Terrence Clarke is already breaking a sweat.
It’s July 9 and Clarke is on the court at the Sudbury Fieldhouse, knocking down jump shots. In the morning, his AAU team, Expressions Elite (Boston), will leave for Nike’s Peach Jam championship in South Carolina. Practice hasn’t started, and the muggy gym is mostly quiet as players trickle in. Others sit in the bleachers, lacing up their sneakers.
Clarke, 18, is focused on every shot, watching each bounce off the rim as if staring hard enough could will the ball through the net. He allows himself a small smile when a perfect swish has the ball rolling right back to him.
Soon, Clarke challenges his coach, Kenneth “Boobie” Jackson, to their regular game of one-on-one before practice. Clarke shouts, “Coach, you can’t guard me!” and players look up from their iPhones, watching as the two meet at the top of the key.
It’s not long before the 6-foot-6-inch Clarke is baiting his coach with a crossover, between-the-legs dribble. When Clarke gets a step on him, he glides full speed to the basket and finishes with a finger roll. It’s not much of a game after that.
“I don’t like to lose,” Clarke says after practice. “You could ask any of these people here. I hate losing.”
His competitive nature has helped make him the third-ranked boys’ high school basketball player in the country for the class of 2021, No. 1 in Massachusetts, according to 247Sports. He is being recruited by big-name schools and has narrowed his list to Duke, Kentucky, Memphis, Boston College, UCLA, and Texas Tech. He has been invited to exclusive workouts and pickup games with NBA players such as Carmelo Anthony, Donovan Mitchell, and Trae Young.
On Saturday, he is scheduled to hold a press conference to announce his college decision.
It’s rare air for a Boston player. Clarke, a junior at New Hampshire prep powerhouse Brewster Academy, grew up here and knows the names Wayne Selden Jr. and Shabazz Napier. But even they didn’t have as much hype coming out of high school as he has. (Selden was ranked No. 14 in the country while Napier was No. 82, according to 247Sports.)
Clarke is the first player from Boston to garner this much national attention in more than a decade.
“Boston is a great basketball city,” he said. “I really want to do this for myself, but I also want to do this for my community because [Boston] has never been on the map. Nobody would say, ‘Oh, [top] basketball players come from Boston.’ I want to be the person to make that happen.”
To understand what basketball means to Terrence Clarke, you must travel to Roxbury.
The bustling Boston neighborhood has produced NBA talent such as Jalen Adams, Selden, and Napier. Clarke looked up to all of them growing up, and though he currently lives in Roslindale, he spent a lot of his childhood at the Vine Street Community Center. It was a safe haven in a troubling environment where he could have fallen in with the wrong crowd.
“I’ve been in the middle of shootouts, I’ve seen it all,” Clarke said. “But I was like, ‘If I stay in the gym, I can play basketball and have fun all day.’
“I lived at Vine Street. I would go there from 8 a.m. to work out, then I would get some food, come back, take a nap in the computer room, and then go back and play again.”
Clarke first discovered basketball while at his grandfather’s house, where he’d watch old Larry Bird-Magic Johnson Celtics-Lakers games on NBATV. When the network aired a special about Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962, he stared at the screen in awe. I want to be that guy, he thought.
Brandon Watson, a gym teacher at Young Achievers Academy in Mattapan, gave Clarke his formal introduction to the sport. And while most kids played for fun, Watson saw a serious competitive drive in Clarke as a second-grader.
“From the moment he got introduced to the game or saw it, he probably ate, slept, and pooped basketball,” said Watson. “He was always a little bit better than everyone else.”
Young Achievers did not have a program for his age group, so Clarke played up with fourth- and fifth-graders. He’d want to spend all hours of the day practicing different moves, and would cry if he had to leave the gym.
“That was all the time,” Watson said, laughing at the memory. “It would be fun for some of these kids, but for him it would be competitive. His love for the game, you see it in very few kids. You know that he’s going to be something special.”
Clarke’s skills advanced thanks to a mentor, Dexter Foy, whom he met when he was in going into fifth grade. Foy and Maurice Smith, another AAU coach, noticed him playing at the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury. His height made him stand out; he grew to 6 feet by seventh grade.
Before long, Foy was designing workouts for him at gyms like Vine Street, focusing on his ball handling and shooting.
“I really was in the gym with him every day in the summer,” Clarke said. “I had no childhood because the main thing I wanted to do was play basketball.”
Clarke’s parents, Osman Clarke and Adrian Briggs, worked often — his mother worked three jobs at one point — so Foy took on a supportive role. He not only brought Clarke to practices and workouts, but was there for birthday parties, Celtics games, and trips to Chez Vous, a roller skating rink in Dorchester.
“He took me in as a son,” Clarke said. “He was the one that put me in the gym and found me a trainer, but also took me in like his own.”
Compared with other top recruits in his class — such as explosive wing Jonathan Kuminga (New Jersey) or skilled forward Patrick Baldwin (Wisconsin) — Clarke stands out as an athletic shooting guard and energetic playmaker who is dangerous with the ball. He can finish in traffic, knock down shots, or throw effortless no-look passes to open teammates.
In his first season for Brewster last year, Clarke averaged 15.9 points, scoring 25 points against top-ranked New Hampton. He gained national attention for his monster dunks and versatility, even with current Phoenix Suns guard Jalen Lecque, 19, playing right beside him.
The decision to transfer to Brewster from the Rivers School in Weston came out of necessity: Clarke knew the program, and coach Jason Smith, would challenge him. Still, the transition was difficult.
“The first couple practices, I cried because I thought that it wasn’t going to work out for me,” Clarke said.
“It’s like, you’ve got to sacrifice some things. That’s how I look at it. I’ve got to sacrifice being in the neighborhood to focus on my game, school, and books. Of course I love the game, but I want to carry my family.”
It’s all paying off. This summer, he played in almost every elite camp, from the USA Basketball camp to the NBA Players Association’s Top 100 camp, where former Celtics guard Ricky Davis called him “one of the best players” at the camp.
“He’s been the top-five prospect since he came into the picture,” said Adam Finkelstein, a national recruiting analyst for ESPN. “Has terrific positional size, he’s a very fluid athlete, he’s got a lasting body type, he covers the court. Most kids that are 6-foot-6 don’t move like he does.”
Eric Bossi, a national basketball analyst for Rivals.com, said, “He’s on the track of someone who projects as an NBA player. Off the top of my head, certainly in the last 5-10 years, I don’t think there’s any question that he’s the best prospect from Boston.”
Still, being an elite prospect in high school doesn’t necessarily translate to NBA stardom.
“If he’s going to remain elite going on at future levels, he’s going to have to establish reliable weapons that can change the game against even higher levels of competition,” said Finkelstein. “That’s the next step for him.
“Physically and athletically, I think he can definitely step in and hold his own at that level.”
Top prospects grow by playing up to their competition. In Clarke’s case, he has competed against top prospects his age and older, such as Jalen Green and Zion Harmon.
“Ever since I was younger, I wanted to go [against] those kids,” Clarke said. “I always went for those top guys, like Jalen Green. When we were at Hoop Group and I went at him, I was like, ‘You are No. 1 and I want to get your spot.’ ”
Alexis Reyes, a 6-5 shooting guard from Roxbury who plays with Clarke on Expressions Elite, describes Clarke as “versatile.”
“His game is unique,” Reyes said. “I feel like he’s picked up on a lot of things, especially athleticism and strength.”
Finkelstein says that with that kind of hype, it can be hard for young athletes to stay focused.
“For Terrence or anyone that has that kind of status, what’s most important is prioritizing the right things,” he said. “The Instagram followers, the social media stuff, video cameras, all of that stuff is quite frankly insignificant in terms of the bigger picture when you’re talking about a guy that has the type of opportunity he does.”
Clarke can’t bring himself to imagine playing in the NBA yet, in part because the dream is so big. He remembers how much he looked up to players like Rajon Rondo, and how they inspired him.
“He was a problem back then,” Clarke said of Rondo during his Celtics days. “Him passing to Ray Allen with his back turned, throwing alleys to Kevin Garnett. I used to go on his website, and listen to the music he listened to and watch his videos.”
One of Clarke’s favorite basketball memories is attending a Celtics game when he was 8 and meeting Rondo.
“I stopped and froze,” said Clarke. “I don’t know how the security let me do this, but I ran to him screaming, ‘Rondo! Rondo!’ I shut down crying and he said, ‘Keep working.’ That advice changed me.”
Clarke saw things come full circle when he met Rondo again at the NBA Players Association camp last year.
“I told him that I always looked up to [him] and he told me I was a great player,” said Clarke. “Hearing that from him was crazy.”
It’s a compliment that sticks out, even as the hype around him grows. Though Clarke appears in the top five on mock NBA Draft boards in 2021 , and his “end goal” is the NBA, he said he is not rushing it, and he won’t say whether he’s trying to be a one-and-done college player.
“I really want to go to a school that has a lot of player development, get me ready for the NBA,” he said. “But, I want something that’s outside of school, like Duke has ‘The Brotherhood,’ or Kentucky with all the players that have been there, they’re all a family. I want a player-development and a family-oriented school.”
No matter where the sport takes him, Clarke says he wants to be appreciative of the journey. He returns to Vine Street regularly because he knows where he came from, and how Boston helped make him better. If he does make it big, he wants to return the favor.
“There’s kids out here that play basketball [but are] never known because they never had the opportunity,” he said. “I want to do a lot for the community, [be] the guy the younger kids to look up to and say, ‘I want to be like him, or better.’ ”