From the moment Pat Chambers was hired to coach men’s basketball at Penn State in 2011, the expectation was that the Philly coach would recruit Philly kids, and yo, they would all live happily ever after.
And if there was only a trickle at first from the Delaware Valley — a Brandon Taylor here, a Shep Garner there — the spigot now appears to be fully open.
Chambers’ newest recruiting class includes no fewer than three players from Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High, a school with a dinky third-floor gym but a sizable athletic reputation.
There is Tony Carr, Pennsylvania’s top-ranked recruit, a prototypical point guard who literally has the position in his DNA.
There is Nazeer Bostick, a wing defender of such repute that he was once sicced on no less a player than Ben Simmons, the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go well, but at least Bostick lived to tell about it.)
And there is Lamar Stevens, a small forward who ended his high school career in the best possible fashion.
All of them part of a squad that this past season won a second straight state championship in Class AAAA, the commonwealth’s largest classification. And who have played together, on and off, for seven years.
With Joe Hampton, a power forward from the acclaimed Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., they form the best recruiting class in Penn State history. It is ranked 16th in the country by Scout.com, second in the Big Ten to Michigan State.
And the three Philly kids feel awfully good about their future collaboration. As Carr noted, Hampton is a big-time player. Garner, another Roman graduate and PSU’s top returning scorer, will only be a junior next season. And power forward Mike Watkins, redshirted in ’15-16, is yet another Philadelphia product the three newcomers know well.
“There’s a very unique opportunity up there,” Carr said, “for me to start something.”
With help, of course.
“I know we’re all warriors,” Stevens said. “We don’t back down to anybody. We’re so determined to be the best that I can’t see us failing, when we all put our minds together and get our chemistry together. I feel like we can really be special.”
The caveat is obvious: PSU has a tradition that could charitably be described as spotty.
“That was one of the main reasons for me going there,” Carr said. “I could have gone to a handful of universities where they already had great tradition and great players, and I just want to start something new and say that Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick made Penn State one of the big schools in the Big Ten.”
They are also well aware that few players — few players short of Magic Johnson, anyway — come in and take the conference by storm. And all of them must make improvements before next season, according to Roman Catholic coach Chris McNesby.
The 6-4, 210-pound Carr needs to be stronger, McNesby said, the better to handle the Big Ten grind. The 6-6 Stevens needs to apply himself consistently, something McNesby was always on his case about, and work on his left hand. The 6-5 Bostick needs to round out his offensive game.
“They’re young guys, and believe me I love them, and I think they can be very good,” McNesby said, “but I think the biggest thing is, they’ve got to start putting the work in, even more. Can they do that (i.e., have an instant impact)? I believe they can. But the work’s got to start. If you said that, now walk the walk. That would be my challenge to them.”
A challenge he believes they will meet.
“I know it’s going to happen up there,” he said. “I truly do. It’s not a matter of if it happens. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. I think it could happen next year, but that’s going to be up to their maturity, and understanding what it takes to be a college player.”
Carr hails from North Philly, Bostick from South Philly. Stevens is from North Wales, a northern suburb. They first crossed paths in sixth grade, at their AAU team’s practice at Germantown Academy, some 10 minutes from Stevens’ hometown. And one thing stood out immediately about Carr.
“He was shooting floaters,” Stevens said, “from like a step in from the 3-point line, when we were so young. … We joke about that to this day.”
Carr confirmed that that was in fact his MO at that point in his career.
“I used to hate to shoot, so my only shot was the floater,” he said, “so I would shoot it from basically anywhere.”
Unorthodox, but he swears it was effective.
“I’m amazed,” Stevens said. “He was slow. He wasn’t fast. Couldn’t jump. But he was just so much smarter than everybody. He had a unique skill set. … The floater, it was crazy.”
Carr was well-versed in the vagaries of the position. His late grandfather, Anthony Smith, had once played point guard at Roman — Tony wore No. 10 in his honor — and his dad, also Tony, had done the same at Parkway High School, as well as Division II Cheyney University.
The younger Carr once told the Philadelphia Daily News that he would hold pregame conversations with his grandfather, even after his passing. His dad’s influence was more direct.
“One thing I took from him was how to lead a team,” Carr said. “He didn’t have a great game every game or maybe his shot wasn’t falling, but he always did a good job leading the team.”
It quickly became apparent that the younger Carr was similarly blessed. Even now, McNesby says he is a “throwback point guard.”
“If you don’t like playing with Tony, you’re crazy,” he added, “because he’s a guy that wants everyone else to feel good.”
Carr’s initial association with Stevens and Bostick was short-lived. Stevens, fast becoming an inside force, drifted to another AAU team the year after they first came together, to be joined by Carr their sophomore year and Bostick when they were juniors.
They also arrived at Roman Catholic in shifts. Carr spent a year at Abington Friends beforehand, while Bostick attended Math, Civics and Sciences Charter School for two, and Stevens was enrolled at Haverford School for three. Only this past season were they on the same high school team at the same time.
Roman is a place that has produced local legends (Speedy Morris, a collegiate and high school coach), NBA journeymen (Rasual Butler now, Marc Jackson and Mike Bantom in the past), as well as NFL stars (Marvin Harrison) and even the so-called Voice of God (the late John Facenda, who famously provided the narration for NFL Films).
And now it had three guys hoping to add their names to the honor roll.
Bostick — “your typical Philly-tough guard,” McNesby said — had honed his dogged defense at MCSCS, though it didn’t travel well when his school met Simmons and powerful Monteverde Academy at a tournament in Florida two years ago. Montverde rolled, 92-51, as the 6-10 Simmons scored 16 points. So too did D’Angelo Russell, the second pick in last year’s NBA draft, by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bostick is not one to be deterred, though. Unlike most young players, he welcomes a defensive challenge, lives for the cat-and-mouse game at that end of the court.
“It wins games,” he said. “It’s not that I like it. It’s just that I don’t like losing, so I play defense.”
Without complaint, and without reservation.
“He just wants to kind of rip your heart out,” McNesby said. “He wants to make the game a backyard street brawl.”
Bostick received only one scholarship offer, from Hofstra. Then Penn State came calling, and he leaped at the opportunity Chambers and Co. presented, verbally committing in April 2015. Carr, who was recruited hard by Maryland and Temple, followed suit in August, Stevens a month later; Indiana had been on him, among others.
All of them signed letters of intent in November, but in the meantime there was the none-too-small matter of the season, and defending the state title Roman had won in 2014-15.
It started out well enough, but losses to Neumann Goretti and Archbishop Carroll five days apart in January brought the Cahillites to a crossroads.
“There was,” Carr said, “some turmoil within the team.”
“I feel like we got a little cocky, a little bit like, ain’t nobody in the state that can compete with us,” Stevens said. “But when we don’t play our game and don’t play to our full potential, we can be beaten any night.”
They talked it out — “talked as young men,” as Carr put it. And McNesby in the meantime stayed after his stars. He told Carr he was being too unselfish, that more often than not he looked to get his teammates involved early in games, rather than asserting himself. The coach also refused to let Stevens take plays off, as was his wont. And he encouraged Bostick to play sound positional defense, as opposed to gambling for steals.
The Cahillites won their last 17 games, their closest call a 64-63 victory in the rematch with Carroll in the Catholic League semifinals. It came down to the final Carroll possession. To Bostick chasing a player named Ryan Daly (the son of former Chambers’ assistant Brian Daly) around a thicket of screens, and forcing a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I just didn’t want to let my team down,” Bostick said.
He continued to make winning plays the rest of the way — it’s his forte, Stevens said — while Carr supplied the back beat: 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists in that game against Carroll … 21 points and seven boards in the second go-round with Neumann Goretti, in the Catholic League championship game … 33 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over Academy Park in the first round of states … 26 points in a quarterfinal victory over Parkland … 14 points, six assists and five rebounds in a semifinal rout of Plymouth-Whitemarsh.
Chambers tracked his prized recruits throughout the postseason run, and admitted to being a nervous onlooker during the game against Neumann in the storied Palestra.
“When you develop a relationship with someone … you just develop that bond with them, so you want to see them play well,” he said. “You want to see them excel. You want to see them succeed. And not yell at the refs.”
He was close a couple times, he admitted, but somehow managed to resist the urge.
“Man, I was proud papa leaving there,” he said, noting that such games are excellent preparation for the Big Ten crucible.
It was left to Stevens to provide an exclamation point to the season, a 27-point, five-dunk performance in a 73-62 victory over Allerdice in the state final. He called it “a special night … a really emotional night.”
“It was,” he said, “really surreal.”
He was quick to add that it was the result of others’ efforts, that his teammates were “so selfless to give me the ball.”
Now he joins two of them on a new venture.
“I guess everyone’s pretty excited about these guys,” McNesby said. “They’ve got to prove it now, right?”