed his fifth year with the Phoenix Suns.

Graham experienced similar success,. boosting his stock at Brewster before a stellar career with the Jayhawks, where he became an all-American and Big 12 player of the year. Smith pushed him in a way he had never seen before, and prepared him for high level competition, that started by competing against Division I prospects everyday in practice.

“They have a great strength program, great strength coach,” Graham said. “It’s just a great place to be, you can focus, the school is not too big, not too many people. And then you play against some of the best competition in the world, so it gets you ready for the next level if that’s something you are really interested in doing.”

When Allen first arrived on campus he compared an open gym to an AAU tournament, with college coaches lined up on the way to watch. Allen, who played three years at Garner, teamed with Mike Okauru, who attended Ravenscroft, to lead the Bobcats to a 33-0 record and a national title.

Allen played at Nebraska for two seasons, starting 25 games last season, but announced last month he was transferring to N.C. State. Okauru appeared in 35 games for Florida as a sophomore, but put his name in the transfer portal last month. Copeland missed the second half of the season for the Huskies with an injury, but was averaging 14.0 points per game before going down, second on the team.

All five local players won a national title during their time at Brewster. That didn’t surprise Smith, who praised the hoops in the Triangle when he brought his team to Raleigh back in December for the John Wall Holiday Invitational. He especially had fond words for the type of players he’s gotten out of the Garner Road program.

“I know the type of program that Dwayne runs at Garner Road,” Smith said. “They hold kids accountable. Unfortunately, there are a lot of AAU programs where there’s not a lot of teaching and coaching that goes on and I think the great thing about getting a kid from Garner Road is they’ve been coached, but also they’ve been held accountable. Whenever Dwayne calls recommending a kid it’s an easy evaluation from me.”

West coached all of these guys when their basketball careers were just starting. With hundreds of kids coming through the Garner Road program each season, West has a theory that the standouts need their basketball thirst quenched at all times, something they may not be able to get from their local schools.

“If you don’t feed that beast, he’s going to eat somewhere else,” West said. “I think that’s what happens with a lot of these kids. These high schools, public and private, they don’t have the same level of activity and mindset of basketball that these kids have. Then you wonder why they are leaving and going to a ‘basketball school.’ I think that’s the important thing to understand.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.