Take one Class 6A boys basketball program that missed the state playoffs last season, insert two highly-touted college prospects into the lineup, and what do you get?
For the Clackamas Cavaliers, it could mean a run at a state championship in 2020.
Ben Gregg, a 6-foot-8 forward from 2A Columbia Christian, and Damontae Burns, a 6-1 combo guard from 5A Parkrose, are transferring to Clackamas. The two juniors-to-be arrived in time to play with the Cavaliers during the recent late-spring/early-summer season.
"These are two guys who are going to be playing most of the game for us," Clackamas coach Cameron Mitchell said. "And even though we're talking about only two players, they still have a fair bit of catching up to do.
"Right now it's about getting them playing together and comfortable with one another and playing hard, and then we'll go from there when we pick back up in the fall."
Gregg is among the state's top-ranked college recruits in the class of 2021 and already has received Division I scholarship offers from Oregon, Oregon State, Portland, Portland State, California, Southern California, Texas, and Eastern Washington.
He averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds as a freshman when Columbia Christian went 30-1 and won a Class 2A state championship. He then averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds as a sophomore when the Knights of Northeast Portland went 26-2 and finished as the 2A state runner-up to Western Christian of Salem.
He felt he had accomplished almost everything there was to accomplish at the 2A level and he saw the move to Clackamas as an opportunity to face stiffer competition and develop his game.
Another reason Gregg decided to transfer had to do with convenience — Clackamas High School is literally across the street from his house.
"It's an easier commute than going to Columbia Christian," he said.
Gregg's father, Matt, the women's basketball coach at Warner Pacific University in Southeast Portland, said the initial reason his youngest son went to Columbia Christian was to play for Knights coach Bart Valentine.
"Bart Valentine was the guy who hired me at Warner and I knew he could develop kids and help turn young men into leaders," Matt Gregg said. "Ben's basketball skills were always pretty solid, but his leadership was kind of lacking, so we had him go to Columbia Christian to develop that."
When the came for the family to take a serious look at switching schools, Matt Gregg said his son turned down several offers from private schools such as Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, and Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, California, and that he never considered any of the bigger, local private schools such as Central Catholic, Jesuit, or La Salle Prep.
"No, no, I'm not that guy that's trying to jump to the next best thing or go where the grass is greener," Matt Gregg said. "That's not our deal. We just want to go where Ben is supposed to be and this is his district so this is where he's supposed to be. This is where we belong."
Change of scenery
Burns had a different living arrangement growing up, spending part of the time at his stepfather's home in the Parkrose district and part of the time at his grandmother's home just down the street from Clackamas.
"Finally, I made the decision to completely move in with my grandmother," Burns said. "It was tough leaving Parkrose. I know a lot of great people there, but I just feel like this move is the best thing for me moving forward."
Burns and Gregg are teammates on the Rose City Rebels AAU team, so when they both showed up at Clackamas this spring, there was speculation that the two had plotted to move together. Burns said that's not what happened.
"It was kind of a coincidence," Burns said. "It wasn't until AAU ball started and we were talking about how we were both going to transfer. When I knew Ben was coming to Clackamas, I thought it would be a great idea for us to both come here."
Burns, named to the all-Northwest Oregon Conference second team as a sophomore, isn't drawing the same attention from college recruiters that Gregg has received, but he has had contact with coaches at Portland, Portland State, Washington State, and Montana.
If the move to Clackamas makes him more visible to college recruiters, that's a positive. But he gets plenty of college exposure playing with the AAU Rebels, and he's actually more interested in seeing if playing for the Cavaliers can help him elevate his game to a more "college-worthy" level.
"We've already played Lake Oswego, Jefferson, West Linn, Westview ... and the level of competition we're going to see is something I'm really looking forward to playing against," Burns said. "I want to show what I can do against the top level competition that there is in the state."
Mix and match
Anytime a player transfers in and takes over a spot in the starting lineup, he's taking playing time away from somebody who was there before him.
The consensus in the Clackamas locker room is that the addition of Gregg and Burns is going to make everybody better, regardless of how the minutes are divided.
And anything that makes the Cavaliers better coming off last year's disappointing 8-16 season is a good thing.
"Incorporating two players with their skills is easy because they just know how to play basketball," said Artur Gavrilovich, last season's starting point guard. "It's obviously exciting to have two great players join our team and put us over the top and make our team a state championship contender.
"It's all about winning. Now that we have them, I feel like we can win the whole thing. We really can."
Mitchell, beginning his third season as the Cavaliers head coach, said there's no reason to ditch the system he introduced two years ago, but some tinkering may be in order
"In terms of Xs and Os, you're going to make little changes because when you have playmakers like Ben and Damontae, you have to find ways to get them the ball," Mitchell said. "We were lacking size last year, so having Ben adds a whole other dynamic to our game, especially on defense because he can erase a lot of mistakes.
"And then offensively, Ben is just so versatile. He can post up, he can shoot it, he can bring the ball up the court, he's a good passer, and he's a willing passer. He wants to get his teammates involved and I think that's one of the reasons everyone loves playing with him."
And what about Burns?
"Damontae is one of the best guards in his class," Mitchell said. "He's really quick, he's a lights-out shooter, and he's a tough defender. Yeah, he's really good."
Mitchell said it has been interesting to see how teams react when Gregg gets the ball on the high post and then puts it on the floor.
"The whole defense converges on him," Mitchell said. "I mean, it's crazy. He gets three or four guys going up with him, but the great thing is when he sees a double coming, he passes out of it and he doesn't force anything.
"Even though he could probably shoot 20 times a game, he's unselfish enough to get others involved, which is what makes him a huge game-changer. And other guys have got to be able to knock down some shots because they're going to get open looks."
Here are some dates to watch for on the 2019-20 winter sports calendar: Nov. 18 (first practice), Dec. 4 (first contest), March 4 (6A playoffs, first round), March 7 (6A playoffs, second round), March 12-14 (6A state tournament, Chiles Center, University of Portland).
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)