High School Sports

What does this Modesto Christian star have in common with LeBron James?

Modesto Christian's Aaron Murphy passes off the ball during the Modesto Metro Conference game with Gregor at Gregori High School in Salida on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018.
Modesto Christian's Aaron Murphy passes off the ball during the Modesto Metro Conference game with Gregor at Gregori High School in Salida on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. The Modesto Bee

Aaron Murphy received startling news over the weekend. The Modesto Christian High junior had been drafted ...

By the Oakland Soldiers, one of the top AAU basketball programs in the country. The Soldiers have been a launching pad for some of the game's best talent, including four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, Brandon Jennings, Drew Gooden, Chauncey Billups and Modesto Christian's own Chuck Hayes, who built a hall-of-fame career at the University of Kentucky.

Murphy will play with the 17-and-under squad on the Nike EYBL summer circuit. He'll have the chance to play front of college basketball's elite coaches -- think: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky's John Calipari -- against the top players in the 2019 class.

"Honestly, it's the biggest name, the best-known AAU program in the country," Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia said. "Everyone knows the Soldiers. This is big. ... Like the Oakland Soldiers told Aaron and his mom, 'We're putting you on the biggest platform in front of every college coach in the country. Now it's up to you to perform.' The platform doesn't get any bigger. He'll be playing in front of the Coach Ks and Caliparis of the world."

Murphy is still in shock.

"I didn't think something like this was coming. It caught me by surprise,” Murphy said. “I didn't think I was that good ... to be playing for the Oakland Soldiers.

"It means a lot, knowing all the good players who have played with the Soldiers and played in the league. It proves anything is possible. I just have to make the most of the opportunity and keep working."

Murphy has come a long way in just a year.

Before the start of his sophomore season, he suffered a horrific knee injury during a scrimmage at Ripon High and missed the entire season. Fantazia said he would have likely started on varsity, contributing to a team that won 22 games, reached the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I tournament, and qualified for the CIF State D-I tournament.

"Physically, I can handle the pain and handle coming back," Murphy said. "Mentally, though, it was horrible. The first two months, how slow I thought it was going, I really didn't think I'd be able to come back. If someone told me, I'd be playing this good with all this support, I wouldn't have believed them. It was hard, but by the grace of God, I'm here."

Murphy is starting to realize his potential. At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, he has the size to guard the low block, but his length and athleticism make him a force in transition. He's averaging 12.2 points and leads the team in rebounds (7.7) and shooting percentage (68), based on players with at least 100 attempts.

Modesto Christian entered the week 20-3, including 10-0 in Modesto Metro Conference play, and ranked ninth in Cal-Hi Sports' state poll. The Crusaders are No. 2 in Northern California.

"He's still getting his game back and realizing how dominant he can be," Fantazia said. "I know how good he can be, but I didn't know other people were seeing it, as well. He's playing great this year, but potential-wise, he has as much potential as anyone around. I'm happy he's starting to see some of the hard work pay off."

The Soldiers have fished from this pond before.

Three former Crusaders have gone pro after starring with the Soldiers, including Hayes, who played for the Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors; David Paris, who played in Germany; and Adrian Oliver, who played at Washington and San Jose State before chasing his professional dream in Greece. Ripon's Justin Graham also played for the Soldiers before a short professional stint overseas; he's returned to coach his alma mater.

Murphy hopes to be the fourth Crusader on that list, but his short-term focus is on guiding the Modesto Christian's title chase. Modesto Christian is a heavy favorite to contend for Sac-Joaquin Section and CIF State banners.

"I'm locked in right now," Murphy said. "I got to focus on state."

Murphy feels indebted to Hayes, who launched Chuck Hayes Basketball, an AAU program focused on the Central Valley, in 2015.

"I know Chuck on a personal level," Murphy said. "Chuck has helped me and taught me ... he taught me what type of attitude to have on the court. It means a lot. I know if it worked for him, it's going to work for me too.

"When you go out there, when you go to all of these tournaments and you know everyone is watching, most of all you're doing it for yourself, but you're also representing the people who have faith in you and have helped you along the way. You know you have to handle your business, because you don't want to embarrass yourself and the ones who have helped. It's a respect thing."