Discovery’s external rise as a high school in less than two years, from office building to innovative learning center, grabs the attention of anyone who passes by on Old Norcross Road in Lawrenceville. Not many of those drivers are aware of what happens behind those brick walls — the lives changing for the better and the unique students enrolled there.
Jaden Stanley is one of the most unique, and not just because he’s the Titans’ first NCAA Division I college signee.
What it took to earn a spot in the Air Force Falcons men’s basketball recruiting class is inspiring, particularly for a young high school just finding its way in Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs.
Before his junior year of high school, Stanley spent his entire life in Montana with his mother, Lynette Stanley, a member of the Chippewa-Cree tribe living on the Rocky’s Boys Indian Reservation near the Canadian border. He grew up in Great Falls, a city just to the southwest of the reservation, when his mother moved, while his father, Lairent Williams, served in the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s really different up there from (metro Atlanta),” Stanley said. “We would hunt, fish, all that. We didn’t have a big city to go in to. It was more outdoorsy.”
Stanley had big dreams that surrounded more an indoor passion, basketball. He played two high school seasons in Montana and wasn’t happy with his progression, athletically and in terms of basketball skill. The odds of reaching his goal — being a Division I basketball player — were slim. His best hope was likely a chance to play for an NAIA program.
With his family’s blessing, Stanley took a leap of faith for his junior year. His aunt lived in Gwinnett and his father moved here briefly after retiring from the Air Force, allowing the youngster to visit. He decided the only way to reach his goal was a move to Georgia, where his game could flourish and be showcased in front of many more college scouts.
He moved to Georgia in July 2015 to live with his father, and his mother followed two months later.
“It wasn’t my decision to move here,” Williams said. “It was Jaden’s decision. He did the homework to come here. My sister lived here and I just moved here for a little while. Jaden called me and said he wanted to move into Gwinnett County. I asked him what he knew about it and he told me everything I needed to know about the basketball program, the academics. He talked to his mom and told her he wanted to move. When he expressed to her how much he wanted this, she had no option but to let him go because this was Jaden’s dream. We’ve never held him back.”
Stanley, who sports a 3.92 GPA, enrolled at Discovery, a brand-new school that offered entrepreneurial and personal finance programs and a curriculum not seen before in Gwinnett and only in sparing doses across the state. He transitioned to a new state and new school with classmates who were also in a new place because they had just been redistricted from Berkmar, Central Gwinnett and Meadowcreek.
Discovery proved to be an ideal fit for Stanley academically and in basketball. He got in the best shape of his life and flourished with the Titans and in AAU basketball. Furman was the first school to recruit the 6-foot-5 1/2 guard/forward back in February, but many others followed. He ended up choosing Air Force over Belmont, Wofford, Boston University and Stetson, along with heavy interest from Ivy League programs and others.
“It wasn’t tough at all for me (to leave Montana), not at all,” Stanley said. “I knew I would be leaving my friends, but I knew in order to be successful, that’s what I had to do. … (People in Montana) are amazed because there’s not very many D-I recruits coming out of Montana. There’s only one D-I commit right now. I posted on Twitter (about Air Force) and my phone blew up with people texting I haven’t talked to in a few years saying congratulations. It makes me feel good that I’m making people back home proud. They just look at me and say, ‘You did it, Jaden. You left and a lot of people doubted you, but now you’re doing it.’
“(Montana’s) a place I think of highly. It’s my home. I think about it every day. One of the chips (on my shoulder) I have is it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can always succeed in what you do.”
The celebration of Stanley’s journey came last Thursday in the Discovery media center. In front of a big banner and his new Georgia friends, he was recognized for earning his spot in Division I basketball and for choosing an Air Force education valued at more than $400,000.
He follows his father’s footsteps in the Air Force — Williams, an Ohio native, served 24 years as a security force member then civil engineer — but both he and Stanley said that didn’t factor into the college decision. The day of Stanley’s signing celebration at Discovery, in a matter of coincidence, happened to be the three-year anniversary of his father’s military retirement.
“We encouraged Jaden a lot to shoot for the stars and be his best,” Williams said. “But he wanted it more than we wanted it for him. The transition since he’s been here has been tremendous. We saw him as a certain type of basketball player and he saw himself as something even better. He pushed himself to that.”
With his goal accomplished, Stanley can focus on his senior season at Discovery. Then comes another move, this one to Colorado for college. His mother plans to move there, too, to follow his career.
“The reason for our move was for this (signing) day,” Lynette Stanley said. “It’s been a long journey. By no means was it easy. It was very difficult. But he’s overcome all the adversity. … A D-I school was the goal. Raising Jaden has been a pleasure. We haven’t had any problems with him. He’s never been told to do his homework. He’s always been really driven, even as a little boy. When he puts his mind to something, he does it. He doesn’t retract. He just keeps pushing.”
Will Hammock can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Thursdays.