By Russ Waterman
St. Mark's of Southborough, Mass., has reached new heights in boys’ prep school basketball this season. The Lions are currently ranked No. 1 among all New England preps and 44th among all schools nationally, a quantum leap from last season, when they were barely a blip on the radar nationwide.
The biggest reason for St, Mark’s unprecedented surge is obvious: Erik Murphy, a 6-foot-10 center with tantalizing inside and outside skills. Reason No. 2: Nate Lubick, a 6-9 sophomore and another Division I prospect, who is also the son of St. Mark's coach John Lubick.
Averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds for the 11-1 Lions, Murphy made a historic early verbal commitment in December to attend the University of Florida, the two-time defending national Division I champions, and play for Billy Donovan.
All of the respect and massive attention Murphy earned from AAU play and from his prep school success forced him to narrow his choices to Florida, Duke, Boston College, UConn, Ohio State, Virginia, and Marquette by November.
Even an event never before seen in New England – an arranged Lions' practice session – didn't sway Murphy’s first opinion and final decision to attend Florida. Donovan, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, UCLA’s Ben Howland, Michigan’s John Beilein, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Boston College’s Al Skinner, Marquette’s Tom Creen and Providence’s Tim Welch and others came to watch him practice.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski would later see Murphy at Worcester Academy in December.
"It was exciting, it was crazy," Murphy said of the recruiting process.
"After my visit (to Florida) in September, I knew right then where I wanted to go. I liked everything about it, the atmosphere, coach Donovan, their style of play. And academically, I think it is pretty strong, too."
So what did Murphy do to cope with all the pressure? "My dad sort of knew the whole deal," he said. "He told me it was going to happen because he went through the same process."
Just who is his Dad? None other than Jay Murphy, once a 6-11 center at Boston College who later became a second-round NBA draft pick, and would spend four seasons in the pros and seven years overseas.
And if there were any questions why Erik Murphy and his team would be so highly touted, especially in playing against NEPSAC Class “C” competition and not against top competition, those questions were answered decisively in December.
The Lions proved how potent they were by defeating Class A opponents by decisive scores in winning the seventh-annual Tom Blackburn Basketball Tournament at Worcester Academy. They beat Marianapolis Academy, 88-61, with 23 points from Murphy, and then overwhelmed the hosts, 79-48, with 24 more points by MVP Murphy and 20 by Lubick
As for his playing ability, Murphy became a marked man in junior high. By covering all the bases twice in playing for the top two AAU programs around – first with BABC under Celtics assistant coach Leo Papile and now for the New England Playazz, under John Carroll, former Celtics assistant – the exposure and notoriety paid significant dividends.
And of his decision to attend St. Mark's? "Coach Lubick saw me at an AAU tournament in New Jersey when I was in the eighth grade and invited me to go up and visit and I thought it was the perfect place for me," Murphy recalled.
That fit also developed into a close relationship with Nate Lubick, who in combination with Murphy forms what is arguably the most potent inside duo ever in the region.
By displaying an array of inside moves with his back to the basket and from the high post, and with a smooth three-point stroke augmented by an ability to pass the ball, Murphy's play evokes memories of his father, one of the first players of his size to display significant shooting range and versatility
Then there is his mother, Paivi, a former Finnish national women's team player who also played professionally in Sweden. "She's motivated me to work hard and to have fun. She really supports me," Erik Murphy said.
His attention, meanwhile, is on his academics at St. Mark's, where he is a good student. His attention is also on his squad, including junior point guard David Johnson, his sophomore roommate, Brian Grossman, and Russ Braithewaite, "the team's best defender," he says. "We are defensive-minded, with a lot of man-to-man and a mix of other defenses so when we change up, (the opponent) can't adjust quickly.
"Coach Lubick is a great coach," he added. "He's helped me in every way, especially defensively, but also to become a better person. I know I need to continue to work on everything, especially my strength and quickness."
And his further aspirations? "My dream and goal is to play in the NBA," he readily admits. "Every high school player I know has dreams of playing in the NBA."
Yes, there may still be some growth left in this personable and realistic young man. Who knows, he may some day literally look down on his 6-11 father, Jay Murphy, and be drafted in the first round (as some speculate he will be) and go on to a longer pro career.
But for now, it's reasonable to speculate Murphy will rank as one of the most talented New England born-and-bred high school or prep players ever developed here. The scary thing for opponents is this: he has another year left to improve, another year remaining to grow taller and make his team stronger and truly make a definitive statement as one of the region's all-time best.
Of Note: Region Boasts Stellar Lineup of Stars
New England continues to be a hotbed for top college prospects. Most of the class of 2008 has already signed, but there are exceptions, most notably 7-2 center John Riek, a post-grad at the Winchendon (Mass.) School, who wowed observers so much at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron last July that Kevin Armstrong of SI.com wrote in a Dec. 7, 2007, piece, quoting Winchendon coach Mike Brynes: "The NBA scouts who saw him down there told me that he was, beside Roy Hibbert, the second-best center prospect draft-able."
Too numerous to mention in this article, the following is but a small sampling of outstanding prospects currently playing at New England prep schools:
From Brewster Academy (NH), 6-8 power forward Emmanuel Negedu will be attending Arizona, and 6-2 guard Anthony Crater is Ohio State-bound.
At South Kent (CT), Isaiah Thomas, a 5-9 point guard (no relation to the Knicks president and coach) has made a verbal commitment to Washington, while teammate Jin Soo Kim, a 6-9 junior shooting forward, will be attending Maryland.
Tilton School (NH) is loaded, too, with 6-9 power forward Alex Oriakhi and 6-6 small forward Jamal Coombs (both in the class of 2009) having already made commitments to attend Connecticut.
Russ Waterman covers Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the New England Preps for MaxPreps.com. He may be reached at email@example.com