UHH basketball: Aiona hails his first recruiting class as ‘balanced’ and ‘versatile’

UHH men’s basketball coach Kaniela Aiona’s biggest recruit of the summer is still to come. The recently-hired Aiona and his wife, Kelly, are expecting their second child in a few weeks.

In the meantime, Aiona was more than happy to welcome four players into the world of Vulcans athletics.

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“The goal for this recruiting class was to sign a group of great student-athletes that compliment our returning players,” Aiona, who coached the past five seasons at Menlo College, said in a release Tuesday. “This class is balanced, versatile, and competes the right way.”

Jabari Sweet, Ethan Jetter and New Zealander Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones will add size to a frontcourt that already includes 6-foot-9 senior Sasa Vuksanovic, the team’s leading returning scorer (13.6 points per game) and rebounder (6.2). Darren Williams has been brought in to push for playing time in the evolving backcourt rotation.

In all, five new players are joining the program. Waiakea grad, Kiai Apele, a guard and two-time BIIF player of the year, signed under former coach GE Coleman. Telryn Villa also signed earlier, but the Martinsburg, Va., native is set to take a two-year mission trip before coming to Hilo.

Sweet, a 6-8, 215-pound junior forward, was a first-team All-Coast North selection at Chabot College (Calif.) last season who drew interest from Division I schools, the release said, after averaging 13 points and seven rebounds on 52% shooting for a Gladiators team that reached the postseason.

“Jabari is a presence in the front-court,” Aiona said. “He has touch around the basket and a quick second jump. We expect Jabari to provide inside-out play-making on both ends of the court.”

The Vulcans won’t just need difference-makers but also a closer to take over in the clutch after losing their best player, Kupaa Harrison, to eligibility off a team that finished 12-14. Coleman’s seventh consecutive losing season cost him his job.

Guard Elisha Duplechan, a double-digit scorer who made 20 starts as a junior, entered the transfer portal along with his brother Isaiah shortly after last season, but the Vulcans will welcome back Jordan Graves, whose senior season in 2020 was lost to a medical redshirt after he suffered a shoulder injury.

Aiona will hope to get a healthy season out of the backcourt duo of Graves and junior Damani Whitlock, who missed most of his freshman season to injury. The 5-8 Williams brings solid credentials after earning MVP of the Inland Empire Athletic Conference, helping Chaffey College (Calif.) to the conference title and a 16-0 mark. Williams made 82 3-pointers and logged solid minutes for the Panthers, averaging 17.1 points a game and almost six assists.

“Darren is a fearless guard with range, quickness and court vision,” Aiona said. “He is a student of the game who can create his own shot and also shots for his teammates.”

The other two new recruits are freshman.

Tait-Jones, 6-6, was a member of New Zealand’s national high school runner-up in 2018, and Jetter, 6-5, did it all for San Ramon while competing in one of the better prep conference in Northern California.

“Aniwaniwa is a versatile player who plays with great feel and a high motor,” Aiona said. “Ethan is athletic and skilled.”

Other returning players listed on the 2020-21 roster include junior forward Jalen Thompson, who started 20 times last season and averaged 5.3 points a game, and three players who played in at least 20 games: 6-8 junior forward Tom Power, 6-6 senior forward Greg Walter and senior guard Steven Hubbell.

The Vulcans ohana is set.

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“It will be terrific to work with this group,” Aiona said. “Our returners and newcomers are all hungry to get back to competing after this long layoff.”

In the meantime, the Aiona ohana, including son Kaleihoa, anxiously awaits its newest addition.

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