Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
This past November at the National Prep Showcase at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, there were plenty of teams from around the country and players showcasing their games for opportunities at obtaining college scholarships and also being watched by scouts from NBA teams that may one day employ them.
Of all the teams that stood out at the event, one that shone the brightest was Putnam Science Academy. Within the last decade, a lot of their players have received scholarships to Division I schools around the country, and a few have played professional basketball.
All the hard work that has translated to wins and success is a story that starts with one man and a small school in the woods of Putnam, Connecticut.
“What’s the mission? To be tough,” said Tom Espinosa, the longtime coach of the Mustangs and the architect of the powerhouse program. “To play hard and be tough, you know, to be good kids, too. Do the right things on & off the court, but our thing is to be tough and to play hard [on the court].”
The varsity program, which many know of, was started by Espinosa, who is also the athletic director at the school, in 2007.
When asked about his goals for the program when he first started almost two decades ago, Espinosa replied, “You know what I mean, I just wanted to get it going, we really started at a low level. We started competing with low-level prep schools and then I got tremendous support from the administration, and then we were able to get better & better and get more kids, and so I never imagined we would be at this level. But I credit it all to the support of the school, I’ve just been lucky getting such great kids.”
Putnam Science Academy was first started in 2002, as an international boarding school for boys, but is now a co-ed school. It is located an hour away from Boston and is also less than an hour from Providence, Rhode Island and the state capital of Connecticut, in Hartford.
“Yeah, you know, it’s a co-ed school, we start [from] eighth-grade all the way to seniors [12thgrade], and also post-grads. We have about 150 kids this year, and we’re continuing to grow, we just bought our second campus now, we actually have two campuses, so we’re moving in the right direction,” said Espinosa.
When asked how he is able to market the school to student-athletes from inner-city communities in the Northeast, he replied, “Prep school basketball in New England is one of the highest levels of high school basketball, so you can sell that, like ‘You’re going to play at the highest level every night,’ so this is as close to college basketball, as you can get without being in college basketball. So we sell that and we sell, in my opinion, one of the best coaching staffs, and again, administration and the staff at the school, and we’re all committed. We sell that, ‘We’re going to take care of you, and you’re going to get better on & off the court,’ and we’ve been lucky that probably our best recruiters have been our former players. You talk to all of our former payers, they’ll tell you how we do it and that we do it the right way.”
The first major player to come out of Putnam Science was none other than Dayshon “Scoochie” Smith, a native of the Baychester section of The Bronx, New York, who came from the now-defunct basketball powerhouse Rice High School in Harlem, New York, which closed in June 2011. He would spend two seasons at PSA, where he would raise his profile and garner plenty of offers, before choosing the University of Dayton, where he led the Flyers to four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight run during his freshman season. At the present time, Smith is playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the NBA G-League affiliate of the Indiana Pacers.
When asked about Smith and how he ended up at Putnam Science, Espinosa replied, “Yeah, it’s funny, like Scoochie, he gave me a call, he was at Rice High School, [which] closed, and he gave me a call, looking for a prep school. He ended up coming up, working out, and then, next thing you know, we took him, and yeah, the rest is history.”
Another prominent player from the New York City area to come out of Putnam Science was Hamidou Diallo, who is currently in his second season in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder and was the winner of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest last year. Diallo, a native of the Corona section of Queens, was a standout at John Bowne High School, but once he came up to PSA, life changed for him as he was recruited by some of the nation’s finest programs and then went to Kentucky and led the Wildcats to the Sweet Sixteen, before being drafted in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft.
When asked about Diallo and his ascension to becoming a five-star prospect, he replied, “When we took him he had zero Division I offers, you know, and the he had Fairfield, Quinnipiac, those were his first two offers, and then he kind of just blew up, you know, playing on the biggest stage, putting up the numbers he was doing, and he was 6-foot-3 when we got him, and when he left, he was 6-foot-6.”
In the program’s 12 years of existence, over 50 players have gone on to play on the Division I level. And as far as pros, there are currently at least eight players playing overseas, in the NBA G-League or the NBA.
This season, the Mustangs have played a loaded schedule and are currently 26-3 on the season, and have played in major events such as the National Prep Showcase in New Haven, Connecticut, the Caribbean Tip-Off in Nassau, Bahamas, and also in New York City, twice at the PSA (Pro Scholars Athletics) Showcase in The Bronx and in the Battle in the Apple Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which is the hoke of the Brooklyn Nets.
When asked about their matchup against Atlanta, Georgia-based Core 4 Prep at the Battle in the Apple, and the allure of playing on an NBA court, Espinosa replied, “Yeah, I mean, it was awesome, we were really excited, I was happy about Josh Gray, Hassan Diarra, Ju-Ju [Murray], and all those guys. You know, it’s tough for these guys to leave for these prep schools, you know, they leave their families, their friends, and their hometowns, it’s not that easy, so they got to come home and play in front of their families. We were all excited, and you know, the Battle in the Apple, they did it first-class, like, we were blown away.”
There are two great pluses for the Putnam Science Mustangs. One is that they do not belong to a league, so their independent schedule allows for them to play against whomever they please and then because their team has postgraduate players, are allowed to play and appear before scouts affiliated with any of the NBA’s 30 teams.
But also, the presence of Division I coaches is always there. At the present time, the Mustangs have four players signed to Division I schools. 6-foot-3 shooting guard Hassan Diarra, a Queens, New York native, is signed to Texas A&M. 5-foot-10 point guard Julian Dozier, Jr., a native of Detroit, Michigan, is signed to Fordham. 6-foot-4 swignman Mekhi Gray, a native of Montrose, New York, is signed to NJIT and 7-foot center Vladislav Goldin, a native of Saint-Petersburg, Russia, is signed to Texas Tech.
There are other talented unsigned players on the roster such as 7-foot center Josh Gray (Brooklyn, NY), 6-foot-1 shooting guard Marty Silvera (Worcester, MA), 6-foot-5 swingman D’Maurian Williams (Phoenix, AZ), 6-foot-7 swingman Terrell Ard, Jr. (Atlanta, GA), 6-foot-11 forward Elijah Hutchins-Everett (Orange, NJ), and last, but not least, 6-foot point guard Jaylen “Ju-Ju” Murray (The Bronx, NY).
Murray, who is a social media sensation and a veteran of New York City’s playground scene on the high school level, is an electrifying guard who has quickness and plenty of highlight-reel plays. Last season, he was lighting up the court at Cardinal Hayes High School and was one of the most prominent players in the Catholic League.
When asked about this latest New York product to play for the Mustangs, Espinosa replied, “Yeah, you know, he’s something. He has so many followers, I’m not into Instagram and all that stuff, but all of our followers have tripled, but people don’t realize, if you don’t know Ju-Ju, what a phenomenal kid he is, the best kid. We actually love him, he’s a great kid, and he’s really bought in. The King of New York, and coming to a prep school where, at times, he wasn’t even starting, you know he’s kind of been in the starting lineup for the last two weeks, though. I give him credit, some kids couldn’t handle that, you know what I mean? But he’s adjusted, he believes in what we’re trying to do with him and yeah, he’s been a pleasure, so far.”
With all of the talent on hand, the mission is to continue to win, all the way to the end, which is the National Prep Championship, which starts on March 10th, at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.
“We have a long way to go, our goal is obviously to get better, to become a better team, but also to obviously, win a national championship,” said Espinosa.
As for the future for the program, he replied, “I love where I am, and like I said, I’m blessed because I get to coach these great kids and make a difference in these guys’ lives, and see them be successful, and I feel like I have one of the best jobs [out there].