Not too long after winning his third consecutive boys basketball championship as Sacred Heart’s head coach, Jon Carroll ran into Josh Turner, a former standout player who helped lead Carroll to his first title in 2009.
“Coach, I don’t mind being No. 2 to that guy,” Turner, a former two-time New Haven Register All-State selection, told Carroll.
“That guy” to whom Turner was referring is Mustapha Heron, who transferred into Sacred Heart as a sophomore and led the Hearts to those three straight titles, the top spot in the final New Haven Register/GameTimeCT poll each of the last two years and the Register’s State Player of the Year award for the second straight season.
“We understood our roles. We trusted in each other,” Heron said. “When teams stepped on the floor (against Sacred Heart), they knew what they were in for.”
The 6-foot-5 Heron, 18, is just the second player to repeat as the Register’s Player of the Year. The first was Kris Dunn from New London, selected in 2011 and 2012. Dunn recently declared for the NBA Draft after his junior season at Providence College.
Sacred Heart didn’t lose to a Connecticut opponent during Heron’s last two years. He averaged 29.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists this past season for the NVL and Class M state champions.
The Hearts previously won the last two Class S state titles and the NVL tournament crown last year. Heron finished with 2,056 career points in just three seasons. He had transferred from Wilbraham & Monson after one year there.
“He is a competitor. There were times we had to pull the reins in and times where we’d say, ‘The kid is right,’” Carroll said. “There were times where we agreed, sometimes we didn’t but we always had the same goal.”
Completing the championship three-peat was something Heron made a commitment to do after last season, not transfer back to another prep school. He was also looking to re-open his recruitment process, after having verbally committed to Division I Pittsburgh in January of 2014.
He de-committed from Pittsburgh in April of 2015. What schools were on his list?
“Every school in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) was on the list, a couple of Big Ten schools and a few SEC (Southeastern Conference) schools, “Heron said. “I wanted to play in a physical conference and those are three of the most physical conferences in the country.”
Auburn University wasn’t the destination most had in mind for Heron. It hasn’t been a factor in the SEC in decades. But it did offer things that Heron liked when he visited last August and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl capitalized on gaining the prized prospect.
“I thought we had a chance because of who we are at Auburn a private school in a small Southern town, a Christian community, not a fast place,” Pearl said. “We demonstrated the environment at Auburn to be very much what it was like for him at Sacred Heart. He liked that. He saw that, rather than go someplace and adding to a great history, he could make his own history.”
Pearl noted that Auburn hasn’t been a basketball power “since the days of Charles Barkley and Chuck Person.” Person happens to be an assistant coach under Pearl and played the same position — shooting guard — as Heron does now at both Auburn and in the NBA.
So once he saw that – Heron committed on the spot and cancelled his official visit the next week to Mississippi State. Heron signed his national letter of intent in November.
“I feel it is the perfect situation,” Heron said. “I got that feeling in my gut that, ‘If you don’t take this now, it may never again present itself. … It’s the perfect place for me. The coaching staff was great, the campus was great. It’s a place with a family atmosphere. It seemed like the right fit. I met with the acadmic people and they have a plan for me to be able to graduate early.”
About that “graduating early” comment: Yes, Heron has his sights set on the NBA, that’s no secret. After being shunned for the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in March, as well as being chosen for the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic, he said, “McDonald’s, the Jordan Brand and the Gatorade are all great, but they don’t get you to the green room in three years, so that’s how I look at it. They don’t get you to the (NBA) draft.”
But Heron is now looking to leave Auburn earlier than that.
“In my mind, at most two years (in college),” he said of his timetable. “If I have a year next year, then one and done is a possibility. I think I’m one of the more skilled guys in my class.
“For being a 2 (shooting) guard, I’m able to defend multiple positions, players as strong as me, the way I rebound for my size and my playmaking ability.”
And it is a discussion he has had with Pearl already — and likely another big incentive why he signed to go to Auburn.
“He doesn’t want me to be a four- or three-year player. He wants me to be one or two and go make money,” Heron said. “He put that faith in me when he started recruiting me. We’ve built that relationship.”
Pearl said Heron is “ready to come in and make a major contribution and be one of the best freshman in the country. He wants to get better and help us win.” Pearl said Heron’s biggest challenge “is going to be defensively, keeping great guards out of the lane.”
Asked about Heron leaving early for the NBA, Pearl said, “He knows he has a chance. He also understands there are a lot players who don’t get there. But he’s a different young man and he has an enormous chip on his shoulder.”
Heron did score 28 points in the JCC Schoolboy Classic on April 10, was invited to play in the Kentucky Derby Festival in Louisville on April 15, and the 2016 Ballislife All-American game in Long Beach, Calif., on April 30.
Heron said he will check in at Auburn for summer classes on June 1, then return to graduate from Sacred Heart before leaving Connecticut the next day to start the next stage of his career.
He wants to put on seven more pounds to be at 220 when he begins at Auburn. With the amount of upper body strength he has put on since coming to Sacred Heart, that wouldn’t see like much of an issue.
“He put in some serious work on his body to have that man strength,” Carroll said. “He has a work ethic that separates him.”