By Aggrey Sam

Early December is usually too early to make bold predictions about high school basketball’s mythical national champ, but it’s safe to say that the picture will get somewhat clearer. Perennial powerhouse Oak Hill Academy will travel from VA to the ATL to take on Norcross High School, in a battle of USA Today’s preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams.

Norcross graduated star player Jodie Meeks (now at Kentucky) and other key seniors from last year’s squad, but returns three major D1 signees and is the favorite to repeat as 5A state champs in the talent-rich Peach State. The biggest name for Norcross is Gani Lawal, a 6-8 power forward headed to Georgia Tech (where the game is being played), who killed on this summer’s AAU circuit. 6-5 combo guard Tony Neysmith (Oklahoma), 6-7 wing Jordan Demercy (Florida State) and 6-8 junior Al-Farouq Aminu (brother of Georgia Tech soph Alade Aminu) are all known nationally, too. Aminu and Demercy are probably especially amped about the game: despite their national reps, they were forced to play JV last year (they had to be two of the most talented JV players in the nation) because of state transfer rules Oak Hill, which reloads (not rebuilds) on a yearly basis, is led by lone holdover Nolan Smith, a 6-3 senior combo guard headed to Duke next year. The Maryland native is a savvy, fundamentally sound combo guard who goes equally hard on offense and D. I had the chance to speak to Smith and Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith (no relation) the day before the marquee matchup.

Coach Smith has been at Oak Hill for 21 years now and has coached players from Rod Strick to ‘Melo, so this kinda hoopla is nothing new to him. Still, the veteran coach is cautious “This being an early December matchup, it’ll be interesting,” he said. “I kinda know their players, but high school basketball isn’t like college with all the scouting, so I think it’s gonna be more of a feeling-out process early on. We want to play our style, which is uptempo, but against teams like to do different things against us, sometimes try to slow the pace.”

Going into tonight’s game, Oak Hill is 10-0, led by the play of their explosive backcourt, which features top junior point guard Brandon Jennings, 6-5 swingman Alex Legion and of course Smith, the team’s captain.

“We count on Nolan on both ends on the floor,” said Coach Smith. “It’s a tough task each night because we expect him to be scoring leader and stopper.” Fueling Smith’s current 23.5 ppg average is L.A. native Jennings, an L.A. native who recently committed to USC (wonder if OJ Mayo will still be around?), a mild shocker in the recruiting world, given that his previous favorite was UConn, attended by his mentor and predecessor at Oak Hill, Marcus Williams.

“The knock on Brandon was that he was a shoot-first, pass-second point guard,” said Coach Smith of the young Kenny Anderson-playalike (if you saw KA in his prime, you know that’s high praise), who comes in averaging 14 ppg and 14 apg. “Right now, he’s looking to run our team and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. At least he’s done it so far.”

The athletic Legion, who’s headed to Michigan, is no third wheel, as the Detroit product is averaging 16 ppg. Junior bigs Howard “Trey” Thompkins (who’s originally from Georgia) and FSU signee Julian Vaughn are no slouches on the inside, with averages of 16 ppg and 10 rpg and 11 ppg and 9 rpg, respectively. This year’s edition of Oak Hill isn’t the deepest bunch, but 6-5, 230-pound sixth man Terrence Boyd’s game and on-court maturity belies his year (he’s only a sophomore) and he can play.anywhere on the wing and the post.

Even with all that talent, don’t expect the game to be a cakewalk. Norcross isn’t weak and that home-court advantage can be a monster. The kids from GA are hungry for respect for their program, they’re already battle-tested and they have pride.
Nolan Smith expects the VA powerhouse to be prepared.

“We’re definitely ready. Now that the lights are on, everybody’s gonna have to step up and perform,” says Smith. “Everybody’s been thinking about it all week. I’ve just been getting focused and getting my teammates ready.”

“Last night (Oak Hill played a local Virginia high school Wednesday), as soon as we ran out on the floor, we’re getting booed by 1,000 people. Tomorrow, it’s gonna be 10-12,000 people, maybe more. We know we got a target on our chest.” Is Norcross gonna hit that bullseye and get a leg up on the rest of the nation in the race for the mythical high school chip? Or will Oak Hill once again reign supreme? Let us know in the comments…

My prediction: 76-68, Oak Hill.