Immediately following Christmas, for the thirty-ninth consecutive year we attended what is now called the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational Tournament in Raleigh (December 26-27) and then (for the thirty-second straight year) the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach (December 28-30). Over those five days, we saw 40 different high school teams – 16 in Raleigh and 24 in Myrtle Beach – in one or two complete games, apiece.
In this file, we will focus on the recent HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational and identify our choices of the best 10 prospects in that event, which is actually divided into two separate eight-team tournaments.
Note that all the individuals written about in these two files possess the talent to play successfully at the ACC level, though each is not being equally recruited at the present time. Remember that we emphasize potential above current polish, with the most important attributes being a combination of prime athleticism, skills and intangibles.
TOP TEN PROSPECTS IN RALEIGH
1. Joel Berry, 6-1 Sr. PG, Orlando (FL) Lake Highland Prep: The 185-pound UNC signee is a hard-nosed floor general who does whatever is necessary for his team to win. Thus, at the prestigious, talent-laden NIKE Peach Jam in July, he led his Florida-based team to the championship, earning the MVP award, and replicated those results in the Shavlik Randolph Bracket in Raleigh. When Lake Highland romped to a 28-point opening round triumph over Clayton (NC) High, he was content to contribute 14 points (6-11 FG), 10 rebounds and six assists, but when his team had to go overtime versus Apex (NC) High in the semis, he provided 40 points and 13 rebounds in a 73-68 victory. In the finals, he paced Lake Highland past Kinston (NC) High by scoring 34 points, while again demonstrating the value of having an on-court leader who can score prolifically, set up the half-court offense, and pressure the ball effectively on defense. Tar Heel fans will be pleased to see that Berry is a virtually certain 2014 McDonald’s All-American, and clearly better than current starter (as a freshman!) Nate Britt. In fact, a backcourt of Berry and Marcus Paige will be every bit as good as any in the nation.
2. Justin Jackson, 6-8 Sr. WF, Houston (TX) Homeschool Christian Youth Association (HCYA): Another North Carolina November signee, this highly skilled, hustling wing forward is slender (185 pounds) but deceptively wiry-strong. He understands how to move to gain space with or without the ball, and we consider him to be among the nation’s top 10 high school seniors. HCYA only has eight players on its roster, but still won two of its three games in Raleigh in the Summit Hospitality Bracket, as Jackson amassed an impressive overall total of 111 points (36, 42 and 33). He not only scores via floaters, slicing drives and smooth treys, but also rebounds (14 in one game), passes alertly (four assists in one game), and blocks shots (we credited him with five in a victorious first-round game against Raleigh Word of God).
3. Thon Maker, 7-0 So. C/BF, Martinsville (VA) Carlisle School: This versatile, extremely talented African import led Carlisle to the title of the Summit Hospitality Bracket while demonstrating why he is widely ranked among the nation’s top five sophomore (2016) prospects. In the championship game, a 72-66 win over Fayetteville (NC) Trinity Christian, he hit three treys en route to 34 points. A precociously outstanding run/jump athlete whose face resembles former NBA center Manute Bol, Maker needs more physical strength and better shot selection in order to ultimately reach his sensational promise. Sources believe the Virginia Cavaliers are very strongly in the picture for this academically-oriented young man.
4. Devin Booker, 6-6 Sr. WF/WG, Moss Point (MS) High: The son of former Missouri and NBA guard Melvin Booker has little help at Moss Point, which finished eighth (last) in the Shavlik Randolph Bracket despite his total of 111 points (42, 38 and 31). Primary assets of this Kentucky Wildcats signee include polished use of fakes and spin moves, superior free throw accuracy (17-17 in one game and 22-24 in another!), and the ability to drill three-pointers from a yard beyond the arc. He’s a good athlete though not a great one, but the maturity of his game enables him to be a prolific scorer even when being constantly double-teamed.
5. Brandon Ingram, 6-8 Jr. WF/BF, Kinston (NC) High: This rangy, rapidly improving combo forward has gained at least two inches in the past year, moves extremely well without the ball, and is so youthful looking that we wonder if he has ever shaved! If he continues to grow taller and to improve his already big-time caliber shooting and ball-handling skills, he could emerge as a national top 10 prospect in the high school class of 2015. In Raleigh, he scored 23 points to lead Kinston to a stunning 47-45 semifinal upset of loaded Marietta (GA) Wheeler, and while the Vikings fell to Lake Highland in the championship contest of the Shavlik Randolph Bracket, Ingram’s 20 points paced his team. He’s being widely recruited by a host of elite college programs, including UNC (January 26 official visit), Duke, N.C. State and Georgetown.
6. Dennis Smith, Jr., 6-2 So. PG/WG, Fayetteville (NC) Trinity Christian: Widely called “Junior,” this one-on-one style backcourt operator sometimes tries to do too much with the ball, resulting in turnovers. At other times, however, he is truly spectacular, as he was in the semifinals of the Summit Hospitality Bracket, when he erupted in the second half to tally 30 of his game-total 42 points in a win over HCYA. There’s no doubt that he’s a terrific athlete, as he demonstrated while throwing down ferocious slams to finish slicing drives and to put back rebounds in heavy traffic. His jump shot is smooth and reliable, but to become a blue-chip point guard, he needs to tighten his handle and to upgrade his decision-making. Regardless, he already is the recipient of widespread recruiting attention from ACC members (N.C. State, Clemson et al.) and other excellent programs.
7. Seventh Woods, 6-2 So. PG/WG, Columbia (SC) Hammond School: He’s very fast, hits slick mid-range fadeaways, and is the possessor of at least 25-foot range on his jump shot, but despite his considerable national reputation, he’s presently not what some college programs prefer to set up and orchestrate their half-court offense. Of course, that may not matter, should he add another couple of inches and become a full-time wing guard rather than a point guard. In Raleigh, we saw him rack up 42 points (including seven consecutive three-pointers in the second half!) versus Trinity Christian, but he had little help from his teammates, hence Hammond lost by a 79-65 count. Note that he actually is capable of being a playmaker, and occasionally doles out a clever assist, but most of the time he looks first to shoot, rather than pass. Nevertheless, he (like Thon Maker and Junior Smith) projects as a likely 2016 McDonald’s All-American.
8. Gary Clark, 6-8 Sr. BF/WF, Clayton (NC) High: He’s a highly athletic combo forward who’s among the nation’s top 65 senior prospects. Despite having a scholarship offer from Clemson (among many others) and serious interest from nearby North Carolina State, he opted to sign in November with Cincinnati, and we consider him a “steal” for the Bearcats. In his final two games in Raleigh, he accumulated 35 points, 22 rebounds and nine blocked shots in a 77-64 victory over Moss Point, and 34 points and 12 boards is a 67-61 loss to host Raleigh Broughton. Since then, he racked up 40 points in a 69-62 win over East Wake. Strong around the basket and a solid jump shooter to the three-point arc, he’s a very tough matchup for most forwards, due to his versatility. Down the road, will the Wolfpack regret not courting him more diligently?
9. Jaylen Brown, 6-6 Jr. WF/WG, Marietta (GA) Wheeler: While he’s reputedly inconsistent, we saw him total 23 points and nine rebounds in an 86-60 trouncing of Garner (NC) High, and 23 points, 14 rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals in Wheeler’s two-point semifinal defeat by Kinston. Our conclusion is that he’s a national top 20-caliber junior and probable 2015 McDonald’s All-American. His reported college list contains Georgia, Memphis, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Maryland, Ohio State and perhaps others. He’s both highly skilled (shooting and handling) and athletic, and we won’t be at all surprised if other ACC schools seek to enter the picture for his future collegiate services.
10. Goodluck Okonoboh, 6-9 Sr. C/BF, Wilbraham (MA) Wilbraham and Monson Academy: We were getting our first look at this promising rebounder/rejector who runs like a deer, throws down ferocious dunks at every opportunity, hits some mid-range jump shots, and exhibits potential as a passer. Occasionally he overdribbles, rather than giving the ball to a guard and filling a lane on the break, with the result being a turnover. Overall, however, we liked what we saw from this Nevada-Las Vegas signee, who wound up with 18 points (8-9 FG) and six rebounds in a 67-65 opening game victory over Apex (NC) Middle Creek. In our opinion, he’s not a McDonald’s All-American, but he is a legitimate national top 40 senior prospect.