by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7
Playing in front of his hometown crowd, Isaiah Whitehead knew that all eyes would be on him.
The last two years the Elite 24 game was held in New York City (2008 and 2009), NYC natives Lance Stephenson and Doron Lamb each were the game’s high scorers and MVPs, respectively. So with the prestigious game back in the Empire State for the very first time since then, Whitehead looked to make it three straight years that a New Yorker leads the game in scoring and takes home MVP honors while playing in his own backyard.
Whitehead (right), a senior guard at Lincoln HS—the same program that featured the aforementioned Stephenson, Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury—was highly touted as the next great guard to hail from Coney Island even before he stepped foot in the school as a freshman. Expectations have always been high and comparisons to his predecessors have been unavoidable. After not winning the city title his first two seasons, some critics wondered if he was really as good as advertised. But after leading the Railsplitters to a city championship last season as a junior and then having a very strong showing in the AAU/summer circuit, it’s fair to say that he’s silenced any remaining critics.
And Saturday night was just the icing on the cake for him. The 6-4 combo guard put BK on his back en route to a game-high 26 points, a 114-109 win for Team Coney Island and the MVP hardware—picking up right where Stephenson and Lamb left off.
Whitehead was consistent throughout the game, playing with a chip on his shoulders, looking to be the aggressor and showing poise—exhibiting his shooting prowess, while attacking the rim and finishing strong.
Emmanuel Mudiay, the top combo-guard in the nation, demonstrated his offensive versatility throughout the night with a one-two punch of attacking the rim at will or showcasing a reliable jump shot with deep range. After only scoring 4 points in first half, Mudiay exploded for 18 points in the second half to earn him co-MVP honors.
Maybe it was the pending college decision he had to make at halftime, but the recent SMU-commit looked like a weight was lifted off his shoulders in the second half and seemed to be a step ahead of his defenders at all times. Among the notable plays of his performance were his finishes in traffic on back-to-back possessions. At 6-5, Mudiay creates a problem for most defenders as a point guard due to being bigger than most of his opponents.
That was the case on Saturday night when he and 6-0 point guard and Minnesota native Tyus Jones were going at it. Mudiay posted Jones up on the right corner before turning and driving baseline into a packed lane where he ultimately finished with a reverse lay up on the left side. On the very next possession, Mudiay once again went back to the post against Jones on the right side before blowing by him with a spin move and hitting another tough up-and-under reverse lay up. With Mudiay looking to continuously attack Jones in the post, eventually they switched, and Mudiay and Whitehead would kick-start an entertaining and intense back-and-forth battle.
Another one of Mudiay’s signature moves of the night was going left with a crossover before stopping and spinning right for a fadeaway jumper. Proving that he is a true point guard, Mudiay also demonstrated the ability to set-up teammates and possesses great court vision. In consecutive plays, Mudiay’s ability to break down the defense led to two easy dunks. The first time, while in triple-threat position as he stood behind the three-point line, Mudiay found a way to thread the needle and sneak in a bounce pass into the paint to Stephen Zimmerman, who was standing right under the basketball for the jam. On the following possession, Mudiay drives inside the lane, and as he begins to draw defenders and with everyone turned towards him, he dishes off another bounce pass to Zimmerman, who once again was positioned near the rim for the dunk. By the end of the night, to go along with his 22 points, Mudiay also tallied six rebounds, six assists and two steals.
Mudiay (below) was a major reason why his team, which at one point trailed by as many as 30 points to Team Coney Island at 76-46, was able to cut down the deficit to as little as three (112-109) with under a minute to go in the losing effort. But he also received lots of help from Stanley Johnson, a 6-7 senior forward at Mater Dei (CA), who also had a strong outing, putting up 25 points (shooting 10-for-14 from the floor), including 17 points in that second-half comeback. Johnson already has the body frame to play at next level, and it is that sturdy physique that he utilizes to overpower opponents and create shots. He’s able to put the ball on the floor and muscles his way to the rim, with his athleticism and explosiveness also making the difference. He can also knock down shots from as far as the perimeter if left opened. For his strong second-half performance, Johnson received Co-MVP honors on the losing side.
Assisting Whitehead in maintaining the lead for Coney Island was Justin Jackson, a 6-7 forward from Tomball (TX). Displaying the same consistency he’s shown all summer long, Jackson continued to make a case for having the best mid-range game in the nation, as well as one of the smoothest floaters around, all while doing it with the soft touch he’s become known for. Jackson finished with 19 points while shooting an extremely efficient 9-10 from the floor and grabbing 5 boards. Jones finished with a solid all-around performance of 7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
Another notable crowd-pleaser was Chiozza and his ball handling skills. A particular play that had spectators buzzing began with the Memphis native guard going left with a behind the back crossover, followed by another crossover going right before driving to the hole and stopping for one last crossover—this time behind the back and between the legs—and then a short jumper about 10 feet away that was kissed off the glass.
Afterward, both, Mudiay and Whitehead demonstrated their admiration for each other’s games. “It was very fun playing against Emmanuel Mudiay,” said Whitehead. “He’s a great player going to SMU—congrats to him. It was just great out here tonight. It was just competing. Both us are going to compete hard. We are both great players. Just to see great players compete back to back and going hard, it was great for the city.” Added Mudiay: “Man, that boy can flat-out score. [Whitehead] is gonna be special.”
As for his college decision, which he announced at halftime and came as a surprised to many after picking SMU over the likes of Kentucky and Kansas, Mudiay said, “I picked it because I want to elevate that school and make history. It should be fun. I didn’t want to be like everybody else doing what they’re doing. I’m about starting something; be the one that people say, ‘That’s why I want to go [there].’ I just wanted to start my own thing.”
If you haven’t seen the dope action shots and spectacular views that this year’s game at the Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn’s DUMBO brought, check out the photo gallery of the game here and the gallery of Friday’s skills competition here.
For next year’s group, this will certainly be a tough act to follow.
(Photo Credit: Kelly Kline / Under Armour)