In the transfer portal era, Myers Park’s Elijah Strong bet on himself, and it’s paid off
Myers Park senior center Elijah Strong, who will play in the Carolinas Classic all-star game Saturday in Wilmington, took a big bet on himself this season.
It was scary. It was risky. But it appears to have paid off.
In the era of fifth-year college basketball players and the transfer portal — two things that have hamstrung high school players more than anything perhaps in the history of college recruiting — Strong gave up a scholarship to Wofford in late January and reopened his recruitment.
“He had been committed since the beginning of August,” Myers Park coach Scott Taylor said, “and felt like it was a good place for him academically, socially and athletically, and we knew that by opening (his recruiting) back up, you’re taking a risk. You’re just uncertain as to what’s going to happen.”
A 6-foot-7, 245-pound post, Strong was coming off a strong junior season when he was named to the all-district team and played on Stephen Curry’s Under Armour summer travel team. He committed to Wofford in September. But a few months later, Wofford coach Jay McAuley resigned, reportedly after several players went to the school’s administration and said they didn’t want to play for him anymore, citing concerns around practice time and other issues.
That led to Strong’s change of heart, but a few weeks passed and no new offers were coming. The Myers Park staff knew the transfer portal would open soon and experienced college players, looking for a new home, would become available, possibly limiting Strong’s options.
But Taylor was confident that good things were coming.
Myers Park was playing high-level basketball and the film of Strong that the school was sending to college coaches now showed a player who looked a whole lot different than he did on the Under Armour travel ball circuit last summer or even in the first few months of the high school season.
“He really changed himself at (a Christmas tournament in Tennessee),” Taylor said. “He decided on his own, with some encouragement, that he would have to be in much better shape to be the player he wanted to be. Sometimes the light bulb turns on at some point. For some players it’s earlier. For some, later. For Elijah, it was at Christmas.”
Flashing light, flashing talent
After a game at the Arby’s Christmas Tournament, which Myers Park would win, Taylor and his staff were sitting in the hotel lobby. Strong walked out of the workout room and surprised his coaches.
“He looked like he had just jumped out of a pool,” Taylor said. “I’m like ‘Are you alright?’”
“It’s time to go,” Strong said back.
In a day, or two, Strong — knowing he was going to leave Wofford soon — changed everything about his game. He changed his diet, his workout routine, all his habits. He ran the floor harder, in practice and in games. He lifted weights harder.
As a junior, Strong had told Taylor he wanted to play in the ACC. Now he was working like that was his goal.
Strong was playing above the rim now, guarding smaller players away from the basket, showing off a entirely new skill set.
In January, Myers Park got rolling as a team, jumping into multiple national rankings polls, and Strong got rolling as a player. By early February, after that new film went out, new offers starting coming in: Duquesne, George Mason, St. Bonaventure, and Samford all came in a week. Strong also got offers from schools like Abilene Christian, Appalachian State, Campbell, Florida Atlantic, UNC-Wilmington and N.C. A&T.
“He was starting to get recruited at a little bit higher level,” Taylor said, “and we thought that was about the right level, but things kept going.”
The ACC comes calling
Shortly before the ACC tournament, Boston College head coach Earl Grant came to Myers Park to meet with Strong. Grant didn’t offer then, but let Strong know he was looking.
Myers Park beat North Mecklenburg in the regional final and then Strong dominated in the state final, with Boston College coaches in attendance, scoring 22 points to go with seven rebounds in a win against Richmond Senior. He made 8-of-13 field goal attempts.
Myers Park was in the state championship game for the first time in 57 years. The Mustangs won their first ring.
“It’s amazing,” Strong said in the postgame news conference. “It’s crazy to see how far the program has grown since I’ve been a freshman, to see how much more talented guys can get....Just figuring out how to work together throughout the fall, it was a journey, an honest journey, you know what I’m saying? It’s crazy (to be here now). I’ll be a Mustang forever.”
This week, Boston College’s Grant came back to Charlotte and spent time with Strong and his family and gave him his first high-major offer.
“I think it’s really all just based on his development and his commitment during the season,” said N.C. recruiting analyst Rick Lewis of Phenom Hoop Report. “You’re talking about a kid who is 6-7, 6-8, with good hands, good footwork and a soft touch. I like his temperament on the court. He plays hard and looks like he’s having fun. He’s got a good personality. He’s a fun kid to be around. I mean, he can step out and hit the jumper, but man, he’s a load inside.”
Lewis ranks Strong No. 12 among all N.C. seniors and thinks he’ll be a valuable addition wherever he goes to school.
So does Taylor, who said Strong will make his decision after taking his college visits next month.
With a laugh, Taylor said what seemed like a bit of a gamble a few months ago has really worked out well.
“As a staff,” he said, “we’re excited for Elijah because he’s the one who put the work in to give himself these opportunities. I’m not saying (Boston College) is where he’ll end up, but to have those options and to be able to say as a junior, ‘I want to play in the ACC,’ and struggle with some of that, some of those growing pains, and then to see the work he puts in and the trust he has in his team and the people around him, and to see him being rewarded for all of that, man, it’s just awesome.”
Carolinas Classic game Info
Athletes from the Charlotte and Raleigh areas are well-represented in the 2023 Carolinas Classic game, which will be played Saturday at Hoggard High School in Wilmington. The game pits some of the best N.C. public school athletes against their S.C. counterparts annually. The girls tip at 3 followed by the boys.
Four Charlotte Observer-area boys and four girls were named to the N.C. rosters. Charlotte-area boys included Myers Park’s Elijah Strong, Hough’s Trey Horton, Chase’s Addison Archer and Bessemer City’s Randall Pettus.
Observer-area girls selections included North Mecklenburg’s Nevaeh Farmer, Lake Norman’s Kirsten Lewis-Williams, Shelby’s Ally Hollifield and Newton-Conover’s Cassidy Geddes.
The Raleigh area had two boys on the rosters, Holly Springs’ Collin Kuhl and Farmville Central’s Jah Short. Two Raleigh-area girls were named: Millbrook’s Rechel Douglas and Clayton’s Darrionna Howard.
▪ In addition to the games, the student-athletes participated in community service events, including a visit to the Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center and four New Hanover County elementary schools.
▪ Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children and students. Proceeds benefit Camp Corral, a nonprofit that supports the lives of children of wounded and fallen military heroes.
North Carolina boys roster
Head coach: Ike Walker, Jack Britt
Assistant coach: Billy Martin, RJ Reynolds
Jacob Adair, 6-3, Enka
Addison Archer, 6-7, Chase
James Scott, 6-11, EE Smith
Elijah Strong, 6-8, Myers Park
Trey Horton, 6-5, Hough
Collin Kuhl, 6-8, Holly Springs
DyQuavion “Jah” Short, 6-4, Farmville Central
Randall Pettus, 6-2, Bessemer City
Jack Voth, 6-5, Hoggard
North Carolina girls roster
Head coach: Marlon Lee, Clayton
Assistant coach: Brandon Holloway, Pisgah
Daneesha Briggs, 5-7, Beddingfield
Reychel Douglas, 6-0, Millbrook
Kirsten Lewis-Williams, 5-10, Lake Norman
Nevaeh Farmer, 5-3, North Mecklenburg
Darrionna Howard, 6-0, Clayton
Ally Hollifield, 5-6, Shelby
Cassidy Geddes, 5-7, Newton-Conover
Ka’Nyah O’Neal, 5-8, Southside
Evangelia Paulk, 6-0, Asheville
Caroline Thiel, 6-0, Rocky Mount
South Carolina boys roster
Head coach: Jerome Stewart, Timerland
Assistant coach: Joshua Staley, Ridge View
Montraivis White, 5-9, Gray Collegiate
Chrisean Oree, 6-1, Keenan
Sean Lindsay, 5-11, Dorman
Arden Conyers, 6-7, Westwood
Justin Britt, 6-5, Goose Creek
Malachi Stevens, 6-4, Oceanside
Horace Jacques, 6-1, Orangeburg-Wilkinson
Brandon Crawford, 6-9, Irmo
Jordan Butler, 7-0, Christ Church
Avantae Parker, 6-8, Gray Collegiate
South Carolina girls roster
Head coach: Perry Stokes
Assistant coach: Jeanette Wilder, Saluda
Jessica Means, 5-6, Saluda
Jessica Woods, 5-8, Westwood
Alaina Nettles, 5-7, Summerville
Amiyah Ferguson, 5-7, Timberland
Dasia Ferguson, 5-9, Dorman
Yasmine Cook, 5-9, Stratford
Trinity Delaney, 6-0, AC Flora
Kamari Thompson, 6-0, Southside
P’eris Smith, 6-0, North Augusta
Lindsay Garner, 6-2, Lexington