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Along the road that led it to the most successful season in program history, the Harvard men’s basketball team learned a lot about triumph this year.
Next season, the Crimson will be joined by a pair of recruits who have recently done enough winning to make even Charlie Sheen proud.
The incoming freshman class of 2015 is highlighted by a pair of Californians: Wesley Saunders, a 6-foot-6 forward from Los Angeles, and Kenyatta Smith, a 6-foot-8 center from Brea.
Saunders, who turned down offers from USC, San Diego State, and Colorado to come to Harvard, was deemed a four-star prospect and the 80th-best overall recruit in the country by Rivals.com.
After averaging a double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds per game during the regular season, the high school senior went out on a high note last Saturday, leading his Windward School to a Division IV state basketball championship.
Saunders paced his team with 15 points and nine boards in Windward’s 63-57 upset win over Salesian in the title game. It was the second career state championship for Saunders, who scored 21 points in Windward’s victory in the state’s Division V final as a sophomore.
“Two years ago, Wesley was unstoppable, last season he carried us, and this year he has just blossomed,” Windward coach Miguel Villegas said in his post-game press conference. “Harvard will be very happy to have him next year.”
The championship came shortly after Saunders was deemed the co-Most Valuable Player for his division. This week, Saunders earned an even more prestigious honor, when he was named a third-team All-American by Parade Magazine.
“Wesley is amazing,” Villegas recently told ESPN. “He leads us in every offensive category, every defensive category too. I’m not sure how many players can say they do as much for their team as he does for us.”
“I just want people to remember me by playing hard every time on the court,” Saunders said after the title game. “I try to lead by example.”
His success has been matched by Smith, ranked the No. 18 center in the country by Scout.com. The big man turned down offers from BCS schools Vanderbilt and Northwestern to play for Tommy Amaker.
Like Saunders, Smith ended his senior season on top, leading Flintridge Prep to a 47-44 victory over Muir to win his high school’s first CIF Championship in program history.
The center finished with 15 points, 17 rebounds, and six blocks in a back-and-forth title game.
“We just made history,” Smith said after the contest. “I still can’t believe it, but I’m so happy right now.”
Smith had dominated the tournament up to that point, averaging 20 points per game and shooting 57.4 percent from the field.
This week, Smith gained an elite individual honor of his own, when he was one of seven California players to be selected as John R. Wooden High School Player of the Year.
“I was shocked when I heard,” Smith told the Pasdadena Star News. “I felt really humbled and really blessed. It definitely feels surreal, just realizing the hard work paid off.”
After averaging 19.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game during the regular season, Smith will be presented with the award—which honors the most outstanding player from each of the six California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Districts—on April 8. Saunders won the award for Division V in 2010.
“[Smith] is an incredible talent on the court, but he’s also a terrific young man of character and kindness,” Flintridge Prep headmaster Peter Bachmann said in a press release. “We couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Previous recipients of the honor include NBA players Tyson Chandler, Tayshaun Prince, Baron Davis, and Andre Miller.
“It’s actually pretty amazing," Smith told La Canada Flintridge Patch. "Those are some pretty widely known names.”
With state championships and individual honors now in their pasts, Saunders and Smith will join an incoming recruiting class considered to be the most heralded in the Ivy League.
The pair will be accompanied by guard Corbin Miller of Utah and forwards Jonah Travis of Minnesota, Steve Moundou-Missi of Florida, and Max Hooper of New Hampshire.
Though Saunders and Smith are taking in the moment as their high school careers wind down, both are planning on continuing their winning ways when they arrive in college.
“At Harvard, I think I’m going to have the best of both worlds, academically and athletically,” Saunders told ESPN. “It’s the perfect combination for me and I feel like I’m prepared for the next challenge.”
“[Harvard hasn’t] had a lot of history of winning, but that’s what I want to be a part of,” Smith said at the time of his commitment. “I want to start a history of winning, a tradition...It’s coming soon, and I want to be a part of it.”
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.
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