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Lucas Patterson knows he's carving a different path than most local high school basketball coaches, but frankly, he doesn't care.

Patterson, a north Minneapolis native who grew up playing on the same youth basketball teams as Gophers coach Ben Johnson, came to believe that his son, Lu'Cye, wasn't being served well by high school basketball.

Lu'Cye, now a starting point guard at Missouri State, helped Brooklyn Center to its first state tournament berth in 35 years in 2018 as a sophomore, but the restrictiveness at the high school level was maddening for his family. Times were changing. AAU basketball was exhibiting more influence each year, though not always in a positive way.

Prep schools seemed to be an answer, places out from under the rules and regulations imposed by high school-based administrators that Patterson, and others, felt prevented players from reaching their potential.

It wasn't the academic requirements that chafed him; he never disputed their importance. But limits on coaching access, unwillingness to adapt to the current game and a ban on out-of-state travel were just a few of the issues he felt were unnecessary impediments to player growth.

Prep schools were showing an ability to attract the best talent, could travel the country to play and, most importantly, could tailor their approach to the specific needs of each player. They've exploded in numbers in recent years, benefiting from the freedom to compile a competitive team and face off against other talented programs.

Where traditional governing bodies emphasize fair competition and equal opportunity, prep schools push for individual betterment.

"It's about doing what's right for the kids," Patterson said.

Patterson is the driving force behind Minnesota Prep Academy, a four-year-old online school based at Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club in north Minneapolis. Many were skeptical when Patterson and co-founder Donnell Bratton, a senior pastor at Overcomer's Victory Church in St. Paul, launched Minnesota Prep. They were scrambling for players, resources and facilities.

Now, things are moving forward nicely. Students from outside Minnesota live together in a boardinghouse in St. Paul, near the State Capitol. They ride to Gamble together each day, where they do morning schoolwork. Much of their time is spent in computer rooms doing lessons online, but collectively. After practice, they travel as a group back to their chaperoned residence.

The school is accredited and in good standing with the NCAA, a source of pride for Patterson.

"We're recognized by the NCAA Clearinghouse," Patterson said. "This year, they will get to go through graduation ceremonies and graduate from Minnesota Prep Academy. We're looking forward to that."

The tuition for room, board, facilities and travel is $12,500 per year for in-state players and $15,500 for out-of-state, much of it paid for by privately funded scholarships. The school has 26 students, and it fields dozens of requests from potential players.

"We're on good footing," Patterson said. "We'll never turn down funding, but we're better off than I thought we'd be four years ago."

“It’s about doing what’s right for the kids,” says Minnesota Prep Academy co-founder Lucas Patterson.
“It’s about doing what’s right for the kids,” says Minnesota Prep Academy co-founder Lucas Patterson.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

The big picture

Prep schools have critics who say they cost kids their high school experience. There are concerns that such schools exploit underprivileged kids with dreams of a basketball future.

Many prep schools across the county have proved their worth. Look no further than the 2021 NBA draft, in which six of the top 10 draft picks attended prep school, most before college.

Minnesota Prep Academy competes in a national 28-program league called the Grind Session. The quality of play is similar to that of college.

"That's where the talent goes," Patterson said. "The level of play is much higher than high school."

Anyone familiar with Minnesota basketball is familiar with the prep school path. Starting with Rashad Vaughn, a steady stream of locals left high schools looking to enrich their game and their future, among them Gary Trent Jr., Kendall Brown, Treyton Thompson, Both Gach, Josh Ola-Joseph and Camden Heide.

Players at Minnesota Prep say the hoops-centric nature of prep schools makes it easier to focus on their goals.

"There's no distractions," said D.J. Jefferson, a versatile 6-5 wing who has signed with Tulsa. "At public school, there were always fights and stuff."

Jefferson, a native of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has the highest profile among the half-dozen or so Division I prospects on Minnesota Prep's high school roster. He recalled the discussion he and his father had when the offer to attend Minnesota Prep was made.

"We talked about what was best for me and my future," he said. "We felt this was the best place for me because it prepared me not only for the game of basketball but the game of life. This place helped me so much outside of the game of basketball."

D.J. Jefferson, shown here driving the lane in blue, has signed with Tulsa. He is the 84th best recruit in the Class of 2022, according to
D.J. Jefferson, shown here driving the lane in blue, has signed with Tulsa. He is the 84th best recruit in the Class of 2022, according to

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Far from home

Which gets straight to the point Patterson and Bratton make when talking of their mission with the school.

"It's about mentorship," Patterson said. "Yes, we know it's about basketball, too, but we want to be there for the whole person. When a player comes here, we know he can hoop. But does he do the right things? Does he do what it takes to become a complete person, a complete player?"

Gob E. Gob is a 6-3 senior point guard in his second year at Minnesota Prep. A native of Manchester, N.H., Gob's star has greatly risen since settling in at Minnesota Prep. He's juggling Division I offers — he wasn't even on anyone's radar two years ago — and has flourished this year, his reputation growing along with his game.

But the reason Gob landed in Minnesota goes much deeper than basketball. He's willing to live far from home if it gets him what he wants, what his family needs.

"My mom is a single mom. And I'm the oldest child. I have to do what I have to do to be a role model," he said.

He misses home, particularly his mother's cooking. But he sees his time at Minnesota Prep as not only a prime opportunity but an investment in his future.

"I had chances to go to other prep schools, but I feel very, very welcome here," he said. "My future rests on this place, on this year. I have no regrets at all."