SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. — Jaden Henley didn’t know much about Gophers basketball until coach Ben Johnson and assistant Marcus Jenkins began recruiting him heavily from Minnesota last year.
Fast forward to this week, and the 6-7 freshman from Ontario, California, started as a guard for the Gophers in the SoCal Challenge.
“It felt really good to be able to play in front of my family at the next level,” said Henley. “It was a great experience for me.”
The Gophers established a presence in Southern California long before they arrived during Thanksgiving week. California natives on the team include Henley, Taurus Samuels (Oceanside) and Coach Jenkins (Lompoc).
This week’s SoCal Challenge brought the Gophers a home court atmosphere with strong fan participation that included the players’ friends and family at the 2,000-seat pavilion at JSerra High School.
But the US recruiting base remains in the Golden State, particularly recently following the signing of Riverside 7-foot, five-star center Dennis Evans III.
“Marcus did a great job and was the leader in building relationships between Dennis and Jaden,” Johnson said. “I think when the Big Ten expands west and UCLA and USC come into the mix, we can go to a house on the west coast and you can talk about Big Ten basketball. It’s not weird. … It’s a bit more realistic than it was before.”
Jenkins, who was hired as Johnson’s final assistant last season, grew up about three hours north of Los Angeles. He knows what it’s like to play college basketball far from home in the Air Force, so he understood how the Gophers could find prospects willing to leave the state for the right program.
“It doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but when you rip off a few layers, it is,” Jenkins said of the Minnesota-based Californians. “Why? It’s up to the people. From all top to bottom. It starts with Ben and our staff, but also the fans, alumni and people from Minnesota.”
Henley, a three-star candidate at Colony High School, received his only scholarship offer from San Diego State when Jenkins made him a priority with the Gophers last year. Other Power Five programs targeted Henley after he signed on in Minnesota, but he was loyal to the Big Ten program, which believed in him early in the recruiting process.
“He didn’t lie to me or anything,” Henley said of Johnson. “Usually trainers try to lift their heads off a recruit but they’ve been really honest with me and I love that. I think they did the same thing to Dennis. I think that’s why Dennis loves it here too.”
When Henley visited the Gophers and watched a game last season, his family was “blown away” by the fan support and the campus environment. The same situation occurred when Evans paid his official visit this fall before committing.
“I really liked the culture,” said Evans, who watched the Gophers beat Cal Baptist in overtime on Monday. “It’s cool to see that they’re willing to go far just to find players who fit into their program.”
The Gophers, who landed Evans and developed a relationship with AAU coaches like Team Inland’s Kool-Aid Perry, also helped them with other rising California prospects.
Four-star junior Deshawn Gory, a 6-8 forward, played with Evans last season before moving to nearby Oak Hills. He’s being looked at by Kentucky and Kansas, but the Gophers are in good position early on with Gory. Johnson also recently offered a scholarship to four-star junior guard Trent Perry at Harvard Westlake in Los Angeles.
“The Big Ten made it a little bit easier to place the Minnesota flag in California,” Jenkins added. “It helps us and makes it a little bit more natural. USC and UCLA can’t have all the boys. California is a big state. There are kids out here who for some reason feel overlooked. We offer the opportunity to play at the highest level in what is probably the best league in the country.”