he phone call came to Sacred Heart coach Jon Carroll when he was on his way to a Christmas party in December of 2013. Mustapha Heron was transferring in from Wilbraham & Monson Academy.
Sacred Heart was coming off three straight years of not qualifying for the postseason, but Carroll liked the pieces he had returning. Now, less than a week before the 2013-14 season opener, they were adding one of Connecticut’s top players.
“I’m now thinking we are going to compete for the NVL and maybe have a shot at (the Class S state championship),” Carroll said. “To get the news that we were getting a player who was top 25 in the country in his class, it’s kind of game-changing.”
It certainly was. Heron has since helped lead the Hearts to consecutive Class S titles. The junior led Sacred Heart to a 28-0 season and the Hearts occupied the No. 1 spot in the Register/GameTimeCT Top 10 Poll the whole year.
As for Heron, he averaged 22 points and 5.3 rebounds per game to earn Register State Player of the Year honors. He becomes the second junior to do so — Kris Dunn of New London accomplished that feat in 2011.
“No question about it we were the best team in the state,” Heron said. “We beat a lot of teams that were LL, L or M and we beat a nationally ranked team (Christ The King) by double digits.”
Heron’s numbers speak for themselves, but his ability to do well in all facets of the game makes him a pretty complete player at age 17 — and a good reason why he verbally committed to play at Pittsburgh 15 months ago.
“A lot of guys either shoot, handle the ball, rebound or defend. I do all those things at 6-foot-6 and 212 pounds,” Heron said. “I pass the ball and I’m a leader on the floor.”
The earliest Heron can sign a national letter of intent is November. He may wait until April of 2016.
So that leaves two open-ended questions for the time being: Will Mustapha Heron return to Sacred Heart for his senior season? And will he remain committed to Pittsburgh?
“I definitely will be back at Sacred Heart and we will definitely three-peat,” Heron said. “As far as college goes, I don’t know what the future holds over the next couple of months. I will have to take it one step at a time.”
Heron’s father, Bryan, is a former player at Central Connecticut State and played professionally overseas. He has helped Mustapha throughout the entire recruiting process.
According to various Internet reports, Bryan and current Kentucky assistant Barry Rohrssen are close friends. Rohrssen was previously an assistant under Jamie Dixon at Pitt before moving to Kentucky before this season.
So, naturally, connections are being made that Heron will instead sign with the Wildcats. But Heron remained committed to Pitt when he was asked throughout the past off-season.
But now, Heron is seemingly unsure of his future.
“My dad has been preaching since I was 11, 12 years old, that everything (to do with recruiting) is a business decision,” Mustapha said.
Whoever gets Heron will be getting a premier prospect. Tom Konchalski has been watching high school basketball for 57 years and publishing his High School Basketball Illustrated report about the best basketball prospects nationwide since 1984. He has watched Heron play since the eighth grade and caught him this season against Christ The King at the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Konchalski gave the full Heron scouting report, but he kept coming back to one overwhelming positive.
“The bottom line is he is a winner,” Konchalski said. “You can look at what can’t do, but it’s miniscule to what he can do. It’s like looking for flaws on the Mona Lisa.”
Adam Finkelstein, a recruiting analyst for ESPN, has watched Heron grow from his days at Wilbraham & Monson.
“I think his guard skills are much more legitimate than two years ago and noticeably better than a year ago,” Finkelstein said. “Sacred Heart has allowed him to play with the ball in his hands far more than at the highest level of prep schools. Another year there would further improve those skills.”
A West Haven native, Heron said he moved to Meriden at age 13. As an eighth-grader, he applied to Sacred Heart, St. Joseph and Holy Cross. But the opportunity to play at Wilbraham & Monson in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“I was able to play against older guys. I was playing against post-grads who were 18 and 19,” Heron said. “At 14, you cannot be soft against those guys. Plus I was able to live on my own, deal with time management, a college type of thing.”
Heron felt by his sophomore year his “development was getting stagnant” at Wilbraham & Monson. Knowing the players on the team and having applied there originally, Sacred Heart ended up being the next choice.
Carroll had Heron come off the bench in the season opener. Soon after he entered the game in the second quarter, he threw down a thunderous dunk against Woodland. Game 3 was at home against Crosby in front a sellout crowd.
Within a month, Heron made his verbal commitment to play at Pittsburgh.
“Mustapha is still a pretty frequent topic of conversation,” Carroll said. “I’ll be out somewhere having dinner with my wife or with another couple and the conversation comes up to what I do. I mention Sacred Heart (where Carroll is also the athletic director) and the responses usually are, ‘I have a relative who went there,’ or ‘How’s Mustapha?’”
Heron was always tall for his age, standing 5-10 in sixth grade. He admitted to being “really chubby in the seventh grade,” but lost 25 pounds over the next year through playing and conditioning.
In between his first and second seasons at Sacred Heart, Heron added 20 pounds of muscle. Now he can take the pounding inside on drives to the basket.
“I spend about 2½ hours (a day in the weight room during the offseason). Even during the season, I spend time in weight room,” Heron said. “I don’t feel anything now once I get hit. I know a lot guys get sore after a game, really sore. I rarely get sore.”
Said Finkelstein: “He has a college-ready body. He is not going to need to dramatically change physically to withstand the physicality at the next level.”
Dixon was present at the semifinals and final in the Class S tournament. Normally, assistant coaches will make all of the appearances or stay in contact with the head coach. Carroll said he has only been in talks with Dixon since Heron committed.
“You know Jamie is serious about Mustapha when on the first day of the open period this fall, I met him at 6:45 in the morning in the Sacred Heart parking lot,” Carroll said.
How would Heron fit in at Pitt?
“Pitt is a blue-collar program and he’s a blue-collar player. He’s competitive, strong-willed and plays to win. Jamie plays a physical style, so he will fit in well,” Konchalski said.
So while Mustapha plays for the New York Rens AAU outfit out of Brooklyn this spring and summer, everyone will wait to see what the Register State Player of the Year will decide to do with his future.