Jaylin Hunter has spent a lot of time at Pinnacle Bank Arena over the last few years. As the son of Nebraska assistant coach Kenya Hunter, Jaylin has watched from the crowd as the Huskers took the court time after time.
Over the weekend, the junior at Omaha Creighton Prep found out what it felt like to be the one on the floor and playing in front of a packed house as the Junior Jays won three games in three days to capture the Class A state championship.
“There’s nothing like winning,” Hunter said after the game. “I love winning. I’m just so blessed to be here.”
Hunter’s journey to the state tournament was a long one. He began his high school career at Lincoln High, just two miles from Pinnacle Bank Arena. Hunter started half the season as a freshman and led the team in scoring as a sophomore, but the Links won just 10 games total and never even sniffed the state tournament.
Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Hunter decided not to play select basketball. After his sophomore year, however, Omaha Sports Academy landed a sponsorship deal with Adidas and was invited to participate in the Adidas Gauntlet series, and Hunter decided to join the OSA Crusaders 16U team.
The Crusaders had a fairly successful first season playing in the Gauntlet, but beyond the basketball, Hunter struck up a strong friendship with his coach, Andy King (an assistant coach at Creighton Prep) and his teammates, including Akol Arop (who also attends Creighton Prep).
As the spring season played out, Hunter thought more and more that Prep might be the best place for him — for many reasons — and in June, Hunter and his family made it official: he transferred to the private school in Omaha.
“It might have been a decision where he wanted to go there because of basketball and because of guys like Akol and Coach King, but Jaylin has really bought into the whole culture of Creighton Prep,” Creighton Prep head coach Josh Luedtke said. “His GPA is rocking at a 4.0, he works his butt off in the classroom, he really thrives in our Jesuit education and being at Xavier and Georgetown with his dad, that’s a big thing for their family.”
Because Hunter transferred late, he had to sit out for 90 days before he was eligible to compete at the varsity level for the Junior Jays. With a senior-laden team surrounding Arop in the middle, Prep — the preseason favorite — went 9-1 without Hunter.
The Junior Jays were a different team once he joined the lineup, however. Hunter averaged about 15 points (second on the team) and four assists (first) while shooting better than 60 percent from the field, and he did it while defending the other team’s best guard.
The Junior Jays went undefeated with Hunter in the lineup, winning all 14 games by an average of 24 points. On Jan. 20, with his father and a few members of the Nebraska basketball team among the sold-out crowd, Hunter went off for a career-high 30 points against Omaha Central as the Junior Jays avenged their only loss of the season.
“This guy to my right, man, he is a ball player,” Luedtke said after the Junior Jays won the title. “You talk about a defensive stopper, a guy who handles it, a guy who makes plays for other guys, a guy who can score, just has bought into what Prep is all about from just the day he walked into the classroom to the day he got on the court, never barked one minute about sitting 90 days, never played JV, just really helped his teammates get better in the first 13 games and then it was his time. He made us an even better team.”
Hunter got to play with the team during the summer and fall leagues to build up some chemistry, but even so, being dropped midseason into a lineup that had already been so successful is not easy. However, Luetke said the transition was pretty seamless.
“Jaylin was so unselfish,” Luedtke said. “He just wanted to know how he could help the team win and I just said ‘Be yourself; you don’t have to be anybody else. Be yourself, adjust with the guys, the guys will adjust to you,’ and everybody bought into that.”
The result was a state title. Kenya was in Jaylin’s old spot, watching from the crowd as his son cut down the nets.
“It was a good opportunity,” he said. “Obviously it’s taken a lot, sitting out the 90 days and then being able to come into the middle of the season, and it seemed like a perfect fit on both ends. To see all the hard work that he’s put in this past year to try to get better and be on a really good team, I’m just excited for him. It was a great opportunity and for them in his first year being there to win the state title is something different.”
Jaylin shared after the game how grateful he was — to his parents, his coaches and his teammates.
“It’s unreal, honestly,” he said. “I would have never thought this time last year I would have been in this position. I’ve been blessed — my parents put me in this opportunity, Coach Luedtke bringing me in and taking me honestly as a son — I look at him as another dad to me. Kyle [Luedtke, the coaches son], I look at him as a brother to me. I feel like we are just a family as a team.”
Kyle Luedtke and six other seniors — including three starters — are moving on, but Hunter and Arop will return along with a handful of other juniors, sophomores and freshmen and Creighton Prep should be in the mix in Class A once again next season.
However, Hunter doesn’t have long to celebrate. The first tournament of the spring for the OSA Crusaders is set for the first weekend of April. As the saying goes, basketball never stops.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.