If North Carolina is still ‘The Hoop State,’ why are players still leaving in waves?

·9 min read

Earlier this summer, Nick Hamrick — a 6-foot-8 rising sophomore at Westminster Catawba Christian School — was working out, and his cousin was filming him dribbling and shooting and dunking.

His cousin put the video on Instagram.

A few days later, when he checked his messages, Hamrick said a coach from Oak Christian School in Los Angeles sent him note, impressed with his size and ball handling ability.

“The coach had reached out to my cousin, and then my father and then to me,” Hamrick said, “and then we had multiple Zoom calls about the school.”

Oak Christian is a $64,000-a-year private boarding school that’s produced 15 professional athletes, including NFL quarterback Jimmy Clausen. It has won 160 league and five California state titles across a multitude of sports. Its college-style facilities and reach, to Hamrick, seemed world’s away from Westminster Catawba, a small private school just across the S.C. border from Charlotte that has had back-to-back 20-win seasons, but went more than a decade without a single winning season before that.

Oak Christian has offered Hamrick a scholarship to play the rest of his high school ball out west. It seems as if the school has made a compelling argument.

“It’s a $64,000 free education, and they talked about roommates and loved Nick’s basketball and his grades,” said Hamrick’s father, AD. “They knew his ambition was to play at UCLA, which is just 25 miles from the school. We’re open to it.”

If he leaves, Hamrick would be another one of several high-profile area athletes to leave North Carolina, long known as “The Hoop State.”

Rising junior point guard Aiden Holloway left Covenant Day after the most recent school year to join national power La Lumiere (Ind.) Holloway is ranked No. 36 nationally by ESPN in the class of 2023.

Rising junior point guard Trey Green left Lake Norman Christian, where he played alongside 5-star Mikey Williams. Next season, Green will play at Link Academy (Mo.) Green is a top 60 recruit nationally in the class of 2023 by ESPN.

Last year, at least four other nationally ranked N.C. players left the state: Caleb Foster (No. 15 nationally, class of 2023) left Hickory Ridge to transfer to Oak HIll (Va.); Jaden Bradley (No. 14 nationally, class of 2022) left Cannon School for IMG Academy (Fla.); Jalen Hood-Schifino (No. 34 nationally, class of 2022) left Combine for Montverde Academy (Fla.); and M.J. Rice (No. 17 nationally, class of 2022) left Durham Academy for Oak Hill.

Players leaving in waves

Ever since West Charlotte All-American Junior Burrough left Charlotte in the late ‘80s to head to Oak HIll, players have left the state. But it’s usually been just a few a time.

Now it seems there are waves every year.

“When I ask people about it, the one word that players have used is ‘opportunity,’” said Ed Addie, who coaches Hamrick at Westminster Catawba. “It’s, ‘This school provides an opportunity that I don’t think I can get elsewhere, be it in North Carolina or my home school.’ I’ve heard them say the competition level is bigger and there’s an opportunity to play a national schedule, and then recruiting by colleges — those are the biggest reasons I’ve heard.”

Addie doesn’t think leaving is the right thing for most players. He doesn’t think they need to.

He points to all of the nationally ranked programs that have popped up in just the Charlotte area over the past seven years — schools like Northside Christian, Providence Day, Combine Academy, Cannon School, Carmel Christian — and notes how many McDonald’s All-Americans or NBA picks the Charlotte area has produced.

In the past few years, Cox Mill High’s Wendell Moore and Providence Day’s Devon Dotson were McDonald’s All-Americans. Moore is at Duke. Dotson is in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls after an all-star career at Kansas.

Providence Day’s Grant Williams, a two-time SEC player of the year at Tennessee, was a first round NBA pick by the Celtics two years ago. Last year, West Charlotte’s Patrick Williams left Florida State after his freshman season and became the highest-drafted player ever from Charlotte, when he went No. 4 to the Bulls.

“I look at the biggest fish in the pond, Zion Williamson,” Addie said. “He stayed at Spartanburg Day. He went to Duke, made McDonald’s All-American, first player picked in the draft, Mr. Basketball, Gatorade Player of the Year. He got everything you could ever want and he never left. Look, I know local schools have to play in conference, in their association. You go to bigger schools and they don’t have conferences or associations they stick to, but I think the competition level is decent enough and the coaching is decent enough here — and you get to sleep in your own bed.”

North Carolina is also home to several non-association-type teams like Addie is taking about.

Jeff McInnis, who led West Charlotte to a state title in the early ‘90s and left for Oak Hill, is now building a national power at Lincolnton’s Combine Academy. Similar schools like Charlotte’s Liberty Heights and Vertical Academy, and Huntersville’s Lake Norman Christian and Durham’s Good, Better, Best Academy (coached by former NBA star Rasheed Wallace) have similar national-level ambitions.

But players are still leaving.

It’s more of what Link had to offer

One of the biggest breakout stars of the 2020-21 season was Lake Norman Christian’s Trey Green. A 5-foot-9 point guard, Green became the school’s second star after national recruit Mikey Williams.

Williams and his father are starting Vertical Academy in August, a new, non-association school that will play a national schedule that will include games in at least 19 states. Green is transferring to Link Academy in Branson, Missouri.

Lake Norman Christian’s Trey Green (1) pulls up and hits the 3-point basket.
Lake Norman Christian’s Trey Green (1) pulls up and hits the 3-point basket.

Green will be part of an incoming class that includes Blue Ridge Valley (Mo.) 6-8 senior forward Aidan Shaw, a top 50 national recruit, and 6-8 senior Tarris Reed, a top 80 recruit from Chaminade High in St. Louis.

This will be the first year that Link has had an elite team at the high school level. It’s had success as a post-grad program, producing players like Mason Jones, who has played for the Philadelphia 76ers.

So why leave?

“It was probably just more about what Link had to offer,” Green’s father, David said. David Green was an all-state quarterback at West Charlotte in the early ‘90s who played football at Duke.

“We weren’t really looking to leave unless the right situation came about,” David Green said. “(Coach) Rodney Perry was a big influence in our decision. He’s an accountability coach and I felt like Trey would get development under him and still play a national schedule. That combination of overall culture that we saw when we visited and the accountability factor was a big thing for me. That’s what he needs.”

David Green said it will be tough to send his kid so far away from home. Trey Green, who has offers from Boston College, Nebraska, South Florida, Virginia Tech and Wichita State, will be a junior this season.

“I’m raising him to move away from the nest anyway,” David Green said, “and we feel like this will be an extension of home. It’s not easy. It’s not something we preferred to do or wanted to do, but we felt like we needed to do it.”

David Green said it’s testament to the power of N.C. high school basketball that so many national programs keep coming to the state seeking talent, and he doesn’t think kids leaving says anything bad about the quality of ball here.

“Look,” Green said, “Trey is a smaller guard. He’s under 6 feet. We’re trying to eliminate any negatives that can be said against him that are within our control. One of those is playing a national schedule. If you’re playing a national schedule and playing Emoni Bates and Chet Holmgren, these are pros. So if Trey sees himself being able to compete and play against that, it gives him a comfort level, and more importantly, it takes that (question) away as to whether or not he can play against those type of guys as an undersized guard.”

Will he or won’t he?

Nick Hamrick is just 16 but sounds totally OK with the prospects of moving across the country, far away from his parents, to pursue his dreams.

“I have a Vision Board,” he said, “and in the next five years, I dream of playing professionally, rather than go to college, but if God doesn’t look at it that way, my list (of preferred colleges) is UCLA, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.”

Hamrick wasn’t a full-time varsity player as a freshman but he already has an offer from Howard and interest, according to his father, from Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Virginia Tech and Western Carolina.

Hamrick and his father think a move to a school like Oak Christian would only aid in his development — and his recruitment over the next three years.

“We haven’t decided,” AD Hamrick said, “and we’re open. We’re going to go take a visit. It’s hard as a parent, saying ‘Wow, no way would I let my son go that far,’ but I had to reflect on when I joined the Army in 1982 and my mother had to let me go. I spent four years in Europe, then Georgia and Germany.”

Nick Hamrick said in order to reach your goals, sometimes you have to make sacrifices.

“It would be a big step,” he said. “I like building new relationships and I like new environments. In North Carolina and Charlotte, there’s a lot of distractions, as opposed to California, where I would live on campus and everything is basketball.

“I think I might like that.”