Beaming with ambition, Dukes joins elite company

On Thursday night, Captial Prep (Conn.) point guard Kahlil Dukes became the 17th player in the history of Connecticut boys high school basketball to score 2000 points. The milestone was just another on the long list of awards and accolades that he has achieved over the course of his career.

Dukes has been a mainstay in New England high school basketball for the last four years -- and he didn’t waste any time either, scoring a combined 62 points in his first two high school games as a freshman. He kept those high scoring totals up, averaging 29 per game as a freshman and going on to score his 1000th point as a sophomore. He was also named to the Connecticut High School Coaches' Association's All-State Team the last two seasons.

The University of Southern California offered him a scholarship last April. His AAU club Connecticut Basketball Club (CBC) was in Las Vegas in July, and that was when Dukes made the decision to commit to the Trojans. One of the first people he told was Montverde Academy guard Kasey Hill. The Florida-bound Hill, the ninth-ranked player in ESPN's Class of 2013 rankings, befriended Dukes on the AAU circuit last summer.

“I was just happy for him, I knew how much he wanted that. I just told him to keep working,” Hill said.

Dukes’ commitment was partly a basketball move, certainly. The Trojans play in one of the nicest venues in all of college basketball, the $150 million Galen Center. USC’s athletic programs are consistently some of the most successful, and most well funded, of any athletic department in the country.

He couldn’t hide his excitement with the facilities on his official visit this past fall. While other recruits went to house parties after they watched the Trojans’ football team trounce Pac-12 rival Cal, Dukes went to the gym to get shots up at 11 p.m.

“I was there alone. A high school kid on his official visit, and I was the only person in the gym,” Dukes said.

His high school coach, Levy Gillespie, Sr. has known Kahlil since he was a kid. Gillespie’s son, Levy, Jr., is a junior on Capital Prep’s squad who is quite the talented guard himself, scoring his 1000th point against famed Brooklyn, N.Y. power Lincoln last month at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield.

“He’s always been a focused kid,” Gillespie Sr. said, “He’s in the gym all the time, he’s not a party guy. He’s not hanging out late with guys. He goes to the gym at 6 A.M., goes to school, and works out afterwards. Then he goes home, washes his practice gear, does homework and goes to bed. He’s a creature of habit.”

On his relationship with the Gillespie’s, Dukes added, “I’ve known Levy and his did since I was like seven or eight years old. We’ve won and lost by 40 together. They were there when I committed [to USC] and when we traveled everywhere. They’ve been with me since I was little.”

Even despite all the long nights in the gym, the hundreds of hours that he has spent studying his own gametapes—a habit he has exercised most of his high school career, Dukes has developed goals for himself that stray far beyond the basketball court. When he enrolls at USC this August, he will do so with the intention of studying at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Yes, the lightning quick guard with the smooth jumpshot and killer crossover wants to be a filmmaker.

“I like the writing part, I do a lot of writing and spend a lot of time on that in my free time," he said. "I like to express myself and tell a story that I see through my eyes. That has a lot to do with how directors make films, and I think I have a talent in that.”

“I always wonder what the director was thinking [when I watch a film],” Dukes continued. “How did he think a part of his film would effect people?”

He knows the ball will stop bouncing eventually, and when it does, he wants to have a plan for the rest of his life.

“I think it’s fair to say that I have goals outside of basketball," he said. "This game doesn’t last forever. My body is killing me already—I’m a senior in high school, so I know one day my time [as a basketball player] will be over.”

He’s also done a number in reaching out and mentoring some of Capital Prep’s younger talents. As a part of his senior justice project at Capital Prep, he started the Kahlil Dukes Basketball Academy, a program that he created himself to mentor some of the promising young freshmen on Prep’s varsity team. At weekly sessions with the freshmen players, Dukes would work them on skill development, stress the importance of academics, and teach the young players how to become people of high moral character.

“There’s a lot the game can do for you. I talked to academic counselors about what they liked in students. I taught the kids that with things they are good at—master them, things they aren’t good at--get better at it. I taught them about training right, and having the right attitude, too.”

Learning the right attitude was admittedly a process for Dukes, but being mentored by Gillespie and learning from other star players like Hill and his good friend Kris Dunn, a former McDonald’s All-American who is now a freshman at Providence, has humbled him and brought to light in his own eyes what is important. Hill, for example, wasn’t surprise in the slightest when he heard about what Dukes wants to study at USC.

“A lot of guys like us, we try to not to get cocky,” Hill said, “We just love to play basketball. People may look at us differently or look at us a different type of way [because of stardom], but really we just happen to be regular guys who are good at basketball.”

The only thing on Dukes’ mind this basketball season is winning a state championship. Capital Prep made it to the Class S state championship last March, but fell to Immaculate in a hearbreaking loss. It was a day Dukes will never forget, partly because he had a bad shooting day and was never able to get any type of rhythm going offensively. Through a lot of film studying in the offseason, he realized he needed to tweak his game a little bit.

“I just try to be very efficient now," he said. "Freshman year I was averaging 29 a game, but the thing is I was taking 22 shots a game. I’ve scored 28 points or more a lot this year, but I’m taking a lot less than 20 shots.”

Last week Dukes had his biggest game of the year against University High, a game that he and his teammates knew would be a war given both teams’ regular season success thus far. His efficiency was on full display, as he scored 40 points on 15-for-27 shooting from the floor. He also dished out 10 assists, many of which went to Gillespie Jr., who scored 33 points and had eight assists of his own.

Even following his best game of the season, Dukes expected more out of himself.

“I watched the game tape, I had 40 points and I missed five layups and two free throws," Dukes said. "The thing is, I should have had 60. I missed five threes, two of which were wide open, and those five layups. One of the layups was so clean that I missed it -- like I was too open, it made me so mad. I want to be a winner, I want to win.”

Now moving to 16-2 with the win last night, Capital Prep has emerged as one of the best teams in Connecticut. They’ve made it clear that if they advance to another state title game this year, the leadership of Dukes and his captains will be solely focused on the state title. The vocal leadership, Gillespie says, is an aspect that Capital Prep needed from Dukes.

“A couple years ago he wasn’t a vocal leader,” Gillespie said, “He was a scorer who went and did his own thing. But I think with helping and giving back to people, he’s bought into that [leadership]. Kahlil is a deep kid if you get to know him and talk to him.”