Many Maine high school sports fans took Tuesday’s news that Nokomis of Newport twins Cooper and Ace Flagg were transferring to national prep power Montverde Academy in Florida to continue their basketball careers with mixed emotions.
Somewhat deflated because they’ll no longer have direct access to see the two freshmen display the skills that had gained them acclaim in travel basketball circles even before they led Nokomis to its first boys basketball state championship this winter.
But also excited to follow the towering twins from afar — unless a winter trip to the Orlando area is in order — to see how they fare against a steady diet of national-level competition.
But do the transfers of the 6-foot-7 Cooper Flagg — the first freshman in state history to be named Gatorade Maine Boys Basketball Player of the Year and an invitee to this weekend’s USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp at the NCAA Division I Final Four in New Orleans — and 6-foot-6 Ace Flagg reflect negatively on Maine high school basketball?
Not any more than the presence of any of their future teammates at Montverde will reflect negatively on high school basketball in their home states.
Max Good agrees.
A head coach of the former Maine Central Institute postgraduate basketball team in Pittsfield and a college head coach for 22 years with stops at Nevada-Las Vegas, Loyola Marymount, Bryant and Eastern Kentucky, he sees the transfers as two talented players seeking to maximize their potential against top-level competition on a daily basis.
“If I had a precocious young basketball player, I’d want him to go where he’d be challenged the most, where they’re going to have to work, where they couldn’t be casual and still be successful,” said Good, a Maine native who now is retired and living in southern Maine.
Good coached 19 players who went on to play in the National Basketball Association, including the likes of Caron Butler and Cuttino Mobley while he was at MCI for 10 seasons from 1989 to 1999.
During that span his teams compiled a 275-30 record and won five New England Preparatory School Athletic Conference championships with rosters that averaged nearly nine NCAA Division I players per year.
“A lot of kids came there to get bigger, tougher, smarter, or maybe for a position change,” Good said. “Maybe they played forward or center in some cases and needed to become a wing or even a guard.
“They wanted to play against better competition on a regular basis, even in practice.”
Montverde Academy will offer the Flagg twins — and Maine United AAU teammate Kaden Bedard, who already is attending the school — similar opportunities.
Montverde had four alumni selected in the first round of the 2021 NBA draft, led by No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, the former Oklahoma State standout now with the Detroit Pistons.
This year’s roster also is loaded. Dariq Whitehead, a 6-foot-7 Duke University commit, was named most valuable player at the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Game on Tuesday night.
“They know they’re going to be playing against and with good players, and as a college coach you really want to see that,” Good said.
Maine has a low population compared with most other states as well as a modest number of high school basketball players that make up the rosters for all teams from Kittery to Fort Kent for their typical 18-game regular season schedule.
Nokomis dominated most of its opposition while going 21-1 this winter, defeating its regular-season foes by an average of more than 20 points per game and winning its four Class A tournament games by an average of 17.5 points.
The Pine Tree State has never produced a native-born high school basketball player who played in an NBA regular-season game, but Good said the state’s current upper-level talent — like the Flaggs and 6-foot-11 South Portland junior J.P. Estrella, who is transferring to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, next season — is improving.
“I think it’s getting a little better because of AAU,” he said. “People condemn AAU and you can find some outlaw programs that maybe don’t have the best interest of the kid at heart, but for the most part it gets the kids playing basketball more and they get to play against good competition.”
Schools with a national prep championship pedigree like Montverde Academy recruit players nationwide, virtually all seeking Division I college and/or professional basketball futures. That means every practice is highly competitive, as is a busy national schedule against like-minded programs around the country.
Montverde’s basketball alumni also includes current NBA stars Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell, leaving Good to compare the Flaggs’ pending transfer to the Florida school as akin to a top high school student from Maine transferring to an elite academic prep school in hopes of boosting his chance to study at an Ivy League college one day.
“It might be better for the schools in Maine if they stayed, but it’s not going to help them quite as much,” Good said. “At the end of the day aren’t you trying to upgrade their situation?”