Boston High School: Vin Pastore

AAU pals Joseph, Adams on a tear for Cushing

February, 11, 2013
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Kaleb Joseph didn’t know much about life away at prep school when he made the decision to transfer from Nashua South High School to Cushing Academy halfway through his sophomore year.

“I was pretty nervous about leaving home, I had never done anything like that before,” says Joseph. “But I think it’s helped me a lot as a person, and of course as a player too.”

As a player, his on-court maturity may be the most impressive part of Joseph’s progression. Before last summer, the knock on the 6-foot-2 junior was that he didn’t have the ability to run an offense or create for others. Through experience and playing for talented squads at Cushing as well as for his Mass Rivals AAU team, Joseph has truly learned how to unselfishly create for others and play the point guard position.

Then again, sharing the same backcourt year-round with one of New England’s best scorers probably helped a little bit.

Jalen Adams dominated Middlesex League play as a sophomore at Melrose High, taking home MVP honors and earning a spot on ESPNBoston.com's All-State Team, before making the decision last fall to transfer to Cushing and re-classify to the 2015 class. Over the summer playing for Vin Pastore with the Rivals, the high-scoring Adams developed quite the on-court chemistry with Joseph, who at the time was still trying to prove his worth at the point guard position to high major coaches.

The Rivals traveled all over the country last summer, winning the Hoop Group Providence Jam Fest and the NERR Northeast Hoops Festival, making the final four of the highly prestigious Adidas Super 64, as well as traveling to Indianapolis. The players spent a lot of time together, and while they were tearing teams up on the court, Joseph and Adams became close friends off it.

“With teammates, we’re on the road all the time, you have no choice but to be close with them. You’re together constantly,” says Joseph.

“[The chemistry] happened quickly during AAU,” Adams said. “Kaleb and I are pretty close. We hang out a lot off the court, I go to his house a lot. We’re pretty good friends. We spend a lot of time going to open gyms and then playing video games [during downtime].”

Local schools quickly took notice of Adams, whom Pastore calls “Roxbury tough.” The talented sophomore was offered by both Providence and UConn last August. Adams has on several occasions topped the 30-point plateau in games this season, and because of that, he is quickly developing a national reputation.

A similar pattern has unfolded with Joseph. He has blown up on a nationwide scale—with offers now from high-level programs like Syracuse, Maryland, Tennessee, and Seton Hall. Even Duke made a call a couple of weeks ago to inquire about him.

“Most players think of offers as a big accomplishment, but for me it’s more of a reason to work harder,” Joseph said, “If they don’t think you’re ready [when you get to college], then it doesn’t mean anything. When I get calls, it makes me feel good that hard work is being noticed, but it also means you have to work even harder.”

Pastore is one of the elder statesmen on the New England AAU circuit. He’s been coaching AAU for 23 years, but has no problem giving credit where it is due.

“They’re the best combination of guards I’ve ever coached. Kaleb is fine with Jalen scoring 30 and him only getting 10 or 15, they understand that being unselfish will benefit them in the long run. Both great people too, you’re talking about zero maintenance kids.”

Joseph considers Pastore one of his mentors, as he spends a lot of his offseason working out with Pastore or Scott Hazelton. Hazelton was a McDonald’s All-American while starring for Central Catholic in the late 90’s, he now coaches the girls team at Bishop Guertin (N.H.) and runs the girls side of Mass Rivals AAU. Because he played professionally overseas, a lot of Pastore’s players on the boys side have learned from Hazelton, who was mentored and played AAU for Pastore.

“It means a lot that he said that about us. If you know Vinny, you know he doesn’t give out compliments often, so it feels good that he thinks that. Again, It only makes me want to work harder, though,” Joseph said.

Joseph and Adams roomed together at Cushing up until early January. Because of the constant shuffling of rooms in dormitories, Adams was moved to a different dorm. In their time living together at school though, Joseph was happy to develop a bond with Adams and help him with adjusting to life away from home:

“It was Jalen’s first year here, and he didn’t know what to expect," Joseph said. "So I knew exactly what he was going through. We talked about that a lot [in the fall].”

He continued, with a laugh, “Has he learned from me? I’d say yes and no. Yes because Vinny will have me look after him because he’s kind of a goofball sometimes. But no because to Jalen it doesn’t matter how old he is, he’s going to take care of business and get it done.”

They both have certainly gotten it done so far this prep season. Cushing is in second place in NEPSAC's loaded Class AA field. Two of their three losses, Marianapolis (Conn.) and Kimball Union (N.H.), have come by a combined four points. Joseph still has two more years of prep ball to be played at Cushing, while Adams has three. With their unselfish mindset and willingness to do whatever it takes to win, Cushing sure won’t be losing many games over the next two years.

“The leadership says a lot about Kaleb. He wants to lift himself up, he wants to lift other people up," Pastore said. "That tells you something about him. Kaleb’s a special young guy, he’s deep, there’s a lot to him, and Jalen has spent a lot of the last year proving people wrong one-by-one.”

“When you get players like those guys, as a coach, a lot of it is luck. They’re sort of like brothers, you always want to see your brother do even better than you.”

The Precious Noah Vonleh Experiment

December, 24, 2010
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HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Slung high in the bleachers above his junior varsity teammates is the can't-miss kid everyone's here to see, all six-foot-seven of him, his black military jacket accenting a loud, fat mohawk that covers the crown of his skull. Noah Vonleh is looking intently over an assistant coach's shoulder as he goes over the game plan for 30 minutes from now against these host No. 8 Andover High Golden Warriors, at once seemingly acutely aware and indifferent that slowly the crowd is gathering for perhaps a few reasons, but a glaring one in particular: him.

Long-time Syracuse associate head coach Bernie Fine is here for him. So is his AAU coach, Vin Pastore. So are a few other lower-level scouts, high school assistants from further down the schedule, and two rowdy student sections, armed with newspaper clippings, matching shirts, air horns and even a bass kick drum.
[+] EnlargeNoah Vonleh
Kristen Hunt for ESPNBoston.comIndiana signee Noah Vonleh has been a beast for New Hampton this winter.

And they watch as the 6-foot-7 forward with the 7-foot wingspan repeatedly carries the ball upcourt, through a strenuous press, and either throws the ball to the corner or creates space on the perimeter with the drive-and-kick, only to watch those efforts turn into bricks, airballs and turnovers. As the tallest, longest, and certainly most athletic kid on the court, Vonleh merely reaches his arms out and slaps loose balls back out to the perimeter -- but again, only to watch shot after shot clank off the iron.

He racks up his first foul, an offensive, just a minutes into the game; a second foul, this one defensive, comes with two minutes to go in the quarter. And he quietly retires to the bench, with nary a shrug. No hands in the air, no stomping of the feet.

It isn't until late in the game we see Vonleh's best exploits. Down 17 and turning things up furiously, Vonleh takes to the post, where he takes high entry lobs and repeatedly draws contact fouls from help defenders. The Hillies wound up losing this season-opener, 59-50, thanks to some impressive hustle plays from Andover's gritty leader Joe Bramanti, but the most impressive play might have been the final one. With just seconds left, his teammate decides to throw up one final three point attempt, but the trajectory of the shot screams airball. Vonleh, playing the Lorenzo Charles to his Dereck Wittenburg, instinctively grabs it out of the air and forcefully slams it home, drawing a ring of ooh's and ahh's from the crowd making its way to the exit signs.

Right now, it seems, Vonleh's talents are being handled at Haverhill like a Faberge egg. But then again, a skill set like this for a 15-year-old only comes around once a generation in the Merrimack Valley.

THE HYPE

Vonleh, currently ranked the No. 26 overall prospect nationally for the Class of 2013 by ESPN, has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year. Playing with the Rivals AAU program -- headed by Pastore and featuring Division 1 talent that last summer included Ryan Canty, Zach Auguste and Jordan Laguerre -- Vonleh wowed scouts with his ability to fit into any position one through four on the floor, create his own shot, penetrate and finish off the dribble-drive.

St. John's Prep guard Pat Connaughton, himself an ESPN100 player committed to Notre Dame, recalled an impressive display by Vonleh -- playing for the Rivals -- in a matchup this fall against Connaughton's Middlesex Magic. He said Vonleh was "the best player on their team" and was "the one that gave us the most trouble". To Connaughton, Vonleh was "almost like a point guard for them", dribbling with his head up.

"His ability to dribble, and then go from a dribble into a pull-up, for a big kid like that, usually when you’re big like that you’re put into big man positions all your life," Connaughton said. "So for a kid that size to be that skilled with the ball, to be able to dribble the ball through the legs and then right into a pull-up like a guard is really, very good for him."

Within the ten-team Merrimack Valley Conference, annually one of the state's deepest and most competitive, and producer of two of the last three state champions, Vonleh is drawing even greater prose among the league's coaching minds.

"Oh my God, yeah, he’s a puppy. He’s not even 80 to 90 percent of where he’s gonna be," Andover head coach Dave Fazio said following the win over the Hillies. "I mean, he’s just a puppy. He’s trying to run a point with five tough Andover defenders aware of every step he makes, he can’t gap us because we’re not gonna let him gap us. He’s being asked to do an awful lot. His skill set is going to be through the roof. You put him with kids of his caliber, I mean he’s just going to be a terrific player. I mean terrific, terrific player."

The list adjectives already used to described his seemingly limitless potential goes on and on. And with his big hands and feet, and his frame not quite yet filled out, there is still some growing to do. All of that, and more, has drawn scholarship offers from Boston College and Pitt, and has schools as high as Syracuse, Kentucky and North Carolina have shown interest.

His best days, it seems, are straight ahead.

THE HUMILITY

Renell Vonleh moved to Salem, Mass. from Liberia in 1994, after spending some time in the neighboring Ivory Coast when Civil War broke out in the late 80's and early 90's. Today, she finds herself raising Noah and his sisters Samnell (14) and Aaronette (7) as a single mother working nearly 80 hours a week as a registered nurse, split between Jamaica Plain's Lemuel Shattuck Hospital and Sherrill House.

That often leaves Noah as the man of the house, but there's little goofing around. Renell finds time on Sundays to take Noah and his sisters to either New Life Christian Assembly in Haverhill, or the Evangelical Christian Church in Peabody; and while she is at work, there is work to be done at home.

"Basically basketball is his focus, but he has to have a balance," Renell said. "He has to pay attention to his studies, build up character. It’s a work in progress, but for the most part he’s a good kid."

Noah speaks quietly, and sparingly, in short sentences, when spoken to. His goals? "I'm trying to get to that number one spot," he says sheepishly.

His reaction to the hype surrounding him? "I'm just trying to live up to it."

And so forth. But when it comes to dribbling, Noah is far from shy.

Growing up watching highlight clips of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and now keying on the likes of LeBron James and Tyreke Evans, Noah is known to get up in the middle of the night and take to the wood living room floor at his Lakewood Terrace house. Sometimes as late as midnight, he might move some furniture out of the way, throw on some classic hip-hop albums -- a little Illmatic here, a little Ready to Die there -- and go through all the crossovers, spins and euro-steps he's fond of on the court.

Mom's cool with it, though she's had to replace the floor.

"Whenever I don’t do my dribbling drills (at practice), I don’t feel complete without them, so I’ll do them at any time of night," Noah says.

Says Haverhill head coach Mike Trovato, "Religiously, for 45 minutes to an hour, he's ballhandling, it just shows. That doesn’t come overnight. His hours are sometimes you call him at his house and you hear the ball bouncing in the background."

Sometimes, he'll even venture down the street to a dimly-lit court and practice his three-point shot. Other times, he'll get in up to 500 shots in a day, whether someone's rebounding for him or not.

"He'll come from working out with coaches, and two hours later he wants to work out again," Renell said. "Sometimes at midnight outside house in neighborhood shooting and practicing three-pointers, I have to tell him he has to be respectful of neighbors."

That intrinsic motivation, it seems, is what separates him.

"He's got a God-given talent, you know, and hes a bright kid," says Pastore, who's been coaching Vonleh since the fifth grade. "And I think he recognizes he has some tools from God, and he wants to make best of him. Work ethic is clearly a talent some kids have and some don’t, and he's got as good a work ethic as anybody I've coached."

Alluding to former McDonald's All-American and Central Catholic star Scott Hazelton, himself a Rivals alum who now helps coach Vonleh, Pastore continued, "Scott was a work-a-holic, but Noah’s talents are well beyond Scott’s. God’s gift, you know. I really do think that."

THE FUTURE

The question at this point isn't what Vonleh can do, it's what to do with him.

Vonleh projects to play either forward position, and with such versatility amongst a young supporting cast this is a team that will rely heavily on his talents. And with that in mind, the No. 14 Hillies have stumbled out of the gates; two nights ago, they fell to 1-3 after a 53-49 lost to Pentucket, a second straight loss that will almost assuredly drop them out of the MIAA Top 25 when the new poll is released on Monday.

The road doesn't get any easier, either. With matchups next week against Everett and No. 10 Cambridge in the BABC Holiday Classic, the Hillies could be looking at 1-5 headed into the beginning of January. Being in the Merrimack Valley Conference's Large division means they'll be facing Andover again, and have two more games coming against No. 2 Central Catholic and No. 16 Lowell. This could very well be a .500 season for the Hillies, with such a young core.

That won't stop all the ink, all the hype in its tracks. But Trovato feels Noah knows better.

"I think he’s smart enough to know, it’s that ‘P’ word –- potential," Trovato said. "He can be great, or he can be awful. And I'm sure some people are never going to hit it. And I really don’t, we’ve been around a lot of kids from a lot of different areas, and I think Noah’s definitely one of those kids that’s going to keep working.

"He loves to play, and that’s what I tell college coaches. The best thing about him is he loves to play. Morning, night, anytime. You call him to go play, he drops what he’s doing to go play."

Said Pastore, "He’s off the charts in so many categories, the only thing he's got left is time. That will take care of the rest. When Pitt walks into the gym...there's nobody [college coaches] that they don’t leave without saying they love him."

And that love, that intrinsic love, has the attention of many eyes. They can't wait to see what he does next.

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