A dad wanted to teach his son the finer points of basketball so he started not on a court but on a track. That’s the beginning point for Gary Trent Jr.’s path to becoming one of the nation’s top prep basketball players.
Three or four times a week in the summer, Gary Trent Sr., a former Timberwolves power forward, took his son to a track near their home in Ohio. The routine never changed.
First lap: Dribble the entire way lefthanded.
Second lap: Dribble righthanded.
Third lap: Dribble lefthanded.
Fourth lap: Crossovers.
Fifth lap: Skip while dribbling.
Sixth lap: Whatever he wanted.
Except he didn’t just dribble. Every 100 meters, Gary Jr. had to stop and do 10 pushups and 10 situps the first four laps, for a total of 160 each.
He was 5 years old.
“He told me at a young age what I would have to do to be a good basketball player,” Gary Jr. said. “I just followed him and he’s led me the whole way. I’m here now.”
Here being his junior year at Apple Valley, a team ranked in the top 10 nationally by USA Today in large part because of Trent’s dominance as a shooting guard.
Trent exploded on the national scene this summer, a breakout that saw him lead a top-tier AAU circuit in scoring, earn MVP honors in an international tournament for USA Basketball and receive scholarship offers from Duke, Kentucky and Kansas.
Recruiting analysts rank Trent among the nation’s top juniors. He’s averaging 28.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game this season.
Trent makes no secret of his desire to follow in his dad’s footsteps and play in the NBA, as quickly as possible. He admits he’d love to be a “one-and-done” college player, if he continues to develop and that becomes an option.
His father’s background as a nine-year NBA player opened doors for his son and gave “JR” — his nickname at Apple Valley — specialized training from an early age.
The younger Trent has met NBA legends, including Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He admits to being terrified the time he stood next to 7-6 Yao Ming.
He refers to Kevin Garnett as “Uncle Kevin,” per Garnett’s request. And he mingles with current Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine after games.
“Being able to see that lifestyle [and] how great things can happen for you if you work hard,” Gary Jr. said, “I must keep working hard.”
Gary Sr. joined Sam Mitchell’s staff this season as a developmental coach and sits behind the Wolves bench at games. He encourages his son, who just turned 17, to interact with the team’s young players because they’re not much older than him.
“I think being around it, seeing it, helps mold your mind to understand what it takes to become that,” he said.
Welcoming Dad’s strict training
Trent’s father pushed him to develop his skills over the years, whether drills focused on ballhandling, footwork, defensive stance and positioning, shooting or post moves.
Trent cut a swim noodle in half and uses it to swat his son while he shoots layups or dunks, designed to improve focus and playing through contact.
The two have made late-night visits to a gym to work on a particular move that Gary Jr. saw from an NBA player and wanted to incorporate into his own game.
“Every move you see is from him and me working together,” he said.
His father is a tough critic when they review Apple Valley games on a tablet at night. Not even minor mistakes escape his view.
“You could score 40 points and [grab] 20 rebounds, but I’m going to find the possession that you didn’t help [on defense],” he said.
They’ve had some testy exchanges in those moments, but Gary Jr. credits his father’s influence for shaping him as a player.
“He pushed me to the extremes,” he said. “I’m thankful for it. I wouldn’t be the player I am without it.”
Basketball is deeply personal for the elder Trent. The sport offered him salvation as a kid exposed to murder, drugs and crime within his own family in a hardscrabble section of Columbus, Ohio. Basketball, he says, “saved my life,” so he’s not flippant about his devotion to the game or what it takes to succeed.
Gary Sr. admits people have questioned his parenting style. Years ago, other fathers told him that he was too hard on his son, that he would burn him out, that he was putting too much pressure on him.
“Sometimes I was wondering if they were right,” Trent said.
One particular moment brought him clarity. Trent arrived to pick up his son from day camp at a swimming pool. He peered through the gate while the kids were on safety break and began to panic when he didn’t see his son.
Trent finally spotted him dribbling a basketball around the pool, just like he did on the track.
“Once I saw that, I knew that he had took to the workouts and believed in what I was saying,” Trent said. “I never listened to anybody else again about how I was going to train my son.”
The price of slumping grades
The younger Trent’s size (6-5, 200 pounds) and strength make him unique for a guard in high school basketball. At least in Minnesota, says his former Apple Valley teammate Tyus Jones, now a rookie with the Timberwolves.
“You don’t see a lot of guards that are that big and put together,” Jones said. “Nationally, it’s more common in the AAU circuit.”
Trent overpowers opposing guards with his brawn on drives or post-ups. But he’s also a capable outside shooter, making 40 percent of his three-point attempts this season. He is an 85 percent free throw shooter as well.
Trent’s physique is a product of genes. Gary Sr. played in the NBA at 6-8, 250 pounds. He can still bench press 400 pounds and earned the nickname “Shaq of the MAC” at Ohio University because of his brute force.
Gary Jr.’s physical maturity helped him play for Apple Valley’s junior varsity as an eighth-grader. He learned a hard lesson off the court that year as well.
His academics began to slip, resulting in C’s in a couple of classes. His father yanked him off the basketball team in February, even though Apple Valley, behind Jones, was on its way to a state championship.
“I was shocked, like, ‘You’re going to take me off the team for having C’s?’ ” Gary Jr. said.
Apple Valley coach Zach Goring and others had conversations with his father about possibly allowing his son to return. Gary Sr. didn’t budge.
“I give Gary credit for that,” Goring said. “Gary stood firm in that [if his son’s] grades weren’t good enough, he’s not coming back. He provided some discipline there.”
To Gary Sr., being average is not good enough, in sports or school.
“There were some tears shed and some funky attitude,” he said. “But what if you didn’t make it in basketball? I had to make sure you understood there’s the academic side.”
Building for a future with no guarantees
Goring is a stickler for details as a means to reinforce good habits. Gary Jr. is so gifted physically that he can score with ease outside the framework of the offense.
Goring allows him a certain amount of freedom, but he also recognizes that high school isn’t Trent’s final stop in basketball. He wants to develop his game in preparation for a higher level, particularly how to work off screens.
“If he’s going to be a big-time college two-guard, and potentially an NBA two-guard, that’s all screens,” he said. “He backs people down and ends up scoring. It’s like: Yeah, I know you scored, but you’re not going to always be able to do it that way.”
That begs a question: What if Trent’s career stops short of the NBA? His father knows that being blessed with an abundance of talent and training doesn’t guarantee his son will reach that level.
“There’s no disappointment because you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than making it to the NBA,” Gary Sr. said. “I just wanted to give [him] the best opportunity and best position to become that.
“Everybody thinks they’re going to the league. Yes, you have a great chance of going. And yes, you’ve increased your chances of going with the training that you’ve had for the last 11 years. But that still doesn’t guarantee you anything.”