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HONOLULU — The thought had been sitting in the background of his mind for a while, but former ‘Iolani guard Aaron Hunkin-Claytor could not hold it off any longer.
“I’m so ready to get back home and play,” he shared via message on an early morning back on January 26.
After two years away from the islands, a commitment to the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and a phenomenal senior regular season at Salesian Preparatory College in California that saw his team honored as the top-ranked high school program in Northern California after a 25-1 regular season, Hunkin-Claytor allowed himself to think about the future for a moment.
“I just miss playing in front of the people in Hawai’i and the atmosphere [inside SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center]. I love high school, but I am just really excited to play for the home team and for the ‘Bows,” he said to his circle.
The 6-foot-3 point guard grew up in Hawai’i, spending nearly his entire life on the island of O’ahu with stops in Laie and Wahiawā after being born in Virginia. Hunkin-Claytor, the son of former University of Hawai’i-Hilo standout Mario Claytor, enjoyed a successful two seasons with ‘Iolani on the way to being named as a part of Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Fab 15 list before taking his talents to Richmond, California and the mainland to play for veteran head coach Bill Mellis at Salesian where his game could be developed even further.
“Basketball-wise, [I have been] able to learn a lot more about being a true point guard from [Coach Mellis],” Hunkin-Claytor said explaining his move to the mainland. “Plus, colleges were able to come watch us practice during open periods easier at Salesian than in Hawai’i.”
The move served its exact purpose, helping the guard improve in all facets of the game while receiving enough exposure to collect up 13 Division 1 scholarship offers while being rated as a three-star prospect and the top point guard in Northern California’s 2024 class (via Prep Hoops.com). As one of the more underrated guards in the country, Hunkin-Claytor has continued to rack up recognition and praise from anyone watching him play.
For example, the head man of the program that Hunkin-Claytor plays for has been effusive with his praise of his senior guard. Salesian coach Bill Mellis has seen many elite, Division 1-caliber guards come through the school and play for him — including University of Hawai’i senior guard and captain JoVon McClanahan — and yet he couldn’t pick out any that were definitively better players than the all-around efficient Hunkin-Claytor.
“[I think] he’s just as good as any [Salesian point guard I’ve coached] to be honest,” the 26th-year head coach said in a phone interview. “Different, but just as good.”
Both Hunkin-Claytor and Mellis describe the guard’s game as “pass-first” with an emphasis on ball security as the three-star guard has posted better than a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio against an excellent slate of teams during his senior season.
Hunkin-Claytor has always had a natural feel for the game — he fits all the clichés that are said about old-school point guards with a maturity beyond his years both on and off the floor. An extra coach on the hardwood, a pass-first, unselfish player with a mindset that has been shared and reflected from the moment he stepped into a uniform for The Pride.
“He came in last year and his unselfishness was infectious,” Mellis recalled. “[This year’s Salesian team] is a group who doesn’t care who scores and that all started with Aaron setting the tone from the moment he got here.”
Despite an affinity for passing, do not doubt the fact he can add in the scoring department himself at all three levels. Hunkin-Claytor is a right-handed shooter with quality shot mechanics and a comfort finishing with his left hand as much as his right that helps him do damage in transition with his creativity.
For those who know the young man, it was easy to see this rise coming. He is as hard a worker as they come.
The son of a military dad who was inspired by his father to pursue basketball, Hunkin-Claytor is the first one to practice every day – regardless of time – while maintaining excellence in the classroom. In Hunkin-Claytor’s time at Salesian, Mellis said that he had never once had to worry about his point guard taking care of business in school. According to Hunkin-Claytor, ‘Iolani’s regimen is to thank for preparing him well ahead of time for what he would see.
“I found that in the classroom, ‘Iolani prepared me very well,” the senior said of his time at the ILH institution. “Salesian is a very good school academically, but I don’t think a lot of schools can top ‘Iolani’s academics.”
Alongside the school workload, the scheduling of the basketball program at Salesian resembles that of a collegiate student-athlete. After his commitment to UH back on September 16, Hunkin-Claytor felt a weight off of his shoulders knowing his next step was set and could focus all his energy on his development and winning.
Win, he absolutely has.
Since the move to Salesian, Hunkin-Claytor has two seasons of 20+ wins and 9 total losses in that time. Overall, he is a winner who has not been too focused on stats while his team blows out a good portion of the schedule – he’s averaging a very balanced 8.2 points, 4.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest on a squad without a “go-to scorer” identified and only half a game’s worth of minutes at a time.
His goals do not stop with the regular season. With conference playoffs underway, Hunkin-Claytor’s Salesian team has eyes on sectionals and state titles. The Pride is the favorite to represent Northern California in the state tournament.
That should excite Hawai’i men’s basketball fans, too. Hunkin-Claytor gives off every inclination that he fits perfectly with a program that has not finished under .500 in a full season of conference play since Eran Ganot took over but has struggled to win the Big West Tournament. In Hunkin-Claytor, the program adds a winner who is not satisfied with just regular season success.
The high school senior has expressed plenty of excitement about joining the program that fits his mindset, too. Despite 13 total offers that included a pair of UH’s Big West foes in UC Davis and Cal Poly, Hawai’i always felt like home no matter where else he gave a chance to. The only question left was the connection to the coaches and team.
“The team itself, the [high pick-and-roll] offense, the coaches and the community,” Hunkin-Claytor listed off when asked what pushed the ‘Bows over the top for him. “Really everything felt like a perfect fit to me.”
Thank you coach Ganot and staff for this great opportunity to be a part of the UH Ohana. @EranGanot @coachmellis @Unit1HoopSource @bigrio30 @LiainaC @12brecht @c_shimabuku @PupulePaul @BoysCALiveHoops @wrightsbball @PrepHoopsNorCal @westcoastpreps_ @sfrebels @JalenGreenElite pic.twitter.com/2ZlE4x7inP— Aaron Hunkin-Claytor 🇦🇸 (@HunkinClaytor) September 17, 2023
The excitement for Hunkin-Claytor only grew more after Southern California high school product AJ Economou announced his commitment to the islands, leading to dreams of a high-flying, hot-shooting fast backcourt pairing between the two California prep school additions. Economou enrolled early at UH and has been seen on the bench with the Rainbow Warriors, although he will not play this season.
“I’m ready to play with everyone on the team [but] I’m really ready to play with [Economou],” Hunkin-Claytor admitted. “We haven’t been able to play with or against each other, but I’ve watched his film and love his game. He’s an athletic, tall wing that can flat-out shoot and I think in transition it’s going to be fun to play with him.”
Asked what makes Economou a “high-flyer” via text, Hunkin-Claytor responded with a video of his future UH teammate and simply said: “He has one of the best in-game dunk highlights in AAU history.”
While he has tons of enthusiasm for returning home, he understands that the work has only just begun. He has confidence in his jumper, handle and court-vision while being a bulldog defensively – he leads the Pride in charges drawn/taken this season – but also needs to add strength to his skinny frame as he steps up a level. His head coach cautions that there is still plenty of room to grow for AHC but also expects his floor general to compete for time from Day 1 on Hawai’i’s campus.
“He makes his teammates better,” Mellis continued. “He’ll need to get stronger, add more arc and consistency, but that’s every player. His court-vision is about as good as anyone.”
He draws inspiration for his game from all-time greats like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, a pair of do-it-all point guards who had an affinity for passing the ball more than scoring it. A pair of guards that slowly developed a more consistent three-point jumper as their careers progressed.
“Magic was a big guard that always made the game look fun but protected the ball from smaller guards while [Kidd] was a very strong guard who was an absolute floor general as well. They’re two guys I try to take the most from,” Hunkin-Claytor mentioned.
Overall, the Hawai’i commit comes back home to the islands as a better player and leader than when he left. The exciting part of his return is the ceiling hasn’t been set for him – like a fine wine, Hunkin-Claytor is only getting better with time.
“I’m really excited to play for and in front of the people,” Hunkin-Claytor exclaimed. “I can’t wait to be home!”
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