Elliot Cadeau was born in Brooklyn, but he has no memory of living in the borough. When he was 3 months old, his parents packed up their things, strapped him into his car seat and decamped to New Jersey.

Growing up in West Orange, Cadeau became a Jets fan. His mother, from Sweden, and his father, from Haiti, struggled to understand the popularity of American professional football, but they gave in to their son’s obsession – to a point. He was allowed to paint his bedroom in Jets green and white colors, but he was not allowed to play the sport. His mother thought it would be too dangerous. Instead, she suggested that her 7-year-old son try out for a basketball team.

Ten years later, Cadeau is a star at Bergen Catholic High School and one of the top 10 recruits for the Class of 2024. And he’s part of an elite group of New Jersey high school basketball players who could be part of the best talent contingent in the state. has ever produced.

In addition to Cadeau — the No. 7 player in the nation, according to recruiting website 247 Sports’ composite ranking — the sophomore class includes: No. 1 Naasir Cunningham (Overtime Elite), No. 33 Dylan Harper ( Don Bosco Prep) and No. 42 Tahaad Pettiford (Hudson Catholic). And juniors a year before Cadeau & Co. include: No. 1 Dajuan Wagner Jr., who goes through DJ (Camden High School), No. 3 Mackenzie Mgbako (Gill St. Bernard’s), No. 12 Simeon Wilcher (Roselle Catholic), No. 20 Aaron Bradshaw (Camden) and No. 48 Akil Watson (Roselle Catholic).

“It was a great time growing up playing basketball in New Jersey,” Cadeau said. “The competition and friendship between elite players here is unlike anywhere else. I don’t feel like there’s another state right now that can match New Jersey in terms of basketball talent.

Although New Jersey has been home to some of the greatest players of all time, including Shaquille O’Neal and Rick Barry, it has always struggled to escape the shadow of New York basketball. In the NBA’s 76 years, 419 players hail from New York, compared to just 146 from New Jersey, according to Basketball Reference. And on the rosters for the 2021-22 season, the disparity was just as stark: There were 33 New Yorkers versus just 12 New Jerseyans. But in the classes of 2023 and 2024, New Jersey has 10 top-50 rookies compared to just two from New York.

“I mean no disrespect to anyone,” said Billy Armstrong, a 1994 Bergen Catholic graduate and now Cadeau coach. “But when I was playing here, the talent wasn’t at the level it is now at all, that’s for sure. This is my 11th year as a college coach, and I can say that over the past four or five years the talent has really taken off. There’s that pride here when New Jersey is in the conversation as the best basketball state in the entire country.

Armstrong also played college basketball at Davidson and professionally overseas. He pointed to the tenacity and tenacity it takes to live in major northeast metropolitan areas as part of the reason so much talent has emerged in his home country. He also thinks there’s a momentum effect in the game. Players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyrie Irving have given kids growing up in the Garden State New Jersey-born stars to look up to. And these young players have competed against each other for years, building each other up and helping them get noticed by recruiting services and college coaches.

Since the first ranking of 247 was released a year and a half ago, DJ Wagner has been considered the No. 1 player for the Class of 2023. The son of former NBA player Dajuan Wagner, DJ is a highly skilled combo guard . His play and the attention paid to his recruitment gave his teammates a head start. Bradshaw, who plays with Wagner at Camden and their Amateur Athletic Union team, the New Jersey Scholars, started out as a 3-star rookie. It is now a 5 star, with offers from top programs like Kentucky, Michigan and UCLA

“These kids have been playing with each other for a long time,” Scholars coach Jason Harrigan said. “And when you get a really special kid in a class — a kid like a DJ — their competitiveness rubs off on everyone. He helps raise the level of the game for the whole class, and they also help him raise his game.”

The level of talent, combined with the recent relaxation of rules that allow college and high school athletes to earn sponsorship money, has led to unique opportunities for many players in the state. Gift, who has dual nationality and plays for the Swedish national team, is represented by Roc Nation and already has a five-figure endorsement through what’s called a name, image and likeness agreement, or NIL. And Cunningham, the No. 1 player in 2024, recently signed with Overtime Elite, a prestigious professional development program in Atlanta. He became the first player to sign with the program without receiving a salary, thus preserving his collegiate eligibility.

“Growing up in New Jersey, every kid dreams of making it to the pros,” Cunningham said. “When I was little I didn’t even know what college basketball was. I was just thinking NBA, NBA, NBA But as I got older I started thinking more about going to college. With OTE , I get professional training and education, and I can keep my options open, plus I can still make money with NIL”

New Jersey coaches, of course, prefer players to stay close to home. And they say NIL helps them persuade players to stay at their high school for all four years.

“These players are proud of New Jersey,” said Dave Boff, who coaches Wilcher and Watson at Roselle Catholic. “Fans can’t wait to have a player rise through the ranks from his freshman year through his senior seasons. And players can take advantage of the opportunities their talent provides while being able to sleep in their own beds.

When talking to college coaches about what makes this generation of New Jersey basketball prospects so coveted, Boff consistently hears one theme: toughness.

“College coaches see the New Jersey guys have confidence, they have arrogance and they’re not afraid of physical basketball,” Boff said. “When we go to domestic games, our players are always surprised by the ticky-tack foul calls. In New Jersey, the refs let our guys fight a bit, and our guys are happy about that. They know they are improving each other.

For Cunningham, leaving home was not an easy decision, but he hopes to make things a little easier by recruiting other New Jersey players to join him in Atlanta. After all, each of these players hopes to make it to a bigger stage — whether it’s college basketball, OTE, or the NBA — sooner or later.

“Jersey takes over,” Cunningham said. “Everywhere you look in New Jersey there is a top basketball player. And pretty soon we’re going to be all over the country. For us, it’s about showing what our state is all about and making sure it continues to succeed in the future. It’s not pressure. It’s motivating. »