This summer, Malik Monk was a frequent flyer to the utmost. The Bentonville High junior estimates he spent in all seven or eight days at home between trips to Sacramento, Calif.; Dallas; Virginia (twice); Winston-Salem, N.C.; Minnesota; Chicago; Lexington, Ky.; New Jersey; Colorado and Las Vegas. And then, even after his plane had landed in most of the cities, Monk still wound up spending much of his time above ground.

Such is life for one of the world’s most explosive basketball players and Arkansas’ most desired recruit. Monk, who in September ranked as a consensus national Top 10 player in his class, has sparked interest like few other Arkansan prep players in history. He has scholarship offers from the likes of Arkansas, Kentucky, Kansas, Baylor, Memphis, Florida and North Carolina. In terms of raw athletic ability and aerial flair, he is the closest Arkansas has ever come to producing its own Michael Jordan.

Most of the gyms he will play in this winter will be packed. If things go as planned, look for former Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson to be among the crowd at Fayetteville High when the Tigers come to town. Richardson hasn’t yet seen Monk play in person, but said “I’ve seen a lot of tape on him. I’ve heard a lot of comments on how good he is. And I know who he is, I’ve met him.” Richardson, a Fayetteville resident, looks forward to the February 27 showdown – “if I can get in,” he added. “They pack them in when he plays.”

In a Bentonville-Fayetteville game last season, Monk hit a game winning three pointer from about 30 feet away and ended up on SportsCenter. Only three days before that, he’d also nailed a spectacular game winning three against Springdale to help Bentonville build toward to an eventual 18-5 regular season finish and a share of the 7A/6A-West conference title.

The acrobatic highlights are plenty. But for every facial dunk gone viral, every pull-up 25-foot dagger plunged, there has also been a lowlight. For instance, Monk has just fallen short of a state title the last two springs. And, for two straight summers, he’s been cut from a USA national basketball team in his age group. Not making the team “really just drives me to work harder every day,” he says.  

It’s these kind of failures, not a spectacular vertical jump, which now propel him to new heights.

Monk and the 2014-15 Bentonville High Tigers have clear-cut goals: Win their conference outright, then take the program’s first-ever 7A state title. Last season, they were close to the first goal, going undefeated in conference until losing their last two games to Springdale and Fayetteville. In the state playoffs, the Tigers beat Cabot before running into defending champion North Little Rock in the semifinals. North Little Rock was too quick, too talented and too deep for Bentonville to handle. Monk notched 30 points and nine rebounds, but North Little Rock’s Anton Beard and KeVaughn Allen led their team to a 77-64 win before beating Springdale for the title.

Only a few weeks after that loss, Monk and his Arkansas Wings Elite summer team flew to Sacramento for the first session of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League – a multi-city tournament including many of the nation’s top AAU teams. In one win, he set an EYBL record by notching 59 points, hitting 10 three pointers and 19 of 23 free throw attempts. Although only a shade over 6’3”, Monk was also forced to start guarding bigger, taller players than ever before. The Wings were shorter than most foes after their 6’11” center Skal Labissiere transferred to another program in April.

Monk said the highlight of his summer was the EYBL’s fifth and final session, the Peach Jam, against the creme de la creme of the nation’s summer team scene. “I just enjoy playing against the best players from each state,” he says. “They are good and they pushed me.”

Indeed. There, in North Augusta, S.C., in front of a group of college coaches including John Calipari, Monk dropped 40 points and served up a reverse pivot-spin-and-left-handed-dunk in the paint – over a defender – that drew thunderous applause. “When I get a big dunk, it causes me to go a little harder,” he says.

The Wings Elite ended up winning 11 of 16 EYBL games, but they did not advance past the pool stage of Peach Jam. Some of that fell on Monk’s streaking shooting. In the game before his 40-point outburst, for instance, he missed seven of eight three pointers. In five Peach Jam games, he shot 40% from the field and 24% from beyond the arc. Monk says his goal is to improve his accuracy through better shot selection and decision making.

In late July, Monk was one of 36 players trying out for the U17 national team that played in the U17 World Championship in Dubai in August. The year before, when trying out for the U16 team, Monk had been slightly injured but he was healthy this time around while vying against some of the top players in the Class of 2015 and 2016. Again, though, he was cut.

Monk isn’t sure why. His older brother, Marcus Monk, attended the tryout and said Malik shot “about average” and “played well and played hard.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t time for Malik to get feedback from USA Basketball coaches after their decision. “It’s all very fast-moving,” Marcus says. “When they announce who’s made the cut, you have about 15 minutes to go get your stuff and get on the bus and head to the airport.”

While that U.S. team did win Gold, Malik found a silver lining in staying home: he had extra time before school to unwind and rest – to do more normal 16-year-old-on-summer-break type things, whether that be sleeping in or catching up with Bentonville teammates like Tyler Robinson, Jordan Hemphill and Tyrik Dixon.

On a late August afternoon, Malik said he still spoke often with Dixon, although his former backcourt mate had just a week earlier transferred to Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock. He said Dixon’s transfer “just shocked” him, but wished him the best. Malik’s own cousin Jerry Perry would coincidentally be Dixon’s new teammate at Southwest Christian, Malik said while eating ranch barbecue wings (his favorite) at Buffalo Wild Wings in Bentonville.

At that time, Malik was looking forward to putting on weight (the good kind) during preseason training. While he’d been around 175 pounds since the previous winter, his goal was to add 15 pounds of muscle through the Bentonville High’s strength program. He was also focused on keeping his studies in order before the season got underway. Malik said he had around a 2.9 GPA last season and felt confident he would keep it out of any eligibility danger zones going forward.

This prep basketball season promises to be one of the most highly anticipated in state history and Bentonville will be right in the middle of it. There are, of course, rivalry games with other contenders like Fayetteville and Springdale. But a big one tips off right off the bat when national powerhouse Chaminade High (St. Louis) arrives at Bentonville High on November 29. Chaminade’s star, junior Jayson Tatum, is one of the few players in Monk’s class consistently outpacing him. Tatum, a 6’8” guard, made the national team and starred in the Gold medal game. In September, ESPN ranked him as the nation’s No. 3 junior ahead of Monk at No. 4. “He really can do everything, so it will be a good matchup,” says Monk, who has been playing against Tatum on the summer circuit since sixth grade.

While much of the buzz surrounds Monk vs. Tatum (and they will guard each other at times), Bentonville head coach Jason McMahan says Chaminade is “a really good team” overall after seeing them at a team camp in Kansas this summer. As for his own team, he saw signs they “could be special” even in pickup ball of late August. He said in order for Malik to improve from his sophomore season, he needs to sharpen his decision making and leadership: “For him not only to be great himself but to make his teammates great through his confidence.”

Expect an unprecedented number of fans, media and college coaches to watch Malik grow this season. Naturally, there’s intense interest in whether he’ll eventually play for Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson. Such a decision would likely provide a significant boost for the UA program in wins and attendance while making it a more attractive destination for even younger stars. Nolan Richardson believes Anderson signing Monk “would be great. You’ve got to try to close the fences off where you don’t let your better, your best, players in the state ever leave.”

But, as of September, Monk was not tipping his hand in any direction when it came to a college choice. He would take more visits, gather more information and weigh options. One of those possibilities – the University of Florida – will next year be the home of North Little Rock senior KeVaughn Allen.

The paths of Monk and Allen, the state’s two best players, keep intertwining. In winter, they’re foes, but during summers they find themselves on the same team, as they were during at the Nike Global Challenge tournament in August. There, Allen often visited Monk’s dorm room and they talked a lot about that last Bentonville-North Little Rock game, Monk recalls. There was some good-natured trash talk about what would happen if the state’s two powers clashed again in the state tourney. For Malik, the answer’s easy: “We got to win. We have to. It’s a must win.”

Written by: Evin Demirel