Basketball reasons sold Pac-12 trio on Wyoming

·10 min read

Jul. 17—LARAMIE — As the University of Wyoming looked to add to a roster that helped deliver one of the program's most successful seasons in decades, Cowboys basketball coach Jeff Linder knew his recruiting pitch would have to be different than other schools.

Fortunately for the Pokes, what they had to sell was exactly what longtime friends Max Agbonkpolo, Ethan Anderson and Jake Kyman were looking for.

UW couldn't pitch the sun-soaked beaches of Southern California they grew up near, nor could it offer the big-city excitements Agbonkpolo and Anderson enjoyed at USC and Kyman at UCLA. Instead, the Cowboys' proposal centered solely around basketball, something that made the trio realize Wyoming was the perfect fit for them.

"For them, the attraction of Laramie was in terms of how we develop and how we put guys in positions to be successful," Linder said. "Especially in college basketball, everyone talks about development, but a lot of places don't (actually do it). The thing we hang our hat on is getting guys better, and knowing that's what you have to do at the University of Wyoming.

"We can't sell the beach and all the things that USC and UCLA can, and those guys have been there and done that. They wanted a different experience, and they knew this time around what was really important, (and that was) finding the right fit. We were able to show them that, and they were smart enough to know that this was the best place for them."

Agbonkpolo, a former top-60 prospect and Wyoming's highest-rated signee of the recruiting service era, recalls his first impression of Laramie being "we're in the middle of nowhere." This wasn't a detriment, however. For someone with NBA aspirations, he viewed a lack of distractions as something that would help him take his game to the next level.

Anderson and Kyman also point to basketball reasons as the driving force in their decisions to commit to the Cowboys.

"What I was really looking for in the portal was a good relationship with the head coach, and building that trust," Anderson said. "As a point guard, I feel like I'm an extension of the coach on the floor. The best situation for me was a coach that's going to trust me, and to put good guys around me, also.

"For me, it was really coach Linder. Coming from USC and UCLA, we kind of knew it wasn't going to be shopping malls and stuff here. But for a basketball decision, I feel like this decision is going to help us for the rest of our lives."

Added Kyman: "At UCLA, I didn't get the biggest opportunity, and that was the main thing. I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do. I just wanted to be on a platform and stage where I was able to play my game and do what I can do. I really love coach Linder. He really trusts me, and trusts my game and how I can play."

The connection between Agbonkpolo, Anderson and Kyman dates back long before their college careers got underway.

Anderson and Kyman met in eighth grade as members of the OC Vision basketball program, where they won a 14-and-under AAU district championship, while Agbonkpolo — a teammate of Kyman's at Santa Margarita Catholic — joined them on the AAU circuit with Dream Vision the following year. Anderson and Agbonkpolo went on to play together for another prestigious travel squad, LA Pump N Run, for their 17U season.

While their roots run deep, however, they didn't enter the transfer portal with the intention of teaming up at their next stop.

"Obviously, we all know each other, but it wasn't like, 'Alright, all three of us, let's pick a place to go together,'" Kyman said. "We all respectively looked at our decisions. Then we came on a visit here, and it was just magic in a bottle."

This early April recruiting visit was eye-opening for the Pac-12 products.

They were sold on the training staff and resources such as the state-of-the-art High Altitude Performance Center, as well as how they could help take a team coming off a 25-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance to even greater heights. The returning members of the Cowboys' roster also helped sway their decision.

Rather than fret over concerns about playing time, players welcomed the trio with open arms. The Cowboys were their first recruiting visit since entering the portal, and although each had trips lined up to see what high-major programs had to offer, they had seen enough after one weekend in Laramie.

Agbonkpolo and Anderson pledged their commitments before leaving campus, and Kyman followed suit within a day of arriving back in California.

"They really wanted us to come here," Agbonkpolo said. "At other schools, there might be some conflict with transfers coming in, but we were welcomed in by everybody. There wasn't one person that didn't want us to come here, so that helped a lot."

Proven winners

One aspect about these three that intrigued Linder was their track record of winning.

Agbonkpolo and Anderson were a part of an Elite Eight team two years ago at USC, while Kyman reached the Final Four with UCLA the same season. Both teams — which had a combined 141 wins over the past three years — returned to the Big Dance in March.

Much like their friendship, though, their history of winning at a high level started around the time they got to high school.

Anderson starred at Fairfax High on the westside of Los Angeles, where he played for legendary coaches Harvey Kitani and Steve Baik. His prolific prep career was capped with a senior campaign in which he led Fairfax to the LA City Section title, while being tabbed as the City Section player of the year.

He showed capabilities of taking over games on the offensive end, but it was his defensive prowess and ability to impact winning that stood out to Los Angeles Times prep sports columnist Eric Sondheimer, who has covered high school sports in Southern California for more than 40 years. Anderson averaged 20.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists as a senior, as Fairfax rolled to a 27-2 record and No. 5 ranking in the state.

"He's a coach on the court, and he's very strong," Sondheimer said. "He changed his body after his first year at USC, and I thought it really made a difference in making him a little bit quicker than he was in high school, but he's always been strong and very poised and unselfish.

"He really does whatever the team needs (from) him to win. If they need him to pass, he'll pass. If they need him to make a 3, he'll make a 3. That's what I really like about him, and obviously he led them to a city title."

Similar to Anderson, Agbonkpolo and Kyman also closed out their high school tenure on a high note.

As freshmen, they suffered a blowout loss in their postseason opener to Chino Hills — a team that earned national championship honors after going 35-0, with a roster that included future NBA players Lonzo and LaMelo Ball and Onyeka Okongwu. They got their revenge three years later, though.

Agbonkpolo, who was a reserve during his freshman year, had grown to nearly 6-foot-9 and emerged as one of the top players in the state as a senior. He went on to make USA Today's All-California second team, while Kyman, a four-year starter at Santa Margarita, was named the OC Register's Orange County player of the year.

After a challenging regular-season slate that included showdowns with multiple nationally renowned programs and a strong start to the playoffs, a familiar foe awaited them in the Southern Section title game. The Ball brothers had since left Chino Hills, but Okongwu — who would go No. 6 overall in the following year's NBA draft — was still there.

Trailing late, clutch plays by Agbonkpolo and Kyman lifted Santa Margarita to a 62-61 overtime win to secure the championship.

"We were getting beat pretty bad," former Santa Margarita and current College of Southern Idaho coach Jeff Reinert said. "Max hits two big 3s, and then Jake hits the one to tie it up and send it to overtime. I don't recall what happened in overtime, but we ended up winning the game, and Big O had a shot to win it at the end and missed it.

"It was a fabulous game and a fantastic way to end their high school careers."

Battle tested

In addition to experiencing what it was like to win at a high level, the trio's prep careers also prepared them for what to expect in college.

All three played rigorous schedules at their respective high schools. Anderson squared off against elite guards like future No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett, while Kyman and Agbonkpolo battled against the likes of soon-to-be pros such as 2021-22 NBA rookie of the year runner-up Evan Mobley, Cole Anthony and Cameron Thomas, in addition to Okongwu and the Ball brothers.

The level of competition only increased at USC and UCLA, as they competed in a conference that produced a total of 20 draft picks during their first three years of college. This experience, combined with their success at their previous stops, excites Linder heading into next season.

"They got a great foundation," he said. "All three of those kids played for tremendous coaches. (UCLA) coach (Mick) Cronin and (USC's Andy) Enfield have won a lot of games, and made their way deep into the NCAA Tournament. For them to already have that foundation, and for us to be able to add what we add, we have the chance to do some special things."

Lofty expectations

Given their understanding of what each other is capable of, it's no surprise Agbonkpolo, Anderson and Kyman have sky-high expectations for their time at Wyoming.

"Ever since we were playing AAU together, we've kind of all had different games and it just matches," Anderson said. "Max is really athletic, Jake really shoots it well and I handle it well. We've all developed and can do a lot of different things, but it's always fit together. Whenever we're playing, no matter who the other two guys are that we're playing with, it always meshes well."

In addition to the coaching staff, the Cowboys' deep cast of returners — which includes All-Mountain West selections Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado — played a significant part in their decision to come to UW. The Pokes bring back 84.6% of their scoring and 82.9% of their rebounding production from last season, with the only departing contributor being Drake Jeffries, who is currently with the Denver Nuggets at NBA Summer League.

With as much returning talent as the Cowboys have, Agbonkpolo has his sights set on adding more rings to his collection.

"NCAA championship," he said of his biggest goal at Wyoming. "I feel like that's the only thing you need to be playing for in college. That, and then a Mountain West championship."

Winning a national title is a lofty goal for any program, but especially one like UW. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and later to 68, only one team from what is now considered a mid-major conference — UNLV in 1990 — has cut down the nets after the final game of the season.

As Kyman points out, however, these high aspirations are of genuine belief, not bluster.

"That's what we came here for, and we wouldn't be saying that if we weren't capable of it," he said. "If we were a team that had a bunch of scrubs and were just trying to go .500, then that would be our goal. But we really have a chance here with this team, so we have high goals and that's what we're trying to do."

Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at jcriswell@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.