It was a matter of time for JJ Mandaquit.
The standout ‘Iolani freshman hoopster is moving to Utah with his family and will enroll at Real Salt Lake Academy for his sophomore year. RSL is a tuition-free charter school in Herriman, Utah, with an enrollment of approximately 500.
During his freshman season, the 6-foot-1 guard led the Raiders to the semifinal round of the state championships. He was voted No. 3 in the Star-Advertiser All-State Fab 15 during a year that included an 18-point performance against national powerhouse Sierra Canyon (Calif.).
Last week, Mandaquit visited the campus of RSL Academy. The athletic facility, the Zions Bank Real Academy, is owned by the group that owns Utah’s pro basketball (Utah Jazz) and soccer (RSL) teams. The facility is a mind-blower, a state-of-the-art temple of basketball and soccer.
“When I first walked into the building, I was definitely shocked,” JJ Mandaquit said. “That made me even more excited to see what basketball has to offer. There’s nothing here that compares to that.”
After the visit to RSL, Mandaquit played with ‘Iolani in the Section 7 tournament at Glendale, Ariz., the first Hawaii school invited to the annual event. Mandaquit was at 165 to 170 pounds when prep basketball season ended. After rigorous strength training, he said he is now 180 to 185.
With the added muscle and increased explosiveness, Mandaquit had multiple 20-plus point games as the Raiders went 2-2. The day after the tournament ended, Monday, is when the Mandaquit ohana had a sit-down. Though moving to Utah from Oahu will be tough for JJ and his two-sport, standout sister, Jaety, they agreed about one thing: this is a golden opportunity.
“I just feel like it’s the best opportunity for me to achieve what I want to achieve,” he said. “Emotionally, for me, I think it’s a little worse (than moving from Hilo) because I am more mature now. When I was younger, I thought coming from the Big Island to Oahu was the greatest thing in the world. Having the opportunity to move to ‘Iolani and this island, I was super excited. Not to say I’m not excited to move to Utah, but I’m definitely sad to leave home.”
‘Iolani coach Ryan Hirata heard from the Mandaquit family before the decision went public.
“That’s the hardest conversation we had, with coach Ryan. How much time he dedicates, the love, blood, sweat and tears he puts into the ‘Iolani program. It was hard,” said Jason Mandaquit, JJ and Jaety’s father. “I’m so grateful and thankful for coach Ryan and the ‘Iolani community. They welcomed us with open arms and been nothing but great to our family. It was the toughest conversation.”
Mandaquit received scholarship offers from Hawaii and Washington State over the weekend. He also has offers from Portland and Chaminade. That momentum coincided with different discussions about relocating, thoughts that began before JJ’s freshman season began. RSL became part of that next chapter recently.
“This all happened in the last month and a half where things got serious, conversations about financial aid and scholarships,” Jason Mandaquit said. “Cost of living. Numbers were being given.”
A key factor is the chance for Coty Mandaquit, JJ and Jaety’s mother, to work remotely.
“My wife’s work was a big determining factor,” Jason Mandaquit said. “We don’t want her to have to sacrifice her job and career. Being able to tele-work, it was what states she could do it from.”
Another big part of the equation is RSL coach David Evans, a former BYU-Hawaii player and coach. He also coached Lone Peak and Wasatch Academy, Utah high school teams that have played at the ‘Iolani Classic.
“It’s a great fit. We love the coach, David Evans. He was at Lone Peak when Frank Jackson was a player. (Jackson) went to Duke, one (year) and done. Now he’s with the (New Orleans) Pelicans,” Jason Mandaquit said. “When (Evans) was with Wasatch, they lost in the ‘Iolani Classic championship to Oak Hill. His track record is really good.”
During visits to Oahu to see his sister, Evans watched JJ Mandaquit play.
“I heard about JJ when he was in eighth grade playing for Sons of Hawaii. I kind of kept tabs on him and saw him a lot the following year,” Evans said. “We’re not getting more guys, more scholarship opportunities. That’s why we’re really excited about JJ coming.
With each visit here, the coach sat down with the Mandaquits.
“He arranged for us to go to the (RSL) campus and meet everybody,” Jason Mandaquit said.
Between his previous stints at Lone Peak and Wasatch Academy, Evans has produced college talent for Utah, Utah State, Hawaii, Fresno State, Michigan State, Baylor and Texas Tech. Evans spent 20 years on Oahu, where he coached under Ken Wagner.
“Their path is their own path. I just try to help them with their direction,” Evans said. “I’m all about fit. JJ and his family came down and they liked it, and their daughter is a good player, too. We’re ecstatic as a family. ‘Iolani is such a good school, too. I could see him staying there or coming here.”
RSL plays an independent schedule and does not participate in Utah’s boys basketball state championships.
“We’re playing to get to the GEICO National Championships,” Evans said. “We train twice a day.”
JJ Mandaquit has a busy EYBL (Nike circuit) schedule ahead with his club team in Portland, Rose City Rebels. Location is another factor in the decision to move.
“JJ does get great exposure on the club circuit, but that’s three months out of the year and it’s expensive coming from Hawaii. Me and my wife would always find ways to make it work,” Jason Mandaquit said. “I started building spec homes to make some extra money. With the chance to send our kids to a great program and not pay a penny for it, that’s something, the sacrifices we and our kids made, the talent and hard work they have. They earned a chance to have a free education (at RSL). Financially, it’s going to take a big burden off us, a little less stressful. The tuition, the cost of getting to the mainland. All of those little things factored in.”
Jaety Mandaquit plays with Crossfire Premier Soccer Club out of Seattle. She is one of the top soccer and basketball players in the state. With ‘Iolani hoops, she was an All-State Fab 15 pick, tied with teammate Jovi Lefotu, now with Hawaii, for top all-defensive honors. Without Lefotu, ‘Iolani’s girls still had a solid returning nucleus in place for next season. Without Mandaquit, an elite rebounder, inside scorer and perimeter shooter, it’s like losing three players in one.
“I know it’s going to be tough for them, but ultimately, I know they’ll do their best,” she said of the Raiders. “I believe in them. Even when I’ll be living in Utah, I’ll be supporting and rooting for them, and I know they’ll be doing great things.”
She still has club basketball this summer with Proformance, the club team coached by former Raiders Derrick Low and Kyle Pape. Jaety Mandaquit, who just completed sophomore year, has one soccer scholarship offer, from Sacramento State, and several others interested.
“I was in shock. The facility at RSL is just amazing. Just breathtaking. Being from Hawaii, you don’t see anything like that,” she said. “This move from Utah is a bigger and harder move. Moving from Hilo to Oahu, it’s a close flight away. Family can always fly here and we’re always surrounded by them. We can fly back to Hilo when we have time. Being in Utah, it’s farther away, so we can always connect with our family through technology. It’s definitely hard right now letting our family and friends know. Once we get up there in Utah and settle in, and get more comfortable, we’ll find happiness and enjoy being up there.”
Though both siblings trained and developed at an elite level on Oahu, it will accelerate at RSL, Jason Mandaquit believes.
“The training and exposure is going to be great for them. They have five different guys who do training there for basketball. Access to the weight room, recovery with trainers of the pro team,” he said. “As a parent, you want them to have every opportunity they can. Me and my wife, the journey and process of where we want to be, where we want the kids to be, and now to get this opportunity, we’re way ahead of where we thought they’d be in their high school careers.”
Coincidentally, there was some chatter near the end of the high school season that JJ Mandaquit was considering a move to Oregon, which he and his father were surprised to hear.
“There were some calls made to us, some conversations even going into his freshman year after he did well on the club side,” Jason Mandnaquit said. “But it was never serious. The timing wasn’t going to work. There were some things said during the season, but there was no plan.”
In the spring, All-State guard Aaron Claytor, a sophomore, moved to the Bay Area with family. He plays for the San Francisco Rebels club program. A family member, he noted, was in need of medical treatment.
Overall, the trend has arrowed toward outgoing transfers for some of Hawaii’s top basketball talent in recent years. Maryknoll lost Justice Sueing, who went on to Mater Dei before playing at Cal, then Ohio State. Teammate Brian Washington, now at Cal State Bakersfield, also transferred out of state. A few years later, the Spartans saw 7-foot center Sage Tolentino reach No. 4 on the All-State Fab 15 as a sophomore before departing to Ohio.
Tolentino moved with his father, Grant, a former volleyball coach at Maryknoll. He trained with college-level players through a private group that also brought Philippines prep standout Kai Sotto to the continent. What Mandaquit has now is one step beyond, like going from Hilo to ‘Iolani was.
“Making the move to ‘Iolani was huge,” Jason Mandaquit said. “We love everything about ‘Iolani. I feel Ryan is the best high school coach in Hawaii, but the opportunity for the kids to develop, I just felt like this was the right thing to do. Nothing against Hawaii, but we’re limited to what we have here. At RSL and by staying on the mainland, we have the chance for JJ to compete every day against bigger, stronger athletic guys, and they have a post-graduate team. Playing against guys with length is really going to prepare him, hopefully, to play at a high level in (college) D-I.”
JJ Mandaquit’s final game as a Raider came in domed pro football stadium in Arizona. Who would’ve thought it?
“I’d like to thank everyone who’s been part of my journey,” he said. “Special shout out to coach Ryan and ‘Iolani, and all my teammates for making my whole career at ‘Iolani great. Especially to my parents for all of the sacrifices that they’ve made for me and my sister. None of this would be possible without them.”