Basketball phenom Mikey Williams changing teams, but won’t go far

High school basketball phenom Mikey Williams, a 5-star national recruit, won’t play at Lake Norman Christian for his junior season, but he will still attend the Huntersville private school for classes.

Instead, Williams will play basketball for a new program called Vertical Academy, which will be based in the Charlotte area. Students can attend classes online, at Lake Norman Christian, or a combination of both, Mahlon Williams, Mikey’s father, and Lake Norman Christian coach Patrick McCarthy told the Observer on Tuesday.

Mahlon Williams said Vertical Academy will include 10 players and play a national schedule, running from August to March. He said the team will be sponsored by a major shoe company, likely adidas or Puma. Williams said he’s already gotten initial commitments from players in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. He plans to release the roster later this month.

McCarthy said one other Lake Norman Christian player will play for Vertical: point guard Josh Bullock will start with Vertical in August but return to play for Lake Norman Christian when the traditional high school season begins in November.

Adopting the Euro model

Mahlon Williams said he’s already scheduled 25 games for Vertical Academy, including a game against national power Montverde Academy of Florida. He said he planned for the team to play in 19 different states.

“We’re not going to be sanctioned by any high school association,” Mahlon Williams said, “and we’ll play showcase games against prep schools. We’ll be an all-around club team. We’re adopting the European (basketball) model.”

Williams said Vertical Academy is owned and founded by himself along with Kat and Landon Eckles. The Eckles also founded Clean Juice smoothies six years ago in Huntersville. Clean Juice now has locations in 28 states.

Mahlon Williams said no coach had been named yet for Vertical Academy, but he and the Eckles are considering several candidates. He also said the trio wanted Vertical to grow to include a full roster of sports.

Several similar programs have popped up in North Carolina in recent years. In Lincolnton, former UNC and NBA point guard Jeff McInnis has developed a nationally ranked basketball team at Combine Academy, which offers on-site classes and multiple sports, including a nationally ranked baseball team.

In Charlotte, LIberty Heights has become a destination school for elite recruits, and has added Silas Demary Jr., who led Raleigh’s Millbrook High to a state championship earlier this year. Demary will repeat his junior year and join the class of 2023.

Another similar school, the N.C. Good Better Best Academy, will open in Durham this fall. McInnis’ former teammate at North Carolina, former NBA star Rasheed Wallace, will be boys basketball coach.

‘We wanted a space to create elite athletes’

In Charlotte, Mahlon Williams said he just hopes to help Vertical Academy grow.

“We wanted a space to play in to create elite athletes,” he said. “We’re starting with the basketball program and eventually we want to have tennis and volleyball sand softball. We’re hoping in two years, this thing will be super huge. And here’s the great thing about our school: although kids will go to Lake Norman Christian for this year, it’s not a criteria because we are a high-level club team. A kid can go to another school and still play for us.”

Mikey Williams was considered a high-profile target for a new league started by Overtime, where elite high school athletes would be paid to play — but give up their college eligibility.

Mahlon Williams said his son got “a huge offer’ from Overtime, but chose to stay in high school.

“He wanted to put it off for at least a year,” Mahlon Williams said. “Mikey still wants to be a kid and loves the high school level, and loves that part of it where all the people come out and people still have access to him. It feels more real to him at the high school level and he didn’t want it to be a business for him right now, and he wants to have fun. Once you start getting paid, it becomes a business and a responsibility.”

For McCarthy, losing Williams will be a big blow, especially after junior point guard Trey Green, a second team N.C. all-state player, decided to transfer to a private school in Missouri. Williams and Green are both ranked among the top 60 players nationally in the class of 2023 by ESPN. Williams is No. 8; Green No. 54.

McCarthy said Hickory Ridge star Jordan Marsh has transferred to his school and will pair with Bullock in the backcourt. He also said the school will join the Carolinas Athletic Association 4 Schools of Choice, the CAA4SC, which he said will offer conference and state championships.

McCarthy said Lake Norman Christian will continue to play an aggressive schedule, which includes games with Combine Academy and Liberty Heights.

Langston Wertz Jr. is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked at the Observer since 1988. He’s covered everything from Final Fours and NFL to video games and Britney Spears. Wertz — a West Charlotte High and UNC grad — is the rare person who can answer “Charlotte,” when you ask, “What city are you from.”
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