In the hoops universe, JJ Mandaquit is a rising star.
Of the class of 2025 — incoming freshmen — none has shone brighter on a national stage than the ‘Iolani hoopster. The general consensus is that Mandaquit and Pupuali‘i Sepulona are the top two incoming freshmen in Hawaii. Sepulona, a 6-foot-3 post scorer with a silky shooting stroke, was one of Saint Louis’ top scorers in its varsity summer league. The left-handed shooter is now playing football.
Mandaquit was Sepulona’s teammate with the Sons of Hawaii, a club team that played in a Nike-affiliated league last spring. Mandaquit is a one-sport athlete who spent the first seven months of 2021 traveling from coast to coast to play at the highest level. He is recharging in Hilo, his home town, after the busy barnstorming tour with the Sons of Hawaii, Rose City Rebels of Portland, Ore. and a trip to California for a CP3 Rising Stars Camp and New Jersey for an MSA Camp.
“It’s been fun. It’s been kind of crazy, but fun. Just a lot of traveling, a lot of days on the road,” the 6-foot point guard said.
When restrictions eased, Mandaquit’s world expanded. The Sons of Hawaii were born to bring a team of eighth graders, many of the top basketball players in the islands, a chance to play in a Nike-affiliated Made Hoops league. The Sons played some of the top programs in the nation from January to March.
Sons of Hawaii finished with a very respectable 7-6 record.
“It was fun just because we got to represent Hawaii. The experience of playing at the highest level and doing it together. We flew up four different times. I actually looked forward to it,” Mandaquit said. “To me, it was very fun traveling with that group.”
The entertainment of the long trips and occasional down time was enhanced by Maryknoll center Rome Lilio.
“He had his Nintendo Switch,” Mandaquit said.
The challenge of distance learning was never easy, but he kept his grades high and finished the school year with a 3.65 grade-point average.
The Sons, coached by JJ Mandaquit’s father, Jason, had been invited to play Georgia’s Peach Jam tournament.
“But not everybody could make it, so that kind of fell apart. We didn’t want to go if everybody couldn’t make it,” Mandaquit said.
In early May, Mandaquit flew to Portland and worked out with the Rose City Rebels, a team that beat the Sons of Hawaii in a close game during the Made Hoops league.
“The Rebels’ coach called my dad. It was good fun. They welcomed me in,” he said.
The program practiced in high school gyms and had access to an athletic club.
“Usually, they practice on the weekends just because that’s the only time they can get together. When I was there, we practiced every day,” Mandaquit said.
Soon after Mandaquit returned home, ‘Iolani began a modified summer basketball program.
“We didn’t get a lot of practices just because of the whole COVID stuff. I got to meet my future teammates, get to know them better, their strengths and weaknesses. Just build a bond with them,” said Mandaquit, one of two freshmen on the varsity.
The other incoming ninth grader up from the intermediate team was Kaimana Lau Kong, another player with Big Island roots. ‘Iolani reached the final of the mini summer league and lost to rival Punahou in a close battle.
Mandaquit was gone to the mainland when the teams met in the regular season, but present for the title game.
“Of course, it matters. I don’t want to lose any games, but, uh, I don’t know. In a way it doesn’t matter. It was a good wake-up call for us a team,” he said.
In mid-July — shortly after receiving a scholarship offer from Chaminade — Mandaquit headed to Georgia to play with the Rebels, a team with just eight players. His role morphed from a scorer with the Sons to a distributor with the Rebels. Playing the Peach Jam’s 8th-Grade Finale, Rose City Rebels elevated from a field of 64 teams and reached the championship game, falling to the New York Lightning. They finished 7-1.
“I have a different role from our Sons. I was the main scorer on Sons, that was my main job, to score the ball. On the Rose team there are other great scorers. I was kind of the second, third scorer, play point guard, run the offense, play defense. I loved it, playing at the highest level and winning,” he said.
Like many of the nation’s top players, Mandaquit doesn’t consider himself limited. He is wanted and he is embraced by multiple programs. A Son and a Rebel.
“I consider myself a Rebel, too. I’m part of the family now and I love playing with the team,” he said.
Since the Peach Jam, Mandaquit and his family have spent time back home in Hilo, relaxing and reminiscing.
“I was just watching (video) of my dad’s state championship game yesterday. I watched the BIIF championship game against Honokaa. That’s also in 2000, the year they won the state title,” he said.
Jason Mandaquit was a phenom then. His bleached-blonde hairdo and natural leadership on the floor were the tonic Hilo needed to capture the crown in Y2K.
“To me, it was just exciting because I got to see the full game, watching my dad play in high school. I think he was a good floor general and a good leader. That’s why they won. They had good pieces around him, but he created good shots for everybody around,” Mandaquit said.
The hair won’t change.
“I’m not bleaching my hair. ‘Iolani only allows natural colors,” he said.
There was also an offer to continue with the CP3 Rising Stars Top 100 Camp in Greensboro, N.C. He was also invited to the John Lucas Camp in Houston.
“We decided not to go. We already did a lot of traveling,” he said. “If they paid my way, I think I’d go.”
For now, the new school year is two weeks away. ‘Iolani doesn’t begin fall semester until Aug. 24, but students have been busy.
“I’m working out and doing the (required) summer reading. English and History. I’m reading ‘Old Man and the Sea.’ I’m still making progress on the book. I’m on page 32,” Mandaquit said on Friday. “It’s written by Ernest Hemingway. It’s not a lot. Less than 200 pages. The other book, I’m not sure. I’m just reading a little bit every day.”
He does not envy older sister Jaety, a talented soccer and basketball player.
“My sister does have a 400-page book. She’s going into 10th grade,” he said. “She fractured her foot a couple of months ago, but she got cleared to travel. She did play in a few tournaments in Chicago and California with Proformance. I’m still working out myself with my dad. But I haven’t played an actual game since we’ve gotten back from Georgia.”
His recent video on social media shows a springy, refreshed hoopster dunking on a basket in the family’s driveway. Hilo is the base headquarters for all things Mandaquit.
“Hilo will always be my home,” he said.
With so many of the nation’s top student-athletes reclassifying during their careers, Mandaquit never did it.
“I did not repeat. I never thought about it. I’ve talked to a few people about it. I guess people suggested it. We never really had a serious conversation about it. I think I’m fine where I’m at,” he said. “I feel like if you need the extra year to work on yourself and get ready, if you’re struggling in the past year, it’s a good idea to focus on yourself. It depends on the situation and who the person is.”
The ultimate dream is become clearer. Mandaquit’s vision is to play for North Carolina.
“I want to play Division I ball and from there I’d like to make it to the NBA,” the former Duke fan said. “I did go to North Carolina this last summer to get ready for the Finale. I was a Duke person. We visited North Carolina and Duke. I just like North Carolina better. In the museum for basketball, they has a video and everything. Jerseys and milestones. It was just amazing. It seemed like an amazing culture. I liked North Carolina’s campus better. Duke’s campus, every building is castle-like almost. Duke’s still a great school.”
Top 3 movies/shows
2. “Outer Banks.”
3. “Kobra Kai.”
Top 3 foods/snack/drink
1. Chocolate milk.
“Homemade. My sister makes it. My grandma (Dana Harris) taught my sister. I just like a lot. It’s good, (but) I can’t make it.”
3. Chicken papaya.
“My grandpa’s chicken papaya. (Marshal Mandaquit) doesn’t make it often. That’s why I like it so much. He’ll make it only when I request it.”
His grandfather may be a frequent flier to Honolulu in the next few years.
“He’ll fly up if he has to. He likes watching us play.”
Top 3 music artists
“I don’t listen to music very often, so I don’t know.”
New life skill: how to change a tire.
“We had a flat tire in California with our rental car. We were on our way to the CP3 (qualifying) camp and the front (passenger) tire was flat. That’s the first time I did it. We ended up getting a new rental car.”
“Shout out to my parents (Coty and Jason), and my grandparents (Marshal Mandaquit, Dana and Lucky Harris, Ilima Cazimero).”