The next Caitlin Clark? From West Texas, a high school star rises.

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HAMPTON, Va. — Aaliyah Chavez is planted in the corner of a large and crowded gymnasium, halfway through a shoe change when a new group appears. It’s another middle school travel team, this one from Florida. The younger girls eye Chavez from about 20 feet away, whispering among themselves as the high school basketball star quietly stuffs her gear into a backpack.

It’s a Friday afternoon in late April, the opening hours of a weekend-long basketball circus that arrives here in southern Virginia every spring. The Boo Williams Sportsplex plays host to the first of three major showcase events for the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, the top AAU girls’ basketball circuit in the country. Every year, this four-court gym is filled with players, parents and college coaches who have come to see and be seen.

Chavez and her team, CyFair Elite, have just wrapped up their second win of the event’s first day. When her shoes are on and her bag packed, the 5-foot-11 Chavez stands and makes eye contact with the group. She knows these girls have been watching her and she knows what they want. She gives them a quick nod — a silent and subtle invitation to approach. The girls scurry over, phones at the ready.

“That happens a lot now,” Chavez says later, a sheepish grin on her face. “Sometimes people just stare and I have to ask them if they want a picture. … It’s still a little surreal, but I’m getting used to it.”

Chavez, the nation’s top prospect in the Class of 2025, is a burgeoning basketball sensation. She scored 38 points per game last season for her local public school in Lubbock, Tex., earning state and national player of the year awards. Eventually, she will play college basketball anywhere she likes; her father, Sonny, says she has more than 100 scholarship offers.

On Instagram, where Chavez already has more than 50,000 followers, her game seems custom-fitted to a highlight reel — smooth handle, deep range and a dash of braggadocio. The comparisons are obvious and unavoidable. One video’s title gets right to the point:

“Is She the Next CAITLIN CLARK?” it reads.

The stat lines bear some resemblance: In this first weekend of the AAU season, Chavez will average 18 points and shoot 50 percent (19 of 38) from three-point range as her team goes undefeated in five games. Weeks later, in Houston, it’s 29 points per game and 46 percent from three as CyFair goes 5-0 again. This weekend, the third and final showcase of the summer will be held in Louisville.

But the similarities between the rising senior and any big name predecessor end outside of a box score. Chavez is an unlikely and singular superstar, a soft-spoken Mexican-American teen from West Texas who has only ever been trained by her father and almost never watches the sport that has already made her semi-famous. She is nobody’s heir.

“I don’t like being compared to anybody,” she said. “I don’t want to be the next anybody. I want to be the first Aaliyah Chavez.”

Out of nowhere

The next morning in Hampton, CyFair opens its Saturday doubleheader with a game against Cal Stars, a vaunted West Coast program that produced the WNBA’s Sabrina Ionescu and Cameron Brink, among others. The crowd grows as the teams warm up. In a cavernous space with four games being played simultaneously, this one draws most of the eyes.

Sonny Chavez stands at the end of the CyFair bench, observing layup lines with his arms crossed. He is not the coach, but this is where he spends every game, watching intently and occasionally providing feedback — both quiet and loud — to his daughter and her teammates.

Sonny is the main architect of Aaliyah’s career, her sole trainer since she first picked up a basketball. He has helped his daughter to this point with a distinct, throwback sensibility. His approach was on display in Hampton, especially in the minutes after a victory. More than once, after her team broke its postgame huddle, Aaliyah launched into a grueling set of burpees. Sonny has employed this system with his daughter for years: 10 burpees for every missed free throw and five for every missed defensive assignment. Poor body language can also add to the total.

“It’s about accountability,” Sonny said. “You get in a gym like this and everybody is telling her how good she is. My job is to humble her and keep her grounded and let her know that she didn’t do that good.”

Asked about the extracurricular workout, Chavez shrugs.

“Free throws are free,” she said. “I shouldn’t be missing them.”

She has come to embrace her father’s ethos, separating herself with an inherent coachability and insatiable work ethic. For years, Sonny and Aaliyah have spent at least three hours every weekday training; five hours on weekends. In time, Sonny started a private training business with Aaliyah front and center as the proof of concept.

“You have to separate the dad and daughter thing,” Sonny said. “As a dad you want to baby your princess, you want to tell her how great she is. But as a trainer you have to do the ugly stuff. A lot of dads can’t do that, but I’m okay with it. I’m only okay with it because I know she’s okay with it. And the moment that basketball comes in between our relationship, I’ll walk away.”

Their basketball success story is rare in Lubbock. Texas is known for its high school athletics, but not since Sheryl Swoopes rose to prominence in the late 1980s has West Texas produced such a heralded girls’ basketball prospect.

“No, West Texas is not known for hoops at all,” CyFair 17U Coach Tim Bush said. “They’re known for cows.”

Without a strong local scene, AAU basketball provided the measuring stick for Chavez’s development. She and Sonny would train for months in relative obscurity, waiting for the spring and a chance to see just how much her game had progressed. Time and again, she proved to be a step ahead of most girls her age.

Jason Key, a national talent evaluator based in Texas, first saw Chavez play in the sixth grade. He remembers having a conversation with Sonny afterward, toying with a hypothetical.

“‘Can a kid from West Texas be the best guard in Texas?’” Key wondered aloud. “That would be something.”

Chavez’s profile rose when she joined CyFair. The program, which pulls its athletes from across Texas and the southwest, has a long history of success. In the 17 years since ESPN started ranking girls’ prospects, Chavez is the third No. 1 prospect to play for CyFair, joining Chiney Ogwumike (2010) and Christyn Williams (2018).

But CyFair director Earl Allen still views Chavez as a rarity.

“To be honest with you, we don’t get very many Spanish kids that come out to play basketball for us,” Allen said. “Especially one that is that damn good.”

In the summer after her freshman year, playing up on the 17U team, Chavez helped CyFair win the Nike Nationals, the circuit’s championship event. She scored 18 points in the title game, finishing 7 for 10 from the field.

At that point, it was clear that Chavez was the top 2025 player in Texas. So it was time to move on to a new metric: Was she the best prospect in the country?

On the cusp

It doesn’t take long for Chavez to get going against Cal Stars. She hits her first three two minutes into the game and starts heating up from there. She hits two more on back-to-back possessions and a buzz starts to build in the crowd. By the end of the first quarter, she’s 5 for 5 from deep and her team leads.

Different people have different theories as to what makes the guard so good. Key says it’s her hand-eye coordination. In just about every game she plays, it’s clear that Chavez has a dizzying command of the ball. When asked what player his star reminds him of most, Allen says it’s Kyrie Irving.

“You can tell that hours and hours have been spent in the gym and with the basketball,” Key said. “Even informally, dribbling through a park or down the street. You can see it. She’s one of those kids that is one with the ball.”

Sonny says it’s the shooting stroke. That’s the key to everything. All those hours spent alone practicing her shot made other aspects of the game much easier: A double team can give her an easy assist; a pump fake can send her past any defender.

By halftime, Chavez has 26 points. In her third year playing on this, the biggest of AAU stages, she looks comfortable and loose. She orchestrates the CyFair offense, setting up teammates and scoring with remarkable efficiency. While many players here are focused on their individual performances in hopes of impressing one of the dozens of college coaches that populate the baseline, Chavez knows she has nothing left to prove. There are no more scholarship offers left to earn.

She got her first offer, from hometown Texas Tech, in the eighth grade. At first, Chavez would post to social media every time a new one was proffered. Eventually she stopped — it was too hard to keep up. In October, she cut her list down to 10 schools, hoping to streamline the process: Arizona, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Texas Tech, UCLA and USC.

“You’re talking about a face-of-the-franchise type player,” Key said of her potential at the next level. “Paige [Bueckers]. Caitlin. JuJu Watkins. She is that type of kid. She is on that level in terms of what she can bring to a school.”

In the modern college landscape, that kind of star potential gets money involved. To this point, Chavez has been sidelined from the complexities of name, image and likeness as Texas prohibits high school athletes from making deals. But that will change in college.

First and foremost, Chavez says she wants to find the right fit for her game: This past winter, she started watching women’s college basketball for the first time so she could study coaches and systems. But as they search for a college home, Chavez and her family know that the importance of her decision goes beyond basketball.

“Before NIL, I was working so hard just to get my kid free school,” Sonny said. “It was about ‘go get free school and change our generational curse of not getting to the next level.’ I didn’t finish college, my wife didn’t finish college. So change it. Go be the first one, and use basketball as the tool to do it. Now, with NIL it’s like, ‘Go change your life.’”

Outside of her abilities, Chavez carries the potential to grow the game as a trailblazing star in the Mexican-American community. As she has grown older and basketball has taken her away from Texas more often, she has come to recognize the significance of her heritage. On social media, her inbox is often full of messages from younger Hispanic players, asking for advice or telling her they’re following along.

“You don’t see a lot of people that look like me out here,” Chavez said. “I’m just trying to do it for the Mexican community and for any kids who may not think they can do this.”

By the second half of Saturday’s game, word has spread around the Boo Williams Sportsplex that Chavez is putting on a show. As other games finish, players and coaches from other teams join the throng of fans gathered to see the country’s top rising senior. CyFair pulls away in the third quarter, earning a 94-81 win. Chavez finishes with 37 points, five assists and five rebounds, making 9 of 13 shots from behind the arc.

Afterward, there are no burpees, just a happy postgame huddle with a large crowd of people hovering nearby. Among them is a small group of middle school girls, much like the one from Friday afternoon and the ones that will seek out Chavez for the foreseeable future. They linger quietly. Sonny sees them.

“Who do you guys want a picture with?” he asks them, already knowing the answer.

The girls point to Chavez. When Sonny tells them he is her dad, they gasp. This sparks an idea.

“Can you ask her?” one girl says.

Sonny calls for his daughter and she comes over, sweat still dripping and a smile on her face.

“Hey,” Sonny says to her. “These girls want a picture with Aaliyah Chavez.”

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