Albany, N.Y. – Last summer, when Jim Hart talked about the cancellation of the EYBL season, the Albany City Rocks coach mused about what a summer without grassroots basketball might mean for someone like J.J. Starling.
Starling, the point guard from Baldwinsville, would have seen his basketball stock skyrocket with the signature 17U City Rocks team, Hart predicted. With the eyes of the college basketball world upon him during live recruiting periods, he would have risen to a new level of high school basketball stardom.
What those missed summer sessions did, it appears, is merely delay the inevitable.
Starling would soon transfer from Baldwinsville to national power La Lumiere for his junior season. He would appear on Top 100 recruiting rankings for the Class of 2022 and would accumulate more than 20 Division I college basketball offers.
But last weekend in Albany, Starling boosted himself onto a path that ends with five-star status.
For four games at the Gym Rat Challenge at the Albany Capital Center, the 6-foot-4 guard was a dominant, dazzling force. Twice, he scored 30 points. He sank shots off the dribble, he finished at the rim, he converted in the mid-range. His performances came in a gym full of observers and media; college coaches watched via live stream to honor NCAA recruiting restrictions.
Starling, who recently turned 17, turned heads. Jonathan Givony, whose Draft Express scouting reports are an industry standard, said Starling “just absolutely exploded” during the Memorial Day weekend tournament.
“He’s just a very versatile offensive player with a lot to his game, especially for a kid that age,” Givony said.
“Because we still haven’t had a ‘live’ period, this weekend was a big coming out party for him,” said Hart. “He produced four straight games at a high level against four EYBL teams.”
Gilbert Speights might not have imagined the scope of Starling’s steady rise. (“That would be Shaman-like,” he said.) But what Speights noticed the first few times he worked with Starling was his knack for listening, for absorbing and for executing those lessons on the basketball court.
Speights, the Henninger High School coach, played high school ball for the Black Knights with Starling’s dad, Patrick, in the 1980s. Over the years, Speights and former Syracuse star Billy Edelin formed a Gym Ratz skill and development partnership that worked with local kids to improve their games.
About 10 years ago, Patrick Starling told Speights his son decided to stop playing Pop Warner football and focus exclusively on basketball. Could Gil help with some fundamental skills?
Speights was impressed immediately by J.J.’s motor. The Gym Ratz staff wants each kid to understand the importance of ball-handling and dribbling. Kids progress through standard cone drills to more elaborate exercises. J.J. Starling was 7 or 8 when he first started with Speights.
“As I did the basic stuff, J.J. would pick it up faster than anybody else would. He was at kind of an accelerated rate,” Speights said. “I would attribute that to his active mind. I thought from the beginning that J.J. always approached the drill work and the situational stuff with an active mind because he was always asking questions, he was always absorbing.”
For about seven years, Speights said, Starling would show up at Nottingham High School, where Speights was the JV coach, or at the Downtown YMCA to work on his game. He was getting As in his classes back then, a trend that would continue through his high school years.
“I kid with his mom and dad,” Speights said. “J.J. is so disciplined, he’s so high-level academic, so high-level character. We knew that he would either run a Fortune 500 company or be the face of one.”
Starling had a decision to make after a sophomore year of dominating Central New York high school teams. He chose La Lumiere, a nationally-ranked prep school in LaPorte, Indiana, the place former City Rocks star Isaiah Stewart chose to finish his high school career.
Givony saw him play a few times last winter.
“All that talent, you could see it in flashes. It’s never like we thought he wasn’t talented,” Givony said. “He was just always so quiet. Where is that aggressiveness, where is that self-confidence? And it’s interesting to see all of that come together this weekend.”
Leaving home for prep school was an adjustment for Starling. He built his body, which grew from 6-feet to about 6-4 within a couple years. He and his dad said the diet and nutrition specialists at La Lumiere helped transform his typically-lanky teenaged frame into the solid 200, 205 he weighs these days. Patrick Starling said La Lumiere practices twice per day and intersperses weight training with calisthenics.
With the City Rocks this spring and summer, Hart encouraged Starling to be aggressive. This was his team, the culmination of years of working and waiting.
Hart describes Starling as “a perfectionist.” He hates missing shots in drills and “will beat himself up over it.” But Hart wanted him to see the bigger picture, the broader perspective.
For his team to win games this summer, it needed Starling to grab the reins and relish his alpha status.
“I think it was the first game when he missed his first two shots and I said “Shoot that!” when he turned down an open 3 and went to the basket,” Hart said. “I said, ‘Your only question on the perimeter in a catch and shoot situation is can I get it off? If the answer is yes, we’re expecting you to shoot it.’ It’s almost like if he didn’t shoot it, he did the unexpected and we’re wondering what went wrong. That’s what we need from him to be effective. That’s what he does for us.”
Starling talked about his buoyed sense of confidence last weekend, the way his City Rocks coaches and teammates encouraged him to shoot, to do the things he does with the ball, even when those first couple attempts misfired.
“It hasn’t really been that difficult because I got the right guys around me, the right coaches,” Starling said of his ascendant summer. “The big thing is confidence and here, I have that. My teammates believe in me, my coaches believe in me.”
His ability to make shots – off the catch and off the dribble – will seize viewers’ attentions. But it’s his skill with the ball that sets him apart.
Starling understands how to shift speeds with his dribble, how to keep defenders guessing. Those ball skills, paired with his athleticism, allow him to get to spots on the floor where he can either make shots or create opportunities for others.
For the City Rocks, he plays point guard and shooting guard.
“It’s his ball-awareness,” Patrick Starling said. “He’s really good at seeing things on the court, sometimes things that I don’t even see. Like, ‘Wow, I don’t see it.’ But he does. That’s how he gets to his spots. And then his teammates give him a chance to free him up. He gets to his spots and it’s wonderful.”
“He’s obviously still coming together in a lot of different ways, which is exciting. That’s what you want to see,” Givony said. “There aren’t that many kids out there that have the type of physical tools that he has. He can create his own shot. He can score from anywhere on the floor and he can make others better, too. He’s not always playing point guard for them but when he was, he was doing it with his head up, trying to make others better. And that’s interesting when you’re 6-4 and you have that type of build and athleticism. It’s a lot to work with.”
Syracuse is recruiting Starling. He has a relationship with SU assistant coach Adrian Autry and knows Symir Torrence, Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard. He is also being pursued by several other schools, including Maryland, Connecticut, Alabama, Notre Dame, Northwestern and Stanford.
Starling will visit Maryland this weekend. He and his parents will sit down soon, he said, to map out the rest of his official trips. Patrick Starling said “pretty much I’m trying to let him do his thing and make his decisions.” J.J. said last month he is in no rush to choose a college.
After last weekend in Albany, Jim Hart fielded about 20-25 calls and texts from schools about Starling. A couple, he said, were new suitors. Starling is particularly alluring because he is so young relative to his recruiting class and because of his impeccable grades. Hart said he is a 4.0 student taking AP classes at La Lumiere.
“Oh, it’s going to be interesting. With all the competitions they’re playing in and who they’re playing, I think there’s going to be a lot of coaches contacting him,” Patrick Starling said. “It’s been a lot of his growth, his understanding, everything. He’s taking it in stride and doing the things he’s doing. And he’s open to everything.”
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