Prized basketball commit and guard J.J. Starling can't wait to get to work at Notre Dame
LAPORTE – Back before he understood what basketball could do for him and he could with a basketball, J.J. Starling just wanted to be another middle-school kid doing middle-school kid stuff.
When basketball practice ended, Starling hoped to be among the first out the door, free for a couple of hours to go and do … whatever. Run around the neighborhood of his home in Baldwinsville, New York. Stop by this buddy’s house to play video games, or swing by this guy’s to just chill. Be like any other kid his age doing what kids that age did.
Basketball had other plans.
When practice ended, Starling would watch his teammates, his friends, his guys, pack their stuff and head for home. For Starling, it was back to basketball. More drills. More ball handling. More sprints up and down the court and then up and down the court again. More shots. More free throws. More.
All of it supervised by his father, Patrick, and a personal trainer. For the first few days, really for the first few weeks, Starling pushed back. He didn’t want to put in extra time doing extra work. He didn't want to get better. He wanted to go and be a kid.
“Kids my age, they’re running around outside and stuff and I’m in the gym for hours with my dad and a trainer trying to stay mentally focused,” Starling said last week from Marsch Gymnasium on the campus of La Lumiere School in LaPorte, where he’s a senior. “I would get mad at my dad for making me train harder.”
The more he trained and the older he got, the more Starling realized why his father did what he did when he did. For the longest time, Starling had played older than he was when it came to the game. When he was in first and second grade, he was playing against fifth and sixth graders. He played his first year of varsity at Baker High School when he was in eighth grade.
He had gifts. Basketball gifts. He had size and smarts and skills. He had it.
“Even then, I didn’t understand how good I was,” Starling said. “I thought that was kind of normal.”
That normal ended in middle school with the additional workouts. Starling realized then that he could be good at the game and that the game could be good to him. Instead of fighting his father about putting in longer hours, he embraced it. He missed hanging with his friends and doing stuff that middle school kids do, but he understood that if he put in the work then, he would benefit it from it later.
“I was young and didn’t know what gifts I had and what God had blessed me with,” Starling said. “That’s when I started loving the training and doing it more. It was mentally draining, but as I got older, I realized that it was necessary.”
By his freshman year of high school, having also played quarterback and running back in football before giving it up for hoops, Starling realized that whatever path in life he chose, basketball would be a part of it. A big part of it.
“I got more serious,” he said of the game. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do, so it’s time to invest in it.’”
That investment would pay off with a scholarship offer – one of many from colleges in all corners of the country – to play for Notre Dame.
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Notre Dame always was right there
Starling sleeps easier these nights in his dorm room on the La Lumiere campus. His mind is at peace, as he is. Starling no longer wonders what to do, worries what college path to follow, where it all might lead.
That wasn’t the case the previous few months, after he’d cut his list of college choices to five – Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Stanford and Syracuse. If he thought handling a press was demanding, he had no idea about the recruiting game. So many coaches, so many options, so many decisions. It weighed on him something serious.
“I was stressed,” Starling said. “You have such great people and great coaches and they’re all giving you the same pitch. You have to figure out who you can trust. That was the most stressful part. It was a lot.”
The deeper Starling dived into his recruiting, the more the name of one particular college coach at one particular school – barely 30 minutes from his current one – kept coming up. Mike Brey and Notre Dame. It had been among the first schools to recruit Starling when he was a high school sophomore. First it was former assistant coach Ryan Ayers. Then current assistant Ryan Humphrey. And always Brey.
They were there, right through to when college coaches could visit prospects in person for the first time in September. On that initial visit day, Brey and his entire coaching staff were at La Lumiere.
At 6 a.m.
“It was like, ‘Wow, they’re really doing this on the first day?’” Starling said. “It was cool.”
Cool doesn’t begin to describe his official visit to Notre Dame over Labor Day Weekend. It started with Brey driving to La Lumiere that Friday morning to pick up Starling – in a red Ferrari. The kid had just gotten out of class and saw the sports car tooling around the Marsch parking lot. It eased to a stop. The door opened and out popped the self-described “loosest coach in America.”
“He was like, ‘Are you ready?’” Starling said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it.’ It was a cool experience.”
Barely over a month later, after all of his visits and all of his fitful nights of sleep, Starling committed to play for Brey at Notre Dame. In the hours that followed, Starling felt as good as he had in months.
“I was like, ‘Dang, I really did this,’” he said.
That he did.
“When he said, ‘Coach, I know where I want to go,’ we asked him why,” said LaLu head coach Pat Holmes, a Notre Dame graduate and former student manager under Brey. “He had some pretty good whys and had a giant smile on his face. He felt good about it.”
As did Holmes, who saw his alma mater finally secure a commitment from a LaLu player. Brey had been down this road with former Lakers. From guards Jalen Coleman-Lands to Jaden Ivey, he’d often traveled U.S. 20 out to the school, only to see the prospect go elsewhere. Starling seldom wavered in his desire to attend Notre Dame.
Holmes admitted he’s a bit biased when it comes that campus, but also stressed that he tries to stay out of the process unless otherwise asked. When it came to Notre Dame, Starling asked.
Often. Tell me about Demetrius Jackson, he’d say to Holmes. Tell me about Jerian Grant. About Eric Atkins. All former Irish point guards who flourished in Brey’s guard-friendly system.
“He methodically asked good questions and thought that was the best spot for him,” Holmes said. “The relationship he had with the coaching staff kind of put Notre Dame over the top.”
A top prospect also a point of pride
College-bound guys ranked as high as Starling seldom consider, much less choose Notre Dame. Ranked a four-star prospect, Starling is as high as No. 27 (espn.com) nationally. When he signs with Notre Dame next month, he’ll be the highest-ranked prospect to choose the Irish since Jackson (No. 24, espn.com) did in the fall of 2012. That means something to Starling. It’s a point of pride.
“I look at that as a blessing,” he said. “That’s super cool.”
Same can be said about Starling’s view of Notre Dame, which was formed in a big way – a quiet way – over the summer when he made two unofficial visits. He played pickup with the current players. He got to know the staff better. He enjoyed the idea of one day teaming up with current freshman guard Blake Wesley in the same backcourt. The two have talked about playing together for over a year, long before Wesley committed right around this time last fall.
Starling and Wesley with that size and length and athleticism in the same backcourt? Whoa. That could be good. All-Atlantic Coast Conference good. Future pros good.
Everything about Notre Dame, Starling liked. Even when he didn’t have to be on campus, he was on campus. Starling and three LaLu teammates took in the USC football game Saturday night. He couldn’t wait to serve as tour guide. Like, can you believe this is where I’ll be next year?
“I realized that this is an atmosphere that I wanted to be around,” he said.
From a basketball standpoint, it couldn’t have worked out better. Recruiting is a lot about timing, and Starling comes along at the right time for the right coach and the right program. Senior lead guard Prentiss Hubb graduates in the spring and may choose to start the next phase of his basketball life rather than return for his bonus coronavirus year. If that happens, Brey needs someone to take the ball and basically run with it. Run this team.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Starling, more of a combo guard this season at LaLu, will be that guy. Brey made that clear from the start – the ball, he’d often say, is Starling’s.
“That means he has a lot of trust in you,” Starling said. “He’s going to let you play your game. He’s not going to try and restrict you and let you do what you do best. That was a big thing right there.”
What does Starling do best? Run a team? Score? Lead? Maybe a little of everything. He’s known as more of a scorer, someone who’s not afraid to take and make a big shot at a big time. And he makes a lot of shots. But he also just plays. He’s also worked to become more of leader at LaLu.
Being away from home, being in that program, has helped him crack open his cone of silence. In a two-hour workout last week, his voice was the most consistent, whether making layups or missing shots. He looked and sounded already like a college lead guard.
“I was a quiet kid back home; I did what I had to do on the court,” Starling said. “In a way, I’ve found my voice.”
He’s grown as a person and as a player, but he still carries a lot of home with him out in rural LaPorte County. During the practice last week, Starling went through a drill that had him catch the ball in the high post, ball fake, absorb contact in the form of an assistant coach peppering him with a blue blocking bag, then finish at the rim. Next time through, he'd fake a drive, then step back for a jumper.
The sound of the scoreboard buzzer signaled the end of the drill, but Starling wasn’t done. It was like he was back home in Baldwinsville, when those middle-school practices would end and his buddies would get out of the gym ASAP. Starling, as he did then, remained on the court, ball in hand, mind on the game, eye on his future, wherever that leads.
“Let me get one more,” he said.
Still repping, still working.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI