Brandon Jennings Invitational
Under Armour brings eight elite high school teams—and a bunch of top players—to Milwaukee.
2:30 PM Menomonee Falls (WI) High vs Brooklyn (NY) Lincoln
This game features the only Wisconsin team, nearby Menomonee Falls High, taking on legendary New York City Public School power Lincoln. To learn more about these teams I spoke with Menomonee’s JP Tokoto (a 6-6 junior 3 man who is roundly considered one of the top 5-10 small forward in his class) and Lincoln’s Isaiah Whitehead (a 6-4 freshman lead guard who lives in Coney Island like so many great Lincoln players before him did).
SLAM: Technically this is a national event for you, too, but being that you guys are right outside Milwaukee, are you approaching this a little different, like, We need to represent for Milwaukee?
JP Tokoto: We feel like they’re in our house so we have to show them what Wisconsin is about. We need to prove something.
SLAM: What’s it like here in the middle of the season to be playing Lincoln—from Brooklyn, NY—as opposed to some of your usual local teams?
JT: I’ve talked to a few guys on my team about it, and some of them play AAU and know what this is about. Everybody is just pumped up. A team from New York, who we hear is the No. 1 team in New York? Let’s do it.
SLAM: I hear you were a soccer player first?
JT: Yeah, that was my first love [laughs], mainly because my granddad [former Cameroon National Team player Jean-Pierre Tokoto] started teaching me since I was 4. It was definitely a family thing. I still play recreationally, but haven’t played competitively since I was 12 or 13.
SLAM: Was that a like thing or a height thing?
JT: Both, I guess. As soon as I started playing basketball I was better at it, so I just decided I had to give up soccer.
SLAM: How’s the college process going for you?
JT: It’s going great. We added UCLA and Stanford to the mix of schools I’m considering, and then we’ll cut my list back down after the season when I can think about some stuff.
SLAM: What are you and your team trying to accomplish out here at this mid-season event?
Isaiah Whitehead: We’re trying to get a win and show Under Armour that we really like their product and representing them and that we want to keep doing it.
SLAM: You guys have some serious rivalries back home in Brooklyn; what’s it like when you travel and play some of these teams you’ve maybe never even heard of?
IW: It’s good. League games we always scout, but you can’t scout a team from Milwaukee, so that’s a different type of game. You never know what to expect.
SLAM: After Lincoln won four city titles in a row, Boys & Girls got it last year. Can you reclaim it?
IW: Definitely! We did lose our first league game due to some injuries, but we’re playing better and we can win the city.
SLAM: How about you personally? As a Coney Island native you’re now being considered the next in line after guys like Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Lance Stephenson. Some guys have made it big, some haven’t. Is this an honor? Pressure?
IW: It’s an honor to be mentioned with great players that have come before me, but it does have its ups and downs. I did know I always wanted to go to Lincoln and I’m happy to be playing here.
SLAM: Has college consideration started for you yet?
IW: Yeah. I have USC, Pitt, Xavier, and that’s about it for now. The bigger focus for me is to win a city championship. I don’t care how many points I score or anything like that, I just want us to win.
4:15 PM Brooklyn (NY) Boys & Girls vs Winter Park (FL) High
The “game of the day,” in that it has the late start, a television crew (it will be re-broadcast on Fox Sports Net in early February) and the top-ranked player in the country, Winter Park’s Austin Rivers. To preview this game I sat with Boys & Girl’s Mike Taylor (a 6-4 senior guard who is committed to Rutgers) and the aforementioned Rivers (a 6-5 guard who is committed to Duke).
SLAM: How do you approach these non-league games? You like taking a break from the PSAL?
Mike Taylor: I think we approach them harder than we approach our league games. We’re struggling in our league a little bit and then winning tremendous games out of our league. Like, we just won an ESPN game [last weekend against PA's Academy of the New Church] where we were down by 15 in the fourth quarter. Then we come home and play a team we should beat by 30, and we barely win.
Coming out here to this Brandon Jennings Invitational is an honor for our team. And we get to play against the best player in the country. For me, that’s a chance to prove something since I’m not really ranked in the top 100 or anything. I’m not going in there like it’s a one-on-one, but for us to get a win would mean a lot.
SLAM: Are you concerned about the play back home?
MT: Yeah, but I think we’ll get it together. We’ve been playing to the competition. When the competition is low we play to a low level. When the competition is high we can play at a tremendously high level. But we’re going to get it by the playoffs.
SLAM: Have things been different as defending city champs? You think maybe teams at home are coming at you guys harder?
MT: Yeah. Before it was all about Lincoln because they won back-to-back-to-back-to-back city titles. Now we have a ring to defend and we have the bullseye on our back. And you have people doubting coach Lovelace, saying she got lucky. We want to prove them wrong.
SLAM: As far as college, regardless of your ranking, you were one of the biggest recruits in the New York area. What made you pick Rutgers and coach Mike Rice?
MT: Coach Rice just approached me with a real strong step. Came at me like, ‘I want you to come to my program and play 2 guard. I want you to shoot the ball, to score the ball.’ He’s also a tough coach. I don’t want to be babied or pampered. I want to get to the level after college, and I think he can do that for me.
SLAM: The kid Greg Lewis from Baltimore that’s out here is committed to Rutgers, too. Do you know him at all?
MT: I didn’t. Just met him today, exchanged some words and took a couple pictures together.
SLAM: It does seem like Rutgers is really raising the talent level.
MT: Yeah, we got Myles Mack, Kadeem Jack, like seven recruits total. And a lot of guys are graduating so we’re going to get a chance to come in there and do some things. I think if everybody puts a little piece of their game in we can do really well in the Big East.
SLAM: And before you get there, what’s your main goal for the rest of this season?
MT: My main goal is winning the city championship and then go back to the state finals and win that. We got there last year and lost by 3 to Christ the King, and it was a tough loss. I left my team down by fouling out so I want to get back there and win it. I want to go out as a senior winning, not losing and crying.
SLAM: Between your family (Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers is Austin’s father, and Indiana guard Jeremiah Rivers is his brother) and the fact that it seemed like you were so skilled at such a young age, it feels to me like you’ve been in high school forever. Is it weird to think that all this is finally winding down?
Austin Rivers (pictured at left in last summer’s Elite 24 game): Yeah, I feel like I’ve been in high school for 10 years. And it’s been so fun, playing with all my friends. But I’m ready to take on a bigger challenge, college and so forth. It’s sad it’s coming to an end, but I’m ready.
SLAM: What do you and the team get out of these national events?
AR: It’s a great experience to play all different teams around the country. Most teams don’t get to do that. When we go back to Orlando we have more experience than everybody else. It helps to experience all the other styles of play around the country, and I also think it makes us better as a team to travel together, stay in hotels, be together so much.
SLAM: Have you ever crossed paths with Boys & Girls or at least their star, Mike Taylor?
AR: No, this is the first time I’ve played against anyone on this team. I’ve heard of their program, though, and it’s going to be fun to go against them.
SLAM: As far as college and Duke, are you speaking to Kyrie pretty regularly?
AR: Yeah, we speak two or three times a week.
SLAM: So what’s up? You got any scoops for me on his toe?
AR: All I can say is it seems like he might be back for March Madness, based on how his foot has been feeling. When he first got hurt people were worried about him personally, but I really wasn’t: players like him always bounce back strong and I know he will, too.
SLAM: Would you agree that Duke’s chances of winning without him are—
AR: A lot less! It’s hard, because you build your team around a certain player and what he can do, and then he goes down, and you have to re-start after the season has already begun. It’s hard.
SLAM: It seems like Duke has had a lot of success bringing freshmen in early to get started. Will you do that?
AR: Yes. I will go to summer school. I think we’re going to get to go to China this summer and the only way I can do that trip is if I’ve been in summer school.
SLAM: Wow, I hadn’t heard that. Cool. How about NBA? I assume the Celtics are your favorite team?
AR: Yeah, they are.
SLAM: As the son of a coach and obviously someone who knows the game well, what’s your take on what they need to do to bring another banner to Boston?
AR: I think health is the only thing that stands in their way. If their healthy, the odds of them winning are strong. You can see from this season so far that they can beat anybody. I think their experience helps so much. And they’re not old, like they can’t play anymore. They’re veterans that know how to play and can still do it. They can win.
SLAM: Let’s wrap this up back in high school: how do you want to complete this senior year?
AR: I want to come out on top in the state championship. I wanted a national championship, but losing to St. Pat’s hurt that. But we still have things to win. I want to get a win here and really not lose another game all year. I want to get better myself, too. I want to be the best player entering college basketball next year and I’m working to get to that.