Collin Sexton was lying face down under the beating afternoon sun in suburban Atlanta when George Washington wondered if he had finally pushed his best player too far. Sexton was doing conditioning work with an altitude mask as he collapsed on the school track on a hot, early summer day. As the Pebblebrook High School coach rushed over to pick him up, Sexton stumbled to his feet and prepared to finish the drill.
Washington had purchased the mask for Sexton days earlier when he found out he received a late invite to try out for USA Basketball’s U17 team. The camp was in Colorado Springs and Sexton was hellbent on being prepared as possible for the increase in elevation.
“He wanted to be on that team so bad,” Washington said. “A lot of those other guys had been there before, so they were privileged. His job was to be the hardest worker. I told him, if you out work everyone, they can't deny you.”
Sexton’s training regiment required three workouts per day. He was at Pebblebrook by 6 a.m. every morning to do skill work with an assistant coach. In the afternoon, he would hit the weight room or do cardio. The evening session was reserved for shooting drills. When he got to Colorado Springs, he saw the hard work pay off.
Sexton didn’t just make the team, he ended up winning MVP in his first ever international competition. The 6’2 point guard led the team with 17 points per game as the sixth man. He was at his best with a gold medal on the line against Turkey, when he made 8 of 9 shots from the field to help the U.S. to the win.
Sexton’s performance in Spain solidified his rise as the breakout player in the class of 2017. It capped a summer that saw him set the single-season scoring record on Nike’s EYBL circuit at 31 points per game. He did it with a relentless attitude towards attacking the basket, making twice as many free throws (181) as the circuit’s No. 2 player in that category. Over the course five months, he went from unranked to the No. 9 overall player in his class, according to ESPN.
Sexton’s ascent is the story of self-improvement through sheer will power, the idea that play can upstage politics and old-fashioned hard work can get you anywhere.
“Nothing changed,” Sexton told SB Nation. “I just had to get in front of the right people to show my talents off and do what I do best. That’s play hard all the time.”
The first thing you notice about Collin Sexton on the court is his face. His eyes get wide and his tongue sticks out. His mouth never stops running, whether he’s talking to himself or an opponent. His expressions belie a fire that has fueled him since he started playing the game.
As Sexton began his junior year at Pebblebrook, his first at the school, coach Washington knew he had to find a way to channel that intensity. He came up with an idea that drove Sexton mad.
“He got T'd up at practice every day,” Washington said. “If he makes a spectacular play and celebrates before he gets back on defense, he's getting a technical. If the ball goes through the net and he touches it or hands it to the guy out of bounds, we'll T him up. We'll even take a point from his team if he doesn’t stop.”
This was part of a delicate balancing act for Washington. Sexton’s passion is a critical component to his success, but he also had to keep it under control. Washington’s discipline got through, and Sexton averaged 29 points per game while taking Pebblebrook to the state championship game.
Even after a dynamic junior year, Sexton was still off the radar nationally. Part of that was because Pebblebrook is a community high school and not a basketball factory like Oak Hill or Findlay Prep that play all over the country. Another factor was that Sexton had yet to perform in front of the coaches and scouts that pack the EYBL’s U17 level after playing on the underclassmen circuit the summer before.
Everything started to change for Sexton as soon as his final year of grassroots ball kicked off. He scored 35 points in his second game for the Southern Stampede and 37 in his fourth. He closed the year by scoring 30 or more in nine of his final 10 games, including a 44-point performance against reigning league champion Georgia Stars. During that stretch, Sexton only failed to shoot double-digit free throws once. USA Basketball took notice and extended an invitation two weeks before its June tryout.
“It’s just impossible to keep him away from the basket,” said Don Showalter, the coach who has led the program’s U16 and U17 teams to seven straight gold medals. “There’s not a lot of guys that play extremely hard every possession. He does.”
Washington describes Sexton as a “throwback,” and not just because of how relentless he is on the court. He is also the rare teenager with no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, and no Snapchat.
“The first time he got ranked, the kids were running around the school congratulating him,” Washington said. “He didn't know what people were congratulating him for. I see him at my door and he's telling me come here, come here. I'm like, ‘Oh god, what's wrong?’”
Washington informed him he was now ranked a top-25 recruit. Sexton shrugged and went back to class.
When Pebblebrook lost in the state title game earlier this year, Washington asked all of his underclassmen to make a list of goals for next season. Sexton wrote that he wanted to lead the EYBL in scoring, earn an invite to try out for USA Basketball, and be named a McDonald’s All-American. The first two have been checked off, and the third is likely coming in the spring.
“I really didn’t worry about the rankings because I was gonna continue doing what I do,” Sexton said. “That’s work hard every day.”