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August 2, 2013Michael Cage Sr. remembers when he used to play one-on-one with his son and be able to win with ease.
But now that M.J. Cage is taller than his father and has developed into a fast-rising power forward prospect in the 2016 class, that isn't the case anymore.
"He has a real nice touch from the outside, which is tough for me to block," Cage Sr. said. "We play one-on-one and he'll sometimes stand out there and shoot three's. Then when I play up on him, he'll drive around and back me down and throw that little jump hook, which I can't block because he gets it up there really high.
"We have some mean one-on-one matches and I can't say Senior is getting the better of him."
Last week M.J. played with his Mater Dei squad in the 17U division of the Fab 48 in Las Vegas, alongside teammates and highly-touted recruits Stanley Johnson and Rex Pflueger, and against players older and stronger than himself. M.J. was playing on the grandest stage possible in AAU basketball, in front of iconic college coaches such as Kentucky's John Calipari, Duke's Coach K, San Diego State's Steve Fisher and Arizona's Sean Miller, far from the backyard basket where he and his father play one-on-one with no one watching.
And just like how he doesn't back down from his old man -- who was a 15-year NBA veteran -- M.J. played well going against the older competition.
The rising high school sophomore blocked shots at a high rate, finished his attempts down low, hit some face-up jumpers, pulled down rebounds and looked good running the floor. After the week was over he had picked up new offers from UCLA, Washington and Gonzaga.
"What you saw he had never done before so consistently, especially at that level and the pace of the game, because there was so much talent on that floor," Cage Sr. said. "I thought he held his own for the most part. He didn't back down from anybody and I just tell people that he only needs time and trial. Because he's got another three years of high school, and each year we try to add one or two things more that he can be dominant at."
Watching M.J. intently all week (and all summer) long were San Diego State coaches Steve Fisher, Brian Dutcher and Justin Hutson. The Aztecs were the first school to offer M.J. back in May, which excited Cage Sr., who enjoyed an illustrious career at SDSU in the early eighties and is currently the Aztecs' all-time rebounding leader and second leading scorer in school history.
"I thought San Diego State was extremely smart in going after MJ as early as they did because they saw the potential," Cage Sr. said. "I thought that they saw the vision with him, they recognized him as a really young freshman last year at Mater Dei. Steve (Fisher) and Justin (Hutson) both saw him play, and said wow. He's raw right now, but boy he's got potential. Then right at the start of the summer they offered and we were very honored that they were the first ones to offer because they saw that potential in him. And what people are seeing now is what San Diego State saw early.
"Of course getting an offer from UCLA was big as well and we just got one from Washington, so they're starting to come in. But it still doesn't change the fact that San Diego State got there first and recognized him first. It saturated in his mind that they believed in him early and saw his potential."
Although M.J. is just starting to get recruited by SDSU, he's already very familiar with the school and basketball program and knows the coaching staff very well. Cage Sr. would take him to home games at Viejas Arena growing up, and M.J. says he's been to the campus 10-15 times already.
"It's great," Cage Sr. said. "I've known Steve for a long time and Steve has known MJ since sixth grade when I used to take MJ down there to watch the games ... It's ironic that we're discussing my son now. Three or four short years later, this kid that used to come into the locker room after games is now 6-foot-10, and considered a top prospect in his 2016 class."
M.J.'s sister, Alexis, will be a freshman at SDSU this upcoming school year and earned a volleyball scholarship. Cage Sr. says the family has a trip planned in the upcoming weeks to go up and see her, and it will be a good opportunity to take M.J. around and show him the school in a different light, now that he's a sought-after basketball recruit.
"He and his sister are very close," Cage Sr. said. "I'd love to have him come up and watch her play, and at the same time see the school and watch the basketball team play. It's a win-win situation right now."
Much has changed with the San Diego State basketball program since Cage Sr.'s playing days back in the early 80's. The Aztecs have reached the NCAA Tournament four straight years and have put together eight consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins. Not to mention SDSU has been beating Pac-12 conference schools on the court (Aztecs have won 11 of their last 12 games against the Pac-12) and going head-to-head with the Pac-12 for the top recruits out west.
"They're re-writing all of the record books there, and all that starts with Steve Fisher," Cage Sr. said. "He's made alumni like myself very proud and very excited to have gone to San Diego State ... They're building their tradition right now and have been for some time now. We're starting to put guys into the NBA. We're going to probably get the next lottery pick here in the next three to four years. Kids are starting to see that San Diego State is competing with the Pac-12 schools. We have Pac-12 quality facilities, coaching staff and support from their students. It's easier to recruit kids to that type of program, they know who the Aztecs are.
"There's talk of Fisher retiring, but I think Dutcher is going to be a great successor to him. He's been with Fisher for a long time, he knows that system, so it'll just keep going. There are some great assistants; I know Justin Hutson really well and we've always had a relationship, even before my son became a prospect."
Despite his history with SDSU, Cage Sr. isn't pushing the Aztecs on M.J. and is open to every school that wants to offer his son, but will be looking at each and every program critically.
"I'm putting every school under the microscope, because in all fairness I want everyone to have a fair chance to recruit my son. We're going to consider the right program for him, and so far these schools have spoken up and have been the right programs for him: the San Diego State's, the UCLA's, the Washington's, they're all on the same level for me. They're all fantastic programs.
"Of course I'd like to see him go to San Diego State because that's where I went to school. But I also want us to make the right decision for him. Right now we don't have any preference because it's just so early in his recruitment."
M.J. might still have three years of high school left to develop and be recruited, but he already knows which type of program will fit his skill set the best.
"He wants to play fast," Cage Sr. said. "He wants to kick the ball out and he doesn't want to play this real slow-down game because he's not a slow-down player. He can do a lot of things and we just want to make sure that the school he considers has these things to offer."
The Cage family is in no rush to find a school for M.J., and in the meantime he'll be in the gym working on his skills.
"He's got three more years of high school, and he still doesn't know how good he is," Cage Sr. said. "I think that in a few years he'll be more polished and a little bit stronger. The doctors think he's going to be between 6'11 and 7'2, and his growth plates are still open."
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