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Monday, November 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tacoma pipeline: Ernie Kent’s Cougars cashing in on emerging South Sound talent pool

Washington State guard Malachi Flynn  dribbles the ball during the first half a NCAA men's basketball game, Jan. 4, 2017, at the Spokane Arena. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State guard Malachi Flynn dribbles the ball during the first half a NCAA men's basketball game, Jan. 4, 2017, at the Spokane Arena. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Ernie Kent and Curtis Allen sat in the Tacoma recruit’s living room, and Kent tried to convince the young basketball star to come play for his program. Just like usual, Kent was making a pitch. But in a reversal of his current role, Allen was getting recruited.

The year was 2000 and Allen was a star guard at Tacoma’s Wilson High. The 4A State Player of the Year averaged 25.2 points per game, and had scored a school-record 47 in a win over local powerhouse Lincoln High.

Kent, now the head coach at Washington State, was then trying to convince Allen to play for his Oregon program.

“I felt he was a point guard we needed in our program, because he was heady and he was tough,” Kent said.

Kent didn’t land Allen – yet. After playing for four years at Washington, Allen became an assistant coach at WSU. When Kent became the Cougars head coach in 2014, he kept Allen on staff.

And now it’s Allen who spends his time in Tacoma living rooms, trying to convince the city’s young stars to make the same journey to Pullman.

Emerging pool of talent

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, right, played at Tacoma’s Curtis High before moving on to prep school, University of Washington and the NBA. (Winslow Townson / Associated Press)
Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, right, played at Tacoma’s Curtis High before moving on to prep school, University of Washington and the NBA. (Winslow Townson / Associated Press)

WSU’s starting point guard, freshman Malachi Flynn, is from Tacoma, having played his prep ball at Bellarmine Prep. The first guard off the bench, sophomore Viont’e Daniels, also grew up residing in the 253 area code, playing at Federal Way High.

Like Allen, both players were named 4A State Player of the Year during their senior years of high school. Both are underclassmen at WSU, and it is conceivable that for much of the next two seasons the starting backcourt will consist of players from Tacoma.

That would give it something in common with the NBA’s Boston Celtics, whose starting guards Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley played at Tacoma’s Curtis High and Bellarmine Prep, respectively.

Thomas in particular is having a spectacular season – he is the NBA’s third-leading scorer at 28.9 points per game. Thomas and Bradley’s success, and the visible recruitments of other area players such as McDonald’s All-Americans Abdul Gaddy (Bellarmine Prep) and Josh Smith (Kentwood), and the success of former WSU star DaVonté Lacy (Curtis) have ignited the basketball culture in the South Puget Sound area.

“I would say (Thomas and Bradley’s professional success) is pretty big because it gives us, me and Malachi, motivation to want to be where they’re at,” Daniels said. “Not only succeeding at the collegiate level, but at the pro level. It gives us motivation to want to do better and be better.”

In addition to Daniels and Flynn, players from the 253 dot college rosters such as Colorado (Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Lincoln High), Washington (David Crisp, Clover Park) and San Diego State (Jalen McDaniels, Federal Way).

The influx of skilled players is due in part to an increased emphasis on youth basketball, and a surplus of knowledgeable youth coaches.

“When I was growing up a lot of players from that area had skills but could not get to college because they didn’t have mentors, or didn’t have grades,” Allen said. “Now they’ve got the structure starting from as young as fifth grade on up, with mentors helping them with academics and on the court, too.”

It also helps that the players from Tacoma who have made it big have given back to the local hoops scene.

Bradley, for example, sponsors a local AAU team.

“A lot of (Tacoma’s success in basketball) goes back to when (former Sonics coach) George Karl was here in they put all the money into AAU programs like Friends of Hoop,” Kent said. “For whatever reason it’s just blossoming and a lot of it has to do with the success of those players coming out of here and coming back and dumping money back into those AAU programs.”

A pipeline to WSU

Viont'e Daniels, center, plays a key reserve role at Washington State but may well be a starter by the time he moves on. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Viont'e Daniels, center, plays a key reserve role at Washington State but may well be a starter by the time he moves on. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

While Tacoma is an emerging basketball market, Seattle has been an epicenter of talented high school players for more than a decade. A lot of these players have chosen to stay home and play for UW.

Kent hopes to make hay by finding the other talented players in western Washington, while trying to pull the occasional stud out of Seattle as well. In addition to his Tacoma backcourt, Kent recruited emerging sophomore forward Robert Franks from Vancouver, Washington.

“It’s amazing how much crimson and gray is on the west side of the state,” Allen said. “From Seattle to Tacoma and into Vancouver, there’s a lot of Cougs, and I think with DaVonté, the success he had, and Malachi and Viont’e and some of the guys we’ve been able to get from those areas, hopefully kids continue to look at our program.”

Having the last two State Players of the Year come to Pullman from Tacoma will probably help establish Kent’s beachhead in the region. The Cougars have already offered a scholarship to another Tacoma player – Emmitt Matthews Jr. out of Wilson High.

Though Daniels says he would like it if WSU became a home away from home for Tacoma’s best basketball players, first he just wants the area to get the respect it has earned and for all its deserving players to get recruited.

“For me it’s just about leaving a legacy and just leaving a legacy for the kids who look up to me and think, ‘Maybe I don’t want to be like him, but he worked his butt off in the gym, out of the gym, off the court,” Daniels said. “Me and Malachi left a legacy at our high schools, just Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley did for us.”

Avery Bradley, a backcourt mate of Isaiah Thomas with the Boston Celtics, played at Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep. (Tony Dejak / Associated Press)
Avery Bradley, a backcourt mate of Isaiah Thomas with the Boston Celtics, played at Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep. (Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

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