Florida’s Finest and Irish Eyes
Scouting high school kids in Florida and potential pros in Ireland.
By Aggrey Sam
Hola. It’s brick in the Windy City, at least for September. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I lived in New Orleans (where I wore a coat exactly once–when I first got off the plane in January of ’08) for a year and change. More than likely, however, it’s because I just got back from Florida (it was 75 or so when I left on Friday), where I spent the weekend covering the Nike Team Florida Workout and Exposure Camp in St. Petersburg.
Nike Team Florida is known as one of the perennial AAU powerhouse programs in the Sunshine State and also one of the more consistent teams in the nation. It’s not because of their talent (although their alumni includes the likes of Nick Calathes and Florida State big man Solomon Alabi), but because of their fundamentals, organization and coaching staff, which consists of real teachers of the game with college experience under their belt.
The event was a two-day deal, with juniors and seniors playing Saturday and freshmen and sophomores on the court Sunday. Unlike a lot of fall events, while the kids did get to play in three games apiece, there was an emphasis of skills, drills and giving maximum effort when on the court. Although a lot of Florida’s high-profile upperclassmen weren’t in attendance, it was a great opportunity to see some sleepers and a lot of up-and-coming young talent. Here are 20 kids from both days worthy of your attention:
–Oyemiyi Ayotunde, 6-9 senior post, The Rock (FL): A long, spindly shot-blocking force on D, Ayotunde is a finesse player with a decent touch on offense, who should be a more consistent finisher with added strength.
–Christian Bradley, 6-5 freshman combo forward, Florida Air (FL): Perhaps it was because the youngster also participated with the older prospects on Saturday, but as time went on during Sunday’s session with his peers, the athletic, energetic and versatile youngster gained increasing confidence, demonstrating perimeter skills, post moves, finishing ability, great leadership (even in a camp environment) and a tremendous upside in general.
–Chris Bryant, 6-8 junior post, Rickards (FL): Possibly the prospect who gained the most from this event, the fleet and slender big man played with passion and boundless energy–running the floor, hammering the boards and hustling on D–but also displayed a promising skill level, as he had deft footwork in the post, a nice touch out to the mid-range area and finished above the rim with surprising strength.
–Santoine Butler, 6-7 senior post, Oldsmar Christian (FL): The previously mentioned player’s tag-team partner at “THEworkout” was content to do the dirty work early, but as the day continued, the more traditional post prospect showed his game wasn’t limited to cleaning the glass and scoring on putbacks, as he broke out some nifty maneuvers on the low block.
–Dre Kalo Clayton, 6-5 freshman post, Evans (FL): A freshman receiving a lot of attention in Orlando, the husky youngster (can’t believe he’s never played football, especially in Florida!) is a bit ground-bound and occasionally tried to do too much on the perimeter, but he has a great skill level for his size, punishes opponents in the paint on both ends and proved to have a relatively high basketball IQ for his age.
–Demarcus Croaker, 6-2 freshman wing, Jones (FL): One of the best athletes in the gym on either day, the high-flying wing wowed those in attendance with his leaping ability, quickness and overall explosiveness, and while he does need to continue to polish his game, it was a good omen for his chances that he seemed to find a niche by burying a few jumpers on the move.
–Harold Doby, 6-5 senior wing, Oldsmar Christian (FL): The big-bodied Georgia State commitment displayed an intriguing package of skills, including smooth ballhandling, a solid mid-range game, the strength and athleticism to finish tough drives and a willingness to bang down low on either end of the floor.
–Glenn Feidanga, 6-7 sophomore post, The Rock (FL): Long and athletic with the understanding that he’s a true post player at this stage of his career, combined with a relentless nature on the glass, D and when finishing equals a productive player right now with excellent potential.
–Kasey Hill, 6-1 freshman combo guard, Mount Dora Bible (FL): Considered by many to be the best freshman in the state (OJ situation where he’s been playing varsity since seventh grade), the smooth scorer got to the rack at will with his quickness and polished arsenal of dribble moves, but while he couldn’t get it going from the outside, he wasn’t one-dimensional, as he was an intelligent playmaker.
–Xavier Martin, 5-10 senior point guard, Miramar (FL): A diminutive true floor general, the solid playmaker was in scoring mode, displaying his range on open outside jumpers and an ability to get into the lane and finish amongst the trees, all the while controlling the tempo and not forcing the action unless it was necessary.
–Keith Matthews, 6-5 senior wing, Sebastian River (FL): The strong swingman with good athleticism immediately established himself as a slasher–he got to the cup and finished with ease along the baseline, as well as occasionally getting loose in transition–but he showed some versatility with his solid handle, ability to knock down the open J, post-up game and effort on the glass.
–Dennis Mavin, 6-2 senior combo guard, The Rock (FL): An aggressive, bouncy and athletic scorer, this long-armed playmaker was at his best on the break, but while his jumper didn’t fall consistently and he didn’t really look to patiently run the show, with the rock in his hands, he also penetrated in the halfcourt via his breakdown skills, often leading to point-blank finishes.
–Keith McDougald, 6-2 senior wing, Kenny (FL): The husky and versatile Louisiana-Lafayette commitment outmuscled smaller guards, outskilled bigger wings, rained in shots from all over the court, contributed on the boards, played tough D and generally made all-around winning basketball plays in an understated fashion.
–Quinten Payne, 6-4 freshman wing, Verot (FL): The younger brother of Iowa freshman guard Cully Payne is nothing like his older sibling, as he’s a long and extremely athletic slasher, finishes well going to the rack, makes plays on the defensive end, rebounds on both ends and while his J didn’t fall with regularity, he has a nice-looking stroke.
–Okaro White, 6-8 senior combo forward, Clearwater (FL): Easily the event’s best prospect, the Florida State commit is an elite defender on the national level–thanks to his footspeed, tremendous length, anticipation and leaping ability–and proved it, but also showed that his perimeter skills are coming along nicely, as he pushed the rock in transition for coast-to-coast finishes, made some nice baseline drives and even hit contested jumpers off one-on-one iso plays.
–Scottie Wilbekin, 6-2 junior combo guard, The Rock (FL): A solid passer, ballhandler and shooter without being great at any of those things, the curly-headed kid used all of those skills to switch back and forth between playmaker and scorer, while maintaining a high level of intensity and playing with savvy.
–Dominique Williams, 6-5 junior wing, Haines City (FL): An athletic slasher with good bounce, nicely-developing perimeter skills, a hard-nosed mentality and solid all-around skills, the native of Amare Stoudemire’s neck of the woods simply made plays–on offense and defense, and on the inside and outside.
–Eric Williams, 6-8 senior post, Wiregrass Ranch (FL): With his high-energy mentality, length, athleticism and intriguing skills, the somewhat-raw prospect was an inside-outside threat (even with an inconsistent J), as he showed that he could play above the rim, finish (even without having a lot of bulk), put the ball on the floor and be an interior force.
–Xavier Williams, 6-5 junior wing, Jackson (FL): The third of the Williamses was a lot like the first one I mentioned–a tough, physical and athletic slashing swingman, who finished at the rack, hit jumpers off the dribble, boarded well, didn’t take off plays on D and displayed capable ballhandling and outside shooting.
–Wilfred Yuegette, 6-7 senior post, Florida Air (FL): A tough insider who absolutely owned the boards, this undersized warrior was a beast in the paint, finished just about everything, showed some decent skills and a nice touch from 15 feet and in, and also displayed solid athleticism.
Thanks to Tom Topping (as well as his family, the Nike Team Florida staff and Eckerd College) for hosting the first-class, well-run event, as well as Reggie Rankin, Jim Clark, Rick Staudt, Dana Hopkins, Erika Rossi-Raia, Rob Harrington, Jerry Meyer, Eric Bossi, Dave Telep, Rick Ball and my guys from courtcred.com (I think that’s everybody) for putting up with me for a whole weekend. Oh yeah, in case you’re more of a visual person, here’s some video of freshman phenom Kasey Hill from the event, courtesy of the good people at
On a different note, over the last few months, a friend of mine has been dabbling in the agent business (in his case, I like to call it the player placement, as he does it for the love, not for a profit) and put together a few events to aid the cause of some prospective pros. Last month, he had a three-game showcase in Baltimore, which was attended by some coaches and other basketball personnel from various professional levels. Well, a couple weeks ago, he stepped it up, having a tourney and some exhibition games in Northern Ireland.
Anyway, when I was in Philly–in the midst of my move to the Chi–he introduced me to one of his friends at a pro-am game, who I quickly found out has a keen eye for player evaluation and some skills with the pen. Well, that friend works in Ireland and offered to do a recap of the events over there, which I found pretty interesting, as Ireland isn’t exactly a prime destination for ballplayers. In the words of Ann Landers, read on:
By Colin Powers
With training camps looming expectedly on the horizon across the growing realm of international professional basketball, a group of American ball-players travel to Ireland in hopes of impressing the right coach at the right time with the right amount of money and roster flexibility. The clock is ticking, and the six Yanks who undertook the long cross-Atlantic journey into a land of basketball obscurity know it. The worldwide economic recession, which recognizes no borders or country lines, isn’t helping matters either: this season, the teams of the Irish Super League are allowed to employ only one American player, halving the number of jobs available from the previous year.
Derrick Wiley, Jermaine Washington, Maurice Wood, Brandon Giles, TJ Scarbrough, Nate Fritsch, and Ed Lipinski touched down in Dublin on Thursday, September 17 to embark on a journey that would take them across the Emerald Isle and into a basketball world far different to the one from which they departed. Hours within their arrival, with legs hamstrung by dehydration and a 6 hour red-eye flight, the seven Americans took on the Dart Killester Basketball Club, one of the top teams of the Irish Super League. Wearied by travel, perplexed by the officials, and adjusting to the different rules and court dimensions of the European game combined to make this the closest contest by far that the Americans would experience. Indeed, they trailed in the final few minutes before lead guard Maurice Wood took over, a progression that transpired time and time again over the next three days. Wood scored seven straight to end regulation, eventually leading the team to a 2 point over-time victory.
The following evening, the band of players made their way up to Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland, which is actually independent of the south of Ireland and a province of the United Kingdom. Organized by agent Noam Fishman of Performance Sports Management, the team competed in the Golden Popcorn Invitational, a small semi-professional tournament that attracts clubs across a wide spectrum of playing ability from Ireland and England. The tournament, hosted by ESPN Arthur Ashe Award for Courage winner Dave Cullen, also served as launching event for the not-for-profit organization Full Court Peace. For the past 3 years, Full Court Peace has attempted to build bridges and relationships between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland, communities that have long been segregated and witness to war, terrorism, oppression, and hate. Using team basketball, FCP brings together at-risk youths from some of the most troubled areas of the country for two full seasons, using the shared space of the basketball court as a mechanism to build a better future. For Cullen, a basketball junkie, the tournament was just as much about the competition on the court as it was about spreading the word of FCP’s mission. As he put it, “I grew up in Belfast and saw and experienced first-hand the violence that ravaged this country. Basketball was my escape from that dangerous world, and I think it can do the same for our kids and in the process build a better future.”
Cullen’s tournament commenced on Friday night, with the seven players of the Performance Sports Management team facing off against top division team Belfast Star, a team for which Jermaine Washington has played for twice in the last three years. The game was hosted at St. Malachy’s High School, a perennial power rich in basketball heritage, and owner of one of the rare gym’s in the city blessed with a wooden floor. In a country plagued by joint-killing, synthetic rubber courts, you quickly learn to appreciate any opportunity given to compete on anything resembling home. On this evening, somewhat over their jetlag, the Americans took it to Star from the jump. As a unit, they pressured on defense, reeked havoc in the passing lanes, broke down their defenders off the dribble, and put on a show on the fast-break. Wood, a smooth 6’3 PG from Wiley College of NAIA ranks, tortured the defense time and time again, giving full display to his range of spin moves and mid-range pull-ups. He exhibited clean footwork in the post, impressive strength and body-control in finishing around the cup, and impressive court-vision on the break and in half-court sets. Though it was difficult to evaluate the players because of the low standard of competition throughout the weekend (as I’m sure it was difficult for the players themselves to play their hardest against teams that were at best of a Division 3 quality), Wood seemed to me to have the kind of game that translates no matter what court he steps on to. He creates space very well going both directions with a slight preference in going left, has good mechanics and a quick release on his jumper, and handles the ball with confidence and intelligence. Throughout my evaluation period, Wood used constant changes of speed and subtle fakes to keep defenders off balance and guessing at his ambitions, controlling the flow of each game. Matched up on Saturday with the pesky Puff Summers, PG alumnus of Davidson College, Wood’s shiftiness off the bounce, use of his body, and deceptive cross-over found his way into the small crevices of the lane all game long.
Unfortunately, getting signed in Europe isn’t based simply on one’s ability on the court. Coaches often look for their Americans to bring with them a big name, hailing from a big college, and ideally standing 6’8 plus. As Wood put it, “it’s been the hardest thing for me to get exposure because I come from a small divison1 NAIA school (Wiley College). It’s not a big school so people may not know who I am. Scouts and agents are hesitant to help me also because I am not a household name, but I try to use that as motivation to let people know I can play with anybody no matter what school they went to and what school I went to. I always felt I had the talent; I just needed the opportunity and I thank Noam for giving me that chance to get some exposure.”
Amongst the other Americans, Jermaine Washington showed himself to be the best pure athlete, standing 6’5 with a thick frame, quick first step and explosive jumping ability. His presence on the defensive end, particularly in coming over from the weak side to contest shots, led to a number of breath-taking blocks that sent shutters through the crowd. He also acquitted himself well as a passer and demonstrated the handles needed of a second or third guard, though his shot remains inconsistent especially from distance. Derrick Wiley, the dynamic scorer from East Carolina, also brought the crowd to its feet with a number of baseline drives and thundering finishes during the weekend. He has the classic build of a rugged two guard, possessing tremendous upper body strength and leaping ability. He proved himself as a creative shotmaker from the wing, making all the space he needed off the dribble before elevating from the fiteen to twenty foot range. Though Wiley did not shoot the ball overly well this weekend and the mechanics of his left-handed side-winding jumpshot left a bit to be desired, his scoring track record at ECU during the hey-day of Conference USA basketball indicates he knows how to get his, no matter who he is playing.
Unfortunately for Brandon Giles, the Longwood University graduate, an ankle injury sidelined him after Friday night’s game against Belfast Star. Nevertheless, from what I saw when he was out on the court, the pint-sized guard has tremendous bounce and quickness, weaving his way in and out of the lane at will while also getting great elevation on his jumper. He has easy form extending out to the 3 point line, and is proficient off the step-back when going left and right. TJ Scarbrough, the 6’9 forward NAIA school Montana Tech, completely overmatched anyone who drew his assignment. He runs well and has a clever collection of finishes around the bucket, though his lean frame brings into question how effective he would be in the physical brand of European basketball. Also, though he jumped well when on the move or when charging in for an offensive rebound, his second-jump and standing jump were not particularly notable. Furthermore, his footwork in the post was not the best, with his drop-step and pivot into the lane for a baby hook lacking in efficiency. That said, he was rarely forced by the competition into having to execute such maneuvers, and so it’s not easy to project how he would fare against better competition. For the most part, Scarbrough caught the ball and finished unimpeded at the basket. Nate Fritsch, meanwhile, the 6’6 swingman from Bentley College, shot the ball very well from 3 throughout the tournament, and proved himself as an adept passer, quality defender, and decent secondary ball-handler. Though not blindingly quick, Fritsch has a great build, uses that strength, and plays the angles very well especially when guarding smaller, quicker players. I was impressed with his game, though again, because the comp was low and he had so much time to get off his jumpshot, it is hard to know how accurate he would under more intense pressure. Lipinski was a bit anonymous out on the court and failed to assert his will on the game throughout the weekend.
In the end, the team from Performance Sports Management won the Tournament title in easy fashion, with Maurice Wood taking home the MVP. I was very impressed by how hard all the guys competed, how unselfishly they played, how they fed off one another’s energy and played a pretty decent team game, especially when you consider they had never been teammates before. Because of the lack of quality competition, though, the tournament did not serve as the best platform for evaluation. I do think all of them have the game to find a spot at some level in Europe, and from there, the opportunity is their’s to build their career into something better. Wood and Wiley would undoubtedly be two of the best players in the Irish Super League if offered a contract, but because of the bias in favor of importing American big men, both have their work cut out in finding a coach that will hand them over the keys.