Look around the WPIAL, and there are several incredibly talented athletes capable of staking their claim as the best basketball player in the area.
Laurel Highlands senior Rodney Gallagher is often the first name to come to mind, and with two WPIAL Class 5A titles and iconic championship performances already to his name, it’s hard to argue with his status as the WPIAL’s top dog. Then again, there are blue-chip recruits bursting with potential such as Imani Christian’s Alier Maluk and Lincoln Park’s Meleek Thomas, both considered among the top-15 sophomores in the country. And we can’t forget North Hills junior Royce Parham, a 6-foot-8 forward who just might be the most unstoppable force the WPIAL has seen in years.
All that being said, if you’re searching for the best all-around player in the area right now, you might not find a better fit for the crown than “Sky High” Makhai Valentine.
Sure, the Steel Valley senior’s statistics are phenomenal — 34.5 points per game and 10.7 rebounds entering the week — but it’s the way he generates those numbers that separates him from his peers. Valentine has a silky smooth nature to his game, from the way he handles the ball to the way he effortlessly rises up on his jump shot. A 6-3 shooting guard with point-guard instincts, Valentine always appears totally under control — almost as if he has the ball attached to a string. And when he decides to take flight for one of his patented gym-rattling dunks, it’s as if time grinds to a halt while he soars through the air before slamming the ball through the basket — usually with a 360-spin or reverse windmill for good measure.
“I did a couple 360s in games this year,” Valentine said. “Everybody likes them.”
Some coaches might prefer a little less flair, but Ironmen coach Dale Chapman encourages Valentine to do what he does best.
“That’s his style. He gets a breakaway, and that’s his game. He’ll break away and he’ll do something with that thing,” Chapman said. “With him, it fires him up. It fires our team up. They feed off of it.”
As talented as Valentine is, his skills are even more impressive when you consider he didn’t start taking basketball seriously until seventh or eighth grade. That’s when he moved back to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia with his mother, Charell, who opened a hair salon in Munhall right across the street from a vacant blacktop.
Valentine would spend countless hours on the court after school every day — no matter the season and no matter the weather. Sometimes, his godfather, Vernon Davis, would play him in one-on-one — Valentine still vividly remembers the only time he lost to Davis — but more often than not, Valentine either was out there honing his craft alone or joining in pick-up games against full-grown men.
“I was at this court every day. I’m talking every day, even in the winter,” Valentine said. “When it was winter, I used to shovel the snow off the court and go play.”
Valentine started as a freshman for Steel Valley and played point guard up until his junior year, when Chapman switched him to shooting guard. He ranked fourth in the WPIAL last year with an average of 29.9 points per game and was the only WPIAL player in Class 3A to earn first-team all-state recognition.
As great as he was a year ago, Valentine has leveled his game to a new stratosphere as a senior. His 3-point shooting range now extends several feet beyond the arc, and he is playing defense and rebounding at an elite level. On top of all of that, his intangibles as a leader and teammate have come full circle, rounding him into arguably the most complete player in the WPIAL — a coach’s dream, some might say.
“He’s up there with some of the best players we’ve coached against,” said Our Lady of the Sacred Heart coach Mike Rodriguez, winner of four consecutive WPIAL titles and back-to-back PIAA championships. “He’s all business when he’s on the court. He doesn’t get caught up in outside distractions. … One thing that stands out is his athleticism. How he can get up, he can get up continuously. The second thing is, he’s got a great stroke. He’s got a quick release, a very quick release. That makes it very tough for players who have to guard him.”
Reminded that his Chargers did just enough to hold down Valentine Friday in a 71-66 OLSH win against Steel Valley, Rodriguez couldn’t help but interject.
“Hold him down? He had 39 [points],” Rodriguez said, laughing. “He’s tremendous, and he’s a great young man, too. He’s very disciplined, a tremendous athlete, and very explosive.”
Before the start of his senior year, Valentine made an agreement with his close friend Cruce Brookins — a star quarterback and defensive back for Steel Valley who will play college football at Pitt — that if Valentine played football this fall, Brookins would have to join the basketball team in return. And after holding up his end of the bargain, Valentine now has taken center stage with Brookins by his side as they attempt to sweep the WPIAL football and basketball championships in their final year together of high school ball.
“We had an agreement. We got ourselves a ring. That felt really good,” Valentine said. “We’re just trying to have fun this year, because we’re seniors. We’re just trying to spend all the time we can with the team. … It’s all about the family, but winning another championship would definitely be great.”
After missing the first three games of the season while helping the Ironmen bring home a WPIAL football championship as a starting defensive end, it didn’t take Valentine long to round himself back into basketball form — just ask his coach.
“It took about a half-hour,” Chapman said. “Makhai was probably somewhere in the gym on his days off. He was somewhere shooting. He’s a basketball junkie.”
Valentine immediately began stuffing the stat sheet upon his return, including a 44-point effort Dec. 16 in a 74-49 win against Seton LaSalle to snap an 0-5 skid for Steel Valley to start the season. The Ironmen (5-8, 3-2) opened with a brutal non-section schedule while playing without the majority of their starters, but Chapman knew things would change with the return of his ace in the hole.
As the race for the Class 3A Section 2 title begins to heat up, Steel Valley has now won four of its past five games — including an 86-47 rout against Sto-Rox on Tuesday night. Valentine went for a career-high 51 points in that one, raising his season average to 36.2 ppg.
“After games, I’ve got a lot of kids walking up to me and asking to take pictures and stuff like that,” Valentine said. “The attention is starting to rise a bit. I like it, though.”
So far, Valentine only holds two Division I scholarship offers from South Alabama and Sam Houston State. Talk to anybody in basketball circles around the WPIAL, though, and they fully expect more offers to start coming in the near future. Valentine isn’t stressing over it, instead choosing to let his play speak for itself. For now, his focus is on finishing his high school career on a high note — although he did have a message for the teams in his backyard which largely have overlooked him up until now.
“I feel all the local schools should give me a shot, just so they don’t miss out on somebody like me,” Valentine said.