By Tony Williams

HARLEM–What the third annual Boost Mobile Elite 24 lacked in star power it made up in actual defensive intensity and one-upsmanship.

As opposed to last year’s dunkfest, when ballers were doing the cha-cha slide to the tin, these players actually wanted to play a little defense. Sure, Team Skip To My Lou’s 135-121 win over Team G.O.A.T. may suggest otherwise but when you consider that the halftime score was a low-scoring 62-56 G.O.A.T. advantage, for an all-star game that’s the equivalent of a Pistons-Spurs game.

Although there wasn’t a magnetic Brandon Jennings-type in personality and flair on the court, the standing room only crowd was putty in the hands of its current “it” player, Lance Stephenson. The Brooklyn native and Lincoln High star, aka “Born Ready”, had the crowd in his hand from tip-off. Stephenson, who was nursing a groin injury, started out slow looking to set up his G.O.A.T. teammates. It was only after his body seemed to warm up Stephenson looked to be more aggressive, as he only took one shot in the first three minutes. Or perhaps it was the presence of John Wall. The 6’2 phenom from Word of God in Raleigh, who has come out of nowhere this past year—a la a Tracy McGrady back in the day—took immediate control of the game and captivated the partisan G.O.A.T. crowd. Wall’s slick ball-handling, unreal quickness, and shooting range seemed to goad Stephenson out of his shell because after Wall opened the game with a lob dunk, Lance couldn’t resist and let fly a 30-footer with St. Anthony star Dominic Cheek draped all over him. A fired up Stephenson let out a yell and milked the “YEAHHHHH”s from the crowd but settled back into playmaker role soon after.

While on the bench, Stephenson could be heard encouraging his teammates to move without the ball and showed maturity as a team leader.

“These past years I was always a leader, I thought,” he explained. “It’s just this year I’m a senior and feel I should now be better at being more vocal,” said Stephenson, who scored a game-high 29 points en route to co-MVP honors.

But as all great competitors, Stephenson wanted to show why he’s roundly considered the top senior baller – and the crowd favorite. Near the end of the first half, Stephenson found himself singled up by Tony Wroten, Jr. The super soph was getting physical with Stephenson throughout the first half, so when he had the chance Lance waved off his teammates for an iso, momentarily relished in the “YEAHHHHH”’s, and battled Seattle’s finest. Wroten, despite his youthfulness, wasn’t intimidated and gave what he got in the form of bumps and push-offs. Although, neither scored on the other, the chirping escalated and the crowd was frenetic. And the tone was set for the final half.

“He came at me early,” said Stephenson of Wroten. “Clutching, elbowing, and pushing. I was like ‘we don’t gotta do it like this.’ I didn’t want it to get confrontational, so I was like ‘be easy.’ He’s a talent, though. And a lot of guys wanted to come in here and make a name.”

Indeed the defense picked up but there was just too much offensive talent to be stifled. Other than Stephenson and Wall, fellow co-MVPs Cheek and Maalik “So Unique” Wayns also put on a show. When a hobbled Stephenson took himself out of the game at the 7:38 mark, it was Wayns who picked up the slack, teaming with Rice sensation Durand Scott on multiple backdoor layups and lobs to stave off a mad third quarter rush by STML. It wasn’t until midway through the fourth quarter did STML overtake G.O.A.T. and pull away, led by a personal 6-0 run by Wall, who was determined to come in and not be overshadowed by Lance. Wall only had 10 points but they were 10 of the most spectacular points of the night, including a thunderous left baseline “kiss the rim” left-handed flush that looked way too easy for a 6’2 guard to pull off. It shocked all but the perpetrator, however.

“Yeah, I wanted to come here and make my name,” said Wall. “After that dunk I heard people roaring and gasping like they were saying ‘how’d he do that?’ But I’ve worked hard at this…I remember last year looking at the rankings and seeing my name barely in the Top 100. I went to coach and said, ‘help me get better. What do I need to get better?’ And since then I’ve worked hard and now here I am.”

Yup, here he is America. And y’all been warned.

(“MVP”s, from left: Dominic Cheek, Lance Stephenson, Maalik Wayns and John Wall. Photo courtesy of ESPN).

Tip-ins…

-Cheek arguably had the best stat of the night with 23 points, seven rebounds, and three steals.

-STML’s Lamb, formerly of Bishop Loughlin and transferring to prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, had a team-high 25 points.

-Wroten, who became the first freshman to make Washington’s First Team All-State, is a cousin of Knicks sparkplug Nate Robinson. Think about Wroten’s achievement: Nate, Jamal Crawford, Brandon Roy, et. al., and none of them ever did that.

-St. Patrick’s—and UNC-bound—Dexter Strickland won the inaugural Slam Dunk title.

-STML bigs Derrick Favors of South Atlanta had 16 points and seven rebounds, while Washington’s Josh Smith logged the game’s only double-double with 11 points and 11 boards.

-Wall, who added six assists, is still undecided but is considering Kentucky, Kansas, Memphis, Oklahoma State, and Baylor…no, really.

-LaQuinton Ross is no joke. He and Wall are gonna be bananas together at Word of God. Ross is so good at such a young age and it was announced that he once hung 30 points on Golden State Warriors star Monta Ellis, who’s five years his senior.

-Stephenson, who was listed in the media guide at 200 pounds is certainly not anymore. He’s so much thicker and stronger up top, that I joked with his mom, Bernadette, that he could be a power forward soon. “Yeah, he’s getting a lil’ too big,” she said. “Lance can put it away. I’mma work with him on that,” she smiled.