At 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei center M.J. Cage is starting to look more and more like his father, who was an All-American at San Diego State in 1984 and played 15 years as a chiseled power forward and one of the NBA's finest rebounders.
Then again, the younger Cage just turned 16. A member of the Class of 2016, he still has three years of high school basketball remaining. The thought of being a high-level recruit is just dawning on him.
"He's so excited," Michael Cage said. "I took him to school this morning, and he said, ‘Dad, does this mean I need to decide today?' I said, ‘No, dude. Go to school. Eat lunch. Be a kid.
"This is all new to him. He doesn't really know anything about the recruiting process yet… But he's very excited, and I'm very excited, that someone like Coach Cal has taken notice of him. I know Cal, and Cal knows talent. I understand how much that means. You're talking about the preeminent program in college basketball."
Kentucky head coach John Calipari extended the scholarship offer while making a visit to Mater Dei this week. The tradition-rich program is also home to Wildcat target Stanley Johnson, a five-star wing in the Class of 2014 who will soon make his official visit to Lexington for Big Blue Madness.
According to the elder Cage, the UK boss first spotted his son on the AAU circuit this summer when he had 17 blocked shots in a single game at a high-level event in Las Vegas. Having coached two of the nation's best shot-blockers the last two years in the form of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel, Calipari's attention was instantly engaged.
"I saw him from a distance, and I could tell he was intrigued by M.J.," Cage said. "I know he was excited. He may have been drooling. (Laughs) "You're talking about a 6-10 kid with a 7-2 wingspan who is athletic and runs the floor and can really disrupt the game with his shot-blocking ability. And it's a kid who's just 16, who's still growing, and could end up being 6-11 or 7-feet tall."
"Anthony Davis," Cage said of the natural initial comparison made by Calipari. "He sees some of those same things in M.J., some of the potential. He's a big, long, athletic kid who can really run the floor and block a lot of shots.
"People don't realize it yet because it's not the kind of thing he's asked to do on his high school or travel team, but M.J. can step out and shoot the ball, too. The scouting reports on him now say ‘Nice touch out to 12 feet,' but he's put in a lot of work and expanded it out to the 3-point line. I've worked real hard with him on that because everybody wants their 4s to be able to step out and face up these days. It wasn't like that back in my day. I never had to worry about a 3-point shot."
Like many young big men, M.J. is just "growing into his skin," Michael Cage said. "He's starting to get comfortable with his size and realize what he can do with it."
He's not quite the enforcer his dad was in the lane, but Cage drew praise from Calipari for his toughness and willingness to "mix it up" during this summer's AAU action.
It didn't take long for Cage and Calipari to get in touch. Cage played for Calipari and the New Jersey Nets late in his career. He joked that, as a 36-year-old in the 1997-98 season, Calipari once played him a full 48 minutes in a game at San Antonio "that almost killed me."
The old friends exchanged that story and a few others in recent weeks.
"We've remained friends," Cage said. "I was a color analyst with the Grizzlies when Cal was in Memphis, so we've always stayed in touch… It's a great relationship. I told him my wife has been looking for an old picture we have of him holding M.J. when he was a baby. Now that baby's 6-10. He couldn't believe he's this old."
M.J. Cage's potential has drawn early scholarship offers from other major programs like UCLA, Washington and San Diego State. Now that UK has entered the picture, that list is certain to expand rapidly.
The elder Cage said he'd like for his son to make an unofficial visit to Kentucky at some point this season.
"I'd like to get him out there to let him see what the atmosphere is like at a program like Kentucky," he said. "He follows college basketball a little bit, and he's heard about the tradition, the championships and the fans. Plus, they're recruiting his teammate, Stanley Johnson, so he's been able to watch them recruit Stanley and hear about it. I think that experience will help him as we get further along in the process."
Johnson and Cage helped Mater Dei win the California Open Division championship last season. Johnson led the way with 26 points and 12 rebounds in an MVP performance. Cage had only two points in the 50-45 win over Archbishop Mitty and one-time UK target Aaron Gordon, but contributed five rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals on the big stage as a freshman.