Proving Ground

When this year’s NY2LA Summer Jam concluded on Sunday, perhaps no player reaped the benefits of playing on that stage more so than Team Loaded-Virginia’s rising senior Kentrell Barkley (Northern HS/Durham, NC).

The 6-5 lefty wing was a terror for the opposition on both ends of the court. Despite entering the week with a slew of mid-major offers, and interest from Cincinnati and VCU, he insisted the killer disposition he played with had nothing to do with trying to prove his worth as a high-major recruit.

“This is how I play,” Barkley said. “Having a high motor helps me do so much more on the floor on the offensive and defensive end. I like to guard the best player whenever I can. Our goal was to win a championship.”

Mission accomplished.

Barkley scored 13 points, grabbed 8 boards and handed out 4 assists in Team Loaded’s 81-79 championship victory over Wisconsin United, and also scored a team-high 24 in a lopsided semifinals victory over the Atlanta Celtics—which also avenged a pool play loss to the Celtics.

Also aiding Barkley’s cause in catching the eye of high major programs is the fact that coaches from almost every program in the nation saw or will see him during the final live evaluation period beginning Wednesday since many of his teammates already hold offers from some of the nation’s powerhouse programs.

During the Summer Jam, Barkley put his athleticism and developing skills on display. With feet quick enough to guard 1s, 2s and 3s, a willingness to crash the glass and elite effectiveness in transition finishing at the rim or making the right pass, Barkley said his offensive guard skills in the half court still need the most work.

“Basically just beating people off the dribble, and my range from the three-point line—and trying to keep my follow through up is what I’ve been working on,” Barkley said.

After impressive performances in Team Loaded’s three pool play games, then in the playoffs of the Summer Jam which also included dubbs over Mercury Elite, the Wisconsin Playground Warriors and Chicago Lockdown, Barkley also knocked down plenty of three-pointers and knifed through the teeth of the defense off the bounce in the half court.

Team Loaded-Virginia’s highest profile player, 2016 top-five recruit and 7-footer, Thon Maker (Carlisle/Martinsville, VA) is also a believer in Barkley as a high-major prospect.

“Everyone thought he’d just be the guy to do the dirty work, and that gave us the toughness we needed,” Maker said. “But Kentrell has worked himself really hard, and really improved.”

On the other side of the court during the Summer Jam 17’s Platinum championship, Wisconsin United’s Marshawn Wilson (Hill Murray/Oakdale, MN) also made a strong case as a high-major caliber player throughout the event.

Wilson claimed offers from Creighton, Northern Iowa, Colorado State, Illinois State, Northern Illinois and LaSalle prior to last Wednesday’s tournament tip off, and the 6-2 power guard brought plenty to the court which surely forced high-majors to begin tracking him the remainder of his recruitment process.

During the semifinals against the King James Shooting Stars, Wilson guarded 6-6 Luke Kennard (Duke), 6-5 Kyle Ahrens (Michigan State), 5-9 AJ Harris (Ohio State) and even 6-7 wing Kipper Nichols (offers from Xavier, Maryland, Penn State, Minnesota, Dayton and Clemson) effectively.

“I define myself as a defensive stopper,” Wilson said. “I like to guard the best players on the team, and make sure they don’t get off. I feel like I’m definitely underrated. Most people don’t see me as a threat, so I just try to prove myself every game.”

He also was excellent rebounding the ball, on both ends, relative to his size and position. Offensively, however, Wilson is no joke.

He was incredibly strong with the ball, has great spring in his legs—including a uniquely explosive second jump—and knocked down mid-range jumpers and three-pointers with consistency.

Wilson said he’s focused on continuing to improve his handle, but it was tight enough at the Summer Jam where he wasn’t sped up by any defenders and was able to drive and create open looks for his teammates as well.

‘Beast’ is a term that sometimes gets thrown around a little too liberally among basketball fans, but it’s one that was overheard coming out of several coaches mouths watching Barkley’s and Wilson’s games.

Then there was Admiral Schofield (Zion-Benton/Zion, IL).

Schofield—6-5, strong-bodied and athletic—ran with Dickey Simpkins’ Team NLP and beasted the opposition before NLP bowed out to the Wisconsin Playground Warriors in the playoffs. Throughout pool play, Schofield showed a wide array of qualities both offensively and defensively. Whether he was finishing breaks with a big dunk, dropping in three-pointers, driving to the hoop and dishing it to an open teammate, crashing the glass, swatting shots, putting the cuffs on the man he was guarding or diving on the floor, Schofield did a little bit of it all.

And if only one player in the world can deserve the title of ‘beast’, it would be LeBron James. Naturally, that’s who Schofield has always tried to emulate.

“The way he just plays all around,” said Schofield, who’s older brother O’Brien is a member of the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. “He plays any position, he plays defense, he attacks and he’s strong. So I try to model my game after him because he can beat guys athletically and skillfully.”

Currently claiming offers from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wisconsin-Green Bay and LIU-Brooklyn, Schofield has played his way into seeing that list grow and could see it continue to expand with another strong outing in the final live period as well as a strong senior high school campaign.

Seeing success against counterparts who sport offers from high major schools, or are already committed to them, has continued to aid Schofield in flexing his muscle on the court.

“I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder from now on because I feel I’m just as good as the rest of these guys,” Schofield said. “I feel I can play with anybody in the country, and I wanted to show my true abilities because I feel I’m pretty underrated. I feel like I’m very versatile and that I can play with anyone in the country, and that’s just my mentality.”

While Barkley, Wilson and Schofield were just three of many participants from the Class of 2015 at the Summer Jam to stake their claim as high-major players, many more tried to play their way from Division II and Division III interest to Division I.

Chanhassen, MN, native Joey Witthus isn’t going to attract Division I programs by flying up and down the court with blinding speed or jumping out of the gym but the 6-6 wing displayed an attractive floor game on offense and a willingness to guard and rebound on defense at the Summer Jam while playing with the Minnesota Basketball Academy.

“I feel like I can shoot the ball, drive it and I have good size,” Witthus said. “But I also feel like I have a good sense of the basketball court, and seeing players and knowing where they are.”

“To counteract [more athletic opponents], I have good strength and I also have a big first step so I’m able to get by some people,” he said. “Then I feel like I can finish at the rim with different moves with step-backs, or an up-and-under. The main thing I’ve been working on is just getting quicker, and improving my vertical.”

Witthus’ ability hit shots all over the court, off the bounce or catch, as well as his passing ability helped garner him All-Missota Conference and Third-Team All-Metro accolades following his junior season playing in Minnesota’s largest school classification (4A).

It’s also led to a Division II offer from Minnesota State-Mankato, and some Division I programs expressing some interest. But like most of his peers competing on the club circuit in hopes of continuing their careers at the highest level possible, playing in front of the glut of coaches during the live periods can bring on some added pressure.

“It’s for sure in the back of your head,” Witthus said. “Before the game you think about how there are so many coaches here, but once you get playing you forget about all that.”

Minnesota Basketball Academy will play in Kansas City at the Hardwood Classic during the final live evaluation period of the summer where Witthus will once again try to prove himself capable of playing Division I.

He can do so by excelling against current DI commits, or those with a host of offers, as he’s done in the past.

During the first live period of July, Witthus’ confidence grew during the Next Level Invitational following a game in which he found himself matched up on Wilson during various points in the game.

“I guarded Marshawn for a while, and I felt like I was able to keep with him,” Witthus said. “He obviously gets his shots up and is quick, but I felt like for the most part I was able to stick with him and use my strength to counter his quickness.

“When you guard these guys and know you messed up their move and they have nowhere to go, that for sure gives you confidence in all parts of the game. After the game you think you can really play with these guys.”

Besides the aforementioned subjects, many other players stood out at the Summer Jam as worthy of attracting Division I attention based on their performances. With hundreds of teams playing on as many as 12 courts at two locations, this is certainly not an exclusive list.

  • Quad City Elite continued its dominance in July and captured the 16’s Platinum Division championship at the Summer Jam after winning all eight games they played. 6-4 lefty shooting guard Isaac Gassman (Ottawa HS/Utica, IL) earned tourney MVP for the 16’s division, and has already begun to attract interest from some Ivy League schools among others. Forward Noah McCarty (Sterling Newman Catholic/Rock Falls, IL) showed off a solid post game thanks to his current sturdy, 6-7 frame and nice looking shooting stroke that extends to the three-point line during the tourney which subsequently got Northern Illinois and Drake interested according to club coach Logan Wynn.
  • Perhaps the most intriguing prospect on the Quad City Elite squad is 6-6, athletic wing Isaiah Roby (Dixon HS/Dixon, IL) who has since picked up offers from Western Illinois, Northern Illinois and IUPUI. 6-4 guard and defensive ace Donovan Oliver (Kewanee HS/Kewanee, IL), as well as 5-10 point guard Jason Jones (Rock Island HS/Rock Island, IL) also caught the eye of Division I programs at the Summer Jam. But don’t expect anyone on Quad City Elite to try and show out by themselves when they wrap up the live period at the KC Hardwood Classic, as their cohesion on the court and willingness to share the ball has led to their 16-1 record during this month thus far.
  • Minnesota Cyclones 6-9 4-man Dan Jech (Rochester Mayo HS/Rochester, MN) drew Division I coaches to their games, but much like Quad City Elite, the Cyclones were able to capture the 17’s Gold Division crown as each member of the seven-man squad had their hand in the success.
  • Entering the week with a handful of Division II and III programs interested, 6-foot Connor Gamble (Stillwater Area HS/Stillwater, MN) may have caught a Division I coach’s eye, or will in the future, because, ‘That kid can shoot the piss out of it,’ as one DI assistant said to another during a Cyclones game (and overheard by me). With a prototypical release and rotation on his stroke, Gamble ripped the nets consistently from long range and had a 26-point output in playoff win on the way to the title. Gamble, an All-Suburban East Conference point guard in Minnesota’s largest school division, played off the ball at the Summer Jam in spurts because of a minor ankle injury but still showed off the innate feel quality floor generals possess in finding teammates and delivering passes on time and on target for high-percentage shots.
  • 6-8 Rapolas Ivanauskas (Barrington HS/Barrington, IL) showed flashes of being a high major recruit playing with Full Package’s 16’s thanks his combination of skills that both face-up fours and classic back-to-the-basket forwards embody such as a nice shooting stroke, and a variety of moves around the basket complemented by good touch and the ability to finish with either hand at the cup. Most likely still growing, and a frame to add plenty of mass and muscle, Ivanauskas has already garnered interest from UCLA, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Minnesota, Arizona State and Loyola-Chicago. Coaches from Wisconsin, Iowa, Dayton and Northwestern were watching during a playoff game at the Summer Jam in which his full skill-set was on display, but Full Package fell to 16’s Platinum Division runner-up Jersey City Boys Club.
  • Jersey City Boys Club was led by Division I hopefuls Shyquan Gibbs (6-0 PG, St. Anthony’s/Hillside, NJ), Zack Keller (6-5 F, Seton Hall Prep/Basking Ridge, NJ), Idris Joyner (6-4 F, St. Anthony’s/Plainfield, NJ), Edriece Patterson (6-3 F, Rahway HS/Rahway, NJ), Donald Stewart (6-4 F, Paramus Catholic/Hillside, NJ) and Stephen Ferraro (6-0 PG, Seton Hall Prep/New Providence, NJ).