Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer close out another great football season and turn to basketball. Can anyone beat Bishop Gorman? Arbor View or Centennial? Austin Morgan or Austin Starr? They spend time discussing all those topics and more.
In February, jaws dropped when Valley High’s Spencer Mathis drove to the basket and dunked the ball. He paused for just a moment and then flexed his muscles, drawing cheers and hoots.
This is a kid who was once a little more timid and not capable of aggressively attacking the rim. Yet, he had one of those highlight-reel style plays to put an exclamation mark on a scoring outburst as Valley erased a double-digit deficit in the Sunrise Regional semifinals against Las Vegas to take the lead for good.
In the excitement after dunking, Mathis wasn’t trying to show up the opposition — he was simply caught in the heat of the moment.
“He is a funny character. There is only one Spencer. I love the kid to death. He does everything you want,” Valley coach Brian Farnsworth said. “Sometimes his emotions get the best of him. But to be that good, you have to play with a little emotion, with a little chip.”
That little chip is what makes Mathis one of the state’s top players. He still approaches each game with something to prove, like he’s still the undersized sophomore playing varsity for the first time. He highlights the Sun’s Super Seven preseason team — a group of the Las Vegas area’s top players, all of whom have scholarship offers and includes three of the nation’s top 75 players for the class of 2015.
It’s a collection of players the 6-foot-7 Mathis wasn’t always destined to be part of. As a sophomore in 2011-12 he was a part-time starter, battled an ankle injury and weighed just 160 pounds.
One quick year later, however, and Mathis was a difference-maker in nearly leading Valley to the state tournament. He averaged 16.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game last season, instantly becoming a college recruit and earning his spot alongside the area’s top players.
Here’s the rest of his story:
A fresh start in an unlikely place
After his freshman season at Liberty, a school his two older brothers attended, Mathis decided to transfer into the magnet program at Valley. Because he was the tallest player in the Liberty basketball program, Mathis said he was typically asked to play in the post.
At Valley, he could play on the wing where he was more comfortable, and he was already familiar with other players on the roster who were on his AAU team. It turned out to be a great decision — Mathis now has a college scholarship to Northern Colorado.
“I knew that wasn’t my game. I knew I didn’t want to be stationed in one spot playing (center) the whole time,” Mathis said.
And no matter where Mathis would be on the court, he figured on being a standout. Valley is an inner-city school with a heavy minority enrollment; Mathis is the white kid from Henderson. And today, three years later, he’s one of the most popular kids on campus, the easygoing, exuberant kid whose game has blossomed.
After Valley beat Las Vegas in last year’s playoffs — in the game in which Mathis dunked and flexed — players were joined on the court by fans and cheerleaders to celebrate. They started dancing in a circle, with Mathis in the middle leading the charge.
“Spencer is a happy kid. He never causes troubles with anyone,” said Cameron Burton, Valley’s junior guard. "He comes to practice and plays hard. He always has a positive attitude. That's what makes him so easy to like."
The students in Valley’s physical education and weight-training classes competed in a mile run two days before Thanksgiving. Of the six classes, Mathis had the second-best time at 5 minutes, 30 seconds — not bad, considering he didn’t know the course.
He closely followed the runner in first place, then when he saw the finish line, sprinted to win easily. The school’s top cross country runner, who was in another class, had a better time by a few seconds.
A few hours later, Mathis was controlling the floor at a basketball practice. Valley prefers to push the ball up the court in transition, and this practice featured intense cardio.
“That just shows what a great athlete he is,” Farnsworth said. “He’s in amazing condition.”
Mathis wasn’t always that dedicated to training.
As a freshman at Liberty, he was enrolled in a weight training class but simply went through the motions. He never realized the significance of becoming stronger and how that would translate into success on the court.
He now weighs 190 pounds, adding 30 pounds of bulk since arriving at Valley. Whether it’s during and after school at Valley, or at a local health club at night, Mathis has become a gym rat. He can’t get enough.
“The weight room has been my best friend. It has helped me tremendously,” Mathis said. “It helps me being aggressive and getting to the lane, and keeping with it until I get to the rim.”
In an exhibition game in October against Findlay Prep — the Henderson-based national powerhouse and perennial top-10 team — Mathis was the leading scorer on his team of local all-stars with 18 points. On one play, he dunked and received a technical foul for hanging on the rim.
“That was the heat of the moment,” he said. “Whenever I do a big play, there is something that always gets to me where I want to celebrate.”
His teammates know that is far from the case a few years ago. "Spencer got stronger; he got super athletic," Burton said. "He used to not be able to dunk."
He’s going where?
When Mathis left to the University of Northern Colorado for his first official recruiting trip, he had no intentions of committing. He wanted to take all five recruiting trips allowed by the NCAA before making a decision.
He also had offers from Portland, Santa Clara and Cal State Fullerton, and recruiting interest from other schools. Primed to have a big senior season, he could have also waited until the spring signing period with hopes of receiving more offers.
Then, he instantly feel in love with Greeley, Colo., and committed at the end of the two-day trip.
“I was little surprised,” Farnsworth said. “He trusted the coaches; he liked the campus. He is small-town country boy at heart.”
Greeley, a one-hour drive from Denver, had the college-town atmosphere Mathis wanted. Students rode bicycles around town, there were small-shops and restaurants, and everyone was friendly. Mathis also uses his bicycle to get around, often riding to 24-Hour Fitness for extra workouts after Valley’s done with practice.
Aside from the comfort level with the college town, it turns out Northern Colorado was also the best basketball fit. Mathis will have a chance to complete immediately for a spot in the starting lineup and has a goal to be a four-year starter.
At the end of his visit, the coaching staff gave him a video presentation mapping out how his career could progress at their university. He was sold — Northern Colorado was the total package.
“Everywhere you go (in Greeley), you see signs for UNC Bears and people saying, 'We support the UNC Bears,'” he said. “It’s just a great community. Really amazing.”
Here’s the rest of our Super Seven team:
Justin Burks, Arbor View
About Justin: Burks, who signed last month with UC Santa Barbara, is a 6-foot-6 senior small forward.
Why we picked Justin: Burks averaged 21 points and 6 rebounds per game last year in leading Arbor View to the Northwest League championship and its first playoff appearance in the school’s eight-year history. A three-star recruiting prospect by Rivals.com on its scale of five stars, Burks had scholarship offers from Southern Utah and Cal-State Bakersfield. He was also courted by Colorado, Tulsa, Washington, Boise State, Weber State and UC Davis. “It’s definitely a relief. It frees me up to focus on the season,” Burks said of signing with UC Santa Barbara.
Justin’s story: Last season, Burks and Arbor View were unproven. This year, they won’t be sneaking up on the opposition. Instead, Arbor View will be the team to beat — especially since some think the team has the experience to challenge for the Sunset Regional championship. “I just go out and play every game to the best of my ability,” Burks said. “I think I play good team ball. That’s one of the keys to our success.” And while Arbor View returns four starters, Burks will be the Aggies’ go-to player with the game on the line. He might also play every position on the court. “There’s not much Justin can’t do,” Arbor View coach Kyle Hageness said.
Chase Jeter, Bishop Gorman
About Chase: Jeter is a 6-foot-9 junior post player and the nation’s No. 21 overall recruit for the class of 2015.
Why we picked Chase: Jeter is a five-star recruiting prospect with scholarship offers from the likes of Arizona, Kansas and UNLV. Yet, he’s still developing, only averaging 7 points and 5 rebounds per game last season. “He’s made huge strides. He just needs court time,” Gorman coach Grant Rice said. “He’s great in drills. As the season goes on, you’ll see the improvement.” Part of what makes Jeter attractive to college recruiters is his ability to play close to the basket and around the perimeter. “He can run the floor with the best big guys in the country and doesn’t mind getting dirty on the inside,” Rice said.
Chase’s story: Each night before Jeter goes to sleep, no matter what night of the week it is or where he is sleeping, he goes through a routine of push-ups and sit-ups. Jeter has added 30 pounds of bulk in the offseason, going from 190 pounds last season to 220. While the nightly exercises were only part of his strength program, it’s a constant reminder of what it takes to be an elite player — to be the best, you can’t stop working. The body transition has changed Jeter’s playing style, giving him confidence to battle on the inside. “I’m definitely going to use my body to my advantage and my strength to my advantage,” he said. “This year, I’m just more assertive at both ends of the court. My footwork is better. My mid-range game is better. My face-up game is better.” It helps having one of the nation’s top players as a practice partner. Each day, Jeter and fellow five-star recruit Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-foot center, battle in practice. “He’s never dunked on me,” Jeter said jokingly.
Diontae Jones, Clark
About Diontae: Jones, who signed last month with Wyoming, is a 6-foot-6 senior small forward.
Why we picked Diontae: Jones is the best player on one of the state’s best teams, averaging 12.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2 steals and 1.6 assists per game last season in leading Clark to the state championship game. Those numbers could have been higher, but Clark typically rested its starters in the second half of league games with a comfortable lead. He’s a three-star recruiting prospect who picked Wyoming over UC Santa Barbara. “I’ll do whatever it takes to win. This is my last chance to lead my team to a championship,” he said.
Diontae’s story: Whether it is taking a charge, diving for a loose ball or guarding the opposing team’s top player, Jones never hesitates to take the tough assignment. Although that often doesn’t translate to filling up the stat sheet, it makes Clark one of the state’s top teams. Last year, the Chargers surrendered a double-digit second-half advantage in losing in the state championship game. This year, Jones is determined to lead his team to the championship. “I tell everybody he is the kind of kid who knows exactly what he is,” Clark coach Chad Beeten said of Jones’ blue-collar, defense-first style of play. “That’s what has made him successful, and he doesn’t deviate from it. That’s not like a lot of other kids that would try to change (their style).”
Noah Robotham, Bishop Gorman
About Noah: Robotham is a 6-foot senior point guard
Why we picked Noah: Robotham averaged 14 points and a state-best 7 assists per game last season, helping Gorman win its second straight championship. He’s a pass-first point guard with scholarship offers from Northern Arizona, UC Davis and Idaho. Yet, during a tournament last weekend in Chicago, Robotham scored 30 points in one game to show his versatility. That’s to be expected from a player in his fourth varsity season who gained valuable experience early in his career against multiple ranked teams with blue-chip recruits. “His freshman and sophomore years, he played against guys that are (currently) in the NBA,” Gorman coach Grant Rice said.
Noah’s story: Gorman has a pair of five-star recruiting prospects in Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman — twin towers on the inside, one standing 7-feet and the other 6-foot-9. Still, there’s no questioning who is the perennial power’s leader: Robotham, the Gaels’ point guard. “You could say (I’m the leader), but I’m not comfortable with that. I’m not that guy,” Robotham said. “It’s a collective group effort. For us to play well, we all have to be on the same page.” If Robotham seems like he’s been around the Gorman program longer than most, it’s because he has. Before he made the varsity team as a freshman, his older brother, Czar, was a four-year guard. “Noah grew up here. It really feels like he’s been on the team 10 years,” Rice said.
Ray Smith, Las Vegas High
About Ray: Smith is a 6-foot-7 junior wing and the nation’s No. 66 overall recruit for the class of 2015
Why we picked Ray: Smith is arguably the best player in the Sunrise Region, averaging 10.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 points per game last year as a sophomore. It was his first varsity season, but his raw ability was obvious: Smith is long, ultra athletic and phenomenal in transition. “He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet of how could he can be,” Las Vegas coach Jason Wilson said.
Ray’s story: Last season, Smith was often the third option for Las Vegas behind two seniors now on Division I rosters. One quick year later, he’s a four-star recruiting prospect with scholarship offers from schools such as UNLV, Arizona State and San Diego State. And, without question, he’s the No. 1 option at Las Vegas. “It came fast. It shows you how life is,” Smith said of his rise. “You go from nothing to something, and it can happen in the blink of an eye. But none of it would have happened if I didn’t work.” Smith’s stock skyrocketed during the offseason on the AAU circuit, where he quickly gained the reputation for being a good finisher around the rim.
Stephen Zimmerman, Bishop Gorman
About Stephen: Zimmerman is a 7-foot junior center who is one of the nation’s top five recruiting prospects for the class of 2015.
Why we picked Stephen: Zimmerman’s first scholarship offer came before he played his first high school game, immediately signaling the talented post player as Nevada’s next great basketball recruit. After a minor knee injury slowed his production as a freshman in 2011-12, he lived up to the hype as a sophomore in leading Gorman to the state championship. He averaged 13 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks per game, helping attract recruiters from powerhouse schools such as Kentucky and Duke to the Summerlin school. “In baseball, you have five-tool players. In basketball, he’s that guy,” Gorman coach Grant Rice said. “He does all the little things that fill a stat sheet. He can score 10 points and still dominate the game.”
Stephen’s story: Zimmerman is a matchup nightmare on both ends of the court. Just don’t tell that to a player always looking to improve. “I really need to work on my ball-handling, and just getting the rebound and going (in transition),” he said. It’s that type of mentality that makes Zimmerman one of the nation’s best. Instead of being content with the accolades and scholarship offers, he’s continuing to improve all aspects of his game. “He’s a kid that plays at a high level,” Rice said.