To understand the Ron and Heather Harwell family, first you have to understand their faith. That faith drives their decision-making process, especially when it comes to their son, Isiah, one of the most highly-recruited basketball players in his high school class.
“I always start with giving honor to God,” Ron Harwell said during a recent interview.
That faith in a higher power has allowed Harwell, a former Idaho State basketball star, to feel comfortable sending Isiah, 15, off to a boarding school four hours away from his Pocatello home, in Mount Pleasant, Utah. It has allowed the Harwells to be confident about Isiah’s entry into the high-powered world of the top basketball prospects in the country – traveling around the nation to compete, making visits to the nation’s elite college basketball programs, and dealing with all the recruiting gurus, traditional media and other hangers-on that gather around talented young basketball players like a moth to a flame.
And it has fueled Isiah’s quest to become the greatest basketball player ever produced by the state of Idaho.
In my over 40 years of following Idaho high school basketball, I can safely say no player from this state has ever achieved the kind of national acclaim that Isiah Harwell has at this stage of his career. One respected national recruiting service – 247 Sports – ranks Harwell the No. 5 player in the class of 2025, and the No. 1 shooting guard. Another service – ESPN – ranks him the 10th best player in his class, and the No. 2 shooting guard.
Those rankings have been validated by some of the best college basketball programs in the nation. During his unofficial visit to North Carolina this summer, Tar Heel coach Hubert Davis gave Harwell North Carolina’s first scholarship offer of the 2025 class. He’s also been offered by the likes of Kansas, Gonzaga and Baylor.
One scouting service offered this evaluation of Harwell’s game: “Isiah Harwell is a complete shooting guard prospect. At 6-foot-5, he has good length and a strong lower body. Harwell plays at a great pace, he does not play rushed and seems to make great decisions with the ball in his hands. Harwell has good burst when attacking the basket, getting on the rim in the half-court. Solid handle, frame, skill, and IQ, there is a lot to like about the five-star. The shooting guard has deep range and confidence to score it when given space. His dad, Ron Harwell, averaged 14.5 a game at Idaho State in the mid-90s.”
It’s been a whirlwind summer for the Harwell family, who have joined their son on unofficial recruiting visits and summer tournaments and watched him compete for a spot on the Team USA national squad. Isiah has gone from playing as a freshman on the Century High team in Pocatello last year to taking on the best high school players in the nation this summer. Ron Harwell says the family’s faith prepared Isiah for the leap in competition.
“God has prepared him for that,” he said. “His play, his accomplishments are just validation that he had to continue to believe in God and God was going to make that way. He was well-prepared for the situations that he faced.”
Before we get ahead of ourselves with conjecture about Harwell’s college future, let’s take a step back to today’s reality. Isiah is a polite, soft-spoken young man who responds to most questions with a simple “yes sir,” or “no sir,” without a lot of elaboration. He will be just one of two sophomores on a loaded Wasatch Academy squad that will compete against the nation’s very best private basketball factories, traveling to New York, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Arizona this season. He’s adjusting to life away from home at what is described as “one of the nation’s best boarding schools,” where he is responsible for getting out of bed in the morning (which can sometimes be the biggest challenge a 15-year-old can face) and off to each class on the 35-acre Wasatch Academy campus about 60 miles southeast of Provo. There he’ll mix with students from 30 different countries.
His every move on the basketball court will be analyzed by recruiting “experts” from around the nation, who will be trying to find flaws in his game and decide if he’s really worthy of the exalted rankings that have been ascribed to his game. His every utterance off the court, meanwhile, will be parsed by rabid partisans from the proudest basketball programs in the country for clues as to where he will eventually take his talents.
With all of that pressure, one would think it would distract from just playing the game. Not so, says Isiah. “No sir, you’re going to lose the offers if you’re not playing well,” he said.
“We’ve always taught that you plan for that day, you prepare for that day,” Ron added. “You don’t worry about those offers, or people coming in, outsiders, or whatever. You just focus on the game at hand.”
Just in case you’re curious, Isiah says he’s in no hurry to name a favorite college or to start paring down a list of finalists. “I’m just going to see how these next three years play out and just play basketball,” he said.
That basketball will be played far away from the Pocatello home where Ron and Heather have nurtured his game and his self-image. While he started as a freshman at Century, Isiah and his family felt Wasatch Academy offered several advantages: tougher competition, the opportunity to get used to a college-type living environment, and the ability to play high-level basketball year around.
Ron Harwell emphasizes, though, the transfer was not a slight on Isiah’s hometown.
“He’s proud to mention that he’s from Pocatello, Idaho,” Ron said. “When you get on his Instagram pages or whatever, you’ll see he puts Pocatello, Idaho (as his hometown). It’s important that people get that right. Like ESPN, they got Boise, Idaho down.”
If you made a list of the best basketball players to ever come out Idaho, you’d probably start with Aberdeen’s Steve Hayes (Idaho State, six different NBA teams), Borah’s Gary Freeman (Oregon State, first round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks), Twin Falls’ Andy Toolson (BYU, Utah Jazz), Capital’s Brian Welch (Stanford), Bishop Kelly ‘s Cory Violette (Gonzaga)., Minico’s Jim Boatwright (Euroleague champion), Pocatello’s Spencer Nelson (Utah State) and Moscow’s Kim Goetz (San Diego State).
Thirteen-year NBA veteran Luke Ridnour was born in Coeur d’Alene, but played his high school ball in Washington.
None of those players had the kind of national exposure of Isiah Harwell, or seemingly the unlimited career that may lie ahead. Becoming the best player that Idaho’s ever produced is not something Isiah or Ron Harwell shy away from.
“Every time he gets on the court, he wants to be the best player,” Ron said. “He wants to leave that mark, he wants to have a legacy… I tell him all the time, you got people behind you, and they can see what you’re doing, so you’re setting the bar for everyone behind you. For all those people in front of you, they’re setting the bar for you.”
At just 15 years old, and with three more seasons of high school basketball ahead of him, a lot of things can change before Isiah ever steps on a college basketball court. Some players mature early, and then never get significantly better. Injuries, academic issues, outside distractions can all derail even the brightest future star. But the Harwells just keep coming back to that faith and they don’t worry about what could happen.
“I can do things like God made me do things,” Isiah said. “He put me in position that made me succeed. It’s just a blessing that I can play there and compete against everybody.”
“He (Isiah) knows his identity is not tied to basketball,” Ron said. “His identity is tied to being a child of God. If it depends on basketball and somebody comes and says he’s trash, or he dips in the rankings, he’s not going to be down on himself, because he knows who he is.”
Brad Bugger has been an observer of athletics in southeastern Idaho for over 40 years as a sportswriter, broadcaster and fan. He can be reached with comments, questions and column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.