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Forget 'best HS player in the world' talk: AJ Dybantsa is focused on the Hall of Fame

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim08/17/23

Brockton, MA native AJ Dybantsa is 16 years old, entering his sophomore year of high school at Prolific Prep out in Napa Valley. Standing 6-8, 190 pounds, he’s long and athletic with a knack for scoring.

Oh, and he just might be the best high school basketball player in the world.

Playing up two age groups with the 17Us, the five-star wing led the Nike EYBL Peach Jam with 25.8 points while adding 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 30.8 minutes per contest. Matching up against players entering their senior years of high school on grassroots basketball’s brightest stage, he didn’t just fit in, he was the best. Best-in-the-world conversations that had been limited to two, Cooper Flagg or Cameron Boozer, quickly expanded to three.

And he was the only blue-chip prospect of the bunch playing 17Us. While Flagg and Boozer battled for the 16U title, Dybantsa was making his mark against older competition.

Cream rises to the top

The five-star wing has heard the debates, read the headlines and social media banter. And he knows both well, playing with Boozer on the 2023 USA Men’s U16 National Team, against him growing up on the EYBL circuit. As for Flagg, they actually planned to suit up together for Expressions Elite until a rule change prohibited that move — you’re now only allowed to play for programs within a one-state radius. Flagg’s home state of Maine doesn’t technically touch Massachusetts, therefore making the Boston-based Expressions program a no-go. But the pair of New Englanders go way back through national camps and previous EYBL matchups.

“I’ve heard the comparisons of them being the best two prospects,” Dybantsa says. “I’ve played both of them. … I was in (the conversation) on a couple of sites. Hopefully I can be in it with the performances I’ve been having.”

Or maybe he’s deserving now? Respectfully, he’s confident he’s already the best high school basketball player in the world, regardless of grade. The numbers speak for themselves.

“With my confidence, I’m not trying to be cocky, but yeah,” he told KSR.

Simple enough.

Working out with all-time greats to become an all-time great

This summer alone he’s worked out with the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Chris Paul. He’s already being welcomed into the NBA brotherhood and he’s barely old enough to drive a car. But when you know, you know. And the basketball world has learned quickly that this kid is clearly different.

What’s his secret? Three-a-days, just about every day.

“It’s just consistent work. My trainer is in there with me six times a week, we’re in there getting reps. I’m shooting, playmaking, doing group workouts,” Dybantsa said. “We do a lot of layups, finishing in the paint, playing through contact, putting up a lot of shots on the gun. My goal isn’t to score, but if they give me the opportunity, I’m going to go score. I’m not aiming to have a set number of points every game, I’m just taking what the defense gives me.

“… Really, I feel like I can do a little bit of everything. I can play defense, I can make plays and I can score. I can do everything.”

He grew up modeling his game after two-way players such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, along with other long, athletic and skilled guys like Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum. “But KD is my favorite player in the league right now,” he says.

Hall of Fame expectations

The best in the world at their craft, idols set to become rivals when Dybantsa makes his inevitable jump to the league in the coming years. When could that be? He’s currently a ’26, but his combined age and talent have opened the door to a potential reclassification to ’25. That would set up draft eligibility in 2026 where he would almost certainly be in the discussion for the No. 1 pick.

As of today, though, he’s not ready to make that move.

“Right now, yeah, I’m staying in ’26,” he says. “There’s obviously a possibility it can happen, but as of right now, I’m staying in 2026.”

Then comes the next question(s): college or pro, and where?

Dybantsa has earned public offers from hometown Boston College — his first — along with Alabama, Georgetown, Washington, UConn, Michigan, Providence, Georgia Tech, Texas and Ole Miss. But he’ll have the opportunity to go wherever he wants among schools. And while the G League has been watching closely, there’s a growing belief college is the likely path.

Whatever he decides to do, he has one clear goal in mind from there.

“(I want to be) a Hall of Famer,” he told KSR. “Me and my trainer talk about it all the time. ‘Hey, you want to be a Hall of Famer, right?’ That’s the goal.”

Keeping Terrence Clarke’s legacy alive

There’s a Kentucky connection at play, one that hits close to home for both sides. Terrence Clarke died tragically in a car accident while preparing for the NBA Draft in Los Angeles back on April 22, 2021. While the basketball world lost a promising young guard with endless potential, Dybantsa lost a family member.

“He was like my big brother. You could say that we were cousins — we weren’t related, but basically cousins,” Dybantsa said. “I was ‘little brother’ every time he came back (to the area). … I’ve known him since I got to Expressions, so the fourth grade. I didn’t know Expressions (before him). If you knew him, you probably knew Expressions. He was a star.”

Dybantsa picked up where Clarke left off as the greater Boston area’s homegrown talent. And it’s not a responsibility he takes lightly. Every time he picks up a basketball, he does it with the former Wildcat in mind. The Brockton native wants to live out the dream Clarke was never able to make a reality.

“That was my idol,” he said. “Ever since he passed away, I do the basketball stuff for him. Everything is for him. I’m just trying to carry his legacy.”

When you watch Dybantsa play, it’s hard not to see the imprint Clarke made on his life. He’s slithery with long strides and emphatic finishes, a ginormous guard hard-wired to score.

Some even say they look similar in the face.

“People say I look like him. I don’t see it,” Dybantsa joked. “Same style of play, similar build, both played on Expressions, both from Boston. But I think that’s it. I think if he was from Cali, they wouldn’t say that [laughs]. His mom doesn’t think I look like him. She always says I don’t look like him. But we kind of have the same personalities, goofy and smile a lot, laugh a lot. I think that’s what it is.”

Clarke’s mother, Osmine, will call him when she needs to shed a few tears, knowing Dybantsa is doing his part to keep her son’s memory alive. Terrence’s elementary-aged brother, Gavin, comes to the local gym and shoots on the little hoop while watching the big kids play. AJ hugs Osmine and the two chat whenever they get to see each other in person.

“I just try to comfort them in different types of ways,” he said.

Could Dybantsa follow in Clarke’s footsteps to Kentucky? A scholarship hasn’t come quite yet — no sophomore has ever scored one from John Calipari this early — but make no mistake about it, the Wildcats are certainly interested. The 6-8 star sits comfortably at the top of the school’s priority list in 2026.

“They can take their time,” Dybantsa said. “I’m not going to rush anything regardless. … Everything is an option.”

What isn’t an option: settling as a player, especially for someone with Hall of Fame expectations like Dybantsa. As talented as the nation’s No. 1 sophomore is now, there are new levels of his game to unlock that can only come with hard work and consistency.

“(I want to prove) that I’m not only a scorer, that I can do everything. Playmaking, that’s what I’m trying to work on — it will help me evolve into a better player. And a lot of defense,” he said. “I know some people who can score 20 points, but give up 20 points on the other end. I don’t want to be that type of guy.”

The kid simply gets it. If you didn’t know him before, you will soon.

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