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2004 PRIMETIME SHOOTOUT


 

Dwight Howard, Sebastian Telfair (Louisville), Josh Smith (Indiana), AJ Price (UCONN), Greg Paulus (Duke), Rajon Rondo (Kentucky), Russell Robinson (Kansas) and much much more..

 

by Shawn Siegel

 

 

 

Most people don’t usually relish a chance to spend an entire day in Trenton, NJ. But with eight quality high school basketball games on the schedule, I made the Sovereign Bank Arena my home this past Saturday. I say home because after spending eleven long hours in the arena, it felt like a home away from home.

The drive down to Trenton wasn’t too long, but I missed the majority of the day’s first match between New Jersey’s Burlington City and Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit. I barely caught any of this game so I wont go into any detail about McQuaid’s 72-66 win. McQuaid was one of the top team’s in the nation last year with a 27-1 record, and a NYSPHSAA state title. The Knights lost three D1 talents from last year, but still returned quality talent in Jim O’Sullivan and Jack Leasure. O’Sullivan, whose brother Marty was a star last year and now attends Fairfield, scored 19. Leasure led the team in scoring with 34 points.

By the start of the second game at 11:30 am, I was firmly settled into my seat. The game featured Durham, North Carolina’s Mount Zion Christian Academy against Centerreach, New York’s Our Savior New American School. Unlike McQuaid Jesuit and Burling City earlier, which are more typical high school basketball programs, both Mt Zion and Our Savior are basically basketball destinations which welcome talent from across the country and the world.

Mt Zion is led by 5 players who have already earned scholarships with big time programs, and their bench include some of the top player’s in their respective classes. I don’t really follow teams so much as players, so I was surprised that Mt Zion was not in the USA Today Top 25 entering this weekend’s event. Based on Saturday’s performance against Our Savior though, it was obvious to see why they weren’t. Basically, they were embarrassing.

Our Savior absolutely blitzed Mt Zion due to superior effort, better teamwork, and better coaching. The real star of the game was Our Savior’s Juan Palacios. Palacios is a 6-8, 260 pound forward native of Medellin, Columbia. Palacios has been a constant riser up the national recruiting charts, and appears to be a top 20 talent right now. He has a man’s body, and has been consistently getting more and more comfortable with the ball. In this game, he not only scored 24 points but controlled the paint and dominated Arizona bound Mohamed Tangara. The Our Savior Pioneers played without junior big man James Tchana, who is apparently injured. (For those who don’t know, the Pioneers have been playing without Kevin Mormin, a promising 7-footer who was killed in a car accident in early January.)

Young Timothy Ambrose did a fine job against Mt Zion’s more experienced and more heralded backcourt. Just a sophomore, the 5-11 guard played like vet scoring 16 points. Mt Zion features two quality point guards in Alabama bound Albert Webber and Iowa State bound Tasheed Carr. Carr got the start for Mt Zion, who amazingly used an Alabama bound point guard as a sixth man. Neither of Carr nor Webber impressed, but at least Webber showed a knack for putting the ball in the basket. Neither, however, showed any ability to play under control, run an offense, or do anything to help their team win.

Mt Zion shooting guard Glen Dandridge has been one of my favorite players to watch in the past. I have seen about 75% of the players discussed in this article in the past, so a lot my descriptions are backed up by previous experience. The Missouri bound Dandridge did not have one of his best games, but still displayed his long range touch by hitting a couple of threes. To me, it seems Dandridge would definitely benefit by playing in a more typical high school environment, where he can learn to be a team leader, and how to shake constant double teaming. I love the way Dandridge shoots the ball, but he still needs to work on his ability to create shots for himself.

The Pioneers got little help from their frontcourt, including Tangara, Cincinnati bound Roy Bright and junior Brandon Rush. Compared to other big men around the nation and at the Shootout, Tangara is one of the most disappointing. A native of Mali, Tangara has always been considered raw, but doesn’t seem to be developing while other “raw” big men like Palacios are pacing him. In year’s past, Bright was once considered one of this class’s best talents, but his star has diminished as other players caught up to him physically. I’ve seen Bright many times, and I’ve never come away terribly impressed. The biggest problem with Bright is that he’s a tweener. At 6-6, he’s too small to dominate the power forward position, but not nearly quick or skilled enough to be a small forward. Still, Bright can score the ball (averaging 17 per game for Mt Zion) and with his toughness, should fit right in under Bob Huggins.

Brandon Rush was almost non-existent in this game, and frustrates because of his lack of effort and attitude. Even though this game was a blow out, Rush’s complete lack of effort on defense and offense was inexcusable. The crowd literally was laughing in disgrace as Rush started walking off the court with over 50 seconds to go in the game because his team was down 30 points. I still believe Rush will be the most devastating scorer to come out of the 2005 class, but you could not have made such a claim based on this weekend’s performance.

Following Mt Zion’s 32 point loss, the crowd was hoping for a competitive and hard fought game. Unfortunately, they got hard play, but not a close game between Christian Brothers Academy of Syracuse and Amityville (NY) High School. Both of these teams were invited to the event for one simple reason, their star point guards. Amityville is led by UCONN bound AJ Price, while CBA is all about Duke bound junior Greg Paulus. Amityville pulled away in the second half to blow out CBA 72-40. The score does not represent the play of the two stars, so much as the talent each team had in support.

Amityville has a solid point guard in senior PJ Smith, which allows Price to play off the ball for most of the game. Smith did a fine job covering Paulus and leading his team to the easy victory. Playing the two guard, Price displayed a great shooting touch by hitting multiple threes and scoring 28 points. It was one of the most impressive performances of the day, because it came so effortlessly, and almost no shot was forced. In the past I’ve written that Price is the 3rd best point guard in the nation behind Shaun Livingston and Sebastian Telfair, a claim which I still feel comfortable with today.

Besides Price and Smith, Amityville also got a solid performance out of big man Mark Johnson. Johnson, only a junior scored 18 points and really overwhelmed CBA’s less athletic and physically mature big men. Overwhelmed was probably the key word for the game. At times, I pitied CBA’s role players for being embarrassed miles away from their comfort zone in northern New York. Unlike most of these teams, CBA does not travel the national circuit playing in big time tournaments. If it was not for Greg Paulus, most of these players would never get the chance to play in an 8,000 seat arena in front of dozens of college and pro scouts.

No one on CBA took advantage of this opportunity by having a quality performance. While not being the fastest PG out there, Paulus really does have a solid handle, and more importantly has great court vision. A quarterback in football, Paulus displays the same type of vision making long range passes on fast breaks, and finding open men in the half court. Unfortunately, no one on CBA could finish or even hit open lay ups. Erik Estabrook, a 6-4 forward, was probably the player with the most opportunity to shine. Only a junior, Estabrook has a well-defined body and good athleticism, but unfortunately just got not finish any shots down low.

Shooting guard Dave Fine is CBA’s second best player, but really struggled with his shot Saturday. I had seen Fine play at this summer’s ABCD camp, where he was overmatched against the big time talent. Then and now, I still have no clue as to why Fine was invited to the prestigious Adidas camp. Fine can handle the ball adequately, but has a very unorthodox jump shot, which is inconsistent at best. Perhaps Fine’s ugly jumper gets hot at times, but I’ve never been there for it.

The day’s middle game (or middle of the 7 men’s games) involved Montrose Christian School of Rockville, Maryland against Simon Gratz HS of Philadelphia, PA. Simon Gratz was ranked 18th in the USA Top 25 poll, and Montrose is led by some big time talent, so I expected to finally see a close well-played game. Unfortunately, while Simon Gratz did put up a solid effort, they ended losing by 20 to the Mustangs of Montrose Christian. Montrose was an extremely well-run team, almost professional in approach, who played a well-executed and structured game. While this is the only time I’ve ever seen Montrose play, coach Stu Vetter (though no spring chicken) seems like he could be a fine college coach in the right setting.

The most noticeable player on Montrose is 6-11 Tunji Sorye. Sorye towered over the rest of the players, but was very disappointing. He moves extremely well for a 6-11 big man, but his biggest problem is his hands. On too many occasions to mention, Sorye got the ball swiped out of his hands by smaller opponents. When going up to dunk, he would get blocked because he brought the ball down too low and guys poked it away. He’s headed to the University of Virginia, where he’s a major project but his size and athleticism make him worth the time. He was able to block many Simon Gratz shots and alter many more attempts.

Junior Uche Echefu was a pleasant surprise. The 6-8 230 pound Echefu scored 17 points, and reminded me of a 2005 version of senior Juan Palacios. Besides post moves down low, he also was a defensive force alongside Sorye. Echefu impressed me more than other Top 75 2005 big men like Leo Criswell, Clarence Holloway (Louisville) or David Weaver (Wake Forest). He seems like a player to look out for in the future.

Shooting guard Tom Hammonds displayed a solid long range stroke for Montrose, and scored 15 points. He has a nice-looking high-arching shot, which was fed often by sophomore point guard Taishi Ito. At times, Ito and junior KJ Matsui form a rare all-Asian backcourt for Montrose. Ito runs the point with ease, never trying to do tom much with the ball. He spent more time properly resetting the offense than trying to break guys down of the dribble, so its hard to get a sense of just how much skill he has. Still, for a sophomore, you could not ask for much more out of a point guard.

Simon Gratz did not play poorly by any means, but simply struggled to score the ball because of the towering frontline of Sorye and Echefu. I’ve always considered senior slasher Mark Tyndale one of the most underrated players in the 2004 class, and I was glad to get to see him play again. Tyndale is a solid offensive player, who excels because of his ability to get into the lane and hit the pull-up jumper or finish amongst the bigs. With 15 points, Tyndale had about 40% of Simon Gratz’s points, but was still hindered by the presence of Sorye and Echefu down low. Tyndale’s being looked at mainly by non-BCS schools in the A10 and CUSA, but he will be a steal wherever he goes.

6-9 center Matthew Walden is a legit D1 prospect who can bang down low, and has a strong bottom. I’d seen Walden in the past against less physically mature players, so was interested to see how he’d fare against Sorye and Echefu. While Walden didn’t have a bad performance, he was really limited going up against players his own size. Still, Walden scored 10 points and had some good defensive plays of his own. Forward Jason Hickenbottom is also a D1 prospect. The 6-5 Hickenbottom never really got going on this night, and didn’t show the ability to create shots for himself.

Oak Hill Academy faced Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty High School in the day’s first premier matchup. Oak Hill, of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia is the nation’s premier prep basketball program, and the Warriors are ranked first in the USA Today poll. Despite being a storied program in its own right, Cardinal Dougherty was the fan favorite because they’re located relatively close to Trenton and were obviously the underdog in this game.

Without going into too much detail, Cardinal Dougherty went into the half-time with the lead, and got up by as many as 12 points (approx.) before fading in 4th quarter. Cardinal Dougherty point guard Kyle Lowry had an average performance for the Cardinals. Lowry, a Villanova signee, is ranked as high as 4th in his point guard class, but just doesn’t really do it for me. At 5-11, he’s undersized, but he can make up for that with great leaping ability and upper-body strength. My favorite talent of Lowry is his ability to rebound the ball despite his size, and even follow missed shots with lay-in put backs. I was disappointed, that Cardinal Dougherty played Lowry off the ball a lot, leaving the ball-handling duties to guard’s Tom Magnum and Tim Smith. If you’re going up against the #1 team in the entire country, one would think that you’d want your top-5 point guard touching the ball as much as possible. The fact that Coach Heimerdinger took the ball out of Lowry’s hands so often makes me skeptical about their faith in Lowry’s abilities. Lowry did nothing but solidify my thoughts that he is an overrated guard, whose worse than other incoming Big East guards like Price, Josh Wright (Syracuse) and Justin Cerasoli (Seton Hall).

Tim Smith is an interesting player. A fan favorite because he’s one of the few white guards out there, and he’s small at just 6-0, 168, Smith has surprisingly agile hands. On defensive, he was really quick to poke away at the pole, and also has the ability to hit an outside shot here and there.

However, Cardinal Dougherty has some much bigger talent to discuss than Smith. Forward Shane Clark, another Villanova signee, was very impressive. Clark, just a junior has great handle for a 6-8 forward and also hit his outside shots. While Clark is amazingly thin and has an awkward looking shot, he was more than effective during this game. It was Clark’s long range shooting which kept Cardinal Dougherty in the game to the very end. If he plays like he did this weekend, he’ll end up being an early steal for Jay Wright.

In the first half, it was 6-8 245 pound big man DeSean White who stole the show. White, whose headed to Providence, can really move and shoot for man his size. He loves to pull up for the free-throw extended jumper on the fast break, and had one of the best mid-range games of any player throughout the day. White still needs to work better at banging inside, but his mid-range game makes him one of the top 50-60 players in the country.

For Oak Hill, the big name is of course Joshua Smith. Smith, who signed with Indiana, but has mainly contemplated the NBA draft is considered one of the top five talents in the class. No one can doubt Smith’s amazingly amazing physical talent, mainly his leaping ability, but he has never done it for me. Compared to a guy like Charlie Villanueva, just now making his first start for UCONN, or #1 prospect Dwight Howard, Smith is a step behind.

I say he’s behind because he doesn’t have the beastly power that a player like Howard has, nor the more well-rounded offensive game that someone like Villanueva does. I’m sick and tired of always seeing the 6-8 Hill shoot three-pointers and missing. I guess he’s trying to constantly prove to scouts he can do more than dunk, but the fact is, he really cant do anything but dunk as of yet. He’s be better off polishing his inside post game, rebounding, and handling the ball better. It comes down to this, Hill is an awesome prospect because of his physical talent, but I don’t know if he has the head nor the skill to make it big.

Louisville commitment Brian Johnson on the other hand knows how to play within himself. The 6-9 bruiser is showing good touch on his jump shot, as well as confidence passing the ball in the paint and around the perimeter. If Smith is overrated, Johnson, just 41st in the Rivals 150 is one of the most underrated. Lost in the mix was 6-6 forward, and Syracuse bound Dayshawn Wright.

At guards, Oak Hill relies on top 75 junior KC Rivers and senior Rajon Rondo. Rondo, who has signed with Kentucky is ranked as the 3rd best point guard by Rivals.com. I’ve seen Rondo play multiple times against the top competition, and I’ve never come across being that impressed. No doubt he’s one of the top 10 point guards in the country, but he seems to be very inconsistent. Rondo has gone off for 55 points in a game this year, but at other times his jumper escapes him. Despite being only 6-1 160 pounds, Rondo has great speed so he can be a major pest on defense and break people down off the dribble.

Following the quality Oak Hill-Cardinal Dougherty game, Mount Vernon (NY) against Rice (NY) was a bit of a downer. Most of the fans were tired by this point and just wanting to see the feature matchup between Sebastian Telfair’s Lincoln squad against Dwight Howard’s Southwest Christian (SACA) team.

For my part, I was also disappointed that Keith Benjamin of Mount Vernon was not in action. Benjamin, going to Pittsburgh, is a great offensive talent who I’ve enjoyed watching many times. In his place though, freshman Michael Coburn rose out of nowhere to steal the show. Coburn was basically the only freshman the entire day to have an impact, and he did so in style. He took home the Player of the Game honors with a truly awesome performance. Coburn played like he was a senior, doing a little bit of everything. Despite being 17th in the nation in the USA Today poll, I was expecting Mount Vernon to struggle against 11th ranked Rice because they didn’t have Benjamin. However, Coburn’s play along with that of forward Dexter Gray turned it into a double-digit win.

The 6-6 Gray was impressive with his effort on both ends of the floor, and his ability to finish down low. I don’t know exactly which schools are looking at Gray, but he’s definitely a major conference talent.

If freshman Michael Coburn was the surprise of the day, then Kansas bound Russell Robinson was by far the most disappointing. Considered one of the top 10 shooting guards in the country, Robinson could not have been any less effective. Unfortunately, I don’t have the final numbers from this game, but all I know is that Robinson missed a lot of shots, forced a lot of bad shots, and just flat out played bad. At 6-1, he’s undersized to begin with for a two-guard, and didn’t show anything to make one think he can be a star at Kansas. Then again, it was only one game.

Big man Arturo Dubois was solid for Rice. Dubois, headed to Manhattan, should be a dandy of a player in the MAAC. Going up against Gray, Dubois more than held his own and was Rice’s best player on Saturday. Junior point guard Taskico Brown was steady at point guard but not spectacular. He looked very comfortable handling the ball, but was never very assertive on the offensive end. With Robinson struggling, it would have been nice to see if Brown has the ability to score when needed.

By the end of Rice vs. Mount Vernon, fans were booing when fouls were called hoping that the game would end. Everybody wanted to see Lincoln (NY) against Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy (SACA). The day’s feature game did not disappoint as Sebastian Telfair (Louisville) hit the game winning shot as time expired. However, time was not completely expired, and everyone was confused as to why SACA did not call a time out after the make with almost 4 seconds left on the clock. I’ll assume SACA tried to call time out but the refs didn’t make the call for whatever reason. The game was televised so someone out there reading this probably knows what happened.

Regardless, SACA is not a very well coached team. Simply having Dwight Howard slide around the post while being guarded by three men will not get the job done. There are simply dozens upon dozens of ways one could try to get the ball in Howard’s hands instead of just having him stand there while the guards lob the ball up 9 feet in the air for him to grab, and still come down with his back to the basket.

There’s no doubt in my mind Howard should jump to the NBA Draft. Any time you’re seeing double, triple, quadruple teaming, you know you’ve been doing something right. He took a beating in this game, as Lincoln just pushed and shoved Howard around as the refs remained relatively quiet and let it go on. He did get to the line many times and showed a soft touch, and also threw down a few dunks. Still, the SACA staff just does not seem to know how to utilize him properly.

Javaris Crittenton played a nice game for the SACA Warriors. Only a sophomore, Crittenton has the prototypical small forward body. Because Howard is guarded so tightly, SACA’s wing players had many chances for open three’s and both Crittenton and guard Aljamon Alexander hit their fare share. Crittenton also runs the floor really well and projects to be a Top 20 2006 star. While in this game Crittenton played more of a 2/3, he can handle well, and could become a superstar if he could master the point guard position.

I felt kind of bad for point guard Darryl Stack. The 5-10 junior was completely overmatched by Sebastian Telfair. Telfair was able to put on a show with highlight dribbling moves and passes at Stack’s expense. For Lincoln, it was really all about Telfair. Perhaps because I’d never seen Lincoln go up against such a lesser opponent as Stack, his moves seemed even quicker and more devastating than usual. Besides the big three he hit at the buzzer, Telfair also showed good range throughout the night and the ability to hit quick shots off the dribble.

Junior Nyan Boateng is the most common beneficiary of Telfair passes, as the 6-3 wing man runs the floor with ease and can really get off the ground. I’ve never seen Boateng play without Telfair, so I’m skeptical about what he’d be able to do playing under more typical conditions.

In this game, forward Antonio Pena’s main job was to constantly be banging Dwight Howard’s behind. Only a junior, the 6-8 big man did a great job being physical with Howard and was probably the unsung player of the game. Both Pena and Boateng are legit D1 prospects, and it will be interesting to see how they fare without Telfair next year.

by Shawn Siegel

njhoopsnet@aol.com

 

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