Lone Peak basketball flying high on skills of talented transfers

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Lone Peak's Frank Jackson dribbles the ball in the 5A State Tournament last year.  (Photo by Matt Bennett)

Lone Peak’s Frank Jackson dribbles the ball in the 5A State Championship game last year. (Photo by Matt Bennett)

HIGHLAND – Moving from Las Vegas to Utah County offered a different sort of culture shock for Christian Popoola than you might expect.

What Popoola witnessed during his introduction to Lone Peak basketball blew away the sophomore transfer. He immediately saw how relentless the Knights became in preparing for their next opponent. Forget about taking a play or two off. The coaching staff focused enough on the smallest details that Popoola became convinced the team did not even waste a second.

What he saw offered exactly what he hoped to see coming in from another successful hoops program at Bishop Gorman High.

“I like the challenge,” Popoola said. “I like going hard. I like the competition. And I like that I’m getting better. No matter what, I have to give my 100 percent. When you give your 100 percent all day, you tend to get better when you play.”

It can feel a little surreal for transfers like Popoola who join the Lone Peak program. The Knights have redefined what it means to be successful in Utah high school basketball.

Christian Poppola transferred to Lone Peak during the summer. (Photo by Dave Blackhurst)

Christian Popoola transferred to Lone Peak during the summer after moving from Las Vegas. (Photo by Dave Blackhurst)

Lone Peak won a national title two years ago and finished last season by winning its fourth Class 5A championship — setting a record for the most consecutive boy’s basketball state titles won by any Utah high school. It has gotten to the point where fans in the local community expect nothing less no matter who is on the roster.

Frank Jackson got to experience those expectations first hand when he transferred to Lone Peak from Lehi before starting his sophomore season a year ago. Those expectations help keep the team hungry from one championship run to the next.

“It drives us,” Jackson said. “We don’t want to be the team that loses or anything. We look at it as we’re hungry and we’re ready to win another one. We’re ready to work really hard so we can get that five-peat — get that next state title.”

It falls on Jackson’s shoulders to help the championship train stay on the right track this season. The junior guard averaged 17.9 points per game last season to form an effective one-two scoring punch with T.J. Haws. Now with Haws graduated and serving an LDS mission, Jackson will find himself as a central focus in a greater number of defensive game plans from opponents.

Jackson has answered the bell so far. Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis commended the maturity and leadership Jackson showed when the team played in summer tournaments from Las Vegas to Dubai.

“He has come a long way and he really looks good right now,” Lewis said. “Certainly, he has things he needs to work on, but I’m very pleased with his progress.”

Both Popoola and Jackson are poised to continue another Lone Peak tradition — making the transition to college basketball star. The Knights have produced a long line of players who have shined at that level from Tyler Haws and Jackson Emery at BYU to Justin Hamilton at Iowa State and LSU.

Popoola received scholarship offers from New Mexico and UNLV after an outstanding freshman season. Stanford and Utah have shown strong interest heading into his sophomore year and more schools could join the fray with another strong year at Lone Peak.

“I didn’t expect so much attention from colleges like I got,” Popoola said. “It made me happy but, then again, it made me hungry and made me want to work harder.”

Jackson verbally committed to play for BYU last season. Some recent reports indicate the 6-foot-1 guard has reopened his recruitment this year. If those reports are accurate, Jackson still has shown no outward indication he wants to reconsider his initial decision.

For him, BYU is in his future plans because he has been a fan of the team since he was a little kid. Jackson likes everything the Cougars can offer him as a basketball player.

“I guess I’ve always wanted to go to BYU,” Jackson said. “It was something I wanted to do for sure. BYU is a great place. Great program. Great coaches. Maybe one day I’ll be a part of their program.”

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John Coon is a Utah native and has reported on sports in the Beehive State for more than a decade. After stints as a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune and then the Deseret News, John became a full-time freelance writer and editor in 2011. He currently covers major sports at BYU and the University of Utah for the Associated Press. You can follow John on Twitter at @johncoonsports

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