Best of New Jersey high school basketball featured in NBA Finals

Cavaliers, Warriors Discuss NBA Finals

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Coming into this highly-anticipated NBA Finals showdown between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the simply incredible amount of intriguing storylines. Rookie head coaches David Blatt and Steve Kerr going at it for the championship, the current MVP Stephen Curry vs. the four-time MVP LeBron James, and two franchises very unfamiliar with the taste of winning are just some of the notable headlines heading into this series.

But one very interesting storyline that seems to be getting no attention is the role that New Jersey high school basketball will play in who wins the NBA championship. People who are neither from the Garden State nor follow high school basketball are probably sitting there, scratching their heads, and asking themselves "Why is this so important to the series?" Trust me, it's important.

Being a Jersey kid who grew up loving to play and watch the game of basketball, you follow and know all about the prestige of high school basketball in the Garden State. Being able to play high school basketball in NJ is like being able to play high school basketball in Indiana, except swap the country life for the suburban/urban life. Playing in the vicinity of two major cities (New York and Philadelphia), two big-time Division I colleges (Seton Hall and Rutgers), and three big-time college basketball conferences (ACC, Big Ten, and the Big East), the exposure is through the roof. While I may have a biased opinion, it's really hard to argue that any other state has better or more competitive high school basketball than New Jersey.

New Jersey high school basketball has produced many All-Americans, NCAA champions, NBA champions, and Hall of Famers, just to name a few of the accolades. If tasked with picking the face of NJ high school basketball, the obvious choice would be Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City. As head coach of the Friars, Hurley has won 27 state championships and 4 national championships while developing some of the best talent in the state. Many would even say Hurley is the greatest high school basketball coach of all-time.

While St. Anthony may be the most notable and famous high school basketball team in New Jersey, there are several others that have both won several championships and produced some of the best players to ever come out of the state. The state basketball groups in NJ are divided not just by area (North, Central, South) and size (A, B, 1, 2, etc.), but also by whether a school is public or private. Some of the best players have come out of the much-larger public sphere, but it is the "non-public" divisions that garner the most attention to fans, coaches, and media folks inside and outside New Jersey.

Along with St. Anthony, two of the other well-known non-public powerhouses in the Garden State are St. Patrick's of Elizabeth and St. Benedict's Prep of Newark. Unfortunately, due to declining enrollment and rising financial costs, St. Patrick's shut its doors in 2012. Before its doors shut, the school was a state and national basketball powerhouse that won 12 state championships under legendary head coach Kevin Boyle who now runs a basketball factory at Montverde Academy in Florida. While St. Benedict's Prep is also considered both a state and national powerhouse, it does not compete in the same state tournament competition as does St. Anthony and St. Patrick because of its standing as a prep school. Few rivalries were better than St. Anthony and St. Patrick, who would square off annually in the regular season and in the state championship.

So you're probably still wondering how this all relates to the 2015 NBA Finals. Well, three players who all happen to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers come from St. Patrick's and St. Benedict's Prep. Let's start first with the guy who used to wear the green and white for the Celtics in Elizabeth.

Back in 2010, I was a sophomore in high school and our high school's varsity basketball team was playing in an annual showcase that is held every January on the Jersey Shore which features some of the best teams in the Garden State. Being arguably the best and most prestigious program on the Shore, our varsity team always drew a tough task in this event. Unfortunately for us, our opponent was St. Patrick, who was of course one of the top teams in the state that season.

The game was not even close, as St. Patrick blew us out by about 30 points in front of a sold-out crowd. St. Patrick's two best players, who were both Division I college-bound in the next year or two, put on a show for the fans. One of them was a forward by the name of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who would go on to win a national championship at Kentucky and who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets. The other was a point guard by the name of Kyrie Irving, who would be going to play at Duke the following season.

In his senior season at St. Patrick, Irving averaged 24 points, five boards, and seven assists per game. Irving would then become the No. 1 overall pick of the Cavaliers in 2011 after playing just one season at Duke. And now, Irving is an All-Star point guard for the Cavaliers who already has a max-contract at the age of 23. If healthy and ready to go, Irving will need to play a huge role in helping the Cavaliers win their first NBA championship.

In 2003, a young basketball phenom named LeBron James skipped college and went straight to the NBA from high school. One year later, a high school standout from the Jersey Shore spurned a scholarship to North Carolina and went straight to the NBA. His name was J.R. Smith. Being from the Jersey Shore area like Smith, the news of his departure was all over local newspapers and TV stations. Smith began his high school basketball career at Lakewood High School, about an hour south from where I live. He was no LeBron, but it was still a big deal.

Smith later took his talents north to Newark to play for the Gray Bees of St. Benedict's Prep who were coached at the time by Hurley's second most-famous son, Dan Hurley. Hurley is now the head coach at Rhode Island. While at St. Benedict's, Smith averaged 27 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game. Smith was selected 18th overall in the 2004 draft, beginning his career with the then-New Orleans Hornets followed by the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks before arriving earlier this season in Northeast Ohio. Throughout his career, Smith has established himself to be one of the strongest sixth men in the league. Having always been known for his antics both on and off the floor that have far too often brought about headaches for his coaches, Smith's three-point shooting off the bench will be crucial for the Cavaliers in this series.

Other than Riley Curry or Lil B, maybe the most awesome story that has come about during these playoffs has been the growth and development of forward Tristan Thompson. Much has been made of Thompson's upbringing in Canada and his love for the Vince Carter-led Toronto Raptors teams from the late 90's-early 2000's. However, what hasn't been mentioned is the influence that New Jersey high school basketball has had on Thompson's career.

Thompson spent his sophomore and junior year playing for St. Benedict's Prep, just like that of his current teammate Smith. It is at St. Benedict's under Dan Hurley's guidance where Thompson began to show glimpses of brilliance that only an outstanding college prospect possesses. By the end of his junior year, Thompson was one of the top high school players in the nation. Unfortunately, Hurley and Thompson's relationship went south. The much calmer, laid-back Thompson began to butt heads with the intense, in-your-face coaching style of Hurley. As a result, Thompson transferred elsewhere to finish his high school career.

After playing one season of college ball at Texas, Thompson made the leap to the NBA and was selected at No. 4 by the Cavaliers in 2011 (the same season Irving was selected No. 1). Since the injury to Kevin Love in the first round of the playoffs, Thompson has emerged to become one of the Cavaliers' primary rim protectors (alongside Timofey Mozgov) and best rebounder on both ends of the floor. A free agent-to be this summer, Thompson has made himself a nice payday in the near future for his performance in the playoffs.

And now all three are here together, alongside one of the greatest players to ever play the game, for the first time just four wins away from an NBA title. If Cleveland hopes to knock off the higher-seeded Warriors, the Cavaliers are going to need some of that New Jersey high school basketball magic to help.

The 2015 NBA Finals begin this Thursday night in the Bay Area at 9:00 PM ET on ABC.

Pat Ralph is a senior at Villanova University. He covers Villanova Athletics for his school newspaper The Villanovan and school TV station VillanovaTV. He also has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph
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