AUBURN, Ala. — In his 16 years at Sacred Heart High School, athletic director and head basketball coach Jonathan Carroll has never seen a player with the star power of Mustapha Heron.
It started early. When as an eighth grader Heron dared to play Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul one-on-one at a clinic in New York — and held his own — a different level of celebrity was to be expected.
For the next few years fans lined up to take a selfie with Heron or request his autograph. Winding lines stretching 30 people deep often formed outside the back door of gyms.
Even now, as Bruce Pearl’s team faces off against Oklahoma and UConn in Connecticut this week, many who watched Heron become a top high school recruit will board busses and head to see the first 5-star in Auburn history play again.
These games, along with the Tigers’ first-ever game in Madison Square Garden (Dec. 12 vs. Boston College), have been circled on calendars for more than a year.
“Obviously we love it when we get to see the kids that come out of Sacred Heart on television playing,” Carroll said. “But to see them play live is even better. Not just the school, but the community in general is very, very excited.”
The anticipation to see Heron in action has only built through Auburn’s first 10 games.
Heron, who scored more than 2,000 points in his three year career at Sacred Heart, has helped lead the Tigers to one of the best starts in recent history (8-2). He’s rotated with redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy (16.5 points per game) as the team’s leading scorer with 16.1 points per game (and a team-best 6.2 rebounds).
He’s continued building his reputation as a complete player. During Sunday’s win over Mercer, the 6-foot-5 guard led the Tigers in scoring with 21 points.
More importantly, he had two key assists. The first was a potentially game-winning drop off to 5-star center Austin Wiley in the final 30 seconds of the game. Then, with just 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock, Heron found senior guard TJ Dunans, who nailed the buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Bruce Pearl continues to give Heron free reign. In fact, the only thing the head coach doesn’t want is for the true freshman to put too much pressure on himself to shine in front of family and friends.
“I want Mustapha to be aggressive. I want him to score,” Pearl said. “I want him to make plays defensively and rebound because his strength is he has a complete game. So, I don’t want to get him to back down from being aggressive. At the same time I don’t want him to worry about being defined by his numbers, his shots. He can have tremendous impact on the floor being aggressive because there are some nights he’s going to put up some numbers and some nights he’s not and just because he’s going back home, you can’t worry about that stuff.”
Still, Heron will do his best to put on a show. And those who know him best from watching him play over the years know what to expect.
“He’s always had the ability to get to the hole,” Carroll said. “Whether it was here in league or watching him play on the AAU circuit, he’s always had the ability to get to the rack, regardless of competition. I love watching his stat lines. He’s always 5-for-8, 7-for-12 from the floor, which means he’s being very, very efficient with it.”
Despite his recent collegiate success, fans will encounter the same humble, soft-spoken person who started a skills academy and reading program for kids in his community.
The only thing that will make the trip home even better will be building Auburn’s postseason resume with wins over the Sooners and the Huskies.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s sure to be a memorable week for Heron.
“It means the world to me knowing that there’s just support from back home and everybody is still tuned in,” Heron said. “A lot of people still talk to me about every game and people watch every game back at home. People are getting the SEC Network, paying for it out of their pockets, just to watch me play. That means a lot. I’m very excited for people back home to see me play a college game.”