While the building of Willow Canyon’s boys basketball program has been bumpy at times, the synergy between third-year varsity player Sunday John and third-year head coach Joseph Colletti has only grown.
The new coach wanted to run and press like the teams he coached for the Liberty junior varsity. The player, still fairly new to the sports thrived in an up-tempo environment and enjoyed playing defense far more than most teens.
Now a senior, John is also the Wildcats’ leading scorer and a 39 percent three-point shooter. But Colletti said he is far more impressed by the growth John has made in ways that have nothing to do with a jump shot.
“Sunday’s leadership is maybe is maybe the greatest growth in leadership I’ve seen and I’ve been coaching 13 years,” Colletti said. “He’s able to help the younger players while still being demanding of them.”
John relates well to younger players in part because he is still somewhat new to the game and the lessons are fresh. He and his older brother Wenar grew up in Omaha, Neb. and moved to Surprise when Sunday was in fifth grade.
Sunday did not take up basketball until seventh grade, mostly playing soccer in his youth. Wenar helped get his younger brother on the court.
“He was the first one that picked up the game and I followed. I kept practicing and getting better every day,” Sunday John said.
While his brother played for the Dysart High School varsity in 2017-18, his senior year, Sunday said he knew from seventh grade on that he would attend Willow Canyon.
By that season Sunday John, then a sophomore, was on the Wildcats’ varsity. Yet he credits his year on the freshman team with laying the foundation.
“My freshman year was when I was beginning to understand the game of basketball and starting to have an IQ for it,” John said.
Late in that freshman year, his attitude drew notice from the new varsity coach.
“When we got to Willow, what stood out right away was that he’s a competitor. He’s overcome a lot off the court to get where he is and it is a credit to him,” Colletti said.
Those Wildcats were senior dominated but John provided sparks of brilliance off the bench with his defense and leaping ability.
He averaged 4.3 points, two rebounds and 1.3 steals in a reserve role.
“I felt like it was a pretty easy transition because I always knew I was built to play fast. Transitioning from a slower offense we had to execute to playing faster and running helped boost my game,” Sunday John said.
His star turn came late in that season, coinciding with Colletti’s return to Liberty for a league game in January 2018.
Entering that game he had one varsity game in double figures, and that was 10 points. John poured in 23 points in a 90-86 upset of the Lions in Peoria.
“I got shots up before the game, even the day before in practice and I felt like I belonged,” John said. “(That senior group) always mentored me, telling me to get in the gym and get extra shots up. They helped me with life and helped me become a better person.”
That spring and summer, work with the Factory Basketball club against top competition allowed for a leap before John’s junior year.
Colletti said he gained a better appreciation for John’s work ethic between year one and year two. Whether he is playing for Factory, at a local YMCA or in his backyard, John is putting in the work to improve almost very day.
“He’s been a student of his own game,” Colletti said.
By his junior year, John was a more than capable wing man for senior guard K.J. Patrick. He scored 12.1 points and grabbed 6.1 rebounds per game.
John also led this full-court pressing team with 3.6 steals per game in 2018-19. This year, he has improved to 4.5 steals a contest.
So it is no surprise that his favorite basketball moment was making his 168th steal and breaking the program career record on Dec. 17 against Ironwood.
“I focus on defense and I love playing defense,” John said.
Colletti admitted he is a bit biased on this subject.
However, he said John’s defensive skill is about more than raw numbers. And it stands out regardless of his team’s style of play or level of competition.
“I think he’s the best on-ball defender in 5A. He takes it as a personal challenge,” Colletti said. “When you look at him playing alongside a team with players at his skill level and athleticism, he stands out on defense. When he plays with younger players, he stands out on defense.”
Now John is a more complete offensive player, having bumped his three-point percentage from 33 to 39 despite taking as many treys in the first half of this season as all of last year. He is averaging 19.4 points and hitting 51 percent of his shots despite a much higher volume.
John said he wants to commit to a college team by April. Phoenix College offered him and several NCAA Division II and III schools have shown interest in the 6-3 guard. He said he wants to major in architecture or mechanical engineering.
Before college though, John would like to make a run at the school’s first play-in game. The team tarted the regular season 0-6 but played a brutal opening schedule and may have turned the corner by winning the consolation bracket of the Judy Dixon Classic at Greenway High School over winter break.
John said he is noticing the improvement of this team’s four sophomores and wishes he had one more year with this group.
“Last year I felt like I was a leader, but a quiet leader. This year, I’ve been mentoring the guys and helping them out on the court,” John said. “Older guys tend to gave a higher basketball IQ. These guys are really going to be good by their senior year.”
Willow Canyon was right around the .500 mark the last two seasons. Colletti would like to make a late run against a 5A Desert Valley Region that is wide open behind 5A title favorite Millennium.
The coach said that John, fellow senior starter Jayson Hayes and their classmates have already paved the road for the younger players.
“Sunday is the cream of the crop. You root for him in the classroom and in the community. All I hope is everything he wants out of life comes to him,” Colletti said. “(The seniors’) legacy is being cemented with these sophomores. You’re going to see a legacy left behind by those guys.”