Throughout the world, some of the biggest soccer clubs have long had teams competing in more than just soccer. On the Utah Jazz roster alone, four such clubs are represented in the resumes of Bojan Bogdanovich and Joe Ingles – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Fenerbahce and Maccabi Tel Aviv. NBA rosters are peppered with players sporting similar backgrounds.
While the practice has been commonplace around the world, it hasn’t yet permeated American professional sports.
Real Salt Lake is looking to alter that this year with the addition of the Real Salt Lake Basketball Academy, unlocking a new opportunity for growth in the organization and a previously untapped revenue stream. The growth opportunity for RSL was also unique in that the Utah Jazz, per NBA league rules, are unable to establish training programs below the G League.
So as other clubs around the country were enjoying a brief respite from the game to regroup ahead of the coming 2021 season and Academy teams were in their winter break, RSL remained active with its basketball program. Clear across the country in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the RSL Academy Griffins took on some of the best teams in the country in the annual Beach Ball Classic tournament, going toe-to-toe with Baltimore’s nationally-ranked St. Frances Academy and topping another national power in Texas’ iSchool of Lewisville.
As with the RSL Academy’s flagship soccer program where Tom Spahl and Arnold Rijsenburg were brought in to oversee a coaching staff that includes some of the top youth coaches in the country, the basketball program brought in a top-flight coach in David Evans.
“We recognized the opportunity to continue to develop athletes in the sport of basketball,” Zions Bank Real Academy President Jake Haueter said when the team was launched in July. “Our goal is to give them the resources they need to succeed at the professional level. Coach Evans’ expertise in working with elite basketball talent, coupled with our infrastructure and experience in developing professional athletes, is an ideal partnership. It will allow us to immediately establish ourselves as a development center within the sport.”
Well-respected throughout the country, Evans made a name for himself at Lone Peak High School before taking the Wasatch Academy to new heights. At Lone Peak, he made two state championship final appearances with one state title and a No. 8 national ranking to his credit. Two straight top-five national finishes at the Wasatch Academy.
With that pedigree in the coaching ranks, Evans scoured the country for talent ahead of the team’s inaugural season. When the team first took the court on December 3, eight different states were represented on the 15-man roster, with another player coming from Australia. When the team returns in January, another state will be represented with Indiana joining a mix that already includes states from Hawaii to Florida and everywhere in between.
While RSL’s soccer academy has a long history of producing top professional talent that has found success in MLS and abroad, Evans has relied on his own track record, the Zions Bank Training Center facilities and the extensive opportunities for players to get guided time on the court and in the weight room to attract talent.
“Every situation is a different story,” Evans said. “They all came from different situations and they love to play, so they are here. For most of them, the amount of training that we do is paramount. That’s where the difference lies.”
Under the guidance of Evans and his staff, RSL trains 20-25 hours each week on courts in and around the Herriman facility, while playing home games at Salt Lake Community College. While not every player on the roster sees time in the big national tournaments on their schedule, teams at the sophomore, JV and varsity levels all practice together, giving each player the opportunity to grow and develop within the system.
“We want every player to feel important and every player to develop and progress,” Evans said.
In the first month of play, RSL went to the Crimson Cliffs Tournament in St. George, Utah, before this week’s Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach.
Through 15 games, RSL has a 12-3 record and six players averaging at least nine points per game. That is indicative of Evans’ style of play – a high-scoring, fast-paced approach that gives players throughout the roster opportunities.
“My teams generally are fast-paced. We go up and down and do a lot of pressing. But we can have a few variations as a team,” Evans said. “We play fun basketball. Slowing down and isolating – that’s not fun.”
Within that structure, senior guard Max Topham tops the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game while also second on the team in steals and assists. The 6-foot-7 Utah native is joined by Puyallup, Washington sophomore guard Taki Uluilakepa and Houston, Texas junior center Adam Stewart in double-digits, while freshman forward David Kotoa (Layton, Utah), junior guard Aaron Ragen (San Jose, California) and sophomore guard Trey Evans (Haleiwa, Hawaii) are all over nine points per game.
The schedule of 27 games in two months resumes on January 7 against Bountiful and is highlighted by a January 12 clash with Lone Peak as Evans takes on his former school.
“We’ll play anybody anywhere. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose,” Evans said. “We just want to get games, especially this year.”
RSL hit the ground running in its first year and has ambitions for even more growth in year two. The program has plans to expand to include 30-40 players in its second season, with an additional fifth-year program to help bridge the gap for some players from the high school level to the rigors of college without sacrificing eligibility at the community college level. RSL will also be adding basketball courts for the team in 2021, which will be located within the existing training facility.
For Evans, the opportunity to enact his vision for player development is ideal as Haueter and RSL Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Rob Zarkos provide him with the support while allowing the expert in the field to build the program.
“The tracks are all here. We’ve got an incredible facility. The dorms are better than any that I’ve seen at any prep school,” Evans said. “The opportunity for me is almost a perfect situation.”