From Down Under, With a Nod to the Mojave Desert, Comes a New Hoops Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
With a smooth game and an unbeatable name, Mojave King, 17, is rising up the recruiting radar.
By Ray Glier
He has the makings of the consummate basketball player. Two-handed dunks with force. Sturdy build. A 6-foot-4 swing guard who can dribble through a crowd. His shot may look a tad awkward, but it goes in. He shows poise, shares the ball, clowns around with his teammates.
He’s got game, and he’s also got name: Mojave King.
It’s a pretty cool name, don’t you think?
Leonard King, his father, says his son, aka Mo, was indeed named for the Mojave Desert, the 48,000-square-mile region in the southwestern United States that includes Death Valley. The elder King, who is from Cleveland, says his great-grandmother was full Native American, and his grandfather, Walter, was half Native American and half African American. King has taken Mojave to the Mojave Desert “plenty of times.”
He has no idea about recruiting rankings. That is a U.S. thing.
King wanted his son’s name to reflect the family’s Native American heritage and pride. That spirit has translated to basketball. Mo is humble, shares the ball, plays with discipline and is dutiful with his training. You don’t want to psychoanalyze a 17-year-old too much, but Mojave has something deeper than the game.
“I’m not sure where the levelheadedness has come from,” his father says, “but I really like it. I don’t want him to get ahead of himself. I don’t want him to read the articles, the hype.”
The hype is quickly catching up because U.S. college coaches are accelerating his recruitment.
Mojave, who plays for the NBA Global Academy team based in Australia, averaged 19.2 points per game in the NBA Academy Games in Atlanta last month — and sank half of his 3-pointers. His man-to-man defense was disciplined and aggressive. He had just five turnovers as the Global Academy team won all five of its games.
Coaches from defending national champion Virginia, as well as from Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma, were at the Academy tournament; the elder King says he has received inquiries from Louisville, UConn, Iowa, Arizona, Colorado, St. Mary’s and others.
King, who oversees operations for New Zealand’s national basketball teams, is a former Division I honorable mention All-American at Florida A&M University. He played pro basketball internationally for nine years, so he knows people. He had to stop his car in the parking lot at the Academy tournament to greet a friend, a Division 1 coach whom King declined to name. It was not merely to catch up. For the college coach, it was about Mo, in a covert kind of way.
“I’m going to be calling you,” the coach told King. “Going to be calling you a lot.”
Before the tournament, King says 20 schools had contacted him about his son, and for every school, two to three player agents had called to get in first as his son’s representative — even though he doesn’t graduate from high school until 2021.
“I want to play Division I basketball,” Mo says. He’ll do that, for sure. But is he NBA-good? A scout nods yes.
Not that Mojave is going to promote himself. He has no idea about recruiting rankings. That is a U.S. thing. “Kids over here talk about it every day,” he says. “If I try and talk to my teammates about it, they don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to talk about rankings. You just play, and whoever wins is the best.”
Basketball holds a place of reverence in the King family. Tracey King, Mo’s mother, came from New Zealand to play college ball at Duquesne in Pittsburgh. Tylah, Mo’s sister, played at the University of the Pacific. Leonard King, also a former coach, calls himself “a caretaker of the game.” It all rolls downhill to the youngest, Mojave.
“I’ll play some video games, Fortnite some,” Mo says. “But mostly I do basketball.”
As he showed in Atlanta, Mojave knows what a good shot is and can find teammates for a better one. He demonstrates skill at all those things that have nothing to do with the glamour of basketball: footwork, defensive stance, shooting with balance, ball handling, eyes-up passing. King has never coached his son in a game from the sidelines, but he coached him plenty of times at 6 am in individual workouts. Mo would drag in some days, and Leonard would not be a patient dad.
“That’s it, Mo — go, practice over. Don’t bring that in here,” he would bark at his son.
“Probably did that 15 times,” King says with a smile. Most kids might say, “Yippee, no practice.” Mojave would protest while trying to get his dad to back down.
There was plenty of work on Mojave’s shot in those early morning workouts. His right elbow will not always stay tucked, and his shot can look disjointed, not always fluid. A poor jumper can be a fatal flaw in today’s game, which is built around the 3-pointer. But the form doesn’t bother NBA Global Academy head coach Marty Clarke, who watched Mo make more than half his shots in the tournament.
“I think the end is good,” Clarke says. “The goal is to have the elbow over the right shoulder. It’s not what happens in the middle. It’s how you start and how you finish. Mo’s finish is nice, and that probably corrects a few problems within the shot. It’s one of the things we’ll work on.”
Mojave accepts the coaching, Clarke says, because he is comfortable playing an “Australian” style of basketball, which entails being subservient to the team and coaches. (Mo lives in Queensland, Australia; his parents are split, and his dad lives primarily in New Zealand.) Though a tad shy, the mellow Mo can have a delightful sense of humor.
When he was a youngster starting school, teachers in Australia always mispronounced Mojave. He’d usually stop them and say, “Just call me Mo.” Then came the fun. He would tell classmates his parents really wanted to name him Joe King. And he wanted the kids to say it fast.
There will be a crowded waiting room to see where Mojave King ends up in the spectrum of college basketball. The big schools lock in on North American players because they see them more often. Mo is going to give Division 1 coaches pause with the name, and then a big travel bill with the game.
Read more: Inside De’Andre Hunter’s road to the national title.