The more Hepa is seen, the more college offers he receives

June 16, 2016

Kamaka Hepa basketball

Kamaka Hepa – photo by Jon Lopez Photography

In the few months since Kamaka Hepa left Barrow in pursuit of elite basketball competition in the Lower 48, the 16-year-old has basically been on the court every day and on an airplane every weekend.

The 6-foot-9 forward has been flying around the country to play at prestigious Nike national showcase events, where he receives unlimited exposure to college coaches and gets every part of his game dissected by scouting services.

The evaluation process is brutally honest and the two-time Alaska player of the year has received high marks for his versatile skills and savvy court sense.

“I think in terms of helping my basketball game, it does help to stay busy. I’m getting better as a player,” Hepa told me. “At the same time it is a little tiring, but I just have to fight through that in order to get where I want to be.”

Hepa wants to play big-time college basketball and seems destined to do it. He currently ranks in the top 40 nationally by different recruiting sites and has scholarship offers from Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Miami, Wichita State, Nebraska, Utah and Tulane among others, according to verbalcommits.com.

“Since coming down here I have received some high-major offers and because it’s happening, I know that moving down here was a good decision,” Hepa said.

Juggling a heavy travel schedule and dealing with the fast-paced world of the AAU circuit is a lot to handle, but Hepa’s parents, Taqulik and Roland, are often at his side to ease the burden.

His parents preach humility, hard work and household. They are a private family, not privileged, and they are extremely close.

“My family, they do a good job relieving pressure from me,” Hepa said. “I think they do a good job supporting me and just being there for me. They know what is too much for me and what isn’t.”

Hepa’s travel tour started in March after the sophomore led the Barrow Whalers to their second straight ASAA Class 3A state championship.

He transferred to Jefferson High School in Oregon, where he immediately joined the Portland Basketball Club for the Nike EYBL 16U circuit in April and May. The team has made tournament stops in New Jersey, Indianapolis and Atlanta.

During that time the PBC also won the West Coast Spring Showcase in Portland – the first piece of hardware for the newly formed AAU program.

“I think that really helped boost our confidence,” Hepa said.

Already this month Hepa has participated at the Pangos All-American Camp in Cerritos, California, and the Nike Elite 100 Camp in St. Louis. The more he plays, the more his stock rises.

Hepa is having the time of his life, he said, although he admitted to missing his family being in one place.

His mom Taqulik lives at the family home in Barrow and travels back and forth. His dad Roland is living in Portland and also travels back and forth.

“I miss when we’d have barbeques and stuff,” Hepa said. “My dad would cook stuff on the grill and we would all spend time together.”

As tough as it is to be separated, Hepa appreciates that his parents made it possible for him to pursue his hoops dream.

“I know the sacrifices they make are crucial to our family, so I know I have to be really determined to stay focused on my goal,” he said. “That’s why they made those sacrifices. It wouldn’t make sense for me not to be committed.”

Having his dad at his side makes it easier and allows Hepa to concentrate on basketball. Roland wants his son to have as normal a life as possible. He doesn’t create crazy expectations by pushing a NBA-or-bust mindset.

“Our goal is to make sure he has time to be a kid,” Roland Hepa told me. “Our focus is on education, not basketball. We don’t care if he’s the No. 1 recruit. His mom and I want him to be a well-balanced kid.”

On the basketball court, Hepa tips the scales his way thanks to dribbling and shooting skills packaged in a big man’s body. Think Lamar Odom.

Hepa moves well without the ball and can create space with his quickness and ability to read the court. He has also succeeded at luring defenders away from the post and then beating them off the dribble or beating them to the rebound as a trailer.

Facing premier players his size on a regular basis was one of the most attractive aspects about going to Portland.

“Playing against more elite big men has definitely helped me get stronger,” Hepa said. “The games are a lot more physical down here and I think that’s helped me become tougher. I’ve improved a lot in that category.”

Hepa lacks a college-ready face-up game in the post, so that means much of his production has been a result of heart, effort and beating defenders with his footwork. No longer can he rely on just being the tallest kid on the court.

“I think because of the pace of the game here and in the EYBL my conditioning is a lot higher,” he said, “and I think that has helped me a lot because I lacked that, and in Alaska I was kind of slow and out of shape.”

Later this month, Hepa will play with Team Alaska at the Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix. The Alaskans won the tournament title in 2013 and now boast a bona fide Division I prospect who should make them an instant contender.

Hepa said the NABI carries special significance for his family, which has Inupiat Eskimo heritage on his mom’s side and Native Hawaiian on his dad’s side. He’ll also play with Koa Ahgeak of Barrow.

“That’s more like getting closer to my culture and being able to be around other Native American kids,” he said. “It’s also a chance for me to represent my Native American side and my community of Barrow. I think it’s cool that I will get to represent them down in Phoenix.”

After that Hepa will head to California in early July for the West Coast Elite 100 Camp. He’ll wrap up his busy travel schedule with a trip to Las Vegas at the end of July.

“After that my summer is pretty much done,” he said. “I’ll probably head home (to Barrow) for a good month before school starts and take a break from basketball and relax with my family. Get some rest.”