Could two ball brothers be better than three? Meet the Gardners

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HACIENDA HEIGHTS, CA - JUNE 09: Jazz Gardner, a 7-foot sophomore basketball player from Los Altos High in Hacienda Heights plays in the Southern Section Division 2AA championship game against Rolling Hills Prep on Wednesday, June 9, 2021 in Hacienda Heights, CA. in the. Gardner is considered a four-star recruit and among the top 50 recruits nationally in his class of 2023. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Los Altos sophomore Jazz Gardner towers over the competition during the Southern Section Division 2AA championship game against Rolling Hills Prep on Wednesday in Hacienda Heights. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

There is a name that is quietly circulating around Los Angeles. It belongs to a lanky, crafty 7-foot center who can run the floor, distribute the basketball and create his own shots, but even with all those attributes, sometimes players like sophomore Jazz Gardner can fall under the radar.

It's a good thing that attention doesn't appear to matter to Jazz. Neither do points nor any other stat in the box score. His eyes have always been on winning, pushing the Los Altos High Conquerors to reach the Southern Section championships and state title games in the next two years.

If being a 7-footer weren't enough, Jazz is still growing into his body and will almost certainly add more muscle to his physique. Physical strength will enable him to expand his dominance to the paint.

"A tall, lanky guy makes you think of Kevin Durant, but not quite there yet,” Los Altos coach Jeff Lucas said of Jazz, who turned 17 in March. “He’s like some of the better point-center, point-forward type guys like a Nikola Jokic. … He can do a little bit of everything, he’s pretty smart with the ball and sees the floor really well."

So, it might come as a shock that social media haven't caught wind of the kid from Hacienda Heights, especially when you consider his pedigree and the fact he's a top-50 recruit in the class of 2023.

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Although Jazz has favorite NBA players, he'd rather model his game after that of his father.

Los Altos center Jazz Gardner jumps for a shot against Rolling Hills Prep.
Los Altos center Jazz Gardner pulls up for a shot against Rolling Hills Prep during the Division 2AA championship game Wednesday. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Jelani Gardner was a 6-5 guard who played at St. John Bosco High and California. He was poised to be the Bears' next star after Jason Kidd left Cal for the NBA draft in 1994, but amid a clash over playing time in his sophomore season, his father informed the NCAA that he had accepted money from a representative of the Cal program. Bears coach Todd Bozeman would resign and the program would be placed on a three-year probation.

During that tumultuous sophomore season, Gardner was also struck by illness. While preparing for the draft, a physical exam indicated he had kidney disease. In an effort to revitalize his draft stock, Gardner transferred to Pepperdine, where he averaged 14.0 points, 4.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds over two seasons.

Ultimately, after going undrafted in 1999 and playing overseas until 2011, he decided to change directions. Jelani began coaching, married a woman from France, Aude, whom he met in L.A. and dedicated his life to family. He switched his path from focusing on his own game to giving the knowledge he acquired to his two sons, Jazz and JaiYon, who were 6 and 4 when Jelani retired.

The Gardner family has always been all about basketball. Jelani's older brother, Sean, played at UC Santa Barbara and his younger sister, Zakiya, played at Morgan State.

Jelani created his own AAU program, JAG Basketball, that allowed his boys to play against high-level competition, become fundamentally solid and develop a high basketball IQ.

"Their IQ is of a level like mine, like a professional or a coach who's been in basketball 30-plus years," Jelani said.

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Jazz’s knowledge of the game coupled with skills developed with his father allowed him to flourish. Jelani played point guard for most of his life, so ballhandling, playmaking and distributing have been some of the main areas of focus throughout Jazz's youth.

And that training has paid dividends.

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As a freshman at Los Altos, Jazz averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots.

Following his freshman year, Jazz continued to grow at a rapid pace in all aspects: height, weight and game.

Jazz then led Los Altos High this season to the Division 2AA championship against the Rolling Hills Prep Huskies on Wednesday. The Conquerors fell 67-56, with the Huskies putting their entire defensive approach into limiting Jazz's scoring.

The Huskies ran an automatic double team on Jazz throughout the game. As soon as Jazz would touch the ball in the lane or near the paint, a third defender would soon arrive.

Los Altos' Jazz Gardner is defended by a Rolling Hills Prep player.
Los Altos' Jazz Gardner finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds against Rolling Hills Prep in the Southern Section Division 2AA championship game on Wednesday. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

That wasn't enough to prevent Jazz from collecting 21 points and 12 rebounds, only slightly below his season averages of 25.1 points and 13 rebounds.

"I think with [Jazz], this offseason, put on a little more muscle and some strength," Lucas said of his development. "But, he’s got so much positive skills that once again, he’s made a huge jump from last year to this year. And you know, I expect the same thing moving forward, and he's got a very high future.”

Next season will be when the Gardner brothers can begin to display what they can accomplish.

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JaiYon is what his father calls a true point guard, taking after Jelani's own game in multiple facets. As a 6-2 eighth-grader, JaiYon is the perfect match for Jazz with built-in chemistry since they were kids. JaiYon played up an age group with his brother, competing in 17-under basketball while he was only 12. JaiYon's experience against high-caliber competition led to his rapid development and comparisons with the youngest Ball brother, LaMelo.

The Gardner brothers don’t want to follow the path of the Ball brothers — they want to forge their own.

"We know the Ball brothers, and we grew up watching them. And I got a lot of love for the Ball family, but we want to create our own identity," Jelani said.

The Gardner brothers are looking to put their stamp on the California community during their two years together in high school.

"He's probably the only guy who knows how to throw it up in the perfect spot for me to score. And I know how to get him open," Jazz said of JaiYon. "So we're like a dynamic duo."

The main goal for them is to win alongside their teammates, but creating national buzz to influence recruitment, draft stock and futures, is not a bad bonus.

"Getting back in the CIF championship, that's the goal. That's always been the goal since Day 1, since I was little and my brother's dream too," Jazz said.

Jazz said he knows that he has more work to do this offseason so he can take on triple teams like he saw against the Huskies.

"What I'm looking forward to is getting back in the gym, getting back in the weight room," Jazz said. "So next year, I can come back a totally different person."

Even though Jazz can't formally speak with colleges until Tuesday, he has offers from Kansas, LSU, Pepperdine, UC Santa Barbara, USC and Virginia Tech. Jazz was also recently invited to play in the U18 European championship by the French national team because of his dual citizenship through his mother.

Who knows, the Gardner brothers could be surpassed by the Gardner sisters, Jade and Jianni, when they get to high school. But that's another story for the future.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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