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How Corona Centennial star Jared McCain turned a million-dollar smile into a potential fortune

Voices of a generation call out, shouting his name, a swell lifting the golden boy at every step.

“Jared!” they yell, jostling for an autograph or photo. “Jared!”

Even when 250 miles from his home, fans from a legion of 1.7 million TikTok followers flock to Corona Centennial High guard Jared McCain. They hang on every crossover move, every three-point heave, falling over themselves in the stands at a preseason game in Las Vegas as the Duke commit dominates on the court.

As McCain makes his way from the locker room, trying to leave Bishop Gorman High’s gym, fans swarm him and his family. He smiles at them, his girlfriend gripping his back as if they’re squirming through a pulsating music-festival crowd.

“You really don’t get used to it,” McCain said, beaming. “Everywhere you go, I’m thinking, ‘Walk in the gym, nobody’s really going to say anything.’”

That smile is his signature, an eyes-crinkling ear-to-ear grin. It’s launched an empire, a massive social following leveraged into groundbreaking name, image and likeness deals with Champs Sports, Lemon Perfect and Crocs.

Centennial High guard Jared McCain swoops to the basket during a scrimmage with teammates Thursday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

There was no plan for this. There was no play to fame. This was sudden and unexpected, completely shifting the life of a kid who just wanted to play basketball.

He’s always been unapologetically himself, McCain said, as he’s become the face of a new generation of basketball stars.

“It’s actually crazy,” Centennial teammate Mike Price said, laughing while watching McCain grin and take pictures with fans. “I never thought someone could get this big.”

::

McCain is a hooper first. Influencer second.

He was selected the Gatorade state boys’ basketball player of the year last season, averaging 16.9 points a game in helping lead Centennial to a second consecutive Open Division state title. He has lightning-quick ballhandling skills, defends well and makes three-pointers from Stephen Curry range. So it gets under McCain’s skin when people just call him a TikTok sensation.

“When I get to Duke, I know there’s going to be comments — if we lose a game, like, ‘Get off TikTok,’” McCain said.

He was also born to be an entertainer. He danced, belted out Justin Bieber songs, performed without abandon in front of youth teammates. People called him Corbin Bleu when he was younger, McCain said, because of his uncanny resemblance — in personality and physicality — to the “High School Musical” character.

McCain has grown into one of the top recruits in the nation, TikTok giving fans an unfiltered, often hilarious look into his life. He posts videos performing dance trends with his teammates, girlfriend or mom — some racking up more than 15 million views. Last week, he posted a TikTok staring directly into the camera at a Home Depot parking lot as he belted the lyrics to Giveon’s “Garden Kisses.”

Centennial High guard Jared McCain dribbles the ball up court.

Centennial High guard Jared McCain led the Huskies to their second consecutive Open Division state basketball title last season as a junior point guard.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“This is just him,” McCain’s mother, Jina, said of her son’s fame. “This is not, like, being fake. This is not trying to be somebody you’re not. This is him.”

In almost every video, he breaks out the million-dollar smile — which is genuine, according to his family.

“Ur so happy all the time makes me smile,” read one comment, with thousands of likes, on a November 2021 TikTok.

And a million-dollar brand was born.

As the name, image and likeness era dawned for high school athletes in summer 2021, he had an ideal platform, a 17-year-old with hundreds of thousands of followers and a radiant personality.

“There’s the people with the big following, and then there’s the people that influence people,” said Taylor Smith, vice president of marketing at Lemon Perfect, a beverage manufacturer. “And Jared’s charisma allows him to be the latter.”

McCain has the fourth-highest NIL valuation among high school basketball players in the nation, according to On3. He’s built a highly intentional profile, Lemon Perfect and footwear company Crocs fitting neatly into his bright, happy image.

“I just want to be an inspiration for the business side of things,” McCain said.

Yet pressure comes with that platform — an inherent need to maintain it. McCain has become overly cautious with his public actions. He never wants to be the athlete, his girlfriend, Sydney Williams, said, who’s caught on camera ignoring a fan.

In September, McCain visited Duke, talking with fellow commits in the dorms. He was holding a clear cup of water, he told his mom afterward, and started to get nervous.

What if somebody took a picture? What if they thought it was vodka?

::

McCain first felt the craze last winter, when he and Williams were mobbed by kids at the Classic at Damien High tournament in La Verne.

As he took the court at Damien, McCain heard comments from the stands — “disrespectful, rude and flat-out mean” things about his family and girlfriend, he said.

The gyms stayed packed, and the Centennial guard suddenly felt like he was under a microscope. Comments turned negative at times, calling him trash, goading that he’d get exposed at Duke. The business offers kept coming, though, discussions of a new deal interrupted most every extended moment with his girlfriend and family.

And the young man who became a celebrity simply being himself started feeling like he was living to please everyone else.

“You overthink,” McCain said. “And then overthinking just leads to — you don’t play well.”

He had his best season as a junior, yet he scored only 10 points in an Open Division regional victory over Chatsworth Sierra Canyon before taking only seven shots in a state-championship victory over Modesto Christian.

Centennial High guard Jared McCain poses for a photo at practice.

Centennial High guard Jared McCain follows the advice of Golden State superstar Stephen Curry: “Trust my work.”

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

During the summer, at Curry’s camp in San Francisco, McCain asked the Golden State Warriors superstar how he dealt with pressure. McCain wrote down Curry’s answer, and it became his motto.

“Trust my work,” McCain said Curry told him. “The pressure is always going to be there. You just have to minimize it as much as you can by trusting your work.”

So his mind’s clearer now when crowds thicken, heading into a senior season vying for a third consecutive state championship. He’ll focus on the main thing and be himself. He’ll flip the switch when he steps into the gym, drain threes and talk smack to his defender.

“Obviously, Jared cusses, and I’ve told people that, and they’re so surprised,” Williams said. “Jared doesn’t seem capable of cussing.”

And the day after dropping 30 points, he might just drop a video dancing in his pajama pants.

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