Gearing Up For Winter in the Windy City
Recap of the P.E.P. Fall Classic. Plus, judge Austin Rivers for yourself.
by Aggrey Sam
No, this isn’t about shopping for winter clothes. Over the weekend, I was at Whitney Young High School (last season’s Illinois state champs, led by Marcus Jordan and Iowa State freshman Chris Colvin) for the annual PEP (Project Education Plus) Fall Classic, a fall AAU tournament that is generally a good preseason indicator of how things could shake out during the high school season in the Chi. A surprise winner (there were some big-name teams and prospects in the field), unheralded Old Gold, took the chip, beating the Illinois Titans in the final, 55-54.
For the champs, two pairs of teammates–6-5 Hales Franciscan juniors Dominique Walls and Aaron Armstead and Chicago Vocational teammates Robert Hurd, a 5-10 sophomore, and Rayshun McGrew, a 6-5 junior–led the way. Walls is a bouncy athlete who made big plays (dunks and blocks) on both ends, especially in transition, while Armstead is an all-around wing who continually got to the bucket and finished in the paint. The tiny Hurd ran the show, getting into the lane to set up his teammates, hitting big shots and playing pressure D, and McGrew held things down on the inside with his physical play and rebounding.
The Titans, who I saw several times back in July, recently added a player (or a transfer, as the team plays together during the winter, too, as the players all attend Brehm Prep in Carbondale, Ill.), 6-6 junior Andre Henley, who was one of the top players in his class in Chicago. Henley, a versatile and talented wing, looked like he was still adjusting to his new squad, but fellow juniors, 6-5 beast James “Bamba” Siakam and 6-2 floor general Bruce Barron, seemed plenty comfortable. Barron did typical power point guard thing, using his quickness and strength to get to the basket and either score or dime the rock repeatedly, while Siakam was a straight monster around the rim, with countless power dunks and forceful blocks, as well as starting to knock down some outside shots. Senior Mike Laibo, a 6-4 shooter, also contribute, and 6-9 sophomore post Emmanuel Ochenje showed glimpses of his high ceiling with some big-time athletic plays on the inside.
–Ryan Boatright, 5-11 junior combo guard, East Aurora: Boatright, a big name in Illinois and national circles for committing to USC as an eighth-grader (he de-committed in the aftermath of the Tim Floyd saga), is an exciting and explosive lead guard, who got buckets from behind the arc, on quick drives to the bucket with his flashy handle and on high-flying finishes in transition, but also showed some nice court vision on a few no-look passes.
–Brady Burford, 6-4 senior combo forward, Bogan: Burford, a sleeper in the city, made himself known with his excellent motor, as the bouncy energy guy was all over the boards, played tough D, finished with great power and athleticism and showed signs of a perimeter game with some tough drives to the bucket from the wing.
–Jamal Dantzler, 6-2 senior combo guard, Von Steuben: Dantzler carried his squad offensively with tough slashes and finishes to the rim and pull-up jumpers, but he was also effective on the boards, as a defender and as a playmaker when he was on the ball.
–Lavonte Dority, 5-11 senior point guard, Foreman: Dority, a long considered a top prospect in the Chi, put his usual power point guard game on display, as he overwhelmed frailer guards, showed off his crisp handle and playmaking ability and even surprised opponents with some above-the-rim finishes.
–Dave Dudzinski, 6-8 senior post, Kaneland: Dudzinski, a fundamentally-sound big man, displayed a nice array of quick post moves, surprising bounciness when finishing, a nice touch on his short jumper and the willingness to mix it up on the inside.
–Vincent Garrett, 6-5 senior wing, Marshall: Garrett, in an event loaded with big-time athletes, might have been the highest flyer in the building–his dunks were showstoppers–but while his offensive game lacks polish, he was a presence on defense, active on the boards and an absolute force in transition.
–Tommy Hamilton, 6-8 freshman post, Whitney Young: Hamilton, one of several young phenoms in the city, was a manchild, even competing against older players, as his polished post moves, uncanny passing and ballhandling, rebounding ability and surprising range and touch were impossible to limit.
–Fabyon Harris, 5-8 senior point guard, Hyde Park: Harris, a diminutive floor general, was simply too quick for defenders to stay in front of, finished in the lane, knocked down the outside J, played pesky D and found his teammates with pinpoint passes.
–Walter Lemon, 6-2 senior combo guard, Fenger: Lemon, a smooth lefty ballhandler, is capable of scoring by using his handle to get to the cup, his clever mid-range game or streky outside J, as well as setting up teammates with his solid court vision and creative passing.
–Marcus Lewis, 6-3 senior wing, Streamwood: Lewis, a very bouncy and explosive athlete, beat opponents with his quickness, streaky shooting, rebounding ability and relentless drives to the bucket.
–Mike McCall, 6-1 senior combo guard, Foreman: McCall is as solid as they come, both on and off the ball, as he’s an excellent playmaker, finishes well at the rim and is a consistent outside shooter, along with being a very strong defender.
–Jabari Parker, 6-5 freshman wing, Simeon: Parker, another youngster, is already an extremely polished inside-outside player–he boards well, finishes with smoothness and power, handles and passes fluidly, owns a solid mid-range and has terrific footwork and fundamentals–but now the big-bodied guard is adding some explosive athleticism to the mix.
–Brandon Spearman, 6-3 senior wing, Simeon: Spearman, a Dayton commit, has always been a lockdown defender, but with the development of his outside shooting, has become a much more effective offensive player, as he already possessed good athleticism and a strong drive-and-finish game.
–Sam Thompson, 6-6 junior wing, Whitney Young: Thompson, at various points during the event, showed why he’s such a heralded prospect in the city, as he possesses top-notch athleticism, good ball skills and a nice stroke to go along with his smooth slashing ability.
–Greg Tucker, 6-2 senior combo guard, Lincoln Park: Tucker, an athletic scorer, showed he had the ability to run the show if necessary and defend both guard spots, but his range, explosive drives ability to finishing above the rim were his calling cards.
Thanks to my man Vince Carter, the man behind PEP and head coach at Von Steuben High Schoo, for inviting me out, and everybody else who helped out. If this is what I can expect from high school hoops in Chicago, expect a lot more coverage.
Oh yeah, the previous weekend, when I was in Shreveport, there was a major event in Florida–the Next Level 24, an all-star game featuring the 24 best players in the Sunshine State (give or take; top senior prospects Brandon Knight and Fab Melo didn’t attend). I noticed in the comments of one of posts from Orlando in July that some of you thought I was overhyping top junior guard Austin Rivers. Well, I stand by my evaluation, but I’m open to debate. Instead of showing you just his highlights, however (which would make it too easy), I have full game footage for you (albeit an all-star game; here’s the first half, second half and even the dunk contest), courtesy of Erika Rossi-Raia and the good people at Orlando-based Fast Track Scouting. If you have the time and/or patience, enjoy, and let me know what you think about Rivers and the rest of Florida’s finest.