COLUMBIA — The first time Jakeenan Gant said he really liked Missouri, Michael Stokes — his AAU coach with the Southern Stampede — nodded, but didn’t think much of it.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
After all, Stokes has been around long enough to know that kids tend to “like” a bunch of schools, especially early in the recruiting process.
“He said ‘Hey coach, I like Missouri’ and I was like ‘Oh, OK,” Stokes said with a laugh. “I still didn’t think he was going to commit. But to my surprise, he did.”
Gant, a 6-foot-8, 200-pound power forward from Springfield, Ga., officially became Missouri’s second four-star pledge for the Class of 2014 on Sunday, after he spent the weekend in Columbia on a recruiting visit with his mother. The news was first reported by PowerMizzou.com.
“He just felt at home when he came on his visit,” Stokes said. “His mom fell in love with Coach Haith, his wife and his staff. They won her over and she was going to play a vital role. That’s her only son.”
Despite his initial surprise at the quickness of the decision, Stokes thinks the fit makes perfect sense. He said Gant, who Rivals lists as the No. 44 player in the Class of 2014, watched a lot of MU tape and thought he’d be a nice fit in Haith’s spread pick-and-roll offense, which provides plenty of opportunities for a shooter at the power forward position. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that since Haith arrived in 2011, both Kim English and Laurence Bowers had their strongest seasons of their collegiate careers.
“Bowers and English have flourished in his system so that kind of opened his eyes up to Missouri’s style of play,” said Stokes, who added that Gant even likes to shoot from the top of the key, just like Bowers.
Missouri’s overall pull was strong enough for Gant to commit to Haith and associate head coach Tim Fuller over a host of top schools, including Florida, Louisville, Syracuse and Indiana, not to mention local schools like Georgia and Georgia Tech.
“He made unofficials to Georgia Tech and Georgia, but they didn’t win them over because he never mentioned them,” Gant said. “Louisville had him thinking because they won the national championship, but we saw their roster and they’re kind of loaded at the position, and” four-star point guard “Quentin Snyder decommitting made him think something is going on there. He was also looking at Indiana, but when” four-star shooting guard “James Blackmon committed, he saw that, too.”
In Gant, who averaged 17.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game last season for Effingham County High School (according to MaxPreps), Stokes said Missouri is getting a power forward with small forward skills, an unselfish player he’s actually commanded to shoot more.
“One of the things I make him do is take five threes a game,” Stokes said. “He’s a low volume shooter, very unselfish. He’ll fill the stat sheet. Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, assists…all of it.”
Though Gant has range as a shooter, Stokes also praised his footwork, saying he has a few post moves he can break out against shorter defenders.
“He has a very, very good footwork,” Stokes said. “Very good post moves. Whatever you’re looking for, left hand, right hand, up and under, reverse pivot — the Kobe, KG stuff — he can do it.”
Stokes, however, followed that up by saying Gant is far from a pure post player. Due to his slight frame, battling traditional post players isn’t his thing, something he learned at the eight-team Nike Global Challenge in Washington, D.C., this past July, which pitted 30 top American players against five international teams.
“He’s not one of those kids that’s going to battle guys down there,” Stokes said. “I think after the global games, that’s when he realized he doesn’t want to be in the paint with these 240-pound guys, though I think there’s no question he could put on 20 or 30 pounds. He’s lifting now but as kids get older, they realize they’ve got to lift a little bit more.”
Stokes also said Gant participated in the event despite still dealing with the effects of a severely sprained ankle he suffered during an AAU tournament in the spring.
“He came down on a kid’s foot and turned it, tore some ligaments,” Stokes said. “He kind of bounced back in the global games, but it takes a while.”
Interestingly enough, Stokes said Gant’s commitment could also leave an impression on one of his own players for the Stampede, 6-foot-4 shooting guard Ahmed Hill.
Rivals lists Hill as a four-star prospect and the No. 55 player in the country, with offers from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Kansas, Marquette, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Texas and many more.
Stokes said Hill is close with Gant and five-star guard and Tiger legacy Devin Booker — the son of Tiger legend Melvin Booker — who Rivals ranks as the No. 27 player in the Class of 2014.
Stokes said the three have grown close after attending various Nike camps together on the AAU circuit.
“Jakeenan and Devin Booker are pretty good friends, so I’d say there’s an outside chance now that Devin will commit,” Stokes said. “And we have another guard, Ahmed Hill, that I coach. I would not be surprised if Jakeenan and Ahmed and Devin all end up at Mizzou. That could give Missouri a little boost.”
That would also make for a potentially loaded (and crowded) backcourt, as Missouri already received a verbal from four-star guard Chris Sandifer, a 6-foot-6 prospect from Los Angeles with offers from Colorado, Loyola Marymount and San Diego State. Sandifer is rated as the 88th-best player in the class.
Regardless, Stokes is confident Hill and Booker could find a way to play together on the court, though it remains to be seen if either sees Missouri as a possible destination.
“In the open court, Ahmed is one of the best guards in the country,” Stokes said. “Missouri thrives in the open court, pushing the ball. They ran a system that’s very close to what we ran in AAU. If they can bring Ahmad and Devin in, who is a knockdown shooter while Ahmed is a slasher, that’s a good dynamic.”
It’s also worth noting that if Gant and Sandifer stick with their commitments, Missouri is tenatively scheduled to have all 13 scholarships occupied next season, unless a couple players — like junior guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, perhaps — decide to go pro.
ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford currently lists Clarkson as the 78th-best prospect in the loaded 2014 draft class, while Brown is not ranked in the top 100. MU could also have some defections, much like it had this offseason, when freshmen Dominique Bull and Negus Webster-Chan opted to transfer to George Washington and Hawaii, respectively.
However, there’s plenty of time for all that to sort itself out. For now, the Tigers are simply happy to land Gant, a promising player Stokes will continue to push so he can fulfill his potential.
“I want him to get stronger and stay in attack mode more often and not defer to guys, in addition to improving his ballhandling skills and change-of-direction ability,” Stokes said. “I want him to be stronger mentally because he has immense talent and has a chance, in my opinion, to play in the NBA and do well.”