A new basketball prep school in Manitoba will give high school kids a shot at the NBA without having to leave their homes in Winnipeg.
"It's an elite basketball program. The intention … is to develop and coach players at a very high level, something they might not experience in a traditional high school or club environment," said Daron Leonard, 33, director of basketball operations for Northstar Preparatory Institute and the team's coach.
"This has never been done in Manitoba before," said Leonard, who used to play pro himself.
In the U.S., basketball prep schools are "very, very, very, very" common, he said, and about 20 new ones have popped up in Canada in the past 20-30 years.
"It's something that no one really knows about. As the name prep school implies, it's partnered with the school but it's not a school itself," he said.
The basketball training will be split between Windsor Park Collegiate and St. Boniface University and all class work will be done through Windsor Park.
Even though they're partnering with the Louis Riel School Division, the school isn't for everyone, with a $12,500 price tag.
"Every kid thinks I'm going to go to prep school, 'I want to do a prep school,' it's simply not that easy," Leonard said.
The tuition will pay for costs like an academic standards liaison, athletic therapists, plus all travel and training.
So far three players have committed to the team; they want to have a roster of 10 by the time the season starts in September.
"It's a good round number where we can have functional practices, but at the same time the more people you put on that the more you have to space out the opportunity that each guy gets," he said.
While all the kids want to play games, Leonard said, they also need to balance that with practice time and school.
Zackary Dembele, 17, is in Grade 12 at College Louis Riel who started working with Leonard in August and plays on the Northstar club team.
"My teammates, the guys — it's a really good atmosphere. And every day I come for practice, I feel like I'm getting better," said Dembele, who's hoping to play at the university level and maybe someday overseas.
"You've got to be really be determined, you've got to really be focused," he said.
'Biggest fish in the pond'
Justin Omaga, 16, is heading into Grade 12 next year. He said basketball gives him focus and motivation for school, but he doesn't know much about the prep school yet.
"All I know is I'm going," he said.
"I'm really excited for it, I can't wait. I like to travel, I like to play basketball."
In addition to basketball skills, Omaga hopes it will give him connections to higher levels in the sport, perhaps helping him get into the NCAA.
Omaga is "the kind of kid we really see building a culture around," Leonard said.
"If you've got a kid who is just physically dominant or skill-wise he's just completely dominant over other guys it's hard for them to improve in an environment where they're the biggest fish in the pond. So what we're doing is making it a bigger pond," Leonard said.
Leonard hopes that the program will also keep Manitoba's talent here and bring in scouts, which he thinks will appeal to parents who don't want to send their kids out of the city.
Interested families are invited to an open house May 3 to see if the school is a good fit.
'What we want to do is offer them an alternative," Leonard said.
"If you think that you want to do something that might expand beyond what the Manitoba high school scene has to offer this is your chance."