With every 360 dunk and every effortless 3-pointer by eighth-grader Scottie Lewis, the buzz grows louder about the future of boys basketball at Ranney School.

A program that has been a Shore Conference afterthought during its entire existence may soon become a local power given the talent on the way next season. The 6-foot-3 Lewis, one of the top eighth-graders in the country, and one of the top young point guards in the area, Alex Klatsky, are already playing on the middle school team at Ranney, a school in Tinton Falls that has students ranging from three years old up to seniors in high school. Another phenom who has applied for acceptance next year at Ranney but is not currently enrolled is Keyport resident Bryan Antoine, who currently stars for St. Mary School in Middletown.

Eighth-grade standouts (from left) Bryan Antoine, Scottie Lewis and Alex Klatsky, who play AAU together on Team Rio, hope to combine forces next season at Ranney School. Lewis and Klatsky already attend Ranney, while Antoine has applied for acceptance. (Photo by B51 Photography)

With so many established basketball powers across the state, the immediate question is, why Ranney?

“Basically we just want to create a great environment there and help build the basketball program,’’ Lewis said.

All three play together on Team Rio, a nationally-recognized AAU squad founded and run by Klatsky’s father, Brian, that competes in tournaments all over the country. The three also work out regularly together with trainers Cornell Key and Bryce Stanhope at I’m Possible Training in Colts Neck, doing everything from strength workouts to skills training.

Lewis, who played middle school ball in Hazlet last year before transferring to Ranney, is potentially the next Shore Conference superstar, and Antoine is right there with him in that department. Both are able to soar for jaw-dropping dunks and unleash polished jumpers as eighth-graders, and both are currently dominating on their eighth-grade teams.

They have been the target of numerous non-public powers from around New Jersey but want to build something new at Ranney. The Panthers, who compete in Class B Central, have worked to make strides in their athletic programs, including becoming a member of the Shore Conference in 2011, but struggle just to get to .500 in most seasons. They are currently 4-7 and in seventh place in the eight-team division made up of Group I and small non-public schools.

Explosive eighth-grader Scottie Lewis and point guard Alex Klatsky look to change the perception of Ranney basketball next season. (Photo by B51 Photography)

“I like where I’m at,’’ Lewis said. “I like the people around me, I like the coaches, and I like the academic environment. We just want to really build something here.”

“The kids really want to create their own legacy (at Ranney),’’ Brian Klatsky said. “To play at home is great because guys like this traditionally disappear and go play at a high school out of the area. To keep them at home at the Shore is really exciting.”

Alex Klatsky unfortunately had his eight-grade season halted abruptly when he tore his ACL in only the second game of the season in late December. However, playing with Team Rio has helped prepare him, Lewis and Antoine for the rigors of varsity high school basketball.

“It’s prepared us really well because sometimes some of these top AAU players are better than Shore Conference players,’’ Alex Klatsky said. “You’re playing against someone who’s 6-8 in eighth grade.”

Lewis, whose older brother, Jordan Smith, is a junior on the team at Raritan High School, has more than 12,000 Instagram followers and has become well-known in the hallways at Ranney in the latest stop in his journey. He was born in Ohio and lived in Virginia and Georgia in addition to the Bronx before his family moved to Hazlet last year.

Lewis has also gotten used to the attention generated by clips of his dunks on YouTube and the usual hype that comes with being a hoops prodigy. He also has spoken to other players going through similar situations, like 6-foot-8 Roselle Catholic freshman Nazrean Reid, an Asbury Park resident who is one of the top players in the country in his class.

“I think I handle those situations in a positive way because I know if I try to excel at the next level, that’s how it’s going to be,’’ Lewis said.

“I watch Scottie as much off the court as on, and he’s the first one to be cheering his teammates from the bench,’’ said Ranney athletic director Bobby Malone. “He is as good of a person as he is a player, and to us, that's the most important thing."

Already being in the building at Ranney has also eased any transition to high school next season, where there could have potentially been friction with a group of freshmen coming in who most likely will play heavy minutes.

“Going into high school is not going to be adversarial,’’ Brian Klatsky said. “Everyone already knows them, and the school has really embraced them.”

“Everyone has been super friendly,’’ Alex Klatsky said.

The work at I’m Possible Training has also been important because since they are so advanced for their age, Klatsky, Lewis and Antoine can get better by pushing one another. They have been doing primarily skill work to improve their games and now are focused more on strength training to compete with older players next year, according to Stanhope.

“I’m the key player on my (eighth-grade) team, so I’ve just been working on my passing and working with teammates who aren’t as talented as me to improve my all-around game,’’ Antoine said.

“One thing we do differently than the typical AAU team is that we emphasize skill development,’’ Brian Klatsky said. “We do a lot of shooting work and a lot of skill work. It’s not just game after game after game.”

It all adds up to a group expected to transform Ranney from a team stuck at the bottom of the standings to one that may soon be capable of challenging for Shore Conference Tournament titles and more.

“I can’t wait until we’re all playing together on the same team next year,’’ Lewis said. “It should be a lot of fun.”