November Madness

by November 13, 2008

by Jay Mumford

It’s that time again for the die hard NYC area hoop fan. You’re presented with three choices of what to follow at the start of every basketball season: The Knicks, St. John’s (or maybe one of the other local NCAA programs) and high school basketball. I often get funny looks from students, security guards and school officials when attending games at high schools. After all, if you’re not a parent, student or scout, why would you be there?

Good basketball is good basketball. At the end of the day, I’d rather see a great high school game between two teams in which 15 percent of the participants will go as far as the NCAA (much less be a star) than watch the new “Run & Gun” Knicks (with the overpaid center that recently KO’d a core ball by sitting on it) or St. John’s look to rebuild…again…and again…and again.

I’d rather break out my Nintendo and play my cousin in “Double Dribble” for three hours. But seriously, it’s another year of high school hoops in the Metro N.Y. area and, if you’re one of the few who can relate, here’s some stuff to look out for.

The Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL)

The Public Schools Athletic League may be the deepest talent pool in the area, but, due to transfers, ineligibility, and chemistry/discipline issues, the quality of the league fluctuates from year to year.

“Didn’t he go to high school X last year?”

“Yes, but he makes a two-hour commute daily to attend high school Y for more exposure. His grades are slipping, so he probably won’t play until February.”

Common discussion. However, one program that seems unaffected by the PSAL’s ebb and flow is Lincoln in Coney Island Brooklyn. With the Marbury and Telfair eras long gone, 6-6 senior all-purpose man Lance Stephenson has already built his own. City Champs in all three years of Sir Lancelot’s tenure–and three of the four years prior to his arrival–Lincoln resembles a PSAL version of the 90’s Bulls.

Lance = beast = bestThis year will be no different for Lincoln and their man-child. Lance is the best high school ball player in New York, as well as one of the Top 10 in the nation, and proves it almost every time he’s on the floor. In the past, questions have arisen about his attitude on the court, his self control at crunch points during games, the reality show, off-court allegations, etc. The bottom line is when the game goes to the wire, he wants the ball and when he gets the ball he delivers. Whether in AAU games, at Lincoln or in a midtown office shooting a balled up piece of paper into a trash can, there’s nobody else you’d want to take a final shot, and that speaks volumes. He’ll hurt you from anywhere on the floor in any fashion. But should Lance need anybody to keep control when things spiral, he’s got the perfect candidate in the criminally underrated Darwin “Buddah” Ellis, a solid and heady point guard that will also bury a three pointer to salt a wound or even up a game. Add Maryland-bound big man James Padgett and sharp-shooting sophomore guard Shaquille Stokes to the mix and there’s an extremely high chance that Lance and his four-year co-conspirators will be the first players in PSAL history to grab four straight city titles.

Obviously there are a few Brooklyn rivals that would like to rain on the Lincoln parade. Most notably Jefferson HS, which has succeeded with flying colors in rebuilding its program over the last few years. Putting a scare in Lincoln in last year’s PSAL semi-finals, Jeff is now a Brooklyn powerhouse. Much of the press has gone to solid junior forward Joel Wright and senior guard Keith Spellman, but the play of sophomore point guard Davontay Grace has been consistent, clutch and worth the price of admission. Grace emerged as a solid, smart and well-rounded late season leader last year and he’s as old school Brooklyn as it gets. When you factor in shooting guard David Coley making improvements over the summer playing AAU with Juice (Lincoln), expect Jefferson to be looking for Lance & Company. Across town in Bed-Stuy, Boys & Girls HS is looking to maintain the tradition of being alive come March. As successful as Coach Ruth Lovelace’s program has been in recent years, there will always be those two PSAL finals blow-outs on The World’s Biggest Stage (MSG) at the hands of Lincoln to sour the memories. With Anton Dickerson and Lamount Samuell leading a young Kangaroos squad, they have their cross-hairs on Lincoln & Jefferson as well. Add to this list playoff regulars like Canarsie and Robeson and you have proof that Brooklyn will once again run the PSAL.

Queens and The Bronx usually fight for the runner-up borough, but this year they have something in common besides the Throgs Neck, Whitestone and Triboro bridges. Both are wide open. There will always be programs that acquire more talent, namely Kennedy, Gompers and Wings Academy in the Bronx and Campus Magnet, Edison, Forest Hills and Cardozo in Queens. Then there are wild cards like Beach Channel (Queens), but this year nobody seems to be head and shoulders above the rest. Key transfers (David Joseph leaving Newtown in Queens) and graduation (four of Campus Magnet and Cardozo’s starting fives) have altered things. Wings Academy are young and talented but face issues defensively. Coach Ron Naclerio is looking to senior Reynaldo Walters to pick up the slack for Cardozo, but the position of impact player for the Judges is still open.

“We’re very young this year, so truthfully the person to step up and be the focal point could be anybody”, the ubiquitous coach foreshadowed.

Isaiah Stokely, Stephon Hodges and Josh Gray are looking to boost perennial underdog Edison and capable back court Sasha Clarida (Campus’ lone returning starter) and Chad Coachman look to navigate the Bulldogs to the top in Queens. But issues of inexperience and team chemistry could create problems and make both boroughs an even playing field for a Cinderella team to emerge. Meanwhile, Staten Island’s Curtis is looking to continue last year’s success and shake their underrated status, earned simply by being across a $9 bridge, and Wadleigh and FDA look to return as top dogs for Manhattan.

The Catholic High Schools Athletic Association (CHSAA)

With the exception of a Lincoln phenom every now and then, the CHSAA is usually the hotbed of all of New York’s most publicized players. And the league usually brings to mind guards, the best NYC has to offer. This year there’s a buffet on solid guard play in the CHSAA, even in the wake of Rice HS’ here and gone and back and gone again Blue Chipper Lamont “Momo” Jones. The aggressive play of Durand Scott will hold up Rice, as he’s proven himself an almost impossible to stop slasher and a relentless defender with several D-1 offers on the table. Meanwhile, on Planet Brooklyn, diminutive point guard Chaz Williams of Bishop Ford HS has shown NYC and Hofstra University (he’s committed early) that, in the immortal words of Bushwick Bill, “size ain’t (expletive)”.

Not only a prototype speed demon floor general, Williams can drain from NBA range, get his shot off amongst the trees and finish with 35 and 10. Jayvaughn Pinkston is starring at Bishop Loughlin and in Queens, the dynamic backcourt duo of Sean Johnson and sophomore Corey Edwards at Christ The King are a must see. Edwards is one of the city’s best passers and Johnson has a knack for high-octane scoring barrages that have earned him a membership card for NYC’s elite guard club. A few miles away, shooting guard Russ Smith has had to shoulder the scoring load for Molloy. With a 60-point game or two under his belt, he should have his share of highlight footage in his senior season. However, the help he receives from his supporting cast is key. The CHSAA/PSAL Challenge in December will be an event to keep an eye peeled for, as well as the Nike Super Six at MSG in January.

Long Island and Westchester

NYC’s HS hoop fans without time and a vehicle usually miss out on Long Island and Westchester’s high school basketball talent until the cream of the crop match up with the city’s best or make a showing in an NYC tournament. I’ll admit haven’t seen all of the talent in both places, but what I did see is worth a hoop fan’s time.

Anybody in the loop of the high school athletics scene is aware of the Mt. Vernon Knights’ basketball legacy. State Titles, Ben Gordon, AAU dominance, at least one player each year playing D-1 college ball and about 98 percent of its basketball players furthering their education beyond MVHS. Not too shabby for a public high school program. So when it was announced this summer that budget cuts would force Mt. Vernon athletics to do the near impossible and acquire $900,000 in funding for athletics in a matter of months (see Mt. Vernon Knights Facing Extinction?), it appeared to be the end of an era. While the uncertainty of the last 3 months has placed a season’s worth of pressure on the program, it will exist for the 2008-09 season. This is great news for the Knights and overall, but teams across Westchester County (and statewide) won’t fare as well. Top recruit, honor roll student and versatile swingman Sherrod Wright is among the best in the business and coming off of his 19 ppg campaign as a junior in the shadow of Kevin Jones (now at West Virginia). Sophomore point guard Jabari Hinds is en route to his own legacy and underrated shooting guard Jordan Lessane has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat and pesky defender, making for one of the best three-man backcourts you’ll see. Add to this equation a deep bench and Mt. Vernon is looking for a storybook ending to a summer of turmoil and pre-season uncertainty.

Mt. Vernon’s rivalry with nearby New Rochelle is as longstanding and intense as you’ll see anywhere, with only Pelham to separate them. Look for a guard oriented New Ro team lead by John Calarco to be the Westchester runner-up with White Plains losing Blue Chip senior Sean Kilpatrick and the super athletic Rashad James. In Yonkers, Dyckman Park Tournament commissioner and Roosevelt HS coach Ken Stevens is looking to rebuild after losing four starters from last year’s Cinderella team to graduation and prep school. Across town, Chris Ranglin will try to shake the label of being one of the best area players you’ve never seen (see “The Anti-Hype” below) at Gorton HS, and Eric Slater and Lincoln HS will join the quest for Yonkers bragging rights. The home of Elton Brand (Peekskill) will be young and talented, but looking to rebuild due to star Mookie Jones and a good chunk of the team graduating in June.

Long Island is an even further drive for many -except us Queens folks- but it’s toll free and one of the best juniors in the nation makes his home on the peninsula. 6-7 junior power forward Tobias Harris -fresh off of visits to Syracuse, Georgetown, and Virginia–will continue to pique interest and attract attention for the next two seasons and the hype is well-deserved. Coming off of a 29 ppg, 10 rpg sophomore season at Half Hollow Hills West HS, he’s transferred to Long Island Lutheran with his eyes on a championship. Due to his size, some may underestimate his long range shooting and passing ability, but, similar to Stephenson, he’s a threat on every inch of the court.

Roslyn HS’s George Beamon put up 30 ppg himself last year and will head into his senior year as one of the Island’s most prolific scorers. Nassau county champs (Baldwin) return to defend their title–less most of last year’s senior dominated team–behind senior guard Chris Mauldin, but their Nassau County title game opponent (Uniondale) look to be an early favorite set to avenge last year’s loss. Lincoln HS (Brooklyn) junior guard Devon “Fatty” McMillan has just transferred to UHS, strapped with a strong AAU showing with New Heights and invaluable time at the Brooklyn powerhouse under his belt. Already drawing interest from nearby Hofstra, McMillan should provide the extra fire power and blue collar edge needed to bring the alma matter of Busta Rhymes back to the big dance.

“Devon is a big addition for us but we also have eleven people returning from last year,” said head Uniondale head coach Tom Diana. “Our point guard Justin Brown, Jerome Floyd and our 6-7 center Dane Dixon are all coming back.”

The talent in the B-Division is often overlooked simply due to the size of the schools, but Malverne HS is talented and looking to recapture their 2007 State Champ glory behind swingman Justin Williams.

LI & Westchester…a Metrocard is useless and the buildings are lower, but the talent is there.

The Anti-Hype

High school basketball in the Metro N.Y. Area is run by a set of politics that make Obama-McCain clashes look like middle school debate team disagreements. The story is a common one…

Your academics are beyond mere NCAA eligibility requirements, your game is solid and your physical and mental maturity and work ethic surpass most of your peers tenfold. Unfortunately, in the N.Y. Hoop hierarchy none of that seems to matter when you’ve been absent from the AAU scene for the first three years of your high school career and your high school is Gorton HS in Yonkers, N.Y. Responsible for a few NCAA stars (like Marquette’s Bernard Toone) in the Coach John Volpe era (1963-1996), Gorton has since been known Westchester County-wide more for it’s football program and the fact they use nearby Emerson JHS as their court for home games.

The said politics are nothing new to 6-2, 205 pound senior guard Chris Ranglin. Despite a 17 point, 5 assist, 6 rebound and 4.5 steal per game junior campaign, All-Conference accolades and solid work in the classroom, the scouts and the press haven’t left many footprints in the Emerson gym. But according to Ranglin–playfully dubbed “Shaq” by his peers–now isn’t the time to play musical chairs with higher touted high and prep schools.

“The fact I didn’t play a lot of AAU hurts me sometimes,” he admits. “But the fact I’ve been working so hard, I know it will pay off, especially if I have a better season than last year. Coach (Rob) Rizzo has us in tremendous shape.”

In the hype-driven world of N.Y. high school hoops, such a logical and positive attitude could lead to disappointment, but luckily Ranglin’s talents have been noticed by some of the right people at the right time. Coach Rob Rizzo has been teaching at Gorton HS for four years, and this past spring took over the basketball program. However, most of his well-known hoop accolades have come from across the Hudson River. As assistant coach at New Jersey HS Powerhouse St. Anthony’s and head coach of the AAU juggernaut Westchester Hawks, Rizzo has coached some of the best talent to emerge from the N.Y. area in recent memory. Players like Mike Rosario (Rutgers), Mookie Jones (Syracuse), Kevin Jones (West Virginia) Alberto Estwick (Fordham) and Sean Kilpatrick are only a few of the stars that have been under Rizzo’s tutelage.

“Chris is as solid a person as I’ve been around.” Rizzo says. “He’s a leader and a tremendously hard worker and he’ll be a success in whatever he chooses to do, basketball or otherwise.”

Despite his maturity off the court and his ability to go from butterfly to bulldozer on it -accompanied by good court vision and an NCAA ready frame–Ranglin’s list of intangibles are perhaps all trumped by his leadership ability. This past summer, camp and tournament opportunities finally arose not before Ranglin dislocated a toe and was off the dance floor for a month. Rather than drifting, he simply took on surrogate coaching duties in the weight room and at voluntary summer practices, embracing a leadership role on a young Gorton team. Luckily, after a summer of demonstrating the correct dead lift technique for the underclassmen and shouting out the defensive lapses of his teammates from a folding chair, Ranglin was able to participate in the Bobby Hurley camp in Pennsylvania and walk away a member of the All-Star team. With his senior season now in cue, the challenge to bring his game to the light is now up, and thus far he’s pulled in a few worthy opinions.

“He’s one of the better players in the county,” said Mt. Vernon Asst. Coach Brian Pritchett. “He worked out with us this summer and he’s very physical with a lot of natural ability. With Coach Rizzo improving their program from what it was, it will definitely benefit Chris.”

Marcus Henderson is frustrated. Literally being overlooked isn’t a foreign policy to him at 5-6, but being overlooked because of where he lays his hat can get best of him at times. NFA (Newburgh Free Academy HS) in Newburgh, N.Y. is part of Orange County, aka “upstate.” Technically, it’s not even close to being upstate on a map, but being an hour and change from NYC would be considered as such, especially in the world of basketball and the media buzz surrounding it. Despite churning out some top tier talent as a program, NFA is off the radar for many.

“It’s hard being from Newburgh because we have to find ways to get to the city for exposure,” said the slick bullet train junior point guard. “I had a 90-minute commute each way when I was playing in the Rucker league this summer.”

Those extra sacrifices have brought the NFA team (and the AAU extension, D.C. Eagles) some positive results as of recent. In a 2OT loss to AAU powerhouse Gauchos–essentially Durand Scott and his Rice teammates- in the Nike IS8 tournament, Henderson and D-1 potential 6-5 junior swingman Mike McCloud put on a clinic and almost single-handedly upset the hometown Gauchos in front of a packed house, leaving many spectators asking each other “Where are these kids from?”

Well, nowadays, it’s more about where you’re at, and I can’t be everywhere. I tried my best to cover the N.Y. area in detail, and, to all omitted, it wasn’t intentional. This is my third job (aka this is a hobby of mine that I don’t get paid for, but pay for out of my own pocket). I do this for fun, by myself and I drive around in a beat up 1999 Mazda Protégé that sounds like the bassline from “The Humpty Dance” when I hit the brakes. I can’t be everywhere, so if there’s somebody I missed…I’ll do my best next time. And I can’t get to all 50 states, so if I missed a talented ball player in Oregon…somebody cover him/her, I’d love to read about it! Hopefully this turns some N.Y. hoop fans on to the niche market of HS hoops, but if not, we can always be entertained by some good old 34th street blowouts!