After covering my first ‘Hoop Group’ tournament last month, the 2019 ‘Pitt Jam Fest’ in Pittsburgh, PA, I noted it as containing the biggest collective group of people I’ve seen in a gym (over 630 teams). This past weekend, as expected, that same pattern emerged once again as an enormous portion of the basketball community showed up for another annual ‘Hoop Group’ event: the ‘Southern Jam Fest’ It’s been a while since my last visit, but I always tend to have a good time whenever arriving in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Taking place at about four different sites, I mainly spent time at the historic Boo Williams Sportsplex (Hampton, VA) and Christopher Newport University (Newport News, VA) to get a look at teams in 15u – 17u age divisions. Known as one of the biggest weekends of the spring, I found this particular tournament as more unique in how its competition shaped up. Non-sponsored programs had a chance to go up against others from shoe circuits; that, of course, always provides an opportunity for one to make a name known. ‘Hoop Group’ put on a great event with excellent hospitality and exciting games going down to the wire. I tweeted that the best part of my weekend involved catching up with other co-workers of the ‘Phenom Hoops’ team: Frank Bennett, Jamie Shaw, and Chick Gillespie. Per usual, all three provided outstanding coverage of their own with endless Twitter updates.
Some Standouts from the Weekend
Ashley ‘AJ’ James ’20 – District WAWG 17u: I finally had a chance to watch the 757 product in travel ball action for the first time after hearing how much his stock has rose throughout these past months. All of the talk is for good reason too… ‘AJ’ simply looked nothing short of elite as a main factor of the tournament’s 17u champions. He has some similarities to 2019 college All-American guard, Ja Morant of Murray State; good height with both exceptional athleticism and feel. His shot-creating skills stand out the most, you never know what type of slick move he’s going to pull off, but his court vision looked impressive also. Combining those two main skills makes me see him as more of a combo guard… he’s an effortless scorer at heart who can sneakily set up his teammates by drawing attention from defenses. AJ’s play led to him receiving two more well-deserved offers from VCU, Ole Miss, and George Mason University following the weekend. Once he enters the Hargrave Military Academy program (Chatham, VA) next school year, more high-major programs should start taking notice.
Marchelus ‘Chi Chi’ Avery ’20 – Team Loaded DC 17u: One of Richmond VA’s top talents, ‘Chi Chi’ always finds a way to stand out on the floor but his physical appearance appears to be making significant improvement. He looks stronger now and jumping higher/quicker off of the ground. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the 6’8” wing/forward in covering him for months, it’s that he can completely take over once he fully becomes locked in. This became evident in the second half of a Saturday contest between his Team Loaded DC group and NJ Panthers 17u. With Loaded trailing at the half, ‘Chi Chi’ just completely put the team on his back to go off on a scoring rampage. He can shoot it from distance at his size but does best when not settling; giving the Panthers trouble in attacking the rim for finishes/fouls and making the majority of his free throws. If he can continue that consistency and not let other elements of the game distract his focus, there’s honestly nothing I see preventing him from becoming one of the best 2020 players in the country.
Day’Ron Sharpe ’20 – Garner Road Gold 17u: Ok, ok, I must admit that, being a University of North Carolina (UNC) fan, I had curiosity to see what Sharpe could bring to the table as a Tar Heel commit. Boy, let me just say that my fellow UNC supporters should hold high optimism for when he makes his way to campus next year. Nobody rebounded better on both ends than Sharpe in the 17u bracket. I honestly didn’t expect the 6’9” forward to move around the floor with a notable quickness/agility, which probably caught my attention more than anything else. This fluid movement and reaction time led to a few steals by him in a Sunday morning win over D.C. Premier 17u; his length makes him a deadly interceptor in picking off lazy passes. In addition, I saw some stretch-4 capabilities in the four-star prospect, as he made a couple of jumpers from the perimeter. Building upon those skills to go along with his imposing strength and motor should continue to establish Sharpe as one of the best power forwards in the rising senior class. Once he sets foot on the UNC campus, there’s no telling how far his ceiling will reach with college development.
David Early ’20 – Team Loaded VA 17u: One of the more underrated players I’ve seen on a circuit team this spring, Early keeps looking better and better as an important piece on Team Loaded VA 17u. The notion of other talented scorers amongst the Loaded roster ties into the fact that they rarely ever require the West Virginia resident to score 20+ in a game. However, if his team finds a lack in scoring, Early, at a stocky 6’4,” can provide a handful of buckets from the perimeter. He looked good on Saturday attacking from around close to the corner wing, making aggressive drives and finishing with a combination of power and body control. Once he lowers his shoulder to get past an opponent, that ability to finish in either direction and with either hand stands out greatly. Knowing how to penetrate the rim under control at his size allows Early to keep defenders more uptight when playing him, since he can also shoot it solidly if given enough space. A couple of next-level programs, including West Virginia University, Ohio University, and Marshall University have already offered. Expansion of his playmaking skills, handle, and body transformation should all aid in more college coaches entering the mix.
Noel Brown ’20 – District WAWG 17u: As most coaches will likely agree, it’s always satisfying to have a big man who knows how to produce while playing alongside very good guards. In Brown’s case, he fits the description perfectly for District WAWG and proved as a key reason for the squad winning the 17u tournament title. The 6’10” forward gives an imposing presence as a physical big who never stops working hard on either end. Similar to Sharpe, Brown’s rebounding stood out some of the most, as well as his ability to run the floor effectively. When the time arrived to match up against Sharpe in the title game, I felt Brown clearly gave the UNC commit trouble with his tough defensive play, which set the tone for WAWG’s approach during those entire 32 minutes. That game and performance alone, as he ended with 13 points and most likely double-digit rebounds, should start making some noise in Brown’s recruitment. He has the size, demeanor, certain intangibles, and will only continue to get better overall. Coaches will definitely not want to miss out on him next winter as a focal point in the paint for Flint Hill School (Oakton, Virginia).
Josh Campbell ’20 – Squires Richmond 17u: The gritty shooting guard had a great Saturday performance in his last game of the weekend; a win over Xpress 17u. Campbell’s always been known as a guy who both score and REALLY rebound at his position, averaging over 17 points and ten rebounds this past school season at Carmel School (Ruther Glen, VA). Nonetheless, he’s starting to show more improvement in his overall athleticism; something he’s maybe held a focus on ever since his junior season concluded. I thought he looked quicker in his straight-line drives to the rim, which he did better than anyone else in the Squires Richmond-Xpress contest. This quickness also ties into Campbell’s ability to separate for his own shot. A great example of this happened when he pulled off a nice step-back three-pointer as the halftime buzzer sounded. With things playing close, the 6’3” vocal leader decided to just completely take over in a second-half offensive outpour. Xpress 17u’s defenders just couldn’t find a way to keep him out of the lane. I didn’t get the official stats but my best guess is Campbell finished with around 17-20 total points.
Kyrese Mullen ’21 – BWSL EYBL-Chizz 16u: Similar to Brown, the younger Mullen does well as a paint player who can work alongside standout guards on his team. His physical frame caught my eye from the moment he stepped on the court, as a big bodied 6’6” forward. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him gain a couple of more inches since he hasn’t even entered the upperclassmen stage yet. Mullen’s dominance on the offensive glass and powerful finishes gave the opposing RDC Lakers 16u too much to handle in an early afternoon Saturday matchup. I referred to him as a ‘bull in the paint’ during my live Twitter coverage; his nose for the ball goes beyond that of a typical sophomore big man. Mullen’s constant scoring and rebounding in second-chance attempts arguably played the biggest difference for BWSL EYBL Chizz, who walked away with an 80-62 win. He’s primarily a post guy now but, if he can continue to expand upon perimeter skills and work to strengthen his athletic tools, I think that will give him an advantage just in case he pans out at 6’6.” Most know that, in the elite Division I level and higher, players at that height compete mainly as wings. Hampton University extended an offer to Mullen earlier this month.
Peter Oduro ’21 – Higher Level-Gainesville 16u: Well, I can recall Oduro telling me to “watch out for him” back when I came across him in late-March. After checking out the Higher Level group this past Sunday, I see why he stated those four words in such a confident manner. Along with a rise in confidence, the 6’6” forward also looks more assertive now in the paint. Eyeing some size advantages in a hard-fought battle against MD3D 16u, Oduro always seemed to find his position on the block quickly and didn’t waste any time letting his peers know he was open. A particular aspect of his performance satisfied the most: going over both shoulders for hook shots. Frankly, it’s an overlooked skill that I personally feel separates inside players in their scoring effectiveness. For Oduro to already have it in his arsenal at such a young age says something. His touch around the rim contains a softness too, so I think he will steadily become a force near the basket by rebounding tough and improving his go-to moves/footwork. Oh, and he also has a good mentor to look up to; being the younger brother of a Paul VI Catholic High School standout, Josh Oduro. The 6’9” Josh recently wrapped up a nice senior season as a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) all-conference second team selection and will enroll in the George Mason University basketball program this fall.
Anthony Davis, Jr. ’22 – BWSL EYBL 15u: On a team that likes to get it and go, Davis, Jr. fits the style greatly as a speedy wing who can really rack up points in transition. I like to stress the importance of moving without the ball and running the floor hard (for all positions). So, after noticing how well Davis, Jr. performs in those overlooked areas already as a freshmen, it gave me the feeling that he’s already valuing the small things. Looking like mainly a slasher at the moment, the 6’3” wing finishes at an above-average rate with the ability to weave his way through multiple defenders in traffic. His body control of euro steps and usage of different angles at the rim made him one of BWSL’s best scorers on early Saturday morning in a blowout win. Once he starts to display more shooting and potential playmaking, it should help him take the next step as a sought-out prospect during these next couple of years. I also have to point out the amiable first impression Davis, Jr. when Frank Bennett introduced me to him after the game. Seems like a well-mannered youngster that you want to root for.
Kenny Baylock ’22 – Squires Richmond 17u: Playing up with and against the older boys, Baylock holds one of the highest ceiling of any other forwards on this list simply due to being the youngest. He’s already a legit 6’9” with a lengthy frame. That same body, however, will certainly need to be filled up a bit; this will happen with just more time spent in the weight room. Regardless, Baylock gives Squires Richmond valuable contributions and demonstrated several capabilities already at his age. His finishing with hook shots, securing the ball with two hands off of rebounds, and getting up/down the hardwood all looked fine in the aforementioned win over Xpress 17u. In addition, Baylock’s midrange jump shot, around the free throw line and/or short corner, at his size stood out. He didn’t show any slight bit of hesitation when the shooting opportunity arrived in facing up towards the rim. Having a reliable short jumper always helps when playing as an interior threat. I see the young forward soon emerging as an acknowledged prospect in the 804 if he can continue to show comfort in those skills, play hard, and build into his body. Great promise, especially being in the class of 2022. In a likewise manner to Davis, Jr., Baylock also acted in a respectful way in a small talk between him, his dad, another coach, and I following the game.
Another excellent event by ‘The Hoop Group!’ Felt good to spend time with many other media members throughout the two days.