Here he comes.

The arrival of a new basketball season in Maine brings the arrival of a hoops prodigy the likes of which Maine hasn’t experienced. Even before freshman Cooper Flagg played his first game for Nokomis Regional High School, the 6-foot-7 center had become the talk of the state and beyond, with a growing social media highlight reel to his name and coaches all over the area searching for the right superlatives to describe what they were seeing.

Maine has seen great basketball players before. But no one can remember when the Pine Tree State has seen someone like this.

“Never,” said former Mountain Valley star Andy Bedard, who coaches Flagg in AAU. “I think he’s (Winthrop legend) T.J. (Caouette) and I combined. He’s got my guard skills, my range, T.J.’s athleticism and slashing and size, and he’s got (Deering standout Nik) Caner-Medley’s strength. He’s just different.”

“It’s one thing for the New England recruiting report to hype you up. That’s very localized, or maybe even a website like MBR giving you some hype,” Lawrence coach Jason Pellerin said. “It’s at a whole other level when you’re top five in the country in your class. That’s different. I can’t remember ever having seen somebody like that in Maine basketball.”

Standing in the middle of the basketball spotlight is a supremely gifted 14-year-old, but also someone who describes himself as “just an awkward kid,” who remains humble even as the storm of attention and hype builds.

Flagg is ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation among Class of 2025 recruits by Coast 2 Coast Preps. He is often featured in a variety of YouTube highlights showing his ball-handling skills and forceful dunks.

“My mom (former UMaine player Kelly (Bowman) Flagg) is really good at helping me keep my head small,” said Flagg. “It gets to be a lot. But it’s what I’m playing for. I’m trying to get my name out there. … It’s really mind-blowing. But I want it to happen, so it’s working out.”

Nokomis freshman Cooper Flagg surveys the gym during a Dec. 8 practice in Newport. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“He’s very grounded,” Nokomis coach Earl Anderson added. “He handles all the outside attention very well for anybody any age, but especially for a 14-year-old.”

OTHERS BEFORE HIM

Flagg does have company as far as freshmen players who’ve generated big-time buzz before they’ve played a minute of varsity action. Players like Caner-Medley, Lawrence’s Troy Scott and Cindy Blodgett and Westbrook’s Lisa Blais Manning were all Maine’s Next Big Thing at one time, having shown in middle school signs of what was to come. So, too, was Caouette, who’d play at Division I power Villanova, and Greely standout Anna DeWolfe, now a junior at Division I Fordham University (New York).

All of them came to high school with imposing hype and can relate to what Flagg is experiencing.

Bedard, who would later play at Boston College and the University of Maine, was a guard with an incredible shot and athleticism who showcased his talents in AAU and statewide summer programs like the Pine Tree Basketball Camp.

“Between his seventh- and eighth-grade year … to see Andy out there doing the things he could do with the ball, it was amazing,” former Winthrop coach Dave Poulin said. “(He was) just sensational, even at that age. He could do everything with the ball. … He was unbelievable.”

After leading Mountain Valley to a state championship in 1994, Andy Bedard spent two seasons at Boston College and then played his junior and senior seasons at the University of Maine. Submitted photo

By the time Bedard got to Mountain Valley, the word had gotten out, and fans began flocking to Falcons games to watch the young star. As his profile rose, Bedard began to know what it was like to know the eyes of the state were on him.

“The crowds that we drew were amazing. I remember basically every place we went, we sold out the gyms,” said Bedard, who scored 53 points in the Class B championship game in his junior year in 1994. “You noticed it when, whoever we were playing, there were fans all over the state regardless of what town we were playing.

“I guess we just kind of got used to it. It’s one of those things where the crowds are there, you recognize they’re there, you’ve got the butterflies in warm-ups. But as a player and a competitor, as soon as the ball goes up, the only thing that matters is finding a way to win. You kind of tone that out.”

Bedard’s tale is similar to that of his close friend, Caouette. Years before he won the Mr. Maine Basketball award and followed up a 1,980-point high school career with a scholarship to Villanova, Caouette was a generational talent for Winthrop, a 6-5 seventh grader who the state’s basketball community knew was about to dominate the competition.

Winthrop standout T.J. Caouette looks to make a move during a Feb. 24, 1996, game against Falmouth. Portland Press Herald file photo

“(The talk was) this kid is going to be great,” said Poulin, who coached Caouette. “There was a tremendous amount of hype for the type of success that he would have, that ‘Here’s a kid who can definitely be one of Maine’s greatest, and one of Maine’s kids that can play at the Division I level.’ ”

Caouette didn’t start as a freshman on a senior-laden team that would go on to defend its Class C state championship, but he dazzled off the bench and exploded in the years to come. The state buzz became national buzz as Caouette eventually earned 63 scholarship offers, but he tried not to pay too much attention to his rising profile.

“I never thought of myself, really, like that,” he said. “You’re oblivious to all the hype and the externalities, because as soon as you let that consume you, you’re not going to be focused and be able to perform at your best.”

Caouette couldn’t ignore the attention once the scholarship offers started pouring in. His family had another line installed in the house for the calls that would come throughout the day.

“As the offers are coming through, you’re like ‘Oh my goodness, do I even want to do this?’ ” Caouette said. “Because you don’t know as a kid. I was kind of sheltered, being from small town Maine. I loved playing, I loved competing, but I also loved playing golf, I loved just the small town community feel. It happened to get so hyped up, if you will. I had to sit down and make a decision.”

Greely standout Anna DeWolfe (20) goes up for a shot while South Portland junior Maggie Whitmore defends during a Dec. 14, 2018 game in Cumberland. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald

Decades later, Greely’s DeWolfe found herself in the role of being the state’s rising star. When still a freshman, DeWolfe was recruited by more than 10 Division I schools, and the hype from her play with the AAU Maine Firecrackers continued in the winter of 2015-16 as she immediately established herself as a 20-plus point-per-game scorer with the Rangers.

DeWolfe didn’t feel the hype going into her career. That quickly changed.

“Once I started playing, there were expectations,” said DeWolfe, who entered the weekend averaging 19.8 points a game at Fordham. “Once I started playing, people picked up on that I was going to be a good basketball player.”

DeWolfe said it was difficult to deal with the attention at first, but she learned to embrace it.

“Learning to cope with the pressure and understand to just accept the challenge and have confidence in yourself, but don’t be cocky, is a big thing,” she said. “There were times where there was pressure of having to perform a certain way, and if you didn’t, it’s like ‘Well, what’s the hype (about)?’ But that’s self-regulated pressure. … When I would get wrapped up in pressure, I was just more focused on my team and my team’s performance.”

SOCIAL MEDIA IMPACT

Even the best of the best, however, acknowledge that the hype Flagg is experiencing is something brand new. The presence of social media, rise in interest in high school recruiting, and Flagg’s own talent have combined to build a hype machine that has rarely, if ever, been seen.

“Social media’s put everything on the spotlight,” Caouette said. “We’re able to actually see Cooper, and what he’s developed into.”

“He’s had to deal with this craze way more than I have, and way more than any of my peers in my generation or even the generation right behind me,” Bedard added. “Because, A, he’s way better than all of us, and B, the times and the magnitude and the spotlight. If he crosses the street, somebody’s noticing it.”

Flagg sees and hears it. Both the good and the bad.

Nokomis boys basketball coach Earl Anderson, left, talks with freshman Cooper Flagg during a Dec. 8 practice in Newport. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“With all the attention also comes the hate. … People telling you you’re good, people telling you you’re awful, people saying you’re not good enough,” he said. “It’s pure motivation. … Most of the time, it helps me push myself harder.”

His team is an oasis from the attention. At a recent practice, Anderson, the Nokomis coach, was running through a play that had Flagg at its center.

“They’re going to stare at this big doofus here,” Anderson said, “and hopefully Goofy can get you the ball.”

Reminded of the scene, Flagg laughed.

“I’m called ‘Hollywood’ 30 times a day,” he said.

It’s fitting. Because after years of buildup, at last, it’s showtime.

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