Imagine for a moment that you’re tasked with designing a high school basketball program from scratch. Your primary objective is to create an environment that will prepare your players for success in college basketball. This includes getting them noticed, i.e. recruited, but also giving them the best chance to succeed once they get on campus and join the team. Where would you start? What would you prioritize? Who would you reach out to?
Whichever direction you decide to go in, chances are that if you actually were to throw yourself into it and see it through to the end, the finished product would probably look like the Vermont Academy Men’s Basketball program: 6:00 A.M. workouts in front of dozens of college coaches; traveling halfway down the eastern seaboard during Christmas break by bus just to play two games, then stopping in on a high-level college practice on the way home to observe and take notes; individualized weight training; mandatory study hall; and training on how to interview with and impress college coaches.
These are just a few examples of the lengths the program goes to prepare their players for the next level. It is a substantial investment, and it takes a certain level of diligence to keep up. The program has made a conscious choice that preparing these young men to be successful in college both on and off the court and upholding the true mission of the school is more important than winning, more important than headlines, more important than the personal ambitions of the coaching staff, and more important than generating revenue.
And that commitment has led to a situation where kids from other schools with an opportunity to transfer in – and college coaches looking to stock their programs with talented, tough, intelligent players who can handle whatever schoolwork is thrown at them, won’t get in trouble off the court, and most importantly, can both contribute right away as freshmen AND continue to get better as the years go on – are organically attracted to the program.
Vermont Academy was founded in 1876, has just 240 students, and is located in Saxtons River, down in the southeast part of the state, adjacent to the border with New Hampshire and not too far north of Massachusetts. It is a place that even Vermonters consider “the middle of nowhere,” but its proximity to Vermont’s more populous neighbors makes it less remote than it feels.
While the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council has been a high school basketball hotbed for more than two decades now, Vermont Academy more or less joined the fray in 2010, when former head coach Jesse Bopp took over the program and began producing competitive teams. Players also started receiving Division 1 scholarships, which eventually led to Bopp himself leaving for a job on Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU (he later moved on to New Mexico State and is now on the staff at IMG Academy, who Vermont Academy will face off against this weekend). Bopp left in 2013, and after a year with his assistant Cody Hatt – who eventually joined Bopp at VCU and then followed Shaka Smart to Texas as Director of Operations – in the top job, the school reached out to current head coach Alex Popp (rhymes with cope, not cop) in July of 2014.
Popp came to Vermont Academy from Holy Cross, where he was Director of Basketball operations. Previously he had been the associate head coach for a very good Middlebury team and an assistant player development coach in the NBA D-League (now G-League). Before that, he played at Minnesota before transferring to Division 2 Assumption College, where he received a full scholarship, and was an assistant coach while getting his Masters Degree at Springfield College.
Despite this experience, Popp was only 29 when he took over the program, but he very quickly used his deep connections in the New England AAU scene to recruit more talent to Saxtons River and to build on Bopp and Hatt’s legacy. As with Middlebury and Holy Cross, Vermont Academy has fairly strict academic standards, many of which are non-negotiable. Instead of harping on it, Popp used it as a positive. The high standards became a selling point to college coaches. Some worried about their players failing to qualify or becoming academically ineligible, and others about their own schools’ hard-to-meet academic standards. Either way, the idea of players fully prepared for the academic rigors of college appealed to them.
Popp’s first year in charge was 2014-15. The team featured four all-league players, going all the way to the NEPSAC final. Four seniors went on to play college basketball, at Bradley, Rhode Island, Harvard, and Wake Forest. In 2015-16, the team returned all-league combo guard Bruce Brown, who impressed all summer on the AAU circuit and jumped up a few spots on the recruiting rankings going into the season.
The ’15-16 team ended up going 27-5, producing five all-league players, graduating six players who went on to play college basketball (at Miami, Xavier, Winthrop, Carnegie Mellon, West Virginia Wesleyan, and St. Lawrence), and won the NEPSAC Class AA title for the first time. Bruce Brown was NEPSAC AA Player of the Year and played in the Jordan Brand Classic, and Popp was named coach of the year in the league.
By this point, more than a few people had started to notice, including one of the most plugged-in recruiting analysts in the country, Adam Finkelstein of ESPN, who had this to say about the program:
“Vermont Academy has experienced as much of a basketball transformation as any school in New England over the last five years. They’ve proven to be a program that can attract highly talented individual players and then mold them into cohesive units capable of competing at the highest levels of prep school basketball. They are well coached, always disciplined and taught to play the game the right way.”
Last year the program had four more all-league players, made the NEPSAC Final Four for the third straight year, and sent seven kids on to play college basketball, five of them to Division 1 schools on full scholarships (D1: Louisville, Butler, VCU, UVM, Jacksonville; D3: Tufts, Colby). They also added an elite Canadian prospect, Simisola “Simi” Shittu, who transferred from Montverde, a Florida-based program widely considered among the best in the country (Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell went there, among many others).
Shittu had shown a lot of promise at Montverde, but Popp and his assistant coach Matt Elkin saw a greater potential, and he was determined to help him reach it, no matter the consequences. Mike Yagmin, a well-connected writer for New England Recruiting Report who is extremely close to the NEPSAC scene and has been a long-time observer of the Vermont Academy program, described how it happened:
“When Simi was at Montverde, scouts fell in love with him as a rim-running big who was relentless on the boards. With Montverde’s personnel, he might have been stuck in that role despite having the ability to do a lot more. So when Simi showed interest in coming to Vermont [Academy], Popp told him that he would have every opportunity to play with the ball in his hands, act as a facilitator and show everything in his bag on a nightly basis. It wasn’t just lip service to get him on campus either. There was an adjustment period early last season when Simi was finding ways to keep guys like [Jordan] Nwora [now at Louisville], [Marcos] Santos-Silva [now at VCU] and Christian David [now at Butler] happy but Popp never went back on his word.
“I think it even cost him a few wins last year. I know it cost him a lot of criticism from other coaches. But look at what Simi has turned into because of that opportunity, because of that patience and because Popp kept his word. We’re talking about a future lottery pick who is comfortable, productive and dynamic from anywhere on the floor. When scouts talk about Simi now, they better be making comparisons to Ben Simmons not Ben Wallace. Popp’s obligation is to developing his players, not to pleasing the outside critics, and I respect the hell out of him for that.”
No wonder they like to call it a “player’s program” around the VA campus. That doesn’t mean the inmates run the asylum or that the rules don’t apply. In fact, far from it: Popp and Elkin demand discipline and an all-in attitude, and are constantly pushing their players to work harder and sacrifice more. In return, they treat the players with love and respect, and perhaps just as importantly when dealing with millennials, they treat them as peers, equals, fully formed human beings with opinions that matter. You don’t have to be a hardcore fan to be generally aware that this power dynamic between coach and player isn’t the norm.
The vibe was relaxed on the team’s charter bus last week as they traveled down the east coast to Delaware for the “Slam Dunk to the Beach” tournament at Cape Henlopen High School near Rehoboth Beach. It felt a long way from the “traditional” dynamic one used to picture of a high school basketball team, with a greying, out-of-touch, disciplinarian coach up front, and a group of kids in the back, all eager to escape his wrath.
On the Vermont Academy bus, the players and coaches often trade tips on the latest hip-hop releases, and during slow stretches of the trip, everyone watches Entourage re-runs together, laughing at the same jokes, bonded at some level by a shared millennial experience, even if Coach Popp does happen to be nearly twice as old as the team’s sophomore starting point guard, Symir Torrence. The players address Popp casually, by his last name, with no “Coach” or “Mr.” preceding it, and they feel comfortable joking around with him.
Elkin, a University of Wisconsin graduate with deep roots in the local amateur basketball scene, plays a key part in keeping the atmosphere around the team light yet focused. His background includes stints working as a graduate assistant for a loaded Northeastern team that made the NCAA tournament and for the storied BABC AAU program out of Boston, which was the summer home of Bruce Brown, among other other Vermont Academy players. Elkin is in his mid-20s, old enough to be the career-focused hoops junkie that he is, but young enough to relate to the players and what they’re going through in a very real way. Already a strength of Popp, Elkin’s ability to relate to players allows the program to double down on the idea that the players and staff are united in one unit against the outside world, rather than a players vs. coaches dynamic that occurs in too many other programs.
The coaches raise their voices only out of necessity, when the players are too far away or the gym is too noisy, and there isn’t any other option. Usually during games. Otherwise, they get their point across softly and persuasively. They don’t rule with fear at all. It isn’t their style, and on top of that, it isn’t really necessary. Fear languishes over the prep basketball scene in spades anyway – the fear of not getting a D1 scholarship, of not going pro, of not “getting out,” of getting injured, of not fulfilling their talent. The fear is real. What Popp and Elkin have to do is get them to look past that and be willing to trust them about what it takes to make it.
Here’s how Popp puts it, when asked to describe how he sees the process of getting the players to buy in completely:
“Over the course of my career I have learned from and collaborated with some of the best coaches in the world. As an instructor, I have leveraged those experiences and developed a coaching style centered on fundamentals, balanced with an energetic and team-focused approach. Consistency and unrivaled work ethic are hallmark characteristics of any successful basketball player, and I strive to inspire those qualities in every student-athlete and in every facet of their life. I challenge each of our players to control the things they can control and trust the process.”
Elkin elaborated about the specific process they’re trying to get their players to buy into:
“On off days or in the offseason, we take our guys to watch college practices so they can see the energy and intensity on display. The more we expose them to different campuses, environments, coaching staffs, and programs, the more it will help them as they begin to create their lists of what is most important for them in finding the best fit for college.
So far, it appears they’ve been getting the job done. As Vermont Academy has become known for producing college-ready players, players at less-structured programs have taken note of the idyllic campus set against a picturesque New England backdrop and flocked there in the hope that it will deliver them to a top-flight Division 1 program prepared to succeed. Just look at a small sample of the current VA alumni across College Basketball:
- Bruce Brown, SOPH at Miami (#22 in the RPI) – averaging 11.8 points per game and pegged as a possible lottery pick
- Tyrique Jones, SOPH at Xavier (#4) – starting every game and averaging 20.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per 40 min
- Jordan Nwora, FRESH at Louisville (#32) – playing 12.5 minutes per game and shooting 40% from outside the arc
- Christian David, FRESH at Butler (#23) – starting to show signs off the bench for a deep Butler squad after returning from a knee injury
Take it from Butler head coach LaVall Jordan, who as an assistant at Michigan recruited David: “Give Chris a lot of credit. He lets me coach him hard. He lets the staff coach him hard. He embraces the process.” Coming from a coach, there isn’t much higher praise, although that depends on who is receiving the message. Bruce Brown’s mom, always a major part of Brown’s life and who had been used to getting calls praising his basketball ability, was most thrilled to hear Miami coach Jim Larranaga call and tell her that Bruce had made honor roll with a GPA better than 3.0 after spending most of his childhood as an indifferent student. The difference? Vermont Academy, at least according to Brown himself: “From the minute I got to Vermont, my grades improved. I started focusing, and the teachers helped me prepare for college.”
The formula makes sense when you think about it. Most kids aren’t stupid; there is a capacity to do schoolwork somewhere within them. But many public schools aren’t in a position to provide the type of learning experience that anyone beyond the most self-driven students thrive in. Anyone who has the discipline to turn themselves into a good enough player to play at Vermont Academy has the discipline to succeed in the classroom. It’s just a matter of tapping into it properly, and that is something the school as a whole, and specifically the basketball program, does very well.
Back in 2016, Brown and his then classmate, current Xavier power forward Tyrique Jones, also elaborated on what the program meant to them, soon after their on-court journey at VA had ended.
According to Brown, “this program has been EVERYTHING to me. Before I came here I had no offers. I didn’t get looks at all. Bopp and Popp both made me a better player. We got in the gym and worked. Before I came here, I didn’t really work out like that at all. They were working with me at 6 A.M. They believed in me, told me I could be a top hundred player.”
Jones sensed, “at my old high school I didn’t feel like I was developing. As soon as I came here it was a totally new community, and Coach [Popp] has really helped me develop. It’s a great program for any kid coming up. You come here and Coach [Popp] is going to showcase you in front of a hundred coaches, and you just have to show your talents. Showcase what you can do. Someone, the right coach, will find you.”
In 2018, where every potential recruit is plugged in through social media to all of their peers as early as elementary school, this type of buzz doesn’t stay secret for long. Vermont Academy’s reputation has trickled into every corner of the basketball world, from AAU coaches to unofficial advisors to big-time college coaches like Roy Williams (who could be seen alongside dozens of his colleagues at the VA gym at 6 A.M. one weekday this past fall just to get an in-person look at Simi Shittu) to NBA evaluators (who have been calling Popp for info on Bruce Brown for nearly a year now, a trend that will only grow as Simi begins his career for Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt, a school he picked over North Carolina and Arizona, among many others). This creates a strong enough attraction to the program that Popp and Elkin were able to re-stock on the fly with almost an entirely new roster for the 2017-18 season.
Evan Daniels of Scout.com, perhaps the most cited authority on the basketball recruiting trail, notes of Popp, “Alex does a great job with the Vermont Academy program. They are a must-see team for me every high school season, as he always accumulates top tier talent.”
And Daniels’ rival Corey Evans, of Rivals, adds that “in scouring the nation all winter long, there aren’t many better at developing, competing, winning, and producing as often and frequently as what Coach Popp and his staff put on the floor in any given contest. While others roll the balls out and just play, Vermont Academy has become known for its winning pedigree and ability to help prospective athletes achieve their goals of playing at the next level in college.”
So far this season, the pace shows no sign of relenting for Vermont Academy. The team is now 9-4 after a slow start during which everyone was still getting used to playing alongside one another and Popp and Elkin were still tinkering with lineups. They swept both games in Delaware despite Simi Shittu going down in the second quarter (in the midst of a MONSTER game – he already had 17 points) against Gray Collegiate Academy with a scary-looking knee injury. The team responded by focusing on moving the ball even more than their pro-style offense already does, and they haven’t lost since.
The next few weeks will represent their toughest test of the year. Tonight they face Brewster Academy, a longtime national power from neighboring New Hampshire with a long list of NBA alumni including Donovan Mitchell, plus a good claim to being a trailblazer of sorts for the type of program Vermont Academy has become, and IMG Academy over the weekend at the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts. The HoopHall Classic is the most prestigious high school basketball tournament in the country, and Vermont Academy has been invited three years in a row.
Later in January they will play Tilton (alumni include Nerlens Noel) and New Hampton (Rashad McCants, Noah Vonleh), two other prep powers from New Hampshire that have long been pillars in making the NEPSAC the best conference in the country when it comes to producing college basketball players, along with South Kent, alma mater to Isaiah Thomas and Dorell Wright, among others.
Whatever the exact outcome of those games, there are a couple of things you can count on. Popp and Elkin will keep their nose to the grindstone, another group of highly touted young players will arrive on campus next year, prepared to be molded into young men ready to contribute at the next level, and sooner rather than later, a team you care about, either college or pro, will have a player who once wore the orange and black for the Wildcats of Vermont Academy.
Until then, if you’re looking for the future of the sport, look no further than a small, humid gym along the banks of the Saxtons River in southern Vermont, where a group of men, from all different backgrounds and from all over North America, brought together by their similarities rather than being driven apart by their differences, are working toward a common goal under the watchful eyes of their two thoughtful mentors.