Cooper Flagg attempts a shot with a basketball.
Nokomis High School's Cooper Flagg takes the ball to the hoop during the Maine Class A boys basketball championship game at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Cooper Flagg was back at the grind late Wednesday afternoon, going through his stretching exercises just before his second practice of the day at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Yet this practice was different.

The 15-year-old Newport native, fresh from completing his freshman year at Nokomis Regional High School, no longer was merely a candidate for the 2022 USA Basketball Men’s U17 National Team.

The 6-foot-8 forward was named to the 12-player squad earlier in the day, and now the task was switching from the tryout phase to preparing to help represent the United States at the FIBA U17 World Cup in Malaga, Spain, in early July.

“Cooper is a very versatile player — he can do a lot of things,” said Sharman White, head coach of the USA Basketball Men’s U17 National Team as well as the boys basketball coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. “He can play inside; he can play outside, and he can handle the ball. I feel very good about his IQ as a player. He’s like an Army switchblade knife.”

Flagg’s selection to the U17 national team is the latest in a remarkable series of events for the son of Ralph and Kelly (Bowman) Flagg, who began his freshman season at Nokomis last November having already established himself as one of the top players from the Class of 2025 nationally through his play on the travel basketball circuit.

He and twin brother Ace led Nokomis to its first Class A state championship in boys basketball in March, with Cooper also becoming the first freshman — boy or girl — in state history to be named Gatorade Maine Player of the Year in the sport.

Flagg was selected to go to New Orleans in early April to participate in a USA Basketball minicamp in early April held in conjunction with the NCAA Division I Final Four, and he also spent this spring starring for the Maine United 15-and-under club team that became the first team of its kind from Maine to participate in the prestigious Nike Elite Youth Basketball League.

Maine United went 7-1 in its first two EYBL tournaments in Orlando, Florida, and Indianapolis, Indiana, to clinch a berth in the season-ending Peach Jam national tournament set for July 17-24.

Flagg’s rapidly growing presence on the national scene led to a series of early college scholarship offers, beginning last summer when he was just 14 and more recently including offers from such elite Division I programs as Duke, UCLA, Michigan and Iowa.

Then came the chance to try out for the U17 national team, and now being selected from a cast of 34 original invitees and 18 finalists after five days of two-a-day workouts.

“It’s just the result of all the hard work, and it means a lot,” Flagg said. “It’s an honor, especially being from Maine and knowing I’ve got the whole state behind me.

“Obviously it’s what you’re working for, so I wasn’t surprised. I knew I had the talent. It was just a matter of going out and working as hard as I could and getting the recognition for it.”

The U17 tryouts were different from many of his previous basketball experiences in that Flagg not only was competing against top players of the same age nationally but against top players from the Classes of 2023 and 2024 to earn a spot on the World Cup team.

Flagg, ranked third nationally in the Class of 2025 earlier this year by ESPN, is one of three 15-year-olds on the squad along with five 17-year-olds and four 16-year-olds, and while he said the physicality of the tryouts was greater than what he had been used to, a big part of the camp involved adapting to that pace of play.

“Cooper has done a great job,” White said. “He was really good during training camp. He did all the little things, and he also played with the right mentality in a setting like that.

“For him to make this team — being 15 years old and being a younger guy — is incredible. It’s a credit to him and all the work he’s put in to get to this point. It is going to be an absolute honor to coach him.”

Flagg’s presence on the roster stemmed in great part from his ability at his size to shine at  virtually any position on the court during the USA Basketball training camp, much like he showed Maine high school basketball fans while leading Nokomis to a 21-1 record and the state championship last winter.

Flagg capped off his lone season at Nokomis — he and Ace are transferring to national prep basketball power Montverde (Florida) Academy this fall — by scoring 22 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and anchoring a suffocating defense as the Warriors defeated Falmouth 43-27 in the state final.

“He’s handled training camp like a professional,” USA Basketball men’s U17 assistant coach Steve Turner said. “One of the things that makes Coop special is his versatility, his ability to score at all three levels and his ability to defend multiple positions.”

Flagg isn’t sure exactly how he will be used as the final roster continues to take shape, but he does know he belongs among a squad full of five-star recruits from around the country, including himself.

“I knew I could hang with these guys so it was just a matter of going out and playing like myself,” he said.

The USA squad will continue workouts in Colorado Springs in anticipation of leaving Sunday for Europe — marking the first time Flagg will leave his home country.

The United States is 37-0 in FIBA U17 World Cup history and has won all five previous tournaments since the event’s inception in 2010.

Team USA is scheduled to open play in the 16-nation World Cup on Saturday, July 2, against Lebanon, then continues Group C play against Slovenia on July 3 and Mali on July 5. Top qualifiers from the four groups begin tournament play on Wednesday, July 6.

“Never once did I doubt myself,” he said. “You’ve always got to believe in yourself so I put trust in myself knowing that I could get it done.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...