Jesse Bunting never saw his uncle, 6-foot-8 Allen Bunting, play college basketball at San Diego State (class of ’76). Or suit up in the top-tier men’s league in France in the 1980s. But the Plymouth teen picked up the basketball gene.
At 6-7, 225 pounds, the 17-year-old Bunting is one of the top prospects in the Northeast.
After averaging a team-leading 20 points and 11 rebounds at Plymouth North, the center/forward transferred to Tabor Academy in Marion, where he was reclassified as a junior.
Making the move to a prep school from a public school to improve a player’s college recruitment is an increasingly common route. Dennis Clifford (Milton Academy), a junior center at Boston College who started his high school career at Bridgewater-Raynham, and Butler freshman guard Rene Castro (Milton High/Worcester Academy) are two recent examples from the region.
“There’s a lot better competition in prep school,” Bunting said. “And our league [Atlantic Coast] would be lacking competition, especially this year, if I was playing in it.”
Another perk for repeating his junior year is an extra season of Amateur Athletic Union ball, because those clubs do not accept seniors. Bunting plays for the Expressions Elite 17U team under coach Tyron Boswell.
Bunting said he grew to love the game playing pickup games with his father, 6-5 William, in the driveway of their home in Encinitas, Calif. He moved to Plymouth with his mother, Cathy, when he was 9 and set a goal in eighth grade to pursue the game collegiately.
Standout performances on the high school hardwood and for his high-profile club team — which features two of the nation’s other top 50 players — have helped generate interest from Holy Cross, Quinnipiac, St. Bonaventure, Vermont, and Stony Brook, among other schools. A 2-inch growth spurt within the last year did not hurt either.
Tabor coach Chris Millette, in his sixth season, said he was impressed by the way Bunting dunks the ball with ease.
“He’s going to have a huge year,” Millette said. “He runs like a deer and that’s how we like to play. We try to get up and down a lot and score easy baskets.”
Clifford, currently sidelined at Boston College with a knee injury, was also an impact player in high school. He said the professional academic attitude of his peers during his two years at Milton Academy was a “night-and-day” difference compared with public school.
He started on varsity for three seasons at B-R and still regrets that he never graduated with his hometown friends, but said the move helped him develop into an elite player.
“The part I had to get used to was handling the academic stress along with going to practice twice a day,” Clifford said. “But . . . the gym was 100 yards from where I lived. That opportunity wasn’t always there at public school.”
The 7-foot, 260-pound Clifford can remember persuading B-R teachers to watch him shoot basketballs by himself because of a rule that required faculty to be present to use the gym.
Those resources, combined with an extra year on his Bay State Magic AAU team, paved the road to BC. But success is not guaranteed with a move from public to prep school.
“I tell people all the time, if somebody asked me to do that, I would never do it when I was in high school,” said Milton Academy coach Lamar Reddicks, who starred at Milton High before playing collegiately at Division 2 Bentley. “It’s definitely a gamble, but it allows some kids to be able to mature and grow.”
Clifford said financial considerations were weighed in his decision to transfer to Milton Academy, but he believes the investment was a smart one.
Boswell said the majority of the players on his Expressions’ roster attend prep schools, many having made the move from public schools.
He said he has seen the prep school experience — complete with doing laundry, studying, and being responsible for getting to class on time — help with a smooth college transition.
Six players from last year’s Expressions team, who all reclassified, have committed to Division 1 schools. Senior Jared Terrell, a guard at Brewster Academy who started high school in Weymouth, is included in that group. He is bound for Oklahoma State.
“I didn’t have any idea I was going to go to prep school until going into my sophomore year,” Terrell said. “The MIAA league that I was in, I was dominating my sophomore year. I just thought it’d be a better move; I’d be playing better competition every day.”
The 6-3, 220-pound Terrell originally transferred to New Hampton, where he reclassified as a sophomore. But he moved on again last year to Brewster, where he will graduate this spring.
Boswell said reclassifying has its advantages because it allows extra time to develop skills, but the process is evolving in lieu of NCAA rules that will go into effect for student-athletes who enroll in 2016.
Under the old model, incoming high school freshmen need to complete 16 “core classes” with a minimum 2.0 grade point average by the time they graduate. Now, those potential recruits will have to complete 10 of 16 classes before their senior year and all 16 in four years (with at least a 2.3 GPA).
“They won’t even take your repeat year,” Boswell said in reference to a student’s fifth year of high school, which falls past the NCAA mandated four-year deadline. “The trend now is that the kids will repeat earlier in middle school, where it doesn’t count.”
But for Bunting, the focus is on making academics count, so his Division 1 dream will not be interrupted.