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christopher l. gasper

He’s 16, the top prospect in his class, and playing for Team USA. How does AJ Dybantsa stay focused amid the hype?

St. Sebastian's AJ Dybantsa (left) is the most hyped local high school basketball player since Patrick Ewing.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

There’s no offseason in today’s basketball incubation process. The top high school prospects bounce from one proving ground to the next. Brockton’s AJ Dybantsa, the No. 1-ranked high school player in the Class of 2026, is now a national name playing for the national team as part of that high-intensity hoops production line.

The most hyped high school prospect produced in these parts since Patrick Ewing, Dybantsa’s offseason has been a coronation/coming-out party. ESPN anointed him the top prospect in the country in his class in April. Named Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year as a freshman playing for St. Sebastian’s in Needham, Dybantsa is suiting up for the Team USA 16-and-under team in the FIBA U16 Men’s Americas Championship in Mérida, Mexico. The event is a qualifier for the FIBA U17 Men’s World Cup. The US has won seven straight gold medals at the Americas event dating to its inception in 2009.


Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum, Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal, and 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes are among those who have suited up for the U16 team. Dybantsa, 16, is the first high schooler from Massachusetts to do so.

“I mean, it has been a dream since I’ve been playing basketball to wear this jersey, to represent my country,” said Dybantsa. “It’s just a bigger picture of basketball. Both my parents aren’t from here originally. I always represent them, but I also want to represent myself and this country.

“There’s all the big names that came before me, and you think about that wearing USA across my chest.”

Dybantsa is the No. 1-ranked high school player in the Class of 2026.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The 6-foot-8-inch Brockton-bred baller is the lone Class of 2026 player in the starting lineup for a loaded US team that features three of the top 10 players in the Class of 2025: No. 1-ranked Cameron Boozer and guards Darryn Peterson and Isiah Harwell. Boozer, the son of former NBA player Carlos Boozer, has a twin brother, Cayden, who is also ranked in the top 25 in the Class of ’25.


Even on a team full of standouts, Dybantsa is standing out.

The US romped to a 3-0 record in group play, advancing to the quarterfinals Friday to face Uruguay. In a 122-53 blowout of Mexico Wednesday night, Dybantsa had a team-high 23 points in 19 minutes. He added five rebounds, six assists, and three steals.

His point total could’ve been higher, but twice on breakaways, with a signature dunk imminent, he elected to throw the ball off the glass to teammates for unselfish alley-oops.

“It’s like an All-Star team,” said Dybantsa. “We’re all unselfish. We’re all top players who want to ball hard. But we want everybody to score. We want everybody to eat. I love playing with these guys.”

The dynamic forward’s maturity mirrors his game — beyond his years.

Dybantsa is the third-leading scorer on Team USA at 13.7 points per game, ranking ninth in the tournament. But he ranks second in the tournament in assists (4.3) and is top 10 in steals. He’s also second in field goal percentage, shooting a sizzling 63.3 percent.

“You’re not always going to be the man here,” said Dybantsa. “You have to learn a different role and be able to affect the game in other ways, affect the game without scoring.


“You’re not going to score 20 points every game playing for Team USA. We have learned to be happy with that because we all have the same goal in mind.”

Dybantsa has hardly had a break since the heartbreak of St. Sebastian’s losing the NEPSAC Class A title game to Milton Academy, 77-76, on March 5.

He has been with Team USA since May 25, when training camp commenced in Colorado Springs, surviving the cut-down from 39 to 12. Before that, he was playing on the prestigious Nike Elite Youth Basketball League circuit.

After Team USA, he is scheduled to go to the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 camp, a prospect camp run by the NBA players’ union. Then he’ll hit up the Nike Peach Jam showcase in early July.

How does he find time to be a kid?

“I kind of don’t find time. As bad as I sound,” he said with a chuckle. “I have a goal in mind. Hopefully, I make it and I’m happy with the result. If you ask all my friends, I don’t go out. I’ll be in the gym or sleeping.”

Dybantsa’s father, Anicet “Ace” Dybantsa Sr., is cognizant that his precocious son needs a basketball breather. Ace, a Boston University Police officer who hails from the Republic of Congo, and his Jamaican-born wife, Chelsea, have plans for a family vacation in July.

“No basketball, just … let him be a kid,” wrote Ace in a text.

For better or worse, the Basketball Industrial Complex is going to force Dybantsa to grow up fast. He’s a basketball brand now. He’s on the radar of hoops cognoscenti who want to be clued into the Next Big Thing.


“Uh, yeah, 2023, social media is everywhere, the attention is getting bigger. People are hyped up more,” said Dybantsa, who already has offers from Michigan, Alabama, Boston College, and UConn, among others.

“I’m definitely a target. People want to beat the No. 1 so-and-so. But I love to compete. I know people are going to try to make a name off my name.

“I’m going to play hard, regardless. I might lose, but as long as I don’t get — what’s the word? — exposed, or anything. And winning is the main goal.”

Dybantsa refuses to get caught up in his ranking. There are cautionary tales of uber-hyped prep prodigies such as Lenny Cooke and Emoni Bates, who adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore but might not even get drafted this year.

Dybantsa said other New England talents such as Taylor Bowen of Florida State and the late Terrence Clarke, who went from Dorchester to Kentucky and then tragically died in a car accident in 2021 while training for the NBA Draft, advised him to ignore the rankings.

“I don’t pay attention, I do not care about rankings,” said Dybantsa. “It’s just a number.

“We have unranked guys here on Team USA, guys who are not five-stars. JJ Mandaquit isn’t ranked. He’s starting on our team. It doesn’t matter if you’re No. 1 or you’re unranked, if you can hoop you can hoop.”


Dybantsa can hoop.

You can believe his hype precisely because he’s not feeding into it.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @cgasper.