When Saba Gigiberia was summoned from the floor to the stage of the gym at Napa Christian Campus of Education for a group photo last Wednesday, he didn’t need to go around to the steps like most people.
The 7-foot-1 power forward just walked straight up onto the three-foot-high platform in a single stride.
It seemed symbolic of the step onto a big stage he’ll be taking after this season – not an easy one, but one made a little easier when he joined the Prolific Prep Academy boys basketball program this year.
Shortly after, he and two other seniors from The Crew signed national letters of intent to continue their basketball careers with NCAA Division 1 colleges.
Nimari Burnett, a 6-foot-4 guard from Chicago who is in his third season with Prolific Prep, signed with Texas Tech. Coleman Hawkins a 6-foot-10 power forward from the Sacramento suburb of Antelope, signed with Illinois. Gigiberia, a native of the Republic of Georgia, signed with Georgia Tech.
Prolific Prep Director of Operations Philippe Doherty emceed the ceremony, which was also attended by other players and coaches from Prolific Prep and its affiliated Golden State Prep program, Napa Christian assistant principal and girls basketball head coach Darren Smith, and family and friends.
Doherty asked Smith to speak on behalf of the school because principal Justine Leonie was “out 8-10 weeks” to recover from shoulder surgery.
“This is a big day for these seniors from Prolific Prep,” Smith said. “They have brought so much to our school as individuals and as a collective group. This is really exciting for us whenever we get to shepherd our boys off to college. For all of our students, it’s big day.”
In his speech, Burnett thanked his parents, Nikki and Brian Burnett, “for helping me throughout this whole process my whole life” and “everybody who had my back through it all – Philippe, Jeremy (Russotti, Prolific Prep founder), Coach Joey (Fuca, Prolific Prep head coach), Mr. Smith, all the other teachers here at Napa Christian and my teammates for supporting me through it all.”
Added Fuca, “Nimari’s been a leader with this program for three years. He’s an incredible player, on and off the floor. He’s a first-class kid. It’s very unusual to have the best player be also your most unselfish player, who likes to play at both ends of the court. I’ve known Nimari for two years, training him. I’ve known his family, a first-class family. I wish him nothing but the best at the next level.”
Smith noted to the crowd that Burnett has been at Napa Christian the longest of any current Prolific Prep player.
“He’s a true leader,” he said. “We see that on the basketball court, we see that in the classroom, and we see that on campus. He’s a true mentor. There have been several times where I’ve had him talk to junior high students and say ‘Hey, there’s a better way to go about life and the choices that you’re making.’ He’s a true student and a scholar in the classroom. So I’d just like to thank Nimari for that he’s done for our campus. He’s an amazing young man.”
Hawkins averaged 11.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.2 blocks for the Antelope High varsity squad when he was a sophomore and the Titans were Sac-Joaquin Section Division II runners-up.
“Coleman is a great leader on our team who is vocal, plays multiple positions and is very unselfish,” Fuca said during the ceremony. “We look forward to a great year from Coleman.”
Fuca said Gigiberia has been with the program for three months since transferring from Findley Prep in Henderson, Nev.
“He’s been great for us on and off the floor,” Fuca said. “We’re very privileged to continue to work with him this year. He’s going to have a great year for us on the court and in the classroom.”
Burnett told the Register he was just 15 when he came to Napa. He stayed with a host family, that of Vintage High junior varsity football head coach Kyle Schuh, before his parents joined him in Napa.
“I like the smallness of it,” Burnett said of Napa Christian. “There’s a friendly vibe and you have only about 10 kids in classes, so you can really lock in and focus. On the court, it definitely helps me lock in even more and have fun doing what I love to do.”
He said he liked Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard and everything else about the program in Lubbock.
“He definitely has a great staff, from the assistant coaches to the graduate assistants, everyone on board,” he said. “They have a great culture there. The town is similar to Napa as far as being a small town, and Lubbock is all about basketball and that’s what I love. People love it there. It’s a passion of mine so I can’t wait to get out there.”
Burnett said the Red Raiders’ playing style suited him, too.
“I did a lot of research on their defense and their offense and I felt like I would fit in really well,” he said.
After winning four games over two weekends at Napa Valley College, Prolific Prep traveled to Champaign, Ill. for the Chambana Classic this past weekend. The Crew improved to 6-0 with a 107-82 win Friday over St. Louis Christian Academy of St. Louis, Mo., and 105-81 win Saturday over Aspire Academy of Louisville, Ky.
The Crew will begin their Grind Session schedule this coming weekend at the Duel in the Desert in Scottsdale, Ariz., playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Burnett said the grind of Prolific Prep’s national schedule shouldn’t be too different when he gets to college.
“Prolific Prep definitely helps me with (travel) and, you know, the wear and tear and learning how to take care of your body, stretching and stuff like that,” Burnett said. “I’m pretty prepared. This is what my parents and I prepared for and I can’t wait to get to the next level.”
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The Crew are a favorite to win the national championship, and Burnett said that’s more motivation than pressure.
“We have the experience and talent to do so, and I feel like our guys are ready,” he said. “We all work hard, so you’re always going to be prepared when you work hard.”
Hawkins got a chance to visit his future hometown this past weekend.
“I had a good time on all my visits, but I felt like my visit to Illinois was great,” he said. “They showed me lots of love. It was really a family kind of bond when I was there. Being with the players was great, and they have a great fan base. I couldn’t go anywhere without taking pictures with fans. The facilities are getting upgraded and State Farm Center’s a great place to play, too.”
The Illini were 12-21 overall and 7-13 in the Big 12 Conference last season, but Hawkins like third year Illinois head coach Brad Underwood.
“Coach Underwood’s a great coach. He’s getting into the years where we’re gonna go up,” he said. “He’s gonna be great for me and great for the future players that I’ll be playing with. I trust him and I trust all the other coaches. It’s a great conference with a tough opponent every night, so it’s gonna be great.”
Hawkins said he found a good host family in the Greenlees, whose son Brayden is a returning starter for defending Vine Valley Athletic League champion Napa High.
“I was out of my comfort zone last year, but now I’m situated, feeling comfortable and just building a bond with my teammates. The coaches have helped me out a lot and I’m always on the road with them, so building a bond with them is a great thing to have for the future.”
All three of Hawkins’ sisters went on to play in college – Taylor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, Ashley at the University of Evansville in Indiana, and Bailey at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. Taylor was the assistant coach at Central Wyoming College last winter. Their father played for San Diego State.
“There’s not a lot of people who get a free education like this and coming from a basketball family, I’m happy to be a part of it,” Coleman Hawkins said.
Gigiberia told the Register that it’s just a coincidence that he chose a school in a state with the same name as his homeland. One reason he did chose it was because he has an aunt in Atlanta, but he doesn’t plan to live with her.
“Before coming to the U.S. I was playing in Spain for two years, so I was always used to being away from my family,” he said.
He averaged 5.0 points, 3.5 rebounds. .4 assists, .3 steals and .3 blocks in 18 games last season for Findley Prep.
“I did not play a lot. I don’t know why,” he said, but added, “U.S. basketball is much different than Euro basketball, and I think I wasn’t all the way ready for it. When I came here last year, everything was different – school, living with teammates, and I had never done conditioning before. I had an opportunity to play pro basketball in Europe this year, but my goal is to be in the NBA and I thought the best way would be to play high school and college basketball.
“I try to dominate inside, score, block shots and get rebounds, but I have a nice shot, too,” he said.
Gigiberia didn’t travel with The Crew to Illinois but looks forward to playing this weekend in Arizona.
“The team is looking really, really good and we play good together.”
Josh Pastner is in his third year as Georgia Tech’s head coach after guiding Memphis to five postseason berths in seven seasons.
The first thing I liked was the relationship between me and Coach Pastner and his staff,” Gigiberia said. “They’ve know me two years already and they’ve been offering me for like one year. They saw my games in the U.S. and Europe. The second thing, I really like the conditioning coach. He’s challenging me to get better and get my body right for college basketball.
He said playing in Napa has helped him focus on basketball.
“It really helps me because in Napa there is really nothing to do except go to the gym, which is good for me,” he said.
Doherty wrapped up the ceremony by talking about the life of a Prolific Prep player.
“We have kids from all over the world, from 17 countries, and each and every one of them has worked their tails off and sacrificed a lot. Some move away from home, some of their families move away from home,” he said. “Oftentimes we move on to the next thing and don’t stop and say ‘You know what? I just accomplished a lot.’
“We probably have the best group of kids we’ve had in the six years of this program, on and off the court. That speaks to them and their families, to them as players, and to the ecosystem around them. Each and every one of them as peers stimulate each other, too. They create competition and help with confidence and the different things kids deal with as they go. All the kids here have worked really, really hard. They’ve put in thousands of hours, whether it be with (Prolific Prep strength and conditioning coach) Jon McCall, or their individual skills, or SATs, or their teachers.
“Now their college education is going to get paid for, so let’s congratulate them.”