Donald Villard didn’t necessarily fall in love with basketball at an early age.
The freshman at City on a Hill Charter School discovered his love for the game when he began playing AAU in seventh grade, and because he was already 6 feet 5 inches tall, coaches and scouts began to find him.
Now 14 years old and standing 6-9 with a 7-3 wingspan and size-19 shoe, Villard is regarded as a tantalizing prospect, coveted by prep schools that have tried to recruit the Roxbury teen.
But the shy, only child and his single mother, Keena, chose for him to stay close to home at the charter school with only 70 kids in his class in Dudley Square.
“Donald has always been the tallest kid in his class and on the playground,” said Keena. “He’s definitely a humble kid, so the attention that’s coming his way has been exciting, but it hasn’t made him feel like he’s better than any other kid.”
Since there are now 81 charter schools in Massachusetts with more than 34,000 students and more than 58,000 students on the wait list, Villard is already getting an individualized education, further diminishing the need to transfer to a prep school.
If Villard wants to know about the potential drawbacks of transferring from school to school, looking for the best opportunity to showcase his talents, he needs to only ask his coach, 25-year-old Timmance McKinney.
McKinney’s journey to becoming one of the youngest varsity coaches in the state began in Jamaica Plain. He played for three high schools and three junior colleges before returning to Boston to begin coaching.
“That journey made me realize I wanted to be a mentor and help kids not go through what I went through,” said McKinney, who stated on his personal website (timmancemckinney.com) that, “putting sports before school at a young age really hurt my future.”
When he added Villard to his United Elite AAU team in seventh grade, McKinney knew the young man’s natural ability would garner extra attention.
“Being that size with agility, you can’t teach that,” said McKinney. “That’s always going to put [Villard] ahead of the pack.
“He loves basketball but he’s 14 years old and a lot of things are coming at him so fast. We’ve been talking about it more and more. He’s a real humble kid, real quiet, but he’s starting to know that the spotlight is coming and he’s going to be in that spotlight no matter what he does.”
So far, Villard is providing steady production at the high school level with 10 points, 20 rebounds, and 11 blocks through City on a Hill’s first two games.
While he’s far from polished, Villard’s eye-popping potential has been on display when he sprinted the length of the floor to easily block a lay-up on two occasions this season.
“For kids that are celebrated at an early age, in most cases, it’s premature,” cautioned Adam Finkelstein , founder of the New England Recruit Report. “In Donald’s case, he has some raw physical tools, but for every one who maximizes that, there are two kids that don’t make it.
“There’s a really big difference between being very talented and very good.”
Playing against older competition on the AAU circuit the past two summers has given Villard a taste for what he’d be up against if he decides to pursue high-level basketball.
Recently, McKinney said that Villard’s embraced the challenge by requesting individual drills to work on his shooting, ball-handling, and time to study film of towering NBA players, such as Mo Bamba and Tacko Fall.
“I want to be able to take care of my mom in the future, and I know basketball will help me do that one day,” said Villard. “My mom works hard to provide for me, so that’s what drives me every day. I just want to focus on my game and get better, so when it’s time I can get interest from colleges.”
McKinney, who has another long-term prospect in freshman guard Shakai Campbell , maintains that he wants to help determine what’s best for each kid, and if possible, help them get to the next level.
McKinney is good friends with Roxbury native and former Kansas standout Wayne Selden Jr., a donor to his AAU program, and is well aware of the difficult road to basketball stardom. He recognizes his protégés, Villard and Campbell, may decide to get more exposure at a bigger school.
“I’ve been completely honest with both of them,” said McKinney. “But for [Villard], it might not matter where he’s playing. With that size and promising athleticism, he’ll have people in the gym no matter where he’s at.”
The world of recruiting can be cold and calculating, so perhaps it’s wise for Villard’s mother and mentor to keep him out of the spotlight for now.
“With anyone who is that young and has some markers for future success, seeing the big picture is really important,” said Finkelstein. “Wherever [Villard] is, he needs to be in a situation to develop daily. Not just athletically, but socially and academically.”
Kristen McDonnell , the former Braintree girls’ varsity coach, scored her first win as the boys’ coach at Norwood High on Friday when Demauri Daniels nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 22 seconds left to help the Mustangs defeat Dover-Sherborn, 53-51 . . . King Philip senior Andrew McKinney scored a career-high 22 points and senior Alex Fritz also set a career-high with 36 points, including a buzzer-beater to edge Sharon, 86-84 . . . In his first varsity start, Hingham senior Luke Mashburn scored 23 of his 28 points in the second half to spearhead a 64-62 comeback win over Whitman-Hanson . . . Westford stunned defending Division 1 Central champion Acton-Boxboro, 55-41, behind 15 points from Aryah Purandare . . . Arlington transfer Colin McNamara had a stellar debut for Noble and Greenough, scoring 16 points with the go-ahead basket in a 57-56 win over Belmont Hill . . . George Smith scored 12 points with a game-tying 3-pointer to help Brooks top Lawrence Academy, 83-79, in OT.
Games to watch
Lawrence at Lowell, Wednesday at 7 p.m. – Both teams return a ton of experience with their sights set on the MVC Large crown. Lawrence earned a 20-point win in its opener at North Andover.
Brookline at Newton North, Thursday at 4 p.m. – These rivals faced off three times last season with the Tigers winning the final meeting in the Division 1 South semifinals. No love will be lost with the afternoon start time.
TechBoston at New Mission, Thursday at 5:30 p.m. – New Mission transfers Dhakari Brown and Jaquan Stroud have joined the Bears and will go up against their former team in a BCL showdown.
St. John’s Prep at St. Mary’s of Lynn, Friday at 6:30 p.m. – St. Mary’s, never afraid to challenge teams from higher divisions, welcomes the Division 1 Eagles in an early-season test.
Mansfield at Lynn English, Monday at 6:30 p.m. – Mansfield handed the Bulldogs one of their two losses during a state title run last year. English will look for revenge at home.
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.