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Brentwood boys basketball doesn't play the 'what if' game

Brentwood's Jordan Riley drives to the basket at

Brentwood's Jordan Riley drives to the basket at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket on Jan 3, 2020. Credit: Daniel De Mato

In the Brentwood High School boys basketball program, the phrase “what if" is not part of the lexicon.

Talk to 18th-year coach Anthony Jimenez or any of the players about goals or the arc of the season or what Indians basketball is about and one hears pretty much the same message: put in the work, become the best team they can be at the end of the season and see where it takes them.

None of them asks "what if" Zed Key hadn’t transferred following the 2017-18 season. Nor do they wonder "what if" Bryce Harris hadn’t transferred after last season, when Brentwood reached the state Class AA championship game for the second time in five years.

“People on the outside [the program] always say to us ‘what if they’d stayed?’ They think with those two in our lineup we’d be a powerhouse, but some things aren’t meant to be,” said senior point guard Kenny Lazo, a four-year varsity player. “They did what they felt was the right move for them. I think our program is doing fine. Brentwood is deep with talent. . . . The program hasn’t lost a step.”

Brentwood is 9-1 going into a two-game weekend that includes this Sunday’s highly-anticipated matchup with Mount Vernon in the Tip of the Hat Classic at Adelphi. It’s only loss came by one point to city public school power Boys & Girls of Brooklyn on a buzzer-beating last ditch heave at the buzzer. Brentwood continues to be the standard among Long Island Class AA public school programs.

But the questions do beg for an ask. Key is now a 6-8 senior standout at Long Island Lutheran, played an important role in the Crusaders winning the 2019 state Federation Class AA championship and has signed with Ohio State. Harris, a 6-5 swingman, is playing at North Carolina prep school The Greensboro Day School and his recruiting profile is rising.

Furthermore in the last handful of years, Brentwood lost Lester Quinones, a 6-5 guard. He left the Indians to ultimately play at St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.) and IMG Academy (Fla.), and now is averaging 11.0 points in 25.6 minutes for 21st-ranked Memphis.

It would be hard to argue that any of them made a mistake with their decision to transfer.

“In a way it’s a compliment that everyone wants our players,” Jimenez said. “We start working with them in the eighth grade or earlier. We do it right. We develop their talents. That’s why our players are in demand.”

But he cannot deny there is an implied disrespect. The players who leave Brentwood, he said, do so because they feel the move is to their advantage: that they will get more exposure, draw greater attention for recruiting, somehow get better facing better competition than one normally gets on Long Island.

The counterpoint in that debate is Indians junior Jordan Riley. The 6-4 swingman, who plays far taller than his listed height, is averaging close to 24 points per game and is being recruited by several Big East and Big Ten schools. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell came to Brentwood’s game against Boys & Girls and the Scarlet Knights again attended the Indians win over Central Islip on Wednesday.

“I have had people coming at me over and over for a long time, telling me I need to transfer,” Riley said. “I laugh mostly. You can do everything at Brentwood that you can do at all those schools. You have to keep your head.”

Competition for talent, the offer of a different set of circumstances and what Jimenez calls “poaching” is something that has gone on in high school basketball forever. He views the trend in transfers away from public schools, generally, as “seizing on a player’s insecurities about their futures.” But he adds “if you’re good and developing, they will find you wherever you are.”

Top players, including those at Brentwood, play on summer travel teams that get exposure all over the country.

Jimenez has lost some talented players these last few years, but says of his current team, “they are loyal to playing for us and our community – and there is something to that.”

Riley said, “I love playing for Brentwood because the fans turn out and get loud and that’s what I want to play in front of. Alumni come out. Kids come out. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?”

Asked whether Riley would become the blue-chip recruit he has without opportunities created by the departures, Lazo says yes.

“Jordan was going to be the player he is – the recruit he is – no matter where he was playing,” Lazo said. “He’s got the abilities of a freak and he is so driven in working out to get better. He would have become this player [regardless] of who else was on the team.”

Still there remains one conundrum about Brentwood: How does it survive the exodus of top talent to remain in the state’s top tier of basketball programs?

“I feel like with Brentwood and the focus on basketball and our basketball tradition, there always is somebody coming from the grassroots and there is no reason to worry,” Jimenez said. “I look at a player like [6-7 senior] Alan Houston and what a great player he’s become and how much better he’ll be at the end of our season. I don’t worry about him filling shoes.”

Lazo remembers when Key and Harris made their decisions to move on. Key always was a top talent and he wasn’t surprised at the news. When Jimenez called the team together about Harris’ move, there was a different feeling. “[Harris] was part of our excellent chemistry and, given his size, it was going to be something to work through,” Lazo said.

“No one on our team [begrudges] what anyone feels they have to do to help themselves,” Lazo said. “None of us would stand in the way of that. It’s how we respond after. We have players. We’re going to keep coming at everyone. It’s our belief in what we are.”

We’ve got the ‘dog’ mindset to keep getting better. . . . The program hasn’t lost a step.”

— senior point guard Kenny Lazo, a four-year varsity player

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