Nimari Burnett can’t believe how quickly time has passed.
It seemed like yesterday, he said, that he was a just a sophomore and a newcomer at Prolific Prep, the elite basketball academy based at Napa Christian Campus of Education, a lanky guard with potential to be great.
Much has changed for Burnett over the last three years as he enters his final season as a member of The Crew. A scrawny kid when he first arrived in Napa, he’s transformed into a bona fide star. Entering his senior season, he’s now a consensus top-25 player in the country, a five-star prospect, and has been courted by most of the top Division I college programs in the country.
In much of the same way, Prolific Prep has undergone a similar transformation over the years, going from a talent-filled upstart program to one that’s poised to dominate the elite prep circuit this upcoming season.
“This is probably the greatest team we’ll ever have at Prolific Prep,” co-founder Jeremy Russotti said during the team’s media day at Napa Christian on Monday. “I don’t know how we can get better talent with the right mixture.”
Local fans will be able to get the first glimpse of The Crew this weekend when they get their 2019-20 season under way with games at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Napa Valley College. They’ll play two more games next weekend at NVC before they hit the road for tournaments all over the country.
They embark on this new campaign with big goals in mind.
“This year, I hope we go undefeated,” Burnett said Monday. “I know that’s hard and saying a lot, but I definitely feel like this is the team that can do it. We want to be the best team ever in the program. Right now, it’s the Gary Trent-Paul Scruggs team, but we’re coming to take the throne.”
Accomplishing an undefeated season in any sport is no small feat, but doing it against the caliber of competition Prolific Prep has lined up would be objectively impressive. Russotti calls their 2019-20 schedule one of “the toughest schedules in the country.”
“We could potentially play between nine and 11 teams in the top 25, none of these games will be at home, by the way,” he said. “So it’s like asking these guys to go into Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Oregon and win every game. Realistically, is it possible (to go undefeated)? Sure, I guess anything is possible. But knowing how much we travel the East Coast, we’re going to have some battles and you’ve got to stay healthy.
“I will say this: If we stay healthy and our chemistry is there, we have a very, very, very good chance to have the goals that these kids have.”
This year’s team will feature many new faces on both the roster and the sideline.
Joey Fuca, an AAU coach with experience playing collegiately and overseas, has taken the helm after Billy McKnight left the program for another job over the summer. The first-year head coach will lead a talented group that was ranked as the No. 5 team in the country by MaxPreps in May.
Headlining this year’s new crop of players is senior Jalen Green, a 6-foot-6, five-star wing who’s rated as a consensus top three player in the country. Other top newcomers include junior Frank Anselem, a 6-foot-10, four-star forward/center; senior Saba Gigiberia, a 7-foot-1, four-star center from the Republic of Georgia; junior Jaden Jones, a 6-foot-7, sharpshooting guard from Dallas; and senior Jack Wetzel, a 6-foot-4 sharpshooter and one of the top prospects out of Iowa.
Rounding out the new additions are junior Fallou Cisse, a 6-foot-7 power forward from Senegal; sophomore Jordan Pope, a 6-foot-1 guard who transferred from Freedom High School in Oakley; freshman Pierre Geneste, a 6-foot-11 forward from Port Au-Prince, Haiti; sophomore Mike Sharavjamts, a 6-foot-7 wing from Mongolia; and sophomore Jackson Corley, a 6-foot-2 guard that transferred from St. Helena High.
These new faces will join Burnett and two other returners in Mawot Mag, a 6-foot-7 forward from Sudan, and Coleman Hawkins, a 6-foot-10, three-star forward who committed to Illinois over the summer.
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As the self-appointed “general manager” of the program, Russotti said he employed a new approach to putting together this year’s team over the offseason. He changed his recruiting philosophy and targeted lengthy players and shooters, and tried to stagger the classes of players and mix their skill levels to suit one another.
“I kind of prioritized the different types of role players to stars and the grades,” he said. “I stuck with it and I’m so glad I did, because this team is definitely jelling like no other right now.”
While at the top end Prolific Prep boasts some of its highest-ranked talent in years, there’s still a feeling among players that nationally they’re being overlooked. The team is using that sentiment as motivation.
“A lot of people are sleeping on us,” said Green. “Even with the MaxPreps stuff, a lot of people don’t think we have a lot of talent, things like that. I feel like a lot of people are going to come into tournaments and think they’re just going to run through us, but I think we’re going to win a lot of games with them thinking that.”
This year’s version of The Crew appears to be more balanced across the board than past iterations. They have savvy, veteran guards and a bevy of shooters to spread the floor. They’re long and lanky and probably have the most height they’ve ever had.
All of that should lead to an exciting, up-tempo style of play.
“We want to get up and down for sure,” said Fuca. “We want to play with pace. We want to full-court press. We want to defend 94 feet. We want to trap. We want to push the ball in transition. We’re really excited about using our length and athleticism to play at a high clip.”
With so much nationally-recognized talent, most of the roster is being recruited by Division I schools all across the country. The fall is a prime time for prospects to take visits to schools, and that has somewhat interrupted The Crew’s early season practice schedule. But it’s a good problem to have for Fuca, who has been in Napa for only a few months.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind because we haven’t really had a full team being to practice because guys are going on visits and seeing family, which is totally fine as we embark on a long season,” the coach said. “But it’s been great because I’ve been able to develop relationships with our guys on and off the floor, so we all feel like we’re to that point where we’re going to embark on a long journey.”
Prolific Prep should once again provide an entertaining show for those in the Napa Valley and across the country but their reach is expanding even more this season. The program recently signed a deal with Overtime, a sports media network that specializes in reality-style shows and highlights around high school sports, for a 12-episode series. A film crew will embed with the team for the entire season and record everything from day-to-day school activities to cross country road trips.
Russotti said that as many as two to five million people could be tuning in each week.
“We’re excited to be able to document not only the team, but the individual stories that a lot of people really don’t have a clue that happen here in Napa,” he said.
Outside of these first two weekends of games, local fans in Napa Valley will have only a handful of chances to see The Crew in action locally. After their game at NVC on Nov. 9, they won’t play again in the area until the Crush in the Valley tournament at Fairfield’s Solano Community College at the end of January. They’ll have another tournament Feb. 22 and 23 at NVC, and will then close out their home slate of games with Alaina’s Voice Gun Violence Awareness Night at NVC on March 3. They will then head off to the Grind Session Championships and, potentially, the Geico National Championships.
As for what Napa fans should expect from this team, said Russotti, prepare to be entertained.
“I really, really emphasize to the community you do not want to miss this team,” he said. “This is going to be the greatest entertainment in town.”