There’s no place like home for JJ Mandaquit.
“Hilo will always be home,” the ‘Iolani freshman said.
Hilo has been hoop town for thousands of young basketball players over the decades, going all the way back to legendary Ah Chew Goo. Mandaquit grew up in a post-hoops mecca era, when more than two dozen small programs operated out of the many small, plantation-era gyms in Hilo and outlying areas. Second- and third-generation coaches teaching fundamentals.
Piopio Bears, anyone?
Mandaquit, a 6-foot-1 guard, was raised in a new era of consolidation. Club teams building empires, from his father Jason Mandaquit’s Man Up squads to the Hoop Dreams program run by former St. Joseph sharpshooter Randy Apele. JJ Mandaquit and his family moved from Hilo to Oahu in 2018, enrolling at ‘Iolani. His older sister, Jaety, was already on the map as a college soccer prospect. Both siblings thrived with Man Up, playing in tournaments across the state.
“She was the bully,” JJ said. “I think playing against her really helped me. She was bigger than me, more athletic than me at the time. Figuring out different ways to counter her height, that really helped me.”
He is now seven inches taller than big sister, but they have always complemented each other. Jaety Mandaquit is now a sophomore, playing basketball for No. 1 ‘Iolani during the winter, and playing year-round soccer with Surf Soccer Club in local and mainland tournaments.
JJ’s dream was initially to become great at baseball, but when he started playing in basketball tournaments on the mainland around five years ago, everything shifted. Jason Mandaquit, the 2000 All-State player of the year at Hilo, kept his program moving as JJ and Jaety trained consistently.
Since then, JJ has played across the West Coast and as far east as North Carolina, which also happens to be where his dream college is. He will rejoin the Rose City Rebels (Portland, Ore.) this spring and summer for a season of action the Nike EYBL. That connection to the Northwest is how the University of Portland took notice and offered him a scholarship last fall.
On Tuesday, not long after JJ and Jaety Mandaquit were featured in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, JJ poured in 25 points in a No. 3 ‘Iolani’s 48-45 overtime win over No. 4 Punahou. He is now averaging 21.2 points per game in ILH play.
“We’re so young, it’s super big for us to just stay humble. We’re both just humble kids,” he said of himself and Jaety. “We’re only in high school. We’re trying to grind and ultimately our goal is to get to Division I and, hopefully, further than that. We just want to keep working and stay humble.”
The extra training includes sessions with former ‘Iolani player of the year Derrick Low, who played collegiately at Washington State and professionally around the world.
“He knows what he’s talking about. I know what he’s teaching me will only make me better, and I appreciate that,” Mandaquit said.
While Jaety was raining in 3-pointers two years ago on ‘Iolani’s girls intermediate team, JJ was a seventh grader playing the boys inter squad. When Low was an eighth grader, he often scored 35 or more points in his intermediate games. He later became more of a balanced contributor, doing anything his team needed, much like Mandaquit today as a freshman.
Mandaquit didn’t have an eighth-grade season due to the pandemic and ensuing cancellation of the winter season in 2020-21.
“I think I could’ve averaged 35,” Mandaquit said. “To be honest, it wasn’t that big of a loss. For me, training was good for me. I got better during the offseason.”
Jason Mandaquit created the Sons of Hawaii team, rounding up several of the state’s top eighth graders. They played in a Nike-themed league on the West Coast and finished 7-6. The Sons made two long trips to play their schedule.
“That was almost like a coming out party. The lockdown, we didn’t see anybody play for a long time. All that hard work, I got to use on the mainland,” JJ said.
The work won’t stop. ‘Iolani, which was winless in ILH play two seasons ago, is contending for the league and possibly state titles this time around. After that, it’s back to Oregon for JJ, boy wonder, for the busiest offseason of his life with the Rose City Rebels. The team reached the title game at the Nike Peach Jam in Georgia last summer.
“it’s pretty much set in stone. I just go with the flow. This will be our first time playing in the Nike EYBL. That is something I’m looking forward to. It’s super highly competitive, the best players, the best teams,” he said. “I think that kind of stuff motivated me to work extra hard. I used to watch YouTube videos about it. Would I be able to compete? So it’s a blessing. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
He counts the blessings. Not every young baller gets opportunities like this, but Mandaquit worked night and day to get this far.
“The type of stuff you should go to, my dad was the mastermind. He just had a vision, I guess. He had a goal. He’s always a couple of steps ahead and always knew what would be next, and get me exposure,” JJ said. “He always told me, ‘You always have to play with that extra chip on your shoulder. Not a lot of people get this opportunity, so make the most of it.’”
The good news for ‘Iolani fans: this year’s squad is more than talented. The Raiders are playing selflessly. Coach Ryan Hirata has a team playing with the kind of fearlessness and verve that he and Low had during their state-title run as players.
“That’s what makes JJ interesting. He’s making his own DNA as a player. He’s well rounded, tough and IQ driven. His mindset is to become the best player he can for our team. He does whatever our team needs to do. When he gets in a zone, he’s tough to stop,” Hirata said. “But to be his best self, he will find the open guys for open shots and layups. It’s our team mentality. You run the floor, you’ll be rewarded. You run a screen hard, you’ll be that much more open.”
With versatile hard-nosed seniors Jack Jones and Zac Tenn, and sophomores Aaron Claytor and Taniela Talialuli, the Raiders have a blend of defenders and playmakers. Claytor, a combo guard, has an offer from North Carolina A&T.
JJ Mandaquit’s lockdown staples
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “Coach Carter”
2. “Avatar the Last Airbender”
3. “The Fast and Furious”
Top 3 food/snack/drink
1. Chocolate milk
2. Chocolate chip cookies
3. Smoked meat
Top 3 music artists
3. The Green
Chris Paul, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Ray Lewis and Trae Young.
“I love all my teachers, but if I had to choose my favorite subject, it would be math.”
New life skill: fishing
“I’m good at video games like Madden, NBA2K and UFC.”
“One thing in my bucket list is going to New Zealand because my godfather (Cord Anderson) sent pictures of the beautiful scenery.”
“If I could go back in time, I would go back to when my dad was in high school. More specifically, his senior year when they won the state championship in 2000. That state championship run was definitely something special and I hope to make a run of our own this year.”
“First off, I would like to thank God for putting me in this position. Secondly, I would like to thank my parents and my sister for always supporting me. Lastly, all of my family and friends back home on the Big Island that support me no matter how far I travel away from them. Hilo will always be home. Shout out to all of my coaches, teammates and mentors who have helped me along the way, especially my brothers and coaches at ‘Iolani School.”