July 11, 2015; Augusta, Georgia
On the second floor of the Augusta Museum of History, the touch of a button sends the sounds of this town’s most famous native son cascading past autographed headshots, family photos and a pearlescent sequined cape. "It’s a man’s world," the unmistakable voice wails. "Man made the cars to take us over the road."
Singer James Brown took audience members to places few others could, rousing them to their feet with a singular genius that ultimately transformed his industry. "And after man make everything … You know that man makes money. To buy from other man." Growing up in poverty, Brown the performer was so good and so prolific for so long, that in the end he became a brand unto himself — "the Godfather of Soul" — a global icon who so transcended a single musical genre that he practically created his very own.
On this day, only a few miles away, 16 and 17 year olds with similar ambitions gather. The young men wearing blue KD 35 backpacks know a basketball career leveraged correctly can be just as lucrative as one in music. But some also know the clock is already ticking. The basketball stage is a young man’s world, and the opportunities to stand out and take a step forward are rare and must be taken advantage of when they appear.
Few command this stage like Malik Monk, a rising high school senior and consensus five-star recruit. If Malik and his half-brother Marcus are right and everything goes the way they believe it will and are planning for, he may one day become a player whose brand will be as identifiable and lucrative as that of The Godfather of Soul.
At 11:15 a.m., Monk wears large earphones, chin tilted down into a sinewy, 6′4 frame draped over a chair in a hotel hobby. An aficionado of Kevin Gates and Lil Herb, he is most certainly not listening to James Brown on this sweltering Saturday morning.
Monk’s long-term goal is to be an NBA superstar but, for now, he will have to settle for being the nation’s most exciting high school basketball player. The top-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2016 boasts an unprecedented mix of hops, court awareness, shooting range and flat-out flair. He could be college basketball’s most electrifying phenom in 2016-17. Already, insiders struggle for apt comparisons for his skill level and athleticism. They tend to compare him with high school versions of Derrick Rose or John Wall, and then quickly add that Monk shoots much better at his age than they did.
"There is no limit to what this kid can be," CBS Sports columnist Gary Parrish says. "If we looked up in seven years and he was one of the top 10 players in the NBA, that would not surprise me."
While Malik Monk sits in the middle of the Augusta Marriott lobby, he also stands squarely at the forefront of multiple and interlocking high-stakes games.
Of central concern to many college basketball fans is where he’ll play after finishing his senior year of high school in Bentonville, Arkansas. In August, after well over a year of anticipation in recruiting news circles, for the first time Monk will announce the list of schools from which he’ll choose. Monk already has scholarship offers from the likes of Kansas, North Carolina, Baylor, Florida State and Oregon, but the fans of Arkansas and Kentucky — two of the programs recruiting him the hardest — are most outspoken in their desire for him. The recruiting battle for Monk between Razorbacks head coach Mike Anderson and Wildcats head coach John Calipari has ramifications beyond the court. As Parrish points out, the battle for Malik involves one family with multiple and deep in-state ties versus this century’s most effective recruiter and is breathlessly played out in the media of both places.
The level of interest and line of questioning concerning that decision at times borders on the ludicrous. Earlier this summer, a recruiting reporter informed Malik that, according to the website 247Sports, he has a 71 percent chance of signing with Arkansas and a 29 percent chance of heading to Kentucky. As the camera rolled, she then asked him to comment on these metrics. Chuckling at the absurdity, he said it’s "50/50."
Yet the internal dynamics at play differ from the decisions facing most other high profile recruits and appear considerably more complicated and sophisticated. Malik’s older brother and advisor, Marcus, played for the Razorbacks between 2004 and 2009. More recently, he spent a year as a graduate assistant in the Hogs’ basketball program while earning a Master’s in Business Administration degree from the university’s Sam M. Walton College of Business. Malik also grew up across the street from Rashad "Ky" Madden, his cousin, a former four-star recruit and later a starting guard in the Razorback backcourt. Yet despite these ties and more, the Monks maintain Arkansas holds no upper hand in Malik’s recruitment.
There is, oddly, both more at stake here, and less. Malik’s decision may well turn out to be more important to the schools involved than it is to his own future, because at 17, Malik is already looking beyond that choice. He is already preparing for the man’s world that may soon confront him.
On this Saturday, however, coaches from both Arkansas and Kentucky will be on hand to watch what most matters to Monk right now. He and his AAU team, the Arkansas Wings, are on the verge of being knocked out of the Peach Jam, the nation’s most prestigious and competitive basketball tournament for high schoolers. It’s part of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, where in one game last year Malik scored a single-game high of 59 points, an EYBL record. "This is the best of the best," Malik says to a reporter from USA Today about the 2015 Peach Jam. "You’re going to get pushed every day so you have to bring it. If people aren’t prepared for it, I’m going to kill you."
Today’s game is a knockout contest for the Wings, if not for Malik personally. If they lose today against Team CP3, which features Harry Giles, a 6′10 rising senior from North Carolina already tabbed by many mock drafts as the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, they go home. But whether they win or lose will matter little to Malik’s future prospects. No matter what happens to the Wings, he is already certain to advance his career.
As he does so often, Marcus Monk hovers near his younger half-brother. Marcus is many things to Malik but on this morning, the 6′6 29-year-old is also a coach. After a night of scouring film of Team CP3, he begins, addressing Malik and the rest of the players as they also settle into the hotel lobby. Looking up from his handwritten notes, Marcus warns the Wings’ big men about the impending challenge of guarding Giles. "You’re gonna have to turn, chest him and box out."
"If you just turn, he’s gonna kill you."
The Wings’ assistant coach paces a bit, briefing the guards, and then wraps it: "We’re gonna make them work and we’re gonna make them play to what we wanna do. And then we’re gonna play tonight." Malik rises and he and his teammates stroll through the lobby doors toward waiting cars. Marcus and their mother, Jackie Monk, follow. Within minutes, they cross the river and a state border, heading for the tourney site in North Augusta, South Carolina.
Peach Jam; Riverview Park Activities Center
The Peach Jam is the last and crowning event of Nike’s EYBL, a five-year-old annual series of spring and summer events spread across five U.S. cities. Throughout the course of three days, from morning until night, 40 teams in two age categories (17-and-under and 16-and-under) play pool games on four courts. College referees call EYBL games following mostly NCAA rules and all courts are marked with college three-point lines. The sporting goods manufacturer’s sponsorship of Peach Jam is abundantly clear to the hordes of fans streaming into the Riverview Park Activities Center from the parking lots. Before they even reach the front door, they walk past more than 30 Nike swooshes, large ones marked on lawns, smalls ones on the walkway signs, medium ones hanging on the front of the check-in table and from banners above the center’s entrance.
Inside the Center, it’s famous faces galore, a who’s who of college basketball’s coaching elite. Here, by the racquetball courts, is Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie, asking somebody for his phone number. Over there, slipping through a coaches’ entrance door on one of the four courts, is Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning, a backpack hanging off one shoulder. They are hardly alone. Nearly every big-time college head coach is in the building, as well as an untold number of assistants.
On this day, a massive crowd slowly congregates in the bleachers of a single court in the athletic complex for the marquee event. Roughly 100 coaches cram into chairs on one side of the walled-off space, eager to take advantage of a brief "live period" where they can see recruits compete up close. They can’t talk to them, though, thanks to fairly Byzantine NCAA rules regulating the where’s and when’s of this kind of thing. Near center court, backs to the score clock, Mike Anderson and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sit side by side.
Soon, Harry Giles saunters on to the court, looking every bit the "man child" recruitniks bill him to be. Giles, an agile, versatile and skilled frontcourt player, will almost certainly be hailed as a potential NBA franchise centerpiece in the mold of an Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant. He even wears a KD branded black T-shirt with a simple message: "EASY MONEY." Giles is the kind of player who, like Monk, has the potential to one day warrant the production of a Nike-branded line of his own, or perhaps even front a company bearing his name.
As tip off nears, photographers line up two-deep underneath the baskets. On the track concourse above the court, the octogenarians with their walking canes who were doing laps earlier in the morning are gone. Instead, a thick crowd pushes against the railing, its murmurs adding to the big-game atmosphere.
During warm-ups, Malik and Harry spot each other and meet at center court for two fist bumps. After playing in summer events like this for the last five years, they understand each other’s specific pressures and choices better than almost anybody else can. A decade from now, both players could play instrumental roles in the NBA’s continual global expansion and efforts to rival soccer as the world’s top sport.
Malik rarely smiles during Peach Jam games, but he does now.
This is the kind of stage he has been preparing for since he was simply known as Marcus’ scrawny, little brother.
June 26, 2015; Springdale, Arkansas
On the afternoon before the NBA Draft, in a warehouse gym off Interstate 49, Malik and Marcus sweat through two hours of intricate ball-handling drills and core-strengthening exercises. Last year, Marcus often drove the nearly 30 miles from his apartment in Fayetteville to Jackie’s apartment in Bentonville to pick Malik up and take him to the gym for training, but now that Malik has his driver’s license, they just meet at the gym.
Malik drove over in his white Chevy truck. A discarded "Don’t Buck Safety" camo hunting cap rests on the sideline near a container of gum and pile of his gear. Malik and Marcus grew up in the outdoors and Malik still likes to hunt. Any kind of game will do, so long as he’s traipsing through the woods. "I really just like shooting guns," he says. He has been so busy with summer school and training, though, that he’s only made it out to hunt once this summer. At this stage of his life, however, he is more the hunted than the hunter.
Malik and three younger teens gather on the court and watch video of drills Marcus displays on his cell phone. The court belongs to the 35-year-old Arkansas Wings organization, over which Marcus is executive director. He often trains Malik along with players on younger Wings teams. The group practices quick one-step crossovers known as "Hardaways" using six yellow cones. In another kind of crossover dribbling drill, some of the teens put neither sufficient shake nor bake into their moves and Marcus calls them out on it, urging them not to be so stiff. "Ya’ll gotta flow," he says, showing them how to move those hips.
As Marcus twirls and spins around another set of cones, his friend Nick Mason — a local sports radio host — yells from the sideline, "I see you dancing out there!"
"Hey, I just got rhythm," Marcus replies, a broad smile spreading across his face. "I’m 80 years old."
Marcus isn’t quite that old, but he is something of a living legend in these parts. He and Malik grew up with their mother in Lepanto, Arkansas, a town of less than 1,900 people about 45 minutes from Memphis. Malik’s father, Michael Scales, a carpenter, lived nearby. As a two-sport star in high school, Marcus dreamed of playing basketball and football in college and says the University of Arkansas gave him the best opportunity to do so. He got a shot at both, but found more success in football. He became an All-SEC wide receiver and still holds the Razorbacks’ single-season touchdown reception record with 11 in 2006.
After brief trials with the Bears, Giants and Panthers, knee injuries ultimately derailed his NFL dreams, but that experience, along with a two-year stint playing professional basketball in Europe, provided him with knowledge and experience that now benefits his younger brother and other Wings players. Marcus knows firsthand how fragile pro dreams can be, and he refrains from discussing Malik’s NBA future as a given. "I don’t think about the NBA, I don’t think about none of that. I’m just trying to take care of now — high school," he says. "You can’t skip steps." All the same, he knows the path. One step at a time, the Monks are laying down a foundation for Malik’s promising future, one with an end game that may lie far beyond the NBA. Here, the goal is not just a career, but an entire brand, a lifestyle, something that could continue past his playing days and perhaps even transcend sports.
A major stride that direction first took place two years ago when Malik and Jackie moved to the booming region of northwest Arkansas to live closer to Marcus. In many ways Malik, who refers to Marcus as his brother, considers Marcus to be like a father to him, someone who has long provided guidance and direction. And now Marcus, armed with an MBA and no small measure of insight into the world of big-time college and professional sports, is prepared to help his brother make it to the next level and beyond.
The move to Bentonville High School was about more than reuniting the two brothers. All three Monks agree that the school has provided Malik with a more rigorous education. Malik has about a 3.4 GPA, Jackie says, and will get ACT tutoring starting in September. But there is more to it than that. The Bentonville basketball program is well organized and well financed thanks to an influx of booster club funds and donations in large part generated by the fact Bentonville is home to the world headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. as well as hundreds of vendors working with the retail giant.
Altogether, the move to Bentonville is just one of the first steps to gain Malik’s admittance into a man’s world. While big stars of the last century like Magic, Bird and MJ had to wait until their professional bonafides were well-established before looking beyond their playing careers, and Kobe and LeBron were shown the way by basketball marketing guru Sonny Vaccaro and others, Malik and Marcus are at the forefront of an accelerating trend for players this century. They are executing their own plan, taking control of the process from the start. Whether they are aware of it or not, by focusing both on Malik’s game and building his image while he is still in high school, they represent an evolving trend.
Through his connections from the University of Arkansas and other basketball circles, Marcus provides Malik with outside, top-notch training opportunities in northwest Arkansas. One of Marcus’ friends — Kelly Lambert — is a former strength coach for the Razorbacks and Memphis Grizzlies. He has worked with Malik this summer to help him add muscle to get up to 190 pounds. After the drills, Marcus takes Malik through Scorpion stretches and starts him on balancing exercises while holding weights.
He may be in high school, but at times Malik already trains like a professional. Today, he wears a Chicago Bulls T-shirt, which proves prescient. Later that night, Chicago will draft his friend Bobby Portis with the No. 22 overall pick. Portis, the 2014-15 SEC Player of the Year as a Hog, has been publicly outspoken in recruitment of Malik on behalf of Arkansas. Malik has known Portis for years as a fellow member of the Wings, and he says they talk about twice a week. Portis, in fact, showed up last year with practically the entire Razorback basketball team at two of Malik’s high school games, and even at his draft announcement press conference said he hoped his college success showed more in-state high school stars like Malik they should stay home.
Malik says he didn’t know Bobby had mentioned him by name, on air, until a couple weeks later when he saw something about it on Twitter. He says he appreciated the respect but doesn’t put himself on that level yet. Still, he adds, "We’re both from Arkansas so I understand why he said it."
While balancing on one leg, Malik says that in private Bobby doesn’t try to sway him to Arkansas. "We don’t talk about school, really," he says. The topic of conversation is far more likely to be girls or music. Part of that is because Malik is still only 17 years old, but part of it may also be his upcoming college choice is a decision that will weigh more on the emotions of the fans of those big programs than it will on his own. To be an NBA superstar today means wanting a world stage, like LeBron, and not just that of a single school or city or state.
After the workout, the Monks consider what to do next. Malik has a plane to catch the following morning to attend the Nike Basketball Academy in Santa Monica, California, where he will learn from the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The brothers are thinking they may be able to squeeze in a 6 p.m. pickup game at the Fayetteville Athletic Club. Marcus, however, discovers he has run out of clean socks.
"Hey, you got an extra pair of socks?" he asks his brother as they move toward the exit. "Yeah, but they probably stink," Malik replies.
"I’m good then."
They close the doors but will return often in the coming weeks as Marcus’ connections help sharpen Malik’s game at the gym. In addition to the drills, he has organized workouts and pickup games with pro players and former Razorbacks like Ronnie Brewer, Jr. (formerly of the Jazz, Bulls and Rockets), Courtney Fortson (Banvit in Turkey), Ky Madden (Grizzlies summer league) and Marshawn Powell (Treviso Basket in Italy), and current Hogs like Jimmy Whitt and the recently suspended Anton Beard and JaCorey Williams, the kind of competition neither high school nor AAU ball can provide.
Everyone — including Malik — understands any number of factors from injury to hubris to burnout could derail his superstardom dreams. And there’s always the possibility his game will stall far short of superstar status. At this level, nothing is guaranteed. All, the same, Fortson can’t help but gush.
"He’s a guaranteed pro," Fortson says of Malik. Fortson, who played for the Los Angeles Clippers, believes Malik has all the tools to succeed in the NBA, starting with a stable family. "The way Marcus handles him — that’s the biggest key. He lets him be a kid. A lot of high-profile players don’t have that. A lot of them have weight on their shoulders."
At this point, the 5’11 Fortson can occasionally dominate Malik when they guard each other, but Fortson says Malik will become much harder to defend as he gets stronger and tightens his dribble by staying closer to the ground.
Fortson can’t recall a player at any level with a similar combination of explosive leaping ability and an ability to glide while bumping defenders out of the way. "I really haven’t seen anybody who can jump like that."
Nor had many of the curious fans paying $5 for a pass to check out the first of the Wings’ five games at Peach Jam. When everybody playing is a college prospect, everybody wants to see who are the men among the boys.
Peach Jam; July 9, 2015, Game One
In their first game, the Wings weather a storm from Memphis-based Team Penny and their five-star big man P.J. Washington, a Texan now playing for Findley College Prep near Las Vegas. Malik hits only one of eight three-pointers, but otherwise plays well, finishing with 21 points in the 58-50 win.
Afterward, the Monks slap hands with the opposing coaches and players. One Team Penny assistant, Todd Day, is a former Razorbacks All-American and NBA veteran who knows both brothers. Day sometimes visits former teammates and coaches in Fayetteville and occasionally helps train Malik. He raves about Malik’s abilities, deeming him the best prep guard in the nation, even better than one of his own former Team Penny players — Dennis Smith, Jr., of Fayetteville, North Carolina, the top-rated point guard in the class of 2016.
Day knows the stakes. Growing up in Memphis, Day was also highly recruited but didn’t stay and play for his hometown Memphis Tigers or in-state Tennessee Volunteers. He chose to go out of state. At Arkansas, under head coach Nolan Richardson and then assistant Mike Anderson, Day led the program to a Final Four return and laid the foundation for a national championship two years after he entered the 1992 NBA Draft.
Asked if he has any advice for Malik, Day says "There’s always pressure to stay in state, but you just got to do what’s best for you."
If there is a mantra on which almost all modern star athletes can hang their mouthpieces, it’s "do what’s best for you." What does this actually mean, though? In the decades since basketball became a global phenomenon and rising stars have developed their own platforms, the meaning of "best" has accrued multiple new layers. For a player like Malik it may not have much to do with whose national letter of intent he signs. His wingspan is 6′6 but his reach already extends beyond the borders of college basketball — or may one day soon.
The emergence of social media allows stars who cultivate their own "brands" while still in school to see immediate returns once entering the pros. More social media followers, for instance, can eventually equal more money. This development coincides with rapidly expanding coverage of all NBA summer time events — from the draft to free agency to summer league — which has made the NBA nearly a year-round sport, and one where increasingly more emphasis is placed on individuals rather than on teams.
This trend has already reached college ball. Take D’Angelo Russell, the star Ohio State shooting guard who in April declared for the pros after one season. By the end of his freshman year, in some circles, interest in his draft position threatened to surpass interest in how far the Buckeyes would go in the NCAA tourney. More than 125,000 fans were already following his Twitter feed, double the number following @OhioStateHoops, Buckeyes basketball’s official Twitter account, a discrepancy that has only increased since the draft. Before playing in a regular season pro game, Russell is already prepared to cash in, through his own platform, in countless ways beyond his salary or a simple sneaker endorsement contract.
Malik’s Twitter handle, @AhmadMonk, pays homage to his middle name, yet already a raft of fake accounts using his name have sprung up, some of their owners likely hoping to cash in at some point in the future, others just creating mischief. And while some fans of high school and college sports may believe the creation of a personal brand for a player in high school indicates a self-obsessed prima donna, that’s not necessarily true. In the era of "one and dones," it’s simply smart business to practice a tactic that will provide a higher supplemental revenue stream as soon as possible after declaring for the pros. Down the line, a head start in personal branding will help better leverage the myriad ways established and retired star athletes can profit off their own name through such things as branded clothing lines, restaurants, videos, etc. This ultimately means more money, yes, but it also means retaining cultural relevance and acquiring the ability to pursue personal charitable or social missions sometime in the future.
In addition to Twitter, Instagram and other types of social media, it’s especially vital stars tend to their own brands in the form of a website or YouTube channel while still in high school.That’s because that is the time of their careers they are more likely to own — or at least be allowed to republish — the pictures and videos of their on-court exploits. Once they join a college program, then most images of their viral highlights and dramatic moments will be controlled by others — their schools, their conferences, the NCAA or media outlets.
"The NCAA’s current rules severely restrict the ways in which the players can market themselves and license their name, image, and likeness — all to the benefit of the member schools and the NCAA," says Sathya Gosselin, a Hausfeld LLP attorney who has served as trial counsel in the landmark O’Bannon v. NCAA litigation. All the same, the sports information directors of NCAA basketball programs increasingly tend to promote their players’ social media channels and will, for example, tweet out mention of a player’s Twitter handle after that player makes a spectacular dunk. Those players who already have connected their social media accounts to an established asset in the form of a branded website ultimately stand to gain even more from this kind of promotion.
This is only a small part of a larger evolution which compels future stars like Malik to already think beyond college, and consider the extent to which their own business interests — and they almost always have business interests — influence what they want out of school, versus what they want in the pros and on top of that what they may want in retirement. In Malik’s case, the actual college he attends — whether a Grambling State or an Ohio State — likely will not affect his draft stock. Malik believes talent rises to the top and he doesn’t think a player’s NBA draft stock depends on where he plays in college. "If you’re putting up major numbers, somebody’s going to find out," he says. "It don’t matter where you’re at." While observers have griped the "one and done" approach "uses" the players, in Malik’s case this dynamic has the potential to work in reverse — if a brand is established in time.
As Todd Day noted, Malik will end up doing more for whatever school he chooses than vice versa. His significance goes beyond simply winning games or making a deep tourney run. While Malik is a well-rounded, fundamentally sound player, he is best known for YouTube-melting flourishes on passes, forceful drives through the lane and, especially, on dunks of every imaginable variety. On breakaway scoring opportunities, he often goes to the rim so strongly and so high, that he must turn his face away right after a dunk to avoid being hit by the ball at net level.
Were he to attend Arkansas, Malik would likely not only pack arenas with plays headlining SportsCenter, but he could help Arkansas attract future recruits for years afterwards. While he would be the face of the program and an immediate in-state legend, beyond that it is less clear what the program would do for him.
Kentucky presents a different situation. The Wildcats’ basketball fan base is one of the largest in the country, much bigger than Arkansas’. That could translate into more social media followers and potential customers down the line. While the choice of schools for the most elite recruits may not impact draft position, it could affect how quickly their brands emerge in the months after college and in the first years of their NBA careers.
Similarly, more Kentucky games are broadcast nationally than any other programs, and many Kentucky fans believe that exposure helps translate into better endorsements deals when Wildcats turn pro. So does UK coach John Calipari. As he writes in his 2014 book Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out, "I’ve had agents tell me they are able to get better shoe deals for our NBA players," he writes. "The shoe company doesn’t have to invent our players’ brand — or build up their Q score — because they already have one."
Kentucky has developed a relentless recruiting machine, regularly churning out the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, in part because its coach openly pushes his best players to go pro after their mandated one year in college. Calipari has also perfected the art of turning a player’s NBA dreams into a team-first principle. "I really believe that most kids who play for me in Lexington go higher in the draft than if they played somewhere else — and especially, in the years we prosper as a team."
Malik, in fact, has already played with a couple former Arkansas Wings who have followed Calipari to Lexington. Two summers ago, it was Memphis’ Skal Labissiere, who will play for Kentucky in 2015-16 and already projects to be a top three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Before that, when Malik was in junior high, one of the top dogs in the Wings program was Little Rock native Archie Goodwin. In fall 2011, Goodwin famously cited his commitment to Kentucky over Arkansas as a "business decision" in line with his desire to be a "one-and-done." Goodwin was drafted late in the first round after his freshman year and will soon enter his third year with the Phoenix Suns. Malik may well follow a similar track.
Peach Jam; July 9, Game Two
The Wings are rocking their "visitors" navy blue, red and tan uniforms against the Philadelphia area-based Team Final. With 7:50 to go in the first half, up 20-14, Malik and teammate Ryan Pippens take a seat on the bench and Marcus fetches cups of Gatorade for both.
Early in the second half, the Wings build the lead to double digits and begin to separate. When Malik dribbles up the floor, his eyes constantly scan teammates and defenders beyond the man guarding him. Few defenders dare closely guard Malik in space, as his speed allows him to burst past them essentially at will. With 14 minutes left, Malik does just that, weaving into traffic and firing a pass around 6′9, 215-pound Dylan Painter to his teammate and friend Eric Curry.
Curry, a 6′8, 210-pound senior out of Little Rock, at first bobbles the missile on the baseline, then gains control and leaps up and flicks it into the basket for a 41-26 lead. His good hands and adroitness around the rim are reasons why he’s become the Wings’ second-most recruited player. Curry has offers from Virginia Commonwealth, SMU, Oklahoma State, Murray State, St. Louis, Western Kentucky and, more recently, Minnesota, Iowa State and Arkansas. Some of the offers may be both sincere — and calculated. Arkansas, SMU and Iowa State coaches are interested in Curry alone, but it cannot hurt that Malik and Curry hang out with each other a lot during Wings events.
Team Final closes the gap to 46-36, but just as its fans start whooping it up, Monk gets the ball, speeds down the sideline in a few bounds and rises up from 24 feet. Backpedaling, he doesn’t refrain from mouthing off a bit as the ball drops through the rim.
Of current NBA stars, it is Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook whom Monk most models his turbo-charged game after. While Monk is not as demonstrative as the fiery Westbrook, he also isn’t afraid to show his emotions.
Early in the second half, for instance, the Wings inbound the ball and on the other side of the court, Monk awaits on offense. He’s the only Wing on his corner of the court, but slowly Mitchell Smith of Van Buren, Arkansas, drifts over the paint to join him on that side. Malik doesn’t agree with the spacing, and shoos Smith back to the other side.
Smith pauses a beat, and Malik now takes his mouth guard out and shoos him again. Smith slightly shakes his head, grinning, and trots back across the paint.
Soon afterward, Malik heats up on the left block. Spinning over his left shoulder, he uses his 40-inch plus vertical to rise and knock down a fadeaway jumper so pure the nearly new nylon still vibrates 20 seconds later. He soon posts up near the same spot, backs the defender down, and from about 10 feet away, and turns over his right shoulder to swish a left-handed hook. Arkansas wraps up an 80-66 win, and Malik finishes with 31 points including a relatively ho-hum (by his standards) reverse double-pump dunk.
Peach Jam; July 10, Games Three and Four
Monk isn’t as sharp the next morning. D.C.-based Team Takeover surges to an early 22-15 lead as Malik gets into foul trouble.
Early in the second half, John Calipari appears in the corner of the room, holding what looks to be a cup of coffee. He’s just flown in from eyeing prospects at two other high-profile summer basketball tournaments, one presented by Adidas in the Indianapolis area and the other by Under Armour in Atlanta. On the other side of the court, SMU coach Larry Brown sits, chatting amiably with Villanova and Kansas coaches on either side of him. He, too, has made a run at Malik and even though he appears to be looking elsewhere, it never hurts to be seen.
Arkansas and Team Takeover trade scores throughout the second half. An ankle injury sidelines Lawson Korita, the Wings’ top sharpshooter, for the rest of the tourney but Arkansas spurts ahead on a Ryan Pippens’ three, making it 51-49 with 6 minutes to go. Then Takeover star V.J. King, a Top 100 recruit originally from Akron, Ohio, tries to get going by forcing the issue. The Louisville commit takes his man off the dribble but drives into a thicket of defenders, forcing up an errant shot. The lack of ball movement sets his burly, diminutive coach off. "Move the fucking ball!" Keith Stevens yells. "You’re fucking selfish!"
Malik hits two three pointers in the closing minutes, and the Wings look like they are gaining control, up 59-55 with 1:25 left in the game. But Takeover surges in the last minute and half and pulls away to win 62-59. King collects 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting, along with five rebounds. But he does go to the line 10 times, where he makes six shots. Monk, meanwhile, finishes the game with only 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting, with four rebounds and three assists. But he doesn’t go to the line even once.
After the game, children who have presumably seen some of Malik’s viral dunk mixtapes congregate around him to get pictures taken by his side. He smiles and patiently waits until the crowd of 10 or so dissipates. Then, it’s on to the interviews.
Although reserved by nature, Malik is already comfortable with the media thanks to his brother’s help. In some ways, Marcus serves as Malik’s publicist, buffering him from coaches and media who want to reach him while polishing his image to the outside world. Coaches and reporters alike learn Marcus is the first person to contact in the Monk family, and he will route them on to Jackie or Malik as necessary.
Drawing on his own experience in the limelight, Marcus coaches Malik on how to be more communicative and comfortable on screen. Ben Roberts of the Lexington Herald-Leader recalls that Marcus administered one impromptu lesson last summer at a Nike event when, just as the TV cameras started filming an interview with Malik, Marcus noticed he was chewing gum. Marcus asked to cut the interview short and told Malik he needed to remove the gum.
It is all part of the plan, another step on a path leading to far more television camera lights. Marcus has also worked with Malik’s screen presence by already launching malikamonk.com. On the website and corresponding YouTube channel, MalikAMonk, the brothers have produced a three-part documentary-style series called "The Journey." In a series of short clips, Malik and Marcus discuss his high school basketball season, practice habits, his teammates, their upbringing in Lepanto and other topics. The camera follows Malik through his practice drills to show his dedication to the craft. All the time, Marcus emphasizes the process, not end goal, in their partnership. "I may try to help him build a platform," Marcus says, but it’s up to Malik to build his own brand through his own hard work and actions.
On this evening, national reporters along with Arkansas and Kentucky-based journalists search for updates and details about Malik’s recruiting. Malik is asked about how badly Calipari wants him. Apparently, pretty badly. He tells The Courier-Journal Calipari has told him he is a "top priority" for the Wildcats’ program. Malik is then asked about pressure from Arkansas fans to stay home. In public, strangers ask him if he will be a Razorback and teammates and friends like to kid him by throwing Hog calls his way. Malik isn’t flustered then, and he isn’t flustered now. "With the fans, there is a bunch of pressure but I’m not worried about it because I’m just going to pick where I’m comfortable going."
His brother sounds a similar note, insisting, as he has done repeatedly for two years now, that his deep Arkansas ties won’t influence what’s best for Malik. "I gave the school four years; they got four years from the Monk family already," Marcus Monk tells reporters with a smile. "So there’s no pressure on me. And I keep telling Malik there’s no pressure on him. I know he probably gets hit [by Hog fans] more than me."
Malik and Marcus steadfastly maintain their community’s strong passions won’t sway their decision-making, but Gary Parrish, the Memphis-based CBS Sports columnist, finds that hard to believe. "Can Malik Monk really leave home and endure what would be an intense backlash?," he wrote. "And can Marcus Monk, really let his brother leave the state when he A) played at Arkansas, B) previously worked with Arkansas, C) lives in Fayetteville, and D) now helps run the Arkansas Wings?"
These questions will not be answered until months from now, until after the high school basketball season ends next spring. Malik doesn’t plan to announce his decision until then. Regardless of his intentions, if everybody stays guessing, interest stays high.
Talking to reporters, Marcus stresses Malik must be "full-fledged selfish with his decision. So if Arkansas is a good fit, good. But if it’s Kentucky or any other school — if it’s Kansas or Oregon or Florida State or any of them — he just has to make a decision based solely on what makes him happy."
Whatever Malik’s ultimate destination, Marcus wants it known that is something he has not and will not manipulate. His job, as he sees it, is to be a sounding board who provides advice to Malik when he seeks it in the coming months. "My mother raised us to be independent, whatever he does and wherever he goes, he knows we’re here to support him. We’re not here to control his life or anything," he says. "He has to go off and be his own man … find his own identity and things like that."
Although Malik is hardly the only top recruit to be shepherded through the process by an older sibling, the Marcus-Malik dynamic is unique. Former NBA MVP Derrick Rose’s older brother Reggie was also his AAU coach in high school and played a similar role in his career. Yet according to Gary Parrish, "Reggie might deny it, but he controlled that whole [recruiting] deal and Derrick was always going to play with Calipari and that was done at a different level."
Marcus has already carved out his own strong identity through his Razorback glory days, by earning an MBA and playing professionally. Because of this, Parrish doesn’t believe Marcus needs to live vicariously through his little brother, as he believes Reggie has. "I like Reggie, but Reggie needed to cash in on Derrick. I don’t think Marcus needs to cash in on Malik."
At the end of their second day at Peach Jam, the Wings beat Chicago-based Mac Irvin to stand at three wins and one loss through their five-game pool play. In order to advance to the knockout stage, the Wings must finish in the top two of their pool. That’s why beating Team CP3 on Saturday morning is necessary. Yet unlike many of his teammates, how Malik actually performs in the Peach Jam is of little long-term consequence. Coaches like Calipari and Anderson want him to know they are there, but they long ago had seen enough of Malik to offer him scholarships.
Peach Jam; July 11, Game Five
From the tip off, Giles and Malik are the focus.
Malik starts the game by bricking a straight-ahead three pointer, and Giles answers with a put back two-pointer and three-pointer of his own on the other side of the court. Team CP3 gets off to a roaring start, building a 17-5 lead and smothering the Wings, hampered by the loss of Korita, inside. Courtside, even Chris Paul himself gets into the act, leading a fake 3-2-1 chant in an attempt to get Pippens to shoot early on one possession.
Still, Malik’s skills are obvious. The Wings make a mini-surge after a scrum from which Malik emerges dribbling the ball while practically lying on his side. As he rises off the floor, a defender lunges for the ball, but Malik whips it around his back and darts forward down the sideline with a sprinter’s speed. After two long dribbles he bullets a pass to teammate Payton Willis, who misses a first shot but makes the second off a rebound.
The Wings close it to a 19-14 deficit, but everybody who guards Team CP3’s star point guard Alterique Gilbert, including Malik, has trouble keeping him from attacking the rim. Team CP3 at one point has a 2 to 10 advantage in fouls to complement its double-digit lead. During a timeout, Marcus slaps hands with Wings players as they silently exit the court. Malik doesn’t engage in any high fives as he sits, picks up a cup and glares ahead.
In the second half, as Calipari watches from the gym corner, Team CP3’s lead balloons to 21. Malik has hit 10 or more three-pointers in multiple games before, but in this tourney, he never quite detonates from the outside. His individual highlight comes after a dribble drive, swooping across the paint and practically falling sideways as he banks a one-handed runner over the outstretched hands of Giles.
Arkansas doesn’t get closer than 11 points the rest of the way. By the late second half, coaches are checking their phones and the official EYBL photographer is giving camera pointers to two toddlers seated alongside him. Malik’s game is slightly off, but he still finishes leading all scorers — including Harry Giles — with 21 points.
The Wings are officially out, but the players seem nonplussed as they join the masses to quickly exit, brushing shoulders with an incoming crowd ready to watch the game. Marcus and head coach Charles Baker tell the players they are proud of their effort and that they still have one more event as a team later in the month. They all stick around for a while to watch the 16U Wings play.
With five games in three days, there was little time for the brothers or anyone else on the team to do anything relaxing. Usually summer events provide a chance for the team as a group to go swimming or bowling or see a movie, but the Peach Jam is just too demanding. He might be 17, but Malik already keeps an adult’s schedule. Days after returning to Bentonville, Malik hops back onto a plane and flies to Chicago for the Nike Global Challenge, where he earns MVP honors. He then rejoins the Wings at The 8 tournament in Las Vegas and puts on another MVP-worthy performance..
Despite the schedule, or perhaps because of it, Marcus and Malik will see plenty of each other in the weeks and months ahead. Their dreams and plans are so interwoven it is difficult to imagine one without the other. Last fall Marcus and his friend Nick Mason, a former sports talk show host at Hog Sports Radio, formed the Monk Promotional & Management Group, LLC, a full-service marketing and advertising agency with expanding influence in the northwest Arkansas sports scene.
The two will soon launch a new sports talk show called The Raw Report that will cover high school recruiting, the statewide basketball scene and Razorback sports. The show should premiere sometime in August and Malik will announce a list of his top schools (which will include Arkansas, he’s said) on The Raw Report a few days or weeks after a press release is issued, Marcus says. Marcus adds it’s not yet determined how many schools will make the cut.
Mason adds he thinks another announcement paring the list down further will be made in the winter. It would, he adds, make sense for Malik to make his final announcement on the show in April.
Meanwhile, there’s still that last season of high school ball to get through. While Bentonville is a powerhouse in most sports, it hasn’t yet achieved a basketball breakthrough. Malik led it to the state semifinals in 2014 and the finals in 2015, but both times the Tigers lost to North Little Rock High. This year, Marcus and Mason have helped find nationally ranked opponents featuring elite recruits for Bentonville’s non-conference season.
With Malik as the centerpiece, the school will play numerous elite out-of-state schools. Bentonville’s program will also debut on national television by playing twice on an ESPN outlet. Furthermore, the school will host its own winter tournament featuring regional teams. Bentonville coach Jason McMahan is happy to oblige. "He’s part of a very good team but he’s the most significant part, the most attractive part to that, that which helps bring the excitement to help bring sell-out crowds and get us invited to these kinds of events that people will pay a lot of money to watch."
Much of this will likely be discussed on The Raw Report, but does Mason think Malik’s ultimate decision could affect the popularity of his new show? "That’s a real difficult question because obviously people might be so upset they might not support you, but you’ll just have to deal with it when it comes across the table."
As for Marcus, he looks forward to being by his brother’s side in the next year but he also knows his ability to truly understand Malik’s situation wanes with the increased scrutiny and attention his brother commands. "He’s going through things that I never went through … I know it has to be difficult, it’s not easy for these [elite recruit] kids — in general, it’s harder for them."
At this point, many of the next steps in the process — while so seemingly complicated from the outside — will boil down to a few conversations they planned to have after Malik returned home from Las Vegas on July 26. Beginning then, Marcus, Malik and Jackie planned to discuss what he does and doesn’t like about each school. After making the list, he can start planning official visits — he gets up to five in all — to different campuses and take the show on the road. When he does, fans and media will follow his every move. His Twitter following, his YouTube viewers and his website visitors will only grow.
Whatever happens, Marcus plans to be there whenever his brother needs him, just as it was before Malik played in any games at all, when he was a boy and not a man, and before anyone anywhere dared fathom him as a brand.
Malik’s world awaits.