Throughout the coming days and weeks, Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart’s latest top-10 recruiting haul will begin to flock to the Forty Acres, and the highest upside among that five-man bunch may belong to the four-star forward from the highest point on the U.S. map — Kamaka Hepa.
A stretch forward from the secluded Alaskan town of Barrow, which is only accessible by plane and surrounded on three sides by the Arctic Ocean, Hepa spent the first two seasons of his high school career as a budding star in a school with approximately 225 students. In 2015 and 2016, Hepa guided Barrow to a pair of Alaska state championships, and his efforts were honored more individually with back-to-back Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year awards.
Hepa was, however, still outside of the spotlight many of the nation’s top prospect enjoy. To blossom into the national name Hepa’s contributions proved he was capable of becoming, the top-ranked talent in Alaska was required to uproot his life and move 2,100 miles south to Oregon, where he ultimately cemented himself as the top talent in that state after enrolling at powerhouse Portland Jefferson.
The success Hepa enjoyed in Alaska translated to Oregon in almost identical fashion, despite the increased level of competition.
This time around, though, now starring in Portland’s basketball-rich environment, Hepa’s recruitment garnered the momentum it was largely deprived of during his time in remote Barrow, America’s northernmost town.
By the time Hepa’s Portland Jefferson debut arrived, the skilled forward was fully amid the recruiting spotlight he craved, owning offers from Miami, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona, USC, Washington, Gonzaga, and Texas. Yet another state championship season — his third in as many years — and a Nike EYBL circuit in which he averaged 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds later, Hepa’s quest to become a high-major Division 1 prospect reach its end.
On Oct. 31, with 19 offers in hand, Hepa made the decision to take his talents another 2,000 miles south and announced his commitment to Texas.
Prior to playing in Austin, though, Hepa had one final season at Portland Jefferson to complete, and he did so in praiseworthy fashion. As a senior, Hepa averaged 16.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.2 blocks, and 3.5 assists per contest as the headliner of a state runner-up roster that also featured three-star point guard Marcus Tsohonis. Although those efforts fell just short of netting Hepa his fourth state title in as many tries, the Longhorns signee was honored as the 2018 Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year.
The pre-college accomplishments haven’t stopped with Gatorade, though.
On June 5, after spending the past several weeks in Colorado Springs (Colo.) competing against some of the top talents the high school landscape has to offer, Hepa was officially named to the USA Basketball U18 Men’s National Team.
Now listed at 6’10, 225 pounds, per his latest Gatorade Player of the Year release, Hepa’s offensive repertoire is tailor-made for modern-day basketball, and more specifically, Smart’s desire to employ a multi-positional rotation.
Set to arrive in Austin as the tallest Longhorn at Smart’s disposal, Hepa’s skill set is quite the opposite than that of a traditional big man. A unique blend between a stretch forward and a to an extent, a point forward, as he boasts exceptional vision and has even been said to be unselfish to a fault, Hepa will often be found operating around the perimeter as a freshman.
While that was commonly the case with Mohamed Bamba and Dylan Osetkowski last season, which often hindered the ‘Horns — each converted fewer than 29 percent of their three-point attempts — Texas should enjoy significantly increased shooting productivity from Hepa. In 16 games throughout last year’s Nike EYBL circuit, Hepa connected on 41.6 percent of his perimeter looks, but his offensive versatility doesn’t end with his shooting touch.
Hepa moves impressively for his size and although he’s not an elite athlete, he does come equipped with enough athleticism to create and take advantage of mismatches. Capable and comfortable handling the ball, Hepa owns the foot speed to gain a step on slower forwards and can now rely upon recently-added strength to capitalize against small-ball lineups.
However, Hepa’s initial offensive value will largely be determined by how aggressive he looks to be as a scorer. As Portland Jefferson head coach Pat Strickland previously said of Hepa, “Sometimes I think he’s unselfish to his detriment.”
An efficient scorer from all three levels, Hepa has a great feel for the game and a high basketball IQ so he won’t force his offense simply to find points. However, Smart will likely encourage Hepa to assert himself on that end of the floor after Texas ranked 221st nationally in scoring last season. More specifically, Smart will welcome every bit of the perimeter firepower Hepa’s willing to provide after the Longhorns 32 percent three-point success rate ranked 331st.
This isn’t to imply that Hepa’s offensive upside will force him into the fire throughout his freshman season, though.
With the Texas starting frontcourt seemingly set with hyper-athletic sophomore Jericho Sims running alongside the senior Osetkowski, Hepa appears in line for a role as the first big off the bench, in which he’ll occupy the court for something in the vicinity of 22-25 minutes per game. Throughout those spans, even if he’s the more polished paint presence alongside Sims, Hepa will be surrounded by various capable guards in Matt Coleman and Kerwin Roach II, who combined for 26.8 points per 40 minutes last season, transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long, Jase Febres (if he can find his shooting touch), top-ranked 2018 signee Courtney Ramey, and potentially Andrew Jones.
Simply put, Hepa is more than capable offensively and will be expected to contribute efficiently within his role, but seldom, if ever, will Hepa be among the top two or even top three scoring options on the floor as a freshman.
Flip the floor and Hepa’s defense is also quite literally worth writing home about, as Rivals’ Corey Evans did during the Team USA U18 trials.
“During the early sessions in Colorado Springs, Hepa has already shown the ability to properly hard hedge a ball screen, use his recently added strength to defend in the post, and also slide his feet on the perimeter contain,” Evans said. Furthermore, unlike what Smart and the ‘Horns have enjoyed in recent seasons with Bamba and Jarrett Allen, Hepa doesn’t provide elite length, but he does have enough to impact the game defensively, as he did to the tune of 6.2 blocks per game last season.
Bearing in mind that Texas returns four starters and is set to slide Sims into Bamba’s place in the paint after the bouncy forward averaged 10.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman, Hepa will soon walk into a fairly ideal situation. He’ll come off the bench and enjoy the offensive freedom that his polished skill set garners, but he’ll often be surrounded by several more experienced offensive weapons, which will allow the four-star signee to transition to the next level more naturally than someone like Quentin Grimes may be able to do at Kansas as he’s thrust into the limelight from day one.
Ideally, Smart would hope Hepa finds comfort at the college level in time for Big 12 play when the rotation tightens, but as he told Horns247, Smart’s excited about what the Alaska native will brings to the table once he finally arrives in Austin, more than 4,000 miles south of where his journey the reach this point began.
“I’m as excited about Kamaka as just about anyone that we’ve signed,” Smart said.