JP Estrella stands outside the South Portland High gymnasium before a basketball practice last week. The 6-foot-10 junior has received athletic scholarship offers from Syracuse University, Providence College and the University of Tennessee. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Two years ago, Joseph “JP” Estrella was a 6-foot-4 freshman getting most of his playing time on the junior varsity basketball team at Scarborough High.

Now Estrella is a junior who stands over 6-10. He is starting his second season at South Portland High, having switched schools after his freshman year to find a better fit socially and academically.

And he is way beyond JV status.

In recent months, he has received NCAA Division I athletic scholarship offers from Syracuse, Providence College and the University of Tennessee. Harvard also wants him.

But to the casual high school basketball fan in Maine, JP Estrella is still something of an unknown – or at least unseen – commodity. High school gyms were closed to spectators last season because of the pandemic. Even if someone was able to sneak a peak of him last season, Estrella has grown another 2-3 inches since then. He has ramped up his conditioning and skills training, and gained immeasurable confidence from a successful summer and fall club basketball schedule.

“I want to show (people) I’m a big guy who can also do a lot of things that they don’t see much out of big guys,” Estrella said. “A big tall guy who can really shoot the rock, that can (dunk) on someone’s head. And being as skilled as I can, and getting as many rebounds a game as I can, to show how offensively active I am and how aggressive I am. I just want to show everyone everything I’ve got.”

For high school basketball players in Maine, particularly boys, getting Division I offers from major college programs the caliber of Syracuse is rare. Earlier this year, Dom Campbell of Scarborough, a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, earned distinction as the most coveted boys’ player from Maine since Deering standout Nik Caner-Medley in the early 2000s. Campbell received offers from schools in all of the Power Five conferences including Stanford, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame, ultimately choosing to attend Notre Dame.

JP Estrella goes up for a dunk during basketball practice at South Portland High last week. Estrella has grown from 6-foot-4 as a freshman two years ago to at least 6-10 today. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The scholarship offers Estrella has received were confirmed by his club basketball coaches in Maine and Massachusetts.

Estrella gets his height from his mother, who is 6-foot-4. Allie (Booth) Estrella led Kennebunk to the 1993 Class B championship as a sophomore, and was named Miss Maine Basketball in 1995. She played at Boston College from 1995-98.

SIGHTS ON A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

When the high school season begins on Friday, Estrella will be surrounded by strong players, including returning starters in junior point guard Jaelen Jackson and 6-foot-4 senior small forward Owen Maloney. Jackson and Maloney both played significant minutes in 2019-20 when South Portland went 20-1, losing in overtime to Thornton Academy in the Class AA South final.

“I think everyone knows our goal is to be the last team standing and win that Gold Ball (awarded to the state champion),” Maloney said. “Obviously JP is a huge advantage for us, both on offense and defense. Not only is he going to be a big factor scoring the ball on offense but that’s only going to open up more room to score for other guys.”

Two years ago, the last basketball season with postseason playoffs, the South Portland boys’ team compiled a 20-1 record and advanced to the Class AA South final. Now they’ve added 6-foot-10 JP Estrella to their lineup. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jackson has played club basketball with Estrella since they were fifth graders.

“His skill has skyrocketed, plus the height,” Jackson said. “Because we’ve been playing together for so long, you’ll see alley-oops and behind the backs. He’ll be dunking the ball. He can shoot. He can drive and rip and get into the paint and he also has a plethora of post moves.”

No wonder there is buzz around the team. South Portland hosted its annual Yankee Ford Tip Off preseason tournament over the weekend. Saturday night’s session was sold out in advance in anticipation of South Portland playing Nokomis High of Newport. Nokomis features 6-foot-7 freshmen Cooper Flagg, who is ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation among Class of 2025 recruits by Coast 2 Coast Preps. Flagg is featured in a bundle of YouTube highlights showing his ball-handling, 3-point shooting and forceful dunks.

No such fuss was made of Estrella when he was a freshman.

“At that point, he was still growing and, if you said his name, a few people would know who he was,” said Abi Davids, coach of the Saco-based XL Thunder. “But JP and basketball phenom? You wouldn’t have talked about those two things together.”

Estrella began to flourish when he started training regularly with Davids and joined the Thunder program.

“One of the things we instilled was sprinting and working hard every minute. You have to do it with urgency,” Davids said. “And the kid outworks everybody now. For me, that’s what makes him special. He works harder than everybody but his skill set is unbelievable.”

Estrella’s wingspan is nearly 7 feet. He has good jumping ability, is a strong passer and has become a good shooter from distance. He said an area that still needs improvement is his ball handling and that is a point of constant emphasis.

His skills were noticed for the first time at a national level at Syracuse University’s one-day Elite camp in August. Estrella got an invite to the camp when he impressed Syracuse associate head coach Adrian Autry while playing for the XL Thunder at a tournament in Albany, New York. Autry’s son played against the Thunder.

“That was all about being in the right place at the right time,” said Allie Estrella.

Among the players at the Syracuse camp was D.J. Wagner, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023.

Allie Estrella was there that day to watch her son. “All these nationally ranked kids are there,” she said, “and here’s this no-name, two-star kid from Maine. And he balled out.”

SCHOLARSHIP OFFER ON THE SPOT

JP Estrella said that when the camp day ended he and his parents sought Autry out to thank him for the invite. Autry asked them to stick around. After several minutes, with Autry having left the area, Estrella said he and his mom were ready to leave. But his dad, Mark Estrella, suggested they should wait a few more minutes.

“My dad said he thought they were going to offer me (a scholarship). I was like, ‘I don’t know about that,'” JP said. “And then (Syracuse head coach Jim) Boeheim walked up and said, we’re going to offer you because you’re a really skilled player and we’d love to have you,” Estrella said. “I was just like, mind blown, like ‘Wow.'”

Estrella’s first scholarship offer came directly from a Basketball Hall of Fame coach with nearly 1,000 wins and 34 NCAA tournament appearances. A tweet shows Estrella with his arm around a smiling Boeheim after getting the offer.

“Right? For Syracuse to be your first one? I thought it was nuts,” Estrella said.

College coaches cannot comment on recruits or the recruiting process until they have signed national letters of intent. Estrella will be eligible to sign in November 2022, during his senior year. But he can make a verbal commitment at any time. He admitted it was tempting to say yes to Boeheim’s offer on the spot.

“But I had to hold back from it because this is just the beginning of the process,” Estrella said.

While he still trains regularly with Davids at the XL Sportsworld facility, Estrella joined the Middlesex (Massachusetts) Magic club team over the summer. The Magic is one of New England’s premier clubs.

Estrella is currently ranked No. 10 on New England Recruiting Report’s region-wide Class of 2023 list, and first in Maine. He is the highest-ranked public school player on the NERR list. He has yet to crack national recruiting lists, but Magic Coach Michael Crotty said the coaches who do the actual recruiting are well aware of Estrella.

Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame and Marquette are among the other elite college programs that are “excited,” to see Estrella play, Crotty said. “And the attention from Kansas and Duke assistant coaches is very real.”

“His work ethic is fantastic. He’s the most athletically talented guy of that size that I’ve had in our program,” Crotty said. “His motor is incredible. He is just a great athlete. Great feet. Great hands. His mobility and his passing and his understanding of the game, they’re off the charts.

“He’s a monster in transition and dunks everything way above the rim but he’s a terrific shooter,” Crotty added.

Crotty coached current NBA players Patrick Connaughton of the Milwaukee Bucks and Duncan Robinson of the Miami Heat, who played college ball at Notre Dame and Michigan, respectively. Last month, seven Middlesex Magic players signed Division I letters of intent, including Campbell with Notre Dame and Brady Cummins of York with Colgate.

JP Estrella is guarded by a teammate during a basketball practice at South Portland High last week. The Maine high school basketball season begins on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think JP is going to be as highly recruited a prospect as we’ve ever had,” Crotty said. “He has all the things to take his game as high as anyone could take it in my opinion. With his work ethic, and his personality, and his skill, I would not put a limit on where this kid could play. I really think he has all the tools to play basketball for a long time.”

But for the next few months, Estrella’s focus and attention will be with his South Portland teammates coached by Kevin Millington.

Allie Estrella says her son has benefited from having multiple talented coaches and mentors, including Millington.

“He has a lot of good voices in his head and Millie is another great influence,” she said

For his part, Millington has to laugh about his reaction when he first heard Estrella was thinking about transferring to South Portland.

“I was hearing from friends, ‘you might be getting JP.’ And I’m saying, ‘Who’s JP?'” Millington said. “I mean, maybe it’s my own fault, but I wasn’t scouting JV and freshmen games.”

Millington knows what he has now. A big, talented player with a strong desire to be successful.

“I want to win the Gold Ball this year, that’s my big goal,” Estrella said. “We have a really talented group this year … a skilled, strong team in general. I believe if we put in the work, which we have been, then I believe we could end up winning this whole thing. And that’s also my personal goal, to do as much as I can to help this team win the gold ball.”


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