Windward's Wesley Saunders wins on and off the court

Wesley Saunders leads Windward in nearly offensive and defensive category this season. Dave Keefer

LOS ANGELES -- When talk typically takes place about some of the Southland's premier prep basketball players, the name Wesley Saunders is mentioned. And rightfully so, considering the 6-foot-5 senior forward from Los Angeles Windward High is one of best around.

Make no mistake, hitting jumpers from the perimeter, battling for position underneath the basket for rebounds, handing out assists to wide-open teammates and elevating high above the rim to block opponents shots are skills that separate Saunders from his peers.

His undeniable talents on the hardwood, however, do not define him.

As good he is on the court, Saunders is equally talented off the court.

Finding a balance between basketball and the books might be difficult for some, but not Saunders. He has proven to be the consummate student-athlete this season and is largely responsible for guiding the Wildcats (26-8 overall) to the CIF Division IV State championship game against Richmond Salesian (25-11) on Saturday at Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento. The opening tipoff is for 11:15 a.m.

“Wesley is special, a ball and a hoop aren't the only things that matter to him. Education comes first and that's different in this day and age,'' Windward coach Miguel Villegas said.

Saunders carries a high grade-point average and he scored more than 1800 on the SAT.

On all-important game days, Saunders is similarly focused.

A three-year starter at Windward, he is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds this season. Also worth a mention are his averages of 3.3 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks.

Saunders received plenty of attention from Division I college coaches and scouts. Programs from the Pac-10 Conference, most notably Stanford and nearby USC, were in constant contact with him during the recruiting process.

Ultimately, Saunders decided Harvard was the best fit for him.

“Things have come full circle for me,'' Saunders said. “I've always been taught that you have to work hard for what you want in life, that's what it all comes down to. There's been struggles at times, yes. I think everyone struggles, but I've managed to stay focused on my future.

“At Harvard, I think I'm going to have the best of both worlds, academically and athletically. It's the perfect combination for me and I feel like I'm prepared for the next challenge. Managing sports and school is about having a routine and I have one, it's become second nature.''

Since postseason play started, Saunders has taken his game to the next level.

A 78-71 loss to Orange Lutheran in the Southern Section Division IV-AA title game was a humbling experience. Saunders & Co. atoned for the setback with last weekend's 58-52 victory over Westlake Village Oaks Christian in the Southern California Regional semifinals.

“There's plenty to like about his game, Saunders is a tough player to deal with, especially with his size and all-around skills,'' Oaks Christian coach Andre Chevalier said. “At this level, the high school game, he has the uncanny ability to make everyone around him a better player.

“It's good to hear about someone who is able to focus in all areas of life. With basketball, Saunders has figured things out and is getting the job done. But he's also doing a commendable job in the classroom, that's one of the things he has going for him. I think it's impressive, good for him. It's an encouraging sign, kids can see that anything can be done if you put your mind to it.''

In terms of measuring up to some of the top recruits here in Southern California, Saunders is more than capable of holding his own. ESPNU ranks him right up there with Long Beach Poly's Ryan Anderson, Los Angeles Price's Norvel Pelle and Etiwanda's Byron Wesley.

“Wesley is amazing, he leads us in every offensive category, every defensive category too, I'm not sure how many players can say they do as much for their team as he does for us,'' Villegas said. “We've had good players here in the past and Wesley will go down as one of them.''

Academically, Saunders is also held in high regard on campus.

“Our goal is to develop scholar-athletes and Wesley Saunders epitomizes what our institution is about,'' said Tom Gilder, Head of School at Windward. “I've known him for years now, watched him grow up here and we couldn't be more proud of the things he has accomplished. Harvard is just the beginning too, Wesley is on the verge of some big things, I honestly believe that.''

It's anyone's guess as to what the future holds, but based on how things have transpired thus far, all signs point to Saunders excelling both on and off the basketball court.

Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.