Somewhere in a parallel universe, the 2020-21 basketball season was a breakout year for a few of Hawaii’s best young players.
In this world, Aaron Claytor made the best of dire circumstances. Now a sophomore, the ‘Iolani guard completed one of the busiest summer grinds. One reward was a scholarship offer from North Carolina A&T, which plays in the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). The Aggies were 11-10 last season, including 7-1 in conference play. Claytor’s older brother, Rio, plays football for the Aggies.
“It was kind of building up to it because this summer I had lots of different looks from colleges,” said Claytor, who is 6 feet, 2 inches and plays either guard spot.
The interest was widespread among mid-majors even after a freshman year without high school basketball. Private schools had practices and exhibition games. Public school gyms were shut down until spring semester. Statewide, parks and recreation gyms remain closed 18 months after the first COVID-19 lockdown began.
Claytor trains with former ‘Iolani all-state players Derrick Low and Kyle Pape, who run Proforomance basketball club. Claytor’s father, Mario, was a standout guard at UH-HIlo. His older sister, Maya, was a point guard and sharpshooter at Kahuku. She now plays at Alcorn State.
“She’s a big part of why I play basketball,” Aaron said. “My sister grew up being the shooter of every team. I focused on my ballhandling more than my shooting growing up. My dad taught us both the correct mechanics of shooting. We were built to be the same player, but totally different at the same time.”
Mario Claytor was a 6-foot-4 guard who chose Western Carolina over Pepperdine before winding up with the Vulcans. Aaron Claytor was 5-11 as a freshman, but grew three inches since.
“My dad, when he was my age, was about 5-9. He grew after high school. I heard stories. He was a shooting guard who could really shoot it, and he was a lockdown defender. That’s one of the strong points in my game,” Aaron said.
All the basketball tradition and passion are not easy to bottle 24/7.
“We have a rule not to talk about it right after a game,” Claytor said. “A lot of the time, I already know what I do wrong, so I relive it in my head. That period, I beat myself up more than my dad.”
As an eighth grader, Claytor went to a John Lucas All-American Camp. He played in an MSHTV Camp.
“They wear pink and green uniforms. It’s a mixtape camp,” he recalled.
2021 began with exposure camps in the winter season. Claytor participated in the Pangos All-American Camp, which coincided with ‘Iolani’s only two exhibition games, a home-and-away weekend with Kamehameha.
That turned out to be a spark.
“At Pangos, there were two (club) teams that were talking to my dad. I went and played in Vegas with one of the teams (Las Vegas Stars), but my coach there knew if I wanted really big exposure, I would have to go EYBL or Adidas circuit or Under Armour circuit,” Claytor said.
After summer league with ‘Iolani, it was late June. Claytor boarded another flight to the mainland.
“After I came back, we got the thing hooked up with San Francisco Rebels and the first live period of summer, I played with them. We played in the Adidas circuit for a month. I went to Omaha (Neb.), San Francisco, L.A. and then to Vegas,” he said.
One of the games was a win over the Compton Magic in Los Angeles. It was, in many ways, a dream summer for a young hoopster from Hawaii.
“It was probably almost 30 games,” he said. “Getting hooked up with the San Francisco coach sparked everything. The Rebels have been really good to me.”
The Rebels already had a full roster.
“They told me they needed a true point guard to come and play. I consider myself a true point, but wherever they need me to play, I’ll play. For ‘Iolani, I play shooting guard and it really opens up my game because JJ (Mandaquit) facilitates for me. It helps the whole team,” Claytor said.
Mandaquit, a freshman, also had a busy season with Rebels — the Rose City Rebels of Oregon. Along with senior wingman Jack Jones and a strong rotation, ‘Iolani is poised for an ILH title run and beyond. The season that was lost is something the Raiders had to bear after going winless in ILH play the year before (2019-20).
“People look at the 0-16 (record). I think the way we play is with a chip on our shoulder, but we don’t really listen to the outside noise,” Claytor said.
It was mid-July when Claytor’s barnstorming tour with the San Francisco Rebels came to a close. On the eve of ‘Iolani’s first day of fall semester, the offer from North Carolina A&T arrived.
Claytor has a 3.4 grade-point average. The academic bar is never compromised, even with all of the basketball training.
“My mom (Liaina) is really book smart, so my dad does a lot of the athletic stuff and driving. My mom does the book stuff,” Claytor said.
The other colleges showing interest range from coast to coast: Delaware State, Norfolk State, Hampton, Cal State Bakersfield, UC Irvine, Pepperdine, Colorado State, Radford, Grambling, Yale and Arizona.
“I’d want to go to a school where I can play right away,” Claytor said.
Low, the legendary Raider who starred at Washington State, was a major part of ‘Iolani’s run of state titles in the 2000s. Pape, also a former Star-Advertiser player of the year, was a clutch shooter and standout defender.
“I like to say I could beat them one on one, but deep down in my heart, I know I need to develop a little bit more before I can beat them,” Claytor said. “Derrick is still in his professional body shape.”
Low is enjoying the work with Claytor.
“He’s growing and he continues to grow. All I hear is he has a new pair of shoes every three to four days because he outgrew his last ones,” Low said. “I really had a chance to develop these last three four years. His ballhandling has gotten exceptionally better. At first, he was a shooter. He has nice mechanics, but he’s turned more into a point guard. That’s the position he plays when he goes to the mainland and he excels at it. He has an awesome, competitive fire. He hates losing. He’s a perfectionist. His all-around skills, he can pretty much do it all now.”
Mario Claytor travels with Aaron to every camp. Having a dad who lived the game and is familiar with the journey required for today’s players helps immensely. Aaron Claytor believes the common thread is still old-fashioned work ethic. That would be his message to the upcoming ballers dreaming of playing at the next level.
“I would say continue to work hard. Practice should be harder than the games. Clout is a big thing for this generation. It means everybody wants to be at the top. Everybody sees you,” he said. “It’s like fame, kind of. It doesn’t really matter when you’re on the court, in between the lines. Kind of like my sister. She didn’t have a lot of clout, but she got a D-I offer.
“Work hard, stay humble. Work harder than the person next to you and you should be OK.”
Aaron Claytor’s lockdown staples
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “A Bronx Tale”
“I just like the storyline. I’m Italian, so I just like seeing how things went down then. I’ve only seen the full movie two times, but when I walk in the living room, my dad watches it and I’ve seen parts of it a lot of times.”
2. “Rocky” series
“We’ve watched the series a lot. My favorite was ‘Creed.’”
3. “Freedom Riders”
“Every Friday night with our family, and the younger three got to watch what they wanted, so we watched a lot of Disney movies. ‘Raya the Last Dragon’ was one of them.”
Top 3 food/drink/snack
1. Panda Express.
“Anything from Panda Express. Beijing beef, SweetFire chicken breast and fried rice.”
2. Arizona fruit punch.
“I have a really big sweet tooth. I’ll get Nestle Crunch. I can eat a bunch, but I only eat one. I like to snack on that watching movies.”
Top 3 music artists
1. J Cole – “Under The Sun” ft. DaBaby, Lute
2. Lil Baby – “Sum 2 Prove.”
3. Summer Walker – “Girls Need Love” ft. Drake.
New life skill: Driving.
“I got my permit on Maya’s birthday, May 28. My dad taught me.”
“Shout out to my parents. Shout out to my teammates at ‘Iolani, my teammates for the SF Rebels. Coach Ryan (Hirata), coach Derrick, coach Kyle. Coach Nate (Ford) and coach Faraji (Abram, SF Rebels). My church leaders, president (Kevin) Su‘a. (‘Iolani assistants) Coach Branden (Kawazoe), coach Bricen (McCartney), coach Cord (Anderson) and Mr. (Joe) Monaco (history teacher). And my coach from North Carolina A&T, Will Jones.”