It didn't take long for Garrett Ohara to realize Robert Cartwright was going to be something special on Flintridge Prep's basketball court.
The Rebels boys' basketball coach first saw Cartwright, who was first a student in his junior high math class, display his skills on the court about four years ago on a school trip when a group of kids started playing basketball during free time.
“I went, 'Oh my goodness, this kid is going to be special,'“ Ohara said of Cartwright, who was a seventh grader at the time. “There wasn't one particular thing, just the first time I saw him play basketball I saw he was advanced beyond his years.”
The 17-year-old Cartwright has certainly lived up to that statement. He made an immediate impact for the Rebels as a freshman, as the starting point guard for the CIF Southern Section Division V-AA champions in 2011. He averaged 11.6 points, 3.9 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game and earned second-team All-Prep League honors in the process.
“You don't see that,” Ohara said of Cartwright's role as a first-year varsity player. “We've had freshmen who play on varsity, a few who've started but none who've had the poise he did.”
Two years ago, Kenyatta Smith was at the center of Flintridge Prep basketball – literally and figuratively. The big man shouldered the biggest load for the Rebels in the championship run and logged 20 points, 14.7 rebounds and 4.8 blocks a game, which made life easy for Cartwright.
“His role freshman year because we had Kenyatta was more to just run the offense and get Kenyatta the ball,” Flintridge Prep senior shooting guard Jedrick Eugenio said.
Still, Cartwright was undeniably a key part to Prep's title. He had seven points in the title-clinching victory over Muir, 47-44, in 2011, including the final two points of the game on a layup off a rebound and outlet pass from Smith.
Smith's pass to Cartwright, which helped secure the program's first title, could also be seen as a passing of the torch or the reins to the team and its future onto the freshman.
“Considering that was our first championship, we all want another one,” Cartwright said. “We've tasted that feeling and we're chasing it again. It just makes us hungrier to try and top what we did that year.”
To do that, Cartwright has been asked to take on a bigger role in a Prep uniform each year.
As a sophomore, he reaped first- and second-team honors in the Prep League and division, respectively. Cartwright made up a dangerous backcourt duo last year alongside senior shooting guard Kory Hamane, who earned All-Prep League MVP and first-team division honors after averaging a team-high 15.2 points.
Although Cartwright gave way to Hamane in 2012, he still saw an increase in his scoring (14 points), assists (4.1), rebounds (2.8) and steals (2.5) averages.
“As a freshman, you just want to go out and play, you don't do too much. You let the seniors provide the leadership,” Cartwright said. “Sophomore year you take on a little bit more of a leadership role, you're the point guard and the coach on the floor. This year, definitely I try to take on a leadership role.”
Eugenio describes Cartwright as a “calm, level-headed leader” who helps direct the team emotionally in the locker room and on the court with his play.
“He is our offensive and more of our defensive leader this year,” Eugenio said. “It's a lot, but if there's anyone who can handle it, it's Robert.”
Cartwright is averaging career highs in points (17.4), assists (4.8), rebounds (3.9) and steals (4.5) 16 games into a season in which the Rebels have posted an 11-5, 4-0 in league record and are ranked No. 2 in their division.
Prep is currently staring up at a dominant Village Christian squad, which is looking to defend its CIF State Division V title this year, in the Division V-AA rankings. If the Rebels hope to win their second title in three years, they may have to go through the Crusaders.
“We don't really focus on it,” Ohara said, “but we certainly think it's something we have a shot at doing.”
While the Rebels have tasted postseason success recently, they’re also equally familiar with very disappointing endings.
Before Smith capped off his high school basketball career with a CIF crown, Prep hadn't lived up to its hype and promise in the playoffs in his career. The Rebels were bounced in the first round of the postseason in his freshman and junior years and fell in the second round in 2009.
Most recently, the Rebels fell victim in the first round again to Santa Clara, 55-48, after entering the postseason as the fifth seed.
“We've been ranked high before and not played that well in the playoffs,” Ohara said. “I think this group knows No. 2 doesn't guarantee you a spot in the semis or the finals, you've got to get it done on the court.”
There's plenty of promise this year for a Prep squad stacked with nine returning varsity players. It's a well-rounded, balanced team with plenty of chemistry. The Rebels have a strong post presence with center Kareem Ismail, a hustle player with Chadd Cosse, a knockdown shooter in Jedrick Eugenio, a skilled guard in Kyle Hamane and a deep bench to also help make the game come easier for Cartwright.
“We're really lucky to have the pieces we have,” Cartwright said. “Everything fits so well. Last year, it didn't always work so well, but this year we have all the right pieces and everyone is locked in and anyone can take over any given night. We have the pieces to do what we want to do.”
Cartwright's extensive resume hasn't been overlooked by college recruiters. He said he's received eight or nine scholarship offers already and has grown accustomed to playing in front of college recruiters after competing with his club team, LA Rockfish, in the high school offseason.
In Prep's 70-39 win over Rio Hondo Prep on Monday, four college representatives from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and the University of San Diego were in attendance.
“The basketball world knows about him,” Ohara said. “We don't have to do a lot of promoting on our own. I know he kind of flies under the radar with some people, but with the colleges the word is definitely out about him.”
Cartwright, who estimates his grade-point average is at a 3.4 or 3.5, has put the future and college decisions aside for now, choosing to focus on the present, as expectations are high once again for Flintridge Prep.
“I am still early in the process and I am not even thinking about it too much,” he said. “I am not going to think about the decision until November of December of next year.”
After all, Prep's star still has his youth.
“The comments I always hear from people are, 'He's just a freshman, he's only a 10th grader, he's only a junior,’” Ohara said. “He's got skills beyond his age.”
“He's only a junior and he has one more year to go,” Eugenio said. “The sky's the limit for him.”