Peach Jam 2023: AJ Dybantsa impresses as elite Class of 2026 prospect proves worthy of growing hype

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — You don’t have to be a college coach, recruiting analyst or NBA executive to see that he’s special. It’s obvious within minutes, even to an untrained eye. Long and fluid. Athletic and skilled. He’s the best player for one of the best grassroots basketball programs in the country, an electric shotmaker who projects as the type of wing with size all NBA franchises now value immensely.

He just led Nike’s Peach Jam in scoring. If you’ve seen him, this comes as no surprise.

But what is surprising, and highly unusual, is that AJ Dybantsa just led Nike’s Peach Jam in scoring despite only finishing his freshman year of high school a couple of months ago. Most players participating in the 17-and-under division here inside the Riverview Park Activities Center, which sits a mere seven miles away and across the Savannah River from Augusta National Golf Club, are about to be seniors. Dybantsa, on the other hand, still has three more years of high school — provided, of course, that he declines the opportunity to someday reclassify to the Class of 2025, which is far from a given considering his talent and the fact that he’s currently widely viewed as the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2026.

“What he’s doing is very unique” said Todd Quarles, who coaches Dybantsa with Expressions Elite, an EYBL program based in Boston. “He’s dominated at the 17-youth level as a freshman, and he’s dominated as a three-level scorer. … He’s a special basketball player and a special person — and he could be the next great one that is generational. You had [Michael] Jordan. You had LeBron [James] and Steph Curry and KD [Kevin Durant]. He could be in that same regard. He has the style, the flair, the ability and the charisma.”

Before I go any further, I’m compelled to point out that amazing prospects emerge unusually early at least two or three times every decade. Sometimes it’s LeBron James, who is now the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Other times it’s Emoni Bates, who was just selected 49th in the 2023 NBA Draft after two whatever-seasons of college basketball at Memphis and Eastern Michigan. In other words, guaranteeing super-stardom for somebody still at least three years from the NBA Draft is almost always a roll of the dice.

That said, Dybantsa definitely looks the part.

He’s a 6-foot-8, perimeter-oriented player who does a lot of the things Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and other big wings do. He attacks relentlessly on offense. He guards enthusiastically on defense. He just averaged 25.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists at Peach Jam while also making 81.6% of his free throw attempts while going to the line an average of 9.8 times per contest. Adam Finkelstein, the director of scouting for 247Sports, tweeted that Dybantsa has “been as impressive as anyone” this EYBL season. It’s the result of years of hard work and dedication, a lot of which took place during the COVID-19 pandemic when middle school basketball and grassroots basketball came to a halt.

Despite the pause in activities, Dybantsa never stopped training.

“I was working every day during quarantine,” Dybantsa explained.

“I don’t think it was healthy,” he added with a grin, “but I was working out every day. Like no rest days. And when I came back, that’s when I started seeing mass improvement, when I came back on the May circuit [in 2021]. And that’s when I said I might be able to do something with this. So I kept on working. I was outside; there were no gyms available. So I was outside doing all of it. The workouts would start at 8 — and I’d do three a day [because] there was nothing else to do in quarantine. So I was like, let me just hoop. And when I started hooping, I just fell in love with it.”

Now he’s the No. 1 prospect in 2026.

Asked what motivates him currently, Dybantsa didn’t hesitate.

“I do it for my family,” he said. “And I do it for Terrence.”

Terrence, you might know, is Terrence Clarke, a similarly long and bouncy wing from the Expressions Elite program who was a top-10 prospect in the Class of 2020 and eventual one-and-done product who played at Kentucky. Tragically, just three months before Clarke was expected to be selected in the 2021 NBA Draft, he died in a car crash at the age of 19.

Dybantsa will never forget getting the news.

“I was going to Made Hoops’ Midwest Mania,” he recalled. “We had a 14-hour bus ride [from Boston to Indianapolis] — and Coach Todd told us. I had heard it on The Gram, but I was like, ‘That’s fake.’ But then Coach Todd told us. And then there were just 14 hours of silence. Nobody was speaking.

“That was basically my cousin,” Dybantsa added. “We’re not related, but that was basically my cousin. Every time I seen him, I was little bro to him.”

Now, just two years later, Dybantsa is determined to have the career Clarke was never allowed to have because his life was cut short at the corner of Winnetka Avenue and Nordhoff Street in Los Angeles. Undeniably, Dybantsa is well on his way, which is among the reasons future first-ballot Naismith Memorial Hall of Famers LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony sat courtside for his game Saturday afternoon, as did Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, UConn’s Dan Hurley, Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, USC’s Andy Enfield, Michigan’s Juwan Howard and a slew of other high-major coaches.

As for what’s next, Dybantsa is transferring to Prolific Prep in California, where he’ll play alongside Tyran Stokes, who is regarded as the No. 2 prospect in the Class of 2026. Most college coaches I spoke with at Peach Jam think Dybantsa will eventually reclassify, in part because he’s already 16 years old. Some believe he could ultimately sign with the G League Ignite at the age of 17 like Scoot Henderson did two years before becoming the third pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Asked about all of this, Dybantsa acknowledged reclassifying “is a thought” but insisted “the goal right now is college.”

“I promised my mom I’d at least do one year of college,” he said. “I told her that.”

As always, we’ll see. Either way, the best rising-sophomore in the nation spent the past week matching or exceeding all lofty expectations that have been placed upon him. Dybantsa’s goal was never to be the No. 1 player in his class, if only because he said he doesn’t care about rankings too much. But now that he’s there, the plan is to stay there at least until he reclassifies, enrolls in college or pursues a professional opportunity.

“If you’re at No. 1, why would you want to drop?” Dybantsa said. “If you’re No. 1, just stay No. 1. I don’t care about rankings. But if I’m going to be ranked No. 1, the goal is to stay No. 1.”

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