I remember being a junior in high school when someone pointed me towards the direction of a basketball skills-training clinic up in Northern Virginia. As a 16-year old, basketball had become my greatest passion and I would do anything to improve as a player, even if it meant taking a drive up I-95. After my first day partaking in that skills-training, I knew I had to make sure it wasn’t my last. Through my last years of high school and college career, I frequently made the trip up to Manassas, VA, where the sessions happened daily. Consequently, my skills heavily increased. Now, as a retired player, it’s pretty ironic to be featuring the man behind the workouts: Darius Wilson.
Wilson is the CEO of ‘Higher Level Academy.’ While I’ve talked about its skill workouts, the grassroots organization is primarily AAU-based. The program contains teams that range in age from 10-17u. When AAU is not occurring, Wilson, along with others, train on a daily basis. Trainees are not limited to the AAU players, however. A plethora of collegiate and professional players have trained with Wilson, as well as other high school players, both local and non-local. Looking back on the emergence of ‘Higher Level’, Wilson acknowledges how things have truly come into fruition.
“We officially started the program back in 2008,” he explained. “That was the year of our first AAU team. Time flies.”
A former basketball player back during his own upbringing, Wilson developed an idea of establishing a program that would combine his passions for both the game and helping others.
“It all stemmed from where I grew up. I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia near a pretty tough neighborhood. However, there were guys who always volunteered their time in our local community center. They taught us basketball as mentors and kept us active… kept us out of trouble. So, I always knew I wanted to be in some form of mentoring children, and basketball was a bridge that allowed me to work with kids and teach them different things.”
Even though the ‘Higher Level’ program had an initial aim towards youth basketball, Wilson saw his organization branch out to older players as well. His list of past members within the organization stands as quite impressive.
“We’ve had some great guys come through the program. Not just as players, but as people too. Great guys. Some notable ones include:
- Micah Parker and Corey Bonds: Two current assistant coaches within the organization who played at North Greenville University and Hood College, respectively.
- Stephen Brown, Jr: A four-year standout at Bucknell University who is now signed to play professionally in Italy.
- Jordan Gibson: Currently playing at Presbyterian College.
- Chidozie Omile: Former player at Alabama State University.”
Those who know Wilson well should be quick to point out his drive. His daily schedule is an exhausting one. Nevertheless, he cherishes every day; it isn’t really “work” for him.
“The summer time is always the busiest for me and honestly the time I look forward to the most. During those months, I typically train about eight hours a day. Usually start around 5am with individual players and then have a group session at 8am. We usually come back later in the day around 4:30pm, sometimes 6pm. In the fall, we also aim to do sessions before school. So, anywhere between 5-7 hours a day I’m always running training sessions.”
In addition to his training, Wilson also coaches the ‘Higher Level’ 17u team. This past season was his third year as head coach.
“The summer was another beneficial one for our oldest AAU team. I was definitely proud of all eleven of our guys. Some of the team’s primary standouts included:
- Cameron Timmons ’19: A 6’10 post player for Highland School (Warrenton, VA). Great touch and footwork.
- Trey Barber ’19: A forward from Christ Chapel Academy (Woodbridge, VA) who collected both a first team all-state selection for VISAA Division 3 and state championship win last season. Really jumped off the page this summer and now has interest from D1s and D2s.
- Mike Joiner ’19: 6’3 point guard for Hayfield Secondary School (Alexandria, VA). Very hard-nosed guard who progressed rapidly throughout the summer, especially in his shooting.
- Alex Fitch ’19: A mid-season addition to the team who came on as a ‘lights out’ shooter. Averaged around three 3PM in tournament games. Attends Rock Ridge High School (Ashburn, VA).”
Even with his talented group, Wilson knew that the summer of recruitment would not come with promises to always have college coaches at games. ‘Higher Level’ competes as a non-circuit team. Some may find that as a significant disadvantage to the young players’ dreams of attracting college interest. However, Wilson planned ahead to ensure he would do the most for his team.
“One way we try to help our guys is by attending events that are open to us where we know there will be college coaches in attendance. That helps us with exposure. Another thing that we do is reach out as much as possible to colleges in the area, as well as out of state, where our guys fit the curriculum academically and athletically. So, what we can’t make it up in travel and circuit, we try to make it up in phone calls. If that makes sense.”
Before solely dedicating his time to the ‘Higher Level’ program, Wilson also used to have a role of his own in the college basketball world. He was an assistant coach for the men’s team at Bowie State University from 2011-14; the Bulldogs were crowned CIAA champions in 2013. His coaching pedigree serves as an advantage when emphasizing certain strategies for his players/trainees.
“The number one thing that I try to implement is film study. During my time at Bowie State, I spent a lot of hours watching film and learning different players’ tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, where they score from, etc. Just how to apply their training to the games. So, film study is a big one. Secondly, I would say I focus on overall game intensity. In college, every possession and rep counts. I try to get my guys to understand how there’s no wasted moments or actions. Always take advantage of every second that you’re on the floor.”
Wilson’s knowledge and emphasis has proven successful. A noteworthy amount of his trainees have either gone on to play collegiately or currently hold offers/interest. His program has grown tremendously ever since it started an entire decade ago. Moving forward, the CEO has goals of his own for ‘Higher Level’ to keep progressing.
“We normally put a lot of weight on our 17u team because they’re the oldest group inspired to play at the next level. But, one of the seeds we’ve been able to plant over the last 2-3 years is strengthening our younger age groups. This upcoming year we’ll have strong fifth grade, two eighth grade, two ninth grade, and two tenth grade teams. We’re trying to fill that gap in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade groups and continue to strengthen them younger. A major key.”
Oh, and, even though ‘Higher Level’ is home to Northern Virginia, would Wilson ever consider expanding?
“Absolutely. I’ve talked to some guys about going into the Southern parts of the state. Areas like Richmond and the 757. We’ve even discussed possibly Maryland and North Carolina as well. So, yes, there’s some interest in expanding, no question. But, at the moment, since we are Northern, Virginia-based, our number one goal is to… I guess you could say, attract the players at the level we’re supposed to attract. This past AAU season was the first that we had a player come down from Maryland. Regardless, we’d definitely be interested in expanding the program.”
The ‘Higher Level” program did a lot for me during my playing days. With Wilson at the forefront, expect the organization to keep making noise!