One of the nation's top sophomore basketball players and his mother surprised many last summer by uprooting from rural Arkansas to the land of opportunity in Bentonville, where he has helped lift a once-destitute program to new riches.
. — Only a month past his 16th birthday, Bentonville (Ark.)
sophomore Malik Monk
is considered by many to be the nation's best shooting guard in his age group. In socks, he is a 6-foot-3-inch combination of shooting skill, world-class athleticism, timing and balance that makes him at times look like Ray Allen's NBA Jam avatar mixed with the real Michael Jordan.
"I'm used to doing that," Malik said matter-of-factly after a state tournament alley-oop finish that prompted one blogger to deem him the "God of Dunk."
It doesn't take much YouTube-ing to realize, scarily enough, he isn't exaggerating. And it's not hyperbole to say Monk, already one of prep's most electrifying players, is also on the cusp of becoming one of its hottest recruits. He has already gotten scholarship offers from Arkansas, Memphis, Kansas, Florida, Connecticut Baylor and Indiana. And Kentucky and North Carolina have recently shown strong interest.
The No. 6 player in the 2016 class according to 247 Sports
averaged 22.7 points on 43 percent shooting, along with 2.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game this season, leading the Tigers within one game of the state 7A (largest classification) title game which took place Thursday night. This in a program that was 67-102 over seven seasons starting in 2005.
But Monk's impact goes well beyond typical stats or even wins and losses. Few high school players match Monk in number of "oohs" and "aahs" elicited from the crowd. He has a way of playing to the crowd while looking all the time like he is simply going about his business in a workshop.
He has a jauntiness in his step that announces to spectators they’re about to get more than they paid for. It’s small wonder the average attendance of Bentonville home games rose about 40 percent from last season and on a few occasions up to 500 people had to be turned away from its sold-out 1,800-seat arena.
Only in 10th grade, Monk already ranks with all-time great Arkansas prep players like Jackie Ridgle, Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer, Corliss Williamson and Joe Johnson, according to long-time observers.
Yet he’s still very much a work in progress. Minutes after he threw down the "God of Dunk" dunk, he fired an errant cross-court pass into press row that sent a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Coke flying inches from a reporter’s elbow.
Despite elite scoring ability (he made 11 of 13 three-point attempts in one game this season) Monk thinks of himself as a point guard under construction. “I want to be a facilitator,” he said, “just in case I don’t grow anymore.” To take this step, Monk will have to cut down on his six-turnover outings.
Fortunately, Malik has an older brother whom he considers to be “like a father” helping tighten his game. Marcus Monk, a former pro basketball player in Germany, essentially serves as Malik’s publicist, confidant and trainer all rolled into one. Marcus, too, was unimpressed with Malik’s alley-oop slam in a quarterfinal game of the state tournament last week. He’d much rather discuss Malik’s court awareness and footwork.
Marcus was talking while sitting in the stands of the tournament site at Conway
, in the middle of the state. Leaning slightly forward, he cringed when Malik fired up two of his eight 3-point shot attempts which didn’t come in the flow of the offense. At one point in the second half, after a Bentonville blowout win was assured, Malik was playing post defense. He reached on his man, grasped air, and easily got scored on.
"You see, that's terrible," Marcus said.
A 27-year-old former University of Arkansas player, Marcus serves as the yin to all the viral video yang which will only continue to accumulate around his brother’s burgeoning reputation. On the court, Marcus reminds Malik and his teammate Tyrik Dixon
to keep their heads up and be vigilant about which angle traps and double teams may come from. Off the court, he stresses keeping heads down, in books, and not messing with girls too much. In short, never stop self-correcting and honing fundamentals. There’s your meal ticket. Dunking is mere icing.
By and large, the group of family and friends who sit by Marcus agree with him. That's why after Bentonville punches its way into the semifinals, he, Malik and their mother get on the highway to head west, toward their land of opportunity. But the rest of the clan goes the other way. Video by Matt Johnson; Additional footage by Hoopmixtape, Scott Fusselman, Devon Gulati and Connor Leech; Editing by Scott Hargrove; Cover photos by Marc F. Henning
Leaving home and lots of love
The Monks grew up in Lepanto, in northeast Arkansas.
It's a place where you'll find cotton, soybean, rice and corn farmland on the edge of Delta, land as fertile as any you'll ever find with about 2,000 people as friendly as you'll ever meet. With a per capita income of $12,550, this is also one of the poorer areas of one of the nation's poorest states.
"We lean on each other so much because we have to," Marcus said. "In my neighborhood, you ask anybody to come [over], they drop knowledge on you. The older guys - they try to help you out. There's just a lot of love."
Community support can be especially important to a single mother like Jackie Monk. It wasn’t easy raising Marcus and Malik mostly on her own. Last school year, she made $14,649 working as a teacher’s aide, but she has help. Her cousins, the Maddens, live across from the Monks' Lepanto home. That family has produced some of the region's most outstanding athletes, including Jordan Madden, a former Baylor player who started alongside Brittney Griner, and her younger brother Rashad Madden, a starting guard for the University of Arkansas. The town's disproportionately high percentage of Division I football and basketball players meant Malik never lacked for good competition growing up.
He also got coaching in his youth leagues from his father, Michael Scales, a local carpenter (Marcus has a different father). Good coaching played a role in Malik's rise, but so did unorthodox training methods. Malik credits some of his standing 39-inch vertical leap (42 inches running) to running through the fields behind his home toward a local court, especially after it rained. The mud's resistance made his leg muscles stronger, he said. All that preparation helped Malik emerge last season as the state's most promising freshman when he racked up 22 points per game and led East Poinsett County (Lepanto, Ark.)
to a finals appearance in the 2A state tournament.
East Poinsett lost but looked to be on the cusp of a dynasty with Malik entering his sophomore year and his teammate brothers Byron and Aaron Scales entering their senior and junior years, respectivelty. But the town's athletic brilliance contrasted with its dismal economic outlook. Like so many other towns in the area, more employers have left Lepanto in recent years than moved in. More residents have to commute to new-found jobs in places like Blytheville, Osceola, Jonesboro or Memphis, said Brian Parrish, who lives in nearby Marked Tree.
"A bedrest community is what we're gonna be before long," he said.
"There are just no jobs," Marcus told WholeHogSports.com. "People have to go out 40-45 minutes from here to find work."
During Malik's ninth-grade year, he and his mother discussed moving to northwest Arkansas. They wanted to be closer to Marcus, a Masters of Business Administration student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and they knew Malik could better reach his college/NBA potential if he attended a bigger school with a more rigorous curriculum and played in a conference with better competition.
"God blessed me with something special," Malik said. "I want to be a superstar."
Northwest Arkansas, one of the nation's most economically vibrant regions, simply has more resources to help make that happen.
Marcus especially likes what Bentonville High School, about 30 minutes from his Fayetteville apartment, has to offer. Last spring he interviewed for a junior high job in that district and was impressed with varsity coach Jason McMahan's grasp of the game, organizational skills and involvement in players’ lives. He felt he could trust McMahan and his staff to not only develop Malik's game, but make sure he stayed on track in school. Marcus told his mom and Malik, and they eventually decided on Bentonville and two weeks later they left Lepanto.
"It was a shock to everybody," Jackie recalled. Her relatives "didn't think (she) was going to make the move. They were all like, 'You're not leaving. You're not going anywhere. You've been saying that for a while.'"
A land of opportunity
Malik isn't the first to move from northeast Arkansas to Bentonville to follow his dream. Entrepreneur Sam Walton did the same almost 65 years ago. Walton's drive to revolutionize the variety store business by putting more items, at lower costs, under the same roof eventually led to Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the world's second-largest publicly owned business. Malik's drive to create his own style of play — based on a unique combination of athleticism, long-range shooting ability, court awareness and mastery of basics — could one day revolutionize the industry he wants to enter.
Malik lives with his mother in a two-bedroom apartment only blocks from the site of Sam Walton’s first store in Bentonville. It’s now The Walmart Museum, paying homage to the growth of a company which in one way or another affects every person living in the area.
Sometimes, for instance, Malik and his teammate Jake Caudle
ride bikes on the wooded trails around the nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a world-renowned museum funded by Walton family money. Other times, Malik and teammate Tyrik Dixon practice at the Walton Life Fitness Center by the Walmart world headquarters. Dixon said they get in as guests through one of his mother’s friends, who is a Walmart employee.
In the morning, Jackie leaves the apartment to work as an assistant activities director at a nearby senior nursing and rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, Malik’s teammate Tyler Robinson
picks him up and they ride to Bentonville’s roughly 4,000-person campus. They enter a school that has become a statewide powerhouse in almost every sport but basketball.
Walmart has played a direct role here through advertising dollars that go into the athletics booster club fund. But its presence is felt more profoundly in indirect ways.
Many local Walmart vendors (or, suppliers of the store’s merchandise) “pour money and products and things like that into our program for us to be able to get the things we need,” McMahan said.
Ozark, a natural spring water sold in Walmart, is one of three “platinum” sponsors that each funded Bentonville athletics with $15,000 this year, Athletic Director Scott Passmore said. Corporate sponsorships and donations can provide post-workout protein supplements or nutritional meals before games, for example.
Sometimes, the companies supporting Bentonville athletics employ the players’ parents. McMahan estimates that 80 percent of the parents of his players over the last five years have been employed either with Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., or one of its vendors. Their contributions to the program help toward new practice jerseys and shoes almost every year. Every player got a new pair of Air Jordans at the start of this season.
Bentonville basketball has soared to new heights since last spring. Last March, the Tigers made the state semifinals for the first time since moving into the state’s largest classification in the early 1990s. This season, with a younger cast, Malik led Bentonville to a 19-6 record and its first conference championship in Class 7A. The regular season’s highlight came in back-to-back games against conference rivals. In each game, Malik hit impossible game-winning 3-point shots (see video of each below).
On the first he took an inbounds pass with less than a second to shoot against Springdale
. While falling out of bounds with two defenders draped all over him, he somehow swished the ball through to win 57-56. Three days later against Fayetteville
, he resembled Kobe Bryant dribbling down the final 20 seconds while being chased frantically by two defenders. He finally pulled up well past the top of the key and made a spectacular, hanging 25-footer to win 52-49.
"The buzzer-beaters were kind of crazy," he said. "Being mobbed by the student section was kind of fun. But when I fell after the Fayetteville one - yeah, they were all over me. That kind of hurt a little. But I liked it."
Recruiting, child's play and remembering Troy
The videos of those buzzer-beaters vaulted Malik into the national limelight.
The next morning they were featured on SportsCenter and have provided fodder for Malik’s teammates to mess with him. They rib him, he said, about not being on ESPN since then and that he isn’t ranked in the national Top 5 for his class. The joking extends to recruiting, too.
Occasionally, teammate Ryan Bachman
will unleash a “Wooo Pig Sooie,” the signature yell of the Razorbacks, to joke with him in the locker room.
“I laugh at it,” said Malik, who grew up as a Hogs fan in a Razorback household.
He often made the trek from Lepanto to Fayetteville as a child to watch Marcus, a dual-sport athlete better known for his All-SEC career as a University of Arkansas wide receiver.
This school year, Malik has made the five-hour drive back to Lepanto once — for a football game in the fall. But home is still very much on his mind. He texts his half-brothers — Byron and Aaron Scales — daily about their most recent football or basketball games. They tell him he needs to visit more, and indeed Malik plans to spend a few days in Lepanto for Spring Break.
Malik’s Twitter profile picture isn’t of himself. Instead, it features his cousin Troy Tucker, who died three years ago of complications arising from sickle cell anemia. Malik, 15 years younger, looked up to his cousin because he was a good person. He often downs pregame red skittles and orange juice in remembrance of Tucker, who loved those two foods.
Malik is still a kid in many ways. But as a high-profile prep star living only a smartphone photo away from potential embarrassment or worse, he’s learning how to navigate the sometimes stressful world of recruiting. He said he has put his Razorback fandom aside to objectively assess which program provides the best opportunity to meet his goals.
Specifically, he’s looking for chemistry with teammates, “good coaching” and “how they develop players not only for the college level but the league.” He wants to spend one year in college before going pro like his favorite player Kevin Durant.
Whether Malik eventually chooses Arkansas or not, he will have benefited from proximity to the program. He’s gotten training from two former Razorback stars and NBA players - Ron Brewer and Ronnie Brewer, Jr. He occasionally attends Razorback practices at Bud Walton Arena and last summer scrimmaged with the team.
“It went well. They were pushing me,” said Malik, adding that he will have to bulk up his 173-pound frame before he can compete better at the higher level.
He communicates daily with two Razorbacks - his cousin Rashad Madden, a starting Arkansas guard, and Marcus, who last fall joined the staff as a manager (an auxiliary position similar to football’s graduate assistant). Malik is encouraged by both of his relatives to keep working hard and gets pointers on improving his game. He added neither relatives’ Razorback status will influence his college choice.
“I’m trying to go with what’s best for me," he said.
Marcus said he feels “no conflict of interest at all” being part of the basketball team and the brother of a highly sought recruit. When he first discussed the position with Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, he said, he told Anderson he was going to let Malik decide on a college on his own.
So far, Marcus added, he and Malik haven’t discussed recruiting.
“He knows I’m here if he needs any advice.”
The Arkansas coaches haven’t asked Marcus to relay any messages to Malik, he added.
“They’ll ask about him, how he’s doing at school and all that.”
Moving up and moving on
Last semester, Malik had trouble acclimating to the logistics at his new school (e.g. ID cards, passwords, email addresses) and how much faster his classes moved compared to East Poinsett County. But his coach and brother said he has adjusted and with the help of a tutor is doing better this semester.
Life for Malik revolves around the routines of study, practice, workouts and travel to games. He finds time to play NBA 2K14, attend church with Dixon, listen to favorite rappers like Kevin Gates and Lil’ Herb and cheer on the Bentonville volleyball or junior high basketball teams.
“He’s a very polite and respectful young man,” Passmore said. “Any time I’ve spoken to him, he’s always addressed me in a professional manner.”
That’s not to say this is Tim Duncan 2.0 out there. In games, Malik often wears his emotions on his sleeve. There’s a good side to that, though.
“We charted over a three- or four-game span and he was giving out 30 or 40 high fives in a game,” McMahan said. “He was probably the best guy on our team at recognizing a good play by someone else.”
But Malik would also get demonstrably frustrated on the court, whether it be with the way a referee was calling fouls, how a teammate was rolling to the basket or his own loose dribbling. Caudle said during the regular season he sometimes had to calm Malik down.
If ever there was a game that presented the perfect opportunity for Malik to lose his cool, it was Monday afternoon’s semifinal showdown with the state’s defending 7A champion North Little Rock
, which is loaded with four or five future Division I players, including Razorback signee Anton Beard
and KeVaughn Allen
, one of the top shooting guard prospects in the Class of 2015.
North Little Rock is the powerhouse Bentonville wants to become, and on Monday the defending champs landed an early upper cut on the challenger, jumping out to an 18-6 lead. Bentonville clawed back to pull within 34-31 with 12 seconds left in the first half after Malik’s step-back 3-pointer, but Beard, who ended up making five of six 3-point attempts, responded with a 3-pointer of his own.
Malik played more as a point guard early on, but became more aggressive as the game wore on.
He finished with 14 points in the game’s final 6:24 (for a total of 30 points including 5-of-10 on 3-pointers), but it wasn’t enough to counteract 28-point efforts by Allen and Beard. North Little Rock won 77-64, but even as it pulled away in the second half, Malik kept his composure.
If he continues to improve, and help his teammates to improve, it will be a surprise if Bentonville doesn’t win a title soon. Especially when considering all but two players should return next year.
Malik wished he’d played harder at times against North Little Rock but for the most part was pleased with an effort that included nine rebounds and three assists. He said poor transition defense early ultimately doomed Bentonville.
"You have to learn from it," he added.
Because while a season-ending loss stings, it also provides an opportunity for those hungry to improve themselves.
After the game, Malik boarded a bus with his teammates. The young men headed west.Evin Demirel writes more about life than sports. Follow him at Twitter @evindemirel or https://twitter.com/evindemirel