Martin Luther King weekend means two things to me. The first is reflecting on the penetrating writings, speeches, works and incredible life of one of America’s greatest social justice warriors, who dedicated and ultimately gave his life for the cause of attaining civil and human rights for African Americans in this country.
The second is taking the annual pilgrimage to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, to take in a whirlwind of incredible prep talent over the holiday weekend at the Spalding Hoophall Classic, which is hosted by Springfield College and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The event has featured some of the best players in the world while they were still in high school, prior to their becoming household names to casual fans during their college and pro careers. Hoophall is a carnival of basketball excellence that has showcased the likes of Zion Williamson, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Elena Delle-Don, Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis and Lonzo and Melo Ball, among a plethora of others over the years. The talent level this year was no exception.
The Banner was in the building at Blake Arena this past Saturday through Monday and sat through approximately 20 games to not only check on our hometown boys who are making waves on the national landscape, but to also get an up-close-and-personal look at some of the other elite players from around the country who have the potential to be household names down the road.
Here are some of my brief observations about the players who stood out.
Players with Baltimore ties
Adam Oumiddoch, 6-foot-5 freshman guard, Bishop O’Connell High School
Oumiddoch, whose family hails from Morocco, is the type of young talent that makes big-time college coaches drool. We got a sneak peak of his skillset this summer while attending practices for the local Team Melo AAU program and were already enamored. But he had yet to begin high school as a ninth grader, so I was interested to see what he’d look like playing for his high school team on the Hoophall stage.
And the young fella certainly proved to be among the top players in the country, even at this stage of his development. He wasn’t in the starting lineup for O’Connell’s game against the Isidore Newman School from New Orleans, but he certainly made an impact when he subbed in.
Oumiddoch’s touch on his deep ball is superb, but he’s much more than a shooter. His length, mentality and competitiveness lend itself to his excelling on the defensive end as he grows into his body, he’s a willing passer, an engaged, unselfish teammate and he can handle the ball well.
Isidore Newman pulled out a close 67-64 win this weekend, but Oumiddoch opened up plenty of eyes in the crowd with his 21-point, six-rebound MVP performance for the losing squad.
Tyonne Farrell, 6-foot-6 junior forward, Mount Saint Joseph
With John Calipari on hand to check on one of his prized recruits, Reed Sheppard, a smooth 6-foot-3 shooting guard from London, Kentucky’s North Laurel High School, Farrell stole the spotlight in the Gaels 54-48 win.
The junior from Baltimore took MVP honors with an impressive performance while scoring 19 points, dishing out five assists, grabbing four rebounds and blocking four shots.
Kwame “KJ” Evans Jr., 6-foot-9 senior forward, Montverde Academy
The Baltimore native who spent his first two years of high school playing for Coach Sam Brand at Poly before transferring to national powerhouse Montverde, where he captured a national championship last year as a junior, Evans has developed into one of the most tantalizing talents in the senior class.
The long, lanky lefty has the skills of a wing/guard in the open court, and his long-range jumper is smooth like warm butter. With his fluid, long strides, he easily covers plenty of ground with a surprising speed and swiftness.
Evans, who’ll play his college ball next year at the University of Oregon, plays with a finesse and versatility that’s rare for a kid his size. As his post game develops, he’ll be a true match-up nightmare for any defender. During the two games at Hoophall this year, the combination of his size, length and athleticism overwhelmed on the glass, in the open floor as a passer and facilitator and within the team’s half-court sets.
Evans scored 11 points in Monday’s 64-51 victory over highly regarded Sunrise Christian Academy from Kansas. In Saturday afternoon’s resounding 85-63 win over Indiana’s La Lumiere School, he scorched for 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Judea “JuJu” Watkins, 6-foot-2 senior guard, Sierra Canyon School
Watkins is not only the top-ranked girls player in the country, she’s simply one of the most impressive and electrifying talents to grace a basketball court on the high school level. She sprained her ankle in the first half of Sierra Canyon’s game against a very talented squad from Washington D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School, and it seemed as if she might sit out the second half.
But to the surprise of many, she took the court in the second half and simply dazzled, despite playing on one good leg. She finished with 29 points and 14 rebounds while displaying an arsenal that left even the most seasoned hoops observers in awe during Sierra Canyon’s 67-55 win on Saturday.
Athletic, tough and physical with a versatility that is light years ahead of most girls in high school, the two-time USA Basketball U-17 gold medalist, 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup MVP and 2021 FIBA Americas U16 Championship MVP, Watkins will display her prodigious gifts next year at the University of Southern California.
Over the years, a few players at Hoophall have left a lasting impression on me. Watkins is definitely one of the rare and special talents that got added to the list.
DJ Wagner, 6-foot-5 senior guard, Camden High School
Wagner, the No.1 ranked recruit in the class of 2023 who’s heading to the University of Kentucky next year, did not disappoint during his final stint at Hoophall. When Wagner plays in the NBA (notice I said when and not if) he, along with his grandfather Milt and his father DeJuan will become the first three-generation family to make it to the NBA.
DJ plays within the flow of the game, does not force the action and is an outstanding passer and floor general. But if need be, he’ll assault you with buckets in every possible way. His lightning-quick forays to the basket, while levitating before using some cue-ball English off the backboard so the ball drops softly through the net will draw you out of your seat. His understanding of the rhythms of the game far exceeds his age.
He’s a rare talent in that he’s a pure scorer who involves everyone around him. And having the chance to personally interact with him at the Morgan Stanley presentation at the Hall of Fame on the importance of saving, money management and investing, I can honestly say that he possesses a rare humility for a young man who has been in the national spotlight for more than four years.
Wagner scored 27 points and snagged six rebounds in Camden’s 66-62 loss to Corona, California’s Centennial High School on Saturday. He scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds in Monday’s dominant 90-54 win over Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas.
Jared McCain, 6-foot-4 senior guard, Centennial High School
McCain, who’ll play his college ball for the Duke Blue Devils next year, was a force to be reckoned with in Centennial’s Saturday night win over Camden. In the most anticipated game of the day, with McCain matching up against the exceptional DJ Wagner, the kid from California sparkled with 27 points and six rebounds. He connected on six of his ten three-point shots and was solid in every aspect of the game. He protected the ball and shifted gears like a fine-tuned engine.
The 2021-2022 California State Gatorade Player of the Year won a Gold Medal with the Team USA U18 squad in Mexico this summer. He won’t wow you with an alien-type athleticism, but he’s as solid as they come with a work ethic and a commitment to excellence that’s refreshing.
Cameron Boozer, 6-foot-9 power forward, Christopher Columbus
Cameron, a 6-9 power forward, is one half of the Boozer twins. He and his brother Cayden, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, are the sons of former Duke and NBA star Carlos Boozer. Cameron was supremely dominant in Christopher Columbus’ win over San Ysidro of California with 33 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. Many have him ranked as the top pro prospect in all of high school basketball, and the young man is only 15 years old.
He was dominant in the post, has a sweet mid-range game and can stroke the deep ball, along with owning the paint as an offensive and defensive rebounder. His advanced skill set is a joy to behold and despite the fact that he’s merely a high school sophomore, he’d be one of the very best players in the NCAA if he was playing college ball right now. Defensively, he can guard every position on the floor.
In Monday’s scintillating 47-46 victory over Sierra Canyon, Cameron notched 18 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
Bronny James, 6-foot-3 senior guard, Sierra Canyon
LeBron’s kid is often unfairly judged because he’s not a generational talent like his dad. But honestly, there will only ever be one LeBron. That should not take away from the fact that Bronny is a special high school basketball player with an advanced IQ and understanding of the game. He’s locked in defensively, has exceptional vision and athleticism that leads to an initial burst that can be shocking to the uninitiated.
Bronny had a rough night shooting the ball in Sierra Canyon’s 47-46 loss to Christopher Columbus and the Boozer twins, making only four of his 17 shots, but that didn’t stop him from impacting the game as a facilitator and defender. He finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, five steals and three assists.
Cooper Flagg, 6-foot-8 sophomore guard/forward, Montverde Academy
Over the years, I’ve witnessed some incredible talent and transcendent performances at Hoophall. What I saw from Flagg on Saturday in Montverde’s 85-63 win over La Lumiere, of Indiana, proved that, even as a tenth grader, he’s in the running as the best-overall player in all of high school hoops alongside the aforementioned Cameron Boozer.
Flagg’s skills left even the most seasoned observers in awe. They were up there with the best players I’ve ever seen at this event.
Performing in front of more than 30 credentialed NBA scouts, Flagg scored 21 points and collected five steals, five rebounds and three assists. But the numbers alone do no justice to how polished and special he looked.
Kevin Boyle, the Montverde head coach, who has worked with the likes of Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and Cade Cunningham, said Flagg is just beginning to blossom.
”Cooper is growing into what he’s eventually going to become, and that’s a phenomenal multi-position defensive player,” Boyle told me when we bumped into one another inside the Plan B Burger Bar at the Basketball Hall of Fame. “Offensively, he’s beginning to grasp various concepts like spacing and once that advanced understanding meets up with his skills as a scorer, his game is going to go to an entirely different level.”