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Harrells Christian's Quate McKinzie drives against West Brunswick on the first day of the Cape Fear Academy Holiday Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Jason A. Frizzelle)

Sophomore Quate McKinzie had only been attending Harrells Christian for a few weeks when he took the court for his basketball debut last month. By then, coach Clayton Hall had already watched the 6-foot-7 forward throw down enough athletic dunks in practice to calibrate his expectations.

But even Hall was impressed when McKinzie leaped to snare a teammate's missed free throw and shoved it through the hoop in one motion, the indelible highlight of a 66-37 win over Kinston's Parrott Academy.

"That's just not something you see every day," Hall said.

Harrells Christian has been better known in recent years for its football. The Sampson County private school with a K-12 enrollment of just over 400 students has regularly contended for state independent school titles on the gridiron.

The Crusaders now are generating more buzz than ever on the hardwood this winter, thanks in large part to the addition of McKinzie, via transfer from Pender High School. The Burgaw resident has led the team to a 7-2 start, averaging 15.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game.

McKinzie, 16, continues to refine his striking athletic skills, but he has, perhaps, the loftiest ceiling of any local high school basketball prospect. His coaches have already received calls from Clemson, Virginia Tech, Penn State and Tennessee.

"It's just an awesome feeling having people coming out to watch and having fun," Hall said. "It's been fun. We're all having a good time."

McKinzie burst on the scene last year at Pender, averaging a double-double en route to team most valuable player honors. The forward was also named third-team All-Area.

In the offseason, McKinzie raised his recruiting profile playing with the CP3 All-Stars, an Greensboro-based AAU team sponsored by NBA star Chris Paul that has produced a steady stream of ACC-level talent.

Pender coach Gary Battle has been on the sidelines for three decades and ranks McKenzie among the most talented players he's ever worked with for his age. He said McKenzie's length and motor on the glass remind him of former UNCW star Keith Rendleman.

"He just loves the game," Battle said. "He's got a lot of confidence in himself. He's not afraid of anyone."

Battle expected to have McKinzie back in his Pender lineup before he transferred in October, about a week before tryouts began.

McKinzie's mother decided the private school, with an average class size of 15 students, provided a better fit academically. The Pender coach said there were no hard feelings and has stayed in touch.

The change came quickly, but McKinzie has embraced it. ("I didn't really know where it was," he said of his perception of the school prior to his first visit.)

McKinzie has a 30-minute car ride to school each day, which requires a 6 a.m. wakeup call. Otherwise, he says, the transition has been smooth.

On the court, McKinzie has the Crusaders poised for new heights.

Hall, a Harrells graduate, took over the team six years ago at age 22, and he's never worked with a roster this deep and talented. The team returned its top two scorers from last season and also added sophomores Marcus Scarborough (Wallace-Rose Hill) and Donta Chavious (Wilmington Christian).

"It's been tense at moments when you've got so much ability on the floor and people are fighting for minutes," Hall said. "It's only a 32-minute basketball game, and there's only five people you can play at a time."

McKinzie has emerged as a force at both ends. He flashed his potential over three days at the Cape Fear Academy Holiday Challenge earlier this month, where Harrells Christian went 2-1, recording a pair of double-doubles with several crowd-pleasing blocks. He also missed several dunks and started one contest on the bench because he was late to a morning practice before an afternoon game.

"Little things are what we're working on right now," Hall said. "Little things make big things happen."

West Brunswick coach Eric Davis found out how tough a matchup McKinzie can be when the teams met on Jan. 2. The veteran coach ordered two defenders on the forward for most of the game, and he still hit for 13 points and 11 rebounds. After West Brunswick's victory, Davis called him "a monster."

McKinzie might be his own harshest critic. He plays center with his AAU team but will need to improve his face-up game for college. He said he gets in the gym whenever he can to work on his shooting and ball-handling. The still-growing sophomore has plenty of time to get it right.

"He's going to be OK," Battle said. "If he gets everything in order, I think he's going to be able to pick where he wants to go (play in college) by the time he's done."

Eric Detweiler: 343-2261

On Twitter: @StarNewsVarsity