NCAA's top basketball programs have their eyes on Sun Youth's Wilguens Exacte Jr.
16-year-old Montrealer has already received a full athletic scholarship offer
Wilguens Exacte Jr. won't be heading to university for two more years. But at 16 years old, some major U.S. college basketball programs are already bidding for his services.
In June, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. offered the young Montrealer a full athletic scholarship.
"I was really excited and I was really thankful because of the fact that it was my very first offer. I've been working hard," Exacte Jr. said.
While it's not unheard of for 16-year-olds to be courted by NCAA Division I programs, it's also not something that happens every day — especially for players who grow up in Quebec.
Exacte Jr. is a product of the Sun Youth basketball program. And it doesn't hurt that he's 6-6 and still growing.
"Three years ago, we realized that he was going to be special," says Rodney Skerritt, Sun Youth's basketball co-ordinator.
"It's like winning the lottery when you get a kid that loves the game, is athletic, works hard in school, listens to his coach, is a good son, is a good brother. When all the boxes are checked it only happens every 7 to 10 years."
Skerrit believes George Mason's offer will be the first of many for his young protege because now that one school has stepped up, others will take notice.
"These types of kids don't come around too often," he said.
A desire to compete against the best
Exacte Jr. wanted to be a soccer player until he met his cousin Gandhi Jacques when he was seven years old.
"He told me that at your size, you shouldn't be playing soccer. You should be playing either basketball or football," Exacte Jr. said.
"He's the reason why I fell in love with basketball. He put the ball in my hands, I respect him."
College recruiters began to take notice of Exacte Jr. when he was 14 years old after he participated in a basketball camp in Toronto.
Ishan Aksel, an amature videographer, spotted him on the floor and decided to cut together a highlight package of the player and posted it on Instagram.
Exacte Jr. says the video created a lot of buzz and helped to secure an offer to participate in the John Lucas Elite Invitational Basketball Camp in Houston, Texas last summer.
It gave him the opportunity to test his skills against some of the top players in the United States.
His performance proved to coaches he was a legitimate Division I prospect and the experience served to feed his own growing hunger to challenge himself.
"That's what I'm all about, to compete against the best. I got a chance to do that. I just loved the experience over there and the mentality over there. It was a really really good experience for me," Exacte Jr. said.
The young player is now contemplating his next step. He says he has offers to play at prep schools in the United States, and while that would normally be his first choice, the uncertainty around next season due to the COVID-19 pandemic has him also considering playing in Ontario or locally at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.
Montreal basketball factory
Skerritt says Exacte Jr. is the latest example of Montreal's growing reputation for cultivating high-end basketball talent.
Beyond current NBA players from Montreal such as Khem Birch, Chris Boucher and Luguentz Dort — who show young players that making it to the big leagues is possible — Skerritt says there is a growing community of Montrealers who didn't go pro but played in the NCAA.
He says they're using their connections to lift up the next generation.
"They're giving back to their communities, which is helping and producing more kids that are going further," Skerritt said.
Maurice Joseph is one example. He's a Montrealer who played in the NCAA at Michigan State and Vermont, and is now the assistant coach at George Mason.
"Wherever Maurice goes, he keeps his hometown on his heart and he always looks out for his guys out here," Skerritt said.
Exacte Jr. says he's excited to visit George Mason and speak with Joseph once cross-border travel is permitted again. He plans to make his decision on where he will play next year before the end of the month.