Yags’ Point Forward - NEHF Review/Sneaker Preview
The grassroots season kicked of last weekend in New England as the best programs from the northeast gathered at The University Sports Complex in Hanover, MA.
This was the first time the Class of 2018 had an opportunity to show out as true upperclassmen. They took full advantage of the big stage and laid a solid foundation for the remainder of their final season of grassroots ball. The NEHF also serves as a preview for what we can expect from local teams heading into the spring and summer months.
With that in mind, I’ll use a combination of what teams showed on the court at the 2017 NEHF and roster construction to provide a HoopFest review and sneaker circuit preview for local grassroots team. We’ll feature Rivals, Expressions and Connecticut Basketball Club this week followed by the New England Playaz, BABC and other local grassroots programs early next week.
Rivals Have Targets On Their Back
The Mass Rivals’ 22-0 tournament record last July and their run to the Adidas circuit championship was well-documented. Deservedly so. The responsibility of defending that title is now passed down to a team made up of players who, for the most part, didn’t play a major role in winning it. There are, however, two exceptions: A.J. Reeves and David Duke.
Both Reeves and Duke spent last spring and summer interning with the hoop firm of “Makai & Bede Bros.” which specialized in winning games! Now it’s their turn. Each had their moments over the weekend but, in the games I caught, the situation never called for them to take over and lead Rivals to a victory. That situation is bound to occur at some point over the next few months and it will be interesting to see how much these two learned from the leaders of last year’s squad.
Duke will have the opportunity to play with the ball in his hands more than he did during the prep season when he garnered offers from UConn, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse among others. If we are a few weeks away from witnessing the bond of both David Duke’s, the do-it-all point guard we saw at Classical and the explosive wing/transition scorer from Cushing, the industry is going to be in for treat.
The benefit of being surrounded by additional weapons will be welcomed by Reeves, who had to shoulder the scoring load throughout the prep season and did so in extremely admirable fashion. After watching him score on a reverse lay-in from the wing this past weekend, I tried to remember the last time I saw Reeves operate against single coverage and I honestly couldn’t recall.
While Reeves and Duke will get a ton of attention from opposing Adidas circuit defenses, players 3-10 on the roster will be relied upon equally if Rivals is to repeat their success from the summer of ’16. Alex Rivera was their breakout performer at the HoopFest, drilling seven 3’s en route to the 26 most efficient points of the weekend. The shaky 6’1” assassin from Lowell sets his feet, gets great bounce into his shot and repeats his delivery with exceptional consistency.
6’8” wingspan big man Akok Akok spent the prep season battling four high major big men in practice and for playing time at Putnam Science. The experience is already paying dividends as Akok displayed greater intelligence and savvy as a shot blocker and post defender as a whole. Akok also proved that his emergence as a legitimate perimeter weapon last fall wasn’t a fluke and his jumper looks more polished.
The development of and production from Taelon Martin, Jovan Jones, David Mitchell, Jimmy Yfantopolous and newcomer Ousmane Diop throughout the summer will most likely make or break this year’s Rivals squad.
Martin will split time with Duke as the team’s primary ball-handler and will have to survive a baptism by fire once he enters circuit play. Jones and Mitchell are a pair of 6’5” wings who identical 6’8” wingspans and 8’5” standing reaches but who get the job done in different ways on both ends.
Diop, a 6’9” big with a 7’ wingspan and 9’ standing reach, is getting his first true taste of organized American basketball after coming over from Africa this fall while training with Bryan Heron (father of Auburn wing Mustapha Heron) and attending Sacred Heart-Waterbury. “Big Uzi” has a long way to go on both ends but is extremely intelligent, speaks five different languages and has improved his game, frame (added 15lbs of muscle) and nickname since I first saw him in November.
The two things this year’s Rivals squad won’t be short on is talent and motivation.
While many of their underclassmen are playing up, the Rivals' underclassmen also made their mark. Malachi Hazelton continues to grow, measuring in at 6’5” with a 6’11” wingspan at this year’s NEHF, a 2-inch growth in both from the 2016 NEHF. Hazelton is still in the process of defining himself as a player but the requisite foundation of skills and toughness is obviously there.
Tate Looked Great, Expressions Ready To Run
With a little over 13-minutes remaining in Expressions’ matchup with a tough New Heights squad, Dana Tate decided to take matters into his own hands. His team was grasping to a 33-28 lead that had been widdled down from 12 in the opening seven minutes of the second half. Tate, a 6’7” power wing from MacDuffie, used his superior leverage, strength and quickness to strip New Heights Moses Brown of the ball in the post. He proceeded to gather the ball, go coast to coast, hit a defender with a sharp Euro-step and finish at the rack for two. But that was only the beginning.
When Tate wasn’t banging in the post against the 7’1” Brown, a consensus top-10 prospect in the national class of 2018, he was at the top of the key facilitating for his teammates offensively, knocking down clutch mid-range jumpers or powering his way to the rack. From the 13-minute mark on, Tate would score 10 points, grab 6 boards, dish out 3 assists and eventually lead Expressions to a 57-50 win in one of the weekend’s most anticipated matchups.
Tate already holds offers from local schools UMass and Rhode Island but, after watching him come into his own with MacDuffie throughout the prep season, it’s only a matter of time before high-major programs from across the country begin getting in the mix for his services.
Watching Tate run the floor and finish at the rack this weekend was like déjà vu, as it was at the same place a year ago that Kimani Lawrence set the stage for his spring rise in the EYBL. There are a lot of similarities between the two physically but Tate and Lawrence get the jobs done in different ways, even when it comes to finishing in the open court. Lawrence’s ability to glide to the rack and avoid contact was what drew the likes of Arizona State to come calling. Meanwhile, Tate is much more likely to go through a defender than to avoid one.
Tate will be forced to run the floor this summer too, as Expressions will be reliant upon a group of dynamic play-making guards who will look to push the pace and get up and down in a hurry. Marcus Zegarowski is fresh off a phenomenal junior season at Tilton, where he led his squad to the AA title game and earned 1st Team all-league honors in the process. Zegarowski plays the game with as much “feel” as anyone in New England and he was obviously getting used to his Expressions teammates this weekend.
Once things start flowing, Zegarowski is dangerous as a scorer from all three levels but is at his best when he’s kicking the ball out to his brother, 6’7” marksman Max Zegarowski, and 6’7” Holderness slasher Philmon Gebrewhit on the perimeter.
Joe Kasperzyk is another explosive lead guard to hand the ball over to. The hyper-active 6’2” PG/Wing from Hillhouse-New Haven attacks the basket with reckless abandon and finishes through contact in the paint. Expressions recipe for success is going to be attacking the opposing team’s weakness.
Tate gives them a strong, conservative ball-handler at the top of the key who will be able to exploit a mismatch against opposing bigs. Marcus Zegarowski gives them a polished, productive point guard who can create shots for himself and others. And Kasperzyk brings the type of change-of-pace, in-your-face style that teams desperately search for over the course of a long season.
Expressions will rely on that diversity as it heads into the first Nike EYBL Session next weekend in Hampton, VA at the Boo Williams Sports Complex.
Expressions’ 15U squad is loaded with premium talent. Freshman-to-be Terrence Clarke has been ahead of the curve physically since he came out of the womb but his skill development was what caught my eye at the NEHF. Clarke’s handle, jumper, vision and ability to score efficiently are markedly improved from the last time I saw the young man. Clark is a true 6’5” wing with unlimited potential but what separates those who do eventually reach the highest level and those who don’t is a maniacal work ethic, a maniacal will to win and an understanding of how to use their individual skills to make their teammates better every single day. 6’3” Sage Ballard, 6’8” Trey Hall and 6’6” Leo Edo will challenge Clarke in practice while giving him the support every player needs come game time.
CBC 16u Makes A Statement
The 2016 Under Armour Association season served as an introduction to the circuit for the Connecticut Basketball Club and they held their own at every level. Expectations have been set higher for this year’s group, especially the 16U squad who used the 2017 NERR Northeast HoopsFest to introduce themselves to the rest of the region and let everyone know that they’re out to make a statement this summer.
The core of CBC’s 16U team features a handful of 2019 prospects with winning pedigrees. The Hillhouse-New Haven trio of Byron Breland, Christian Adams and Mekhi Warren combine with Sacred Heart-Waterbury’s Isaiah Gaiter to give CBC a group of players who have already experienced multiple state championships early in their prep careers. While they’ll all head into their senior seasons this fall, all four are planning on a prep year to prepare them for the rigors of D1 ball.
Breland, a 6’4” wing who already owns a tantalizing length/strength, worked as a primary ball-handler at the beginning of CBC’s matchup against New Heights and jump-started the offense by dishing out a handful of assists and nailing a few shots from beyond the arch. Warren, a bouncy 6’6” power wing, used his speed and agility to beat New Heights’ bigs off the dribble and to spots in the post. Adams, a rugged 6’5” wing with an easy outside stroke, and Gaiter, a 6’3” PG/wing with great vision and solid handles, did their damage late and helped seal the win for CBC.
Jaiden Delaire, a 6’7” wing with a 7-foot wingspan from Loomis Chaffee, is the lone NEPSAC product on the roster but brings a heightened level of confidence after earning 2nd Team honors in the NEPSAC’s A division. Delaire is still growing into his body after seeing a growth spurt over the last few years but he’s also in the adjustment phase when it comes to being the main offensive weapons that coaches and scouts envision him being. Once he becomes more demonstrative on the court and embraces that role, the sky’s the limit. Even without a demanding nature, Delaire put together some of the weekend’s best highlights and will be one to keep an eye on during UA’s Brooklyn Session next weekend.
Two other CBC players to watch as the Under Armour circuit kicks off are Cairo McCrory, a 6’5” wing with a 6’9” wingspan who battled admirably against the PSA Cardinals big men over the weekend, and Matt Verretto, a 6’7” power wing who rebounds at a high level and does his damage with a soft mid-range touch.
CBC might not have the historical prototype when it comes to a man in the middle but what they do have is an abundance of hungry, explosive and aggressive athletes that can beat you in a number of differents ways. In today’s game, that can take you a long way!
At the 17u level, the arrival of 6’10” Serbian-import Filip Petrusev to the CBC program was more than welcomed. The fact that Petrusev arrived healthy and prepared to contribute was cause for celebration. After spending the majority of the prep season on the sidelines at Avon-Old Farms, Petrusev is ready to show scouts in America what some have called him a future pro and a legitimate NBA Draft prospect. Paired with 7’2” Chol Marial, who has earned both of the aforementioned statements as well, CBC’s U17 squad could own one of the most tantalizing frontcourts on the Under Armour circuit.