West Plains, Mo. – Ask Chris Popp to describe this year's crop of recruits for the Grizzly Basketball team at Missouri State University-West Plains, and the first words you'll probably hear are "extremely talented."
"I'm really excited about this group," he said during a recent interview. "We've gotten bigger, more athletic. The overall talent level is high. It's just going to be a matter of blending it all together.
"The qualities that will dictate how our season goes are intangible," he added. "If this group displays the toughness, savvy and determination, then buys into the team concepts, togetherness and how we approach things, it's going to be an exciting season."
Sardaar Calhoun, a 6-foot, 6-inch guard from Tappahannock, Virginia, leads the way for this group of freshmen. He averaged 15 points, three assists and six rebounds a game last season at Blue Ridge School in Richmond, Virginia. He also earned first team all-conference and second team all-state honors.
"Sardaar is physically the strongest player on our team as a true freshman. He is a young man who had D1 offers last year and wants to expand his options. He's got great size and can really shoot it. He will have a chance to have a huge impact for us," Popp said.
Calhoun said he chose the Grizzlies over other programs because "it met all my standards from top to bottom." He's developed a strong relationship with the Grizzly coaching staff on and off the court, he said, and he was treated like family during his official visit to West Plains.
"The main reason I chose West Plains is because it's a small town and I really want to focus on my education, basketball career and relationship with Jesus Christ," he said.
Dravon Clayborn, a 6-foot, 1-inch point guard from Chicago, Illinois, averaged 18.7 points, three rebounds and 6.2 assists per game for Niles North High School last season. In just two active seasons with the Vikings, Clayborn scored over 1,000 points, earning honorable mention all-state honors his junior year before receiving a second team selection his senior season. He was selected as team MVP both seasons, was selected as a team captain and earned all-area honors during both seasons.
"Dravon is a tough competitor," Popp said. "I expect him to push to be our starting point guard. He definitely has the tools and all the ability to lead our team. It simply will be a matter of how quickly he learns the position in our system and adjusts to playing our style of basketball."
Clayborn said he chose Missouri State-West Plains "because the coaches made it feel like a home away from home. I want to be part of a great team and play for a great coaching staff that pushes players every day, and that is what West Plains showed me, which really sold me."
Henri Langton, a 6-foot, 11-inch forward from Leicester, England, will bring national championship experience to the Grizzly squad. Langton played his first year of college ball at Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado, and helped the Rattlers reach the NJCAA Division I Men's National Basketball Championship Tournament last season.
He shot 58.8 percent from the field, 31.3 percent from 3-point range and 66.7 percent from the free throw line and averaged 2.8 rebounds per game for Otero.
"As a transfer and a member of the British national team, Henri has been through the battles before," Popp said. "He's very skilled, can really score it on a block and is very versatile in a lot of ways. He allows us to play big because he can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball."
D'Andre Vilmar, a 6-foot, 4-inch guard from the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, played his first three years of high school basketball at Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he won two state championships and was named MVP of the Hoophall Classic as a junior. He transferred to Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, New Jersey, for his senior season but was sidelined by an injury.
Vilmar also played for the Bahamas' national team twice, and in 2015, he led the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Tournament in scoring and rebounding and finished second in assists.
"D'Andre is an explosive athlete. He's another player with national team experience. He comes in highly touted, having been recruited at the D1 level and rated as a four-star recruit by ESPN," Popp said.
Ben Gory, a 6-foot, 1-inch guard from France, brings with him extensive experience in club basketball in his home country. He earned his first national championship with U15 Basketball Stade Montois and two more with ASCH. He spent the 2016-17 season with Paris Basket Avenir, the France U20 national team, where he averaged 13.2 points and 5.2 assists per game.
"Ben is an elite shooter. He shoots it with ease and from anywhere on the court," Popp said. "The biggest question for Ben is how he's going to adjust to the speed and physical nature of the game."
"I'm really happy to join Missouri State-West Plains and become a Grizzly," Gory said. "I will do everything I can to help the team win a national title."
Darius Carter, a 6-foot, 1-inch guard from Tennessee Preparatory Academy in Memphis, averaged 15 points, five assists and four rebounds last season.
"Darius will make plays that will leave the crowd wondering if they really just saw that," Popp said. "He's an explosive athlete. The guys have already started to get out of his way when he's at the rim. I'm not sure what that says about our rim protection, but not many will challenge Darius there. He comes to us from a very good program, is a quality young man, and I have high expectations for him."
Carter chose the Grizzlies because he felt the coaches had his best interests at heart. "I also love that they like to play fast and get up and down the court. I feel like I can get better and move on to the next level with this program," he said.
Willard High School graduate Houston Johnson comes to the Grizzlies after playing one season at Northern Oklahoma College-Enid. The 6-foot, 7-inch sophomore transfer guard/forward averaged 4.5 points and 2.7 rebounds last season and received first team academic all-conference honors with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
"Houston gives us size and rebounding," Popp said. "He is another bouncy athlete and versatile, with the ability to move to the perimeter."
Johnson chose to transfer to Missouri State-West Plains because of Popp. "Coach Popp has proven that this program can consistently be successful. I think this team has a chance to be very good, and that's something I want to be a part of."
The Grizzlies strengthened their Springfield-area connection with the addition of Kickapoo's Sam Wallin. The 6-foot, 3-inch freshman guard averaged 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game his senior year with the Chiefs. He also earned first team all-district honors.
"Sam is a tough young man who knows how to play. He has a good feel for the game and a high basketball IQ. He also played for a Grizzly Hall of Famer, Robert Yanders, and has an appreciation of our program," Popp said.
Wallin said he chose to join the Grizzlies because the program and the university was the best fit for him. "It seems like it's a place where I can focus and get done what I need to do," he explained. "Everyone was very welcoming and friendly on my visit. It felt like a home away from home."
These newcomers and Da'Vantre Vitor, a 6-foot, 2-inch freshman guard from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who signed with the Grizzlies earlier this summer, will join five sophomore returners who started for the Grizzlies at some point last season – 6-foot, 2-inch guard Niekie Thomas; 6-foot, 5-inch guard Eric Lovett; 6-foot guard Johde Campbell; 6-foot, 7-inch guard/forward Burone Edwards; and 6-foot, 7-inch forward Dontell Brown.
"We have a good core back. These are talented young men who know how we do things and were a huge part of our success last year," Popp said.
"Dontell and Eric are back after proving themselves off the bench last year. Both were invited to participate in the JUCO Top 100 Showcase this summer and look to compete for starting spots. Both have shown the ability to be impact players for us," the coach added.
"Johde really stepped up last year when we were suffering from injuries. When he plays with that kind of confidence, he can be a heck of a player for us," Popp said.
"Niekie was a started and a significant part of our 14-1 start a year ago before a foot injury sidelined him," the coach added. "He is a high level, on-ball defender and seems to have learned and come a long way in a year."
"Montel played spot minutes for us last year and has proven he can help us win games," Popp said. "Evan redshirtted last year, but he will push for playing time.
"We're excited to see how the team comes together," the coach added. "We have good problems with our depth. Playing time will be hard to come by. We will have very good players who will have a hard time getting on the court."
Fans can get their first glimpse of the Grizzlies at the annual Moonlight Madness event Oct. 1. Fan games begin at 6 p.m., and the players will take the court at 7.
The Grizzlies' first home game will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 against Nationwide Academy from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
For more information about the Grizzly Basketball team, visit its website.