The Next Big Thing in basketball plays in our backyard.
You haven’t heard of him yet, but drop St. Sebastian’s star AJ Dybantsa’s name to NBA super agent Rich Paul or Celtics star Jaylen Brown and they know who he is.
The 16-year-old from Brockton is the most highly touted local high school hoops player since Nerlens Noel was ranked No. 1 nationally in the Class of 2012. He’s the best prospect since Terrence Clarke, a top-10 recruit who attended Kentucky and tragically died in a car accident in 2021 while training for the NBA Draft.
Dybantsa could be the biggest basketball sensation here since Patrick Ewing dominated at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. A freshman, Dybantsa was the No. 1-rated eighth-grader in the nation last year, and is viewed by several basketball sites as the presumptive No. 1 player in the Class of 2026.
Despite being the birthplace of basketball and hosting events such as the Boston Shootout and Hoophall Classic, Massachusetts isn’t regarded nationally as an incubator for NBA talent. The Boston-area basketball ecosystem doesn’t receive the respect that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Seattle do.
Dybantsa takes pride in showcasing Boston basketball.
“A lot of pride, Terrence, [former UConn star] Jalen Adams, Patrick Ewing are from here. But not a lot of people are from here, so to be able to put Massachusetts on the map is great,” said Dybantsa.
“You always have to prove yourself on the court. Someone is always coming for you next. So, you know, I think the other states like New York, all them, they produce more natural talent — I’m not saying they’re not good or they don’t work hard for anything — but they produce natural talent. So, we’ve got to step a little harder because not as many [players] came from here. So, they’re going to look down on us.”
The precocious and unassuming Dybantsa is next in line in a proud lineage of local high school basketball standouts, names such as King Gaskins, Jimmy Walker, Ronnie and Russ Lee, Ewing, Rumeal Robinson, Dana Barros, Wayne Turner, Shabazz Napier, Noel, and Noah Vonleh. Expanding outside Route 495 we can count former NBA players Travis Best (Springfield) and Michael Bradley (Worcester).
One veteran basketball observer and evaluator who requested anonymity cautioned against getting caught up in rankings but acknowledged Dybantsa passes the eye test.
“He’s a big wing right now at any level,” said the evaluator. “It’s not like he’s not got the length right now. That kid already has the prerequisite size for a pro two-guard. All of his God-givens — explosiveness, motor, bounce — he checks the boxes.”
It would be a disservice to all the work Dybantsa put in during COVID — working out four times a day outside — to say he’s a natural. Righthanded, he’s uncommonly adept with his left hand for his age. However, you can’t teach 6 feet 7¾ inches with his athleticism, some of which he inherits from his father, Anicet “Ace” Dybantsa Sr.
A former soccer goalie at Massasoit Community College, Ace works as a Boston University police officer. Engaging and gregarious, Ace cuts an impressive figure at 6-4.
Ace was born in the Republic of Congo and grew up outside Paris. He’s fluent in French (AJ speaks it, too). He came to the United States at age 21 and met Dybantsa’s mother, Chelsea. They have three children, with the family’s budding basketball star in the middle.
“I’m just AJ’s dad now. I have a name,” joked Ace.
St. Sebastian’s is no stranger to producing professional athletes, but they’re usually ticketed for NHL ice. Dybantsa is rebranding St. Sebs as a hoops powerhouse.
Dybantsa played for St. Sebastian’s last season as an eighth-grader, averaging a little less than 20 points per game.
The Arrows (25-1), who captured their second straight Independent School League (ISL) title this year, advanced to Sunday’s New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) Class A tournament final by defeating Williston Northampton on Saturday. They’re far from a one-man team. Yale-bound senior guard Trevor Mullin just surpassed 2,000 career points.
But Dybantsa is the main attraction for coach Dave Hinman’s squad.
What stands out about Dybantsa is how unselfish he is. He lets the game come to him. He doesn’t demand the ball or shots. He’s willing to play center, even though his future is as a wing.
You don’t have to watch long to see the Dybantsa Difference.
In a 72-52 quarterfinal-round win over St. Paul’s, the lithe phenom swallowed up shots on back-to-back possessions, blocking one with two hands.
He posted up a defender for a beautiful, turnaround jumper — the preferred weapon of elite wing scorers such as Kevin Durant. KD is Dybantsa’s favorite player, although he said he also takes pieces from Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George.
Dybantsa’s high-flying pièce de résistance in a 22-point effort was indicative of his potential. He grabbed a rebound and took off like a drag racer. Around the top of the key, he shed a defender with a nifty behind-the-back dribble, zoomed into the lane, and threw down a one-handed slam.
The teenager said it was only in mid-air that he decided to dunk it. It must be nice to make those kind of decisions on the fly (pun intended).
You can Google Dybantsa’s name and find write-ups and endless highlights, including a 73-point performance in a prospect showcase in September. He boasts nearly 35,000 followers on Instagram. Young fans ask him for selfies after games.
It’s challenging for any 16-year-old to be comfortable in their skin, never mind one garnering the attention Dybantsa is.
“You just stay humble, stay in the gym,” he said. “What got me here is what will push me to the next level. I don’t pay attention to all the extra stuff off the court.”
Dybantsa can lean on the Celtics’ Brown for guidance.
“He said he was in my same position, so he was just telling me to stay in the gym,” said Dybantsa. “That’s what is going to get me there.”
A famous NBA parent also endorsed him. Ace told a story about being in the airport following the Nike Peach Jam, a huge AAU showcase. There was a man eyeing his son, and Ace asked him why he was staring. The man said he reminded him of his son, “Kevin.”
The man was Durant’s father, Wayne Pratt.
One day there might be a high school hooper being told he reminds them of Dybantsa.