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By LARRY VAUGHT
Because he once played for John Calipari in the NBA and is also an avid college basketball fan, Michael Cage knew what it meant when the Kentucky coached offered his son, 6-9 sophomore M.J. Cage, a scholarship recently.
“Cal is a very smart recruiter. He knows talent,” said Cage, who played 15 years in the NBA and is now involved in sports broadcasting, said. “When he made that offer to us, I told my you that you have the most premier program in the country interested in you. Now we have to keep working harder because you still have another three years of high school basketball.”
The sophomore from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei High School — he is a teammate of 6-7 senior Stanley Johnson, a major UK target — also has scholarship offers from UCLA, Gonzaga and Washington with many others likely to come soon. He is ranked as the eighth best power forward in the 2106 recruiting class by Scout.com and 19th best player overall in the class by 247Sports.com.
“He shoots well from the outside, is very athletic and is a good shot blocker. He’s also just 16 years old, so you know how much better he will get,” Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said. “He broke his leg as a freshman and didn’t really get going until December and didn’t really come around until mid-January. But he is so physical and really gets after it.”
Michael Cage, who hopes to get into NBA coaching next year, is currently an assistant coach at Mater Dei and keeps close tabs on his son’s progress and work ethic.
“It’s very rewarding as a father, knowing you have been through this and can help him get through this, that he is getting early attention from major programs, including one of the most premier programs in the country in Kentucky. That has really been rewarding,” Michael Cage said. “He has worked hard to get to where he is and he is a good kid.
“My wife and I are old school parents with new school kids. We are God-fearing in this house and believe in treating people right. His sister (6-2 freshman Alexis Cage) is an outside hitter on the San Diego State volleyball team. She believes in the same work ethic. I played in the NBA. I was a four-year college player. My wife played college soccer. We are all athletes. We don’t make excuses.
“M.J. has worked hard to get to where he is at and it is starting to pay off now with this attention. I think he deserves it, but he has to keep working on his body and strength. He’s very skilled for a 16-year-old now, but if he keeps working one day he can be a great athlete. That’s what Cal sees in him I think.”
Calipari watched M.J. Cage play during the summer in Virginia and Las Vegas. He got to watch him when he came to California to watch Johnson practice and work out.
“Cal is a basketball mind. He did his homework,” Michael Cage, who once played on a U.S. team in the Pan-American Games with former Cat Jim Master, said. “He saw him play a lot. He sees where he is now and the potential he has. It’s really an honor for us to have a Kentucky offer, just like it was to get the UCLA offer. They have all been tracking him. I know all these coaches. You can’t miss those guys because they have such a presence when they come into a venue to watch and do their homework. But Cal is just special.”
He says to “play basketball in an environment like Kentucky is a basketball dream” for any player, but he knows his son is not ready for that yet.
“I am a coach and ex-player, so I know he has got to put in more time, more hours on the court,” Michael Cage said. “It’s encouraging when Cal comes into the high school and offers a scholarship. But it is time to tighten up, not lighten up. The good thing is I don’t have to tell him twice about working hard. He’s really a good student, too. He has always had a direction to his life, and that helps.
“We take all the offers very seriously. He said for me to figure it all out because he’s just a kid and doesn’t want to deal with it. Obviously coach Cal could not offer him directly because he is just a sophomore. He told the high school coach and the coach told me. But M.J. was excited, but he also knows all he has to worry about is just working hard and things will be fine.
“We worry about God, school and basketball in that order. He understands that. We had a 2 1/2 hour practice the day he found out he got the Kentucky offer. We got home and he said he was super tired, but he was going outside to shoot. He went out for another three hours and shot before I made him stop and come in. That’s how he is.”