Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
MANHEIM, Pa. — Spent Friday night at the Hoop Group’s Spring Jam Fest out at Spooky Nook Sport, with four sets of action taking place across the two-dozen-plus courts at the massive multisport complex.
Here’s a notebook featuring a handful of players who stood out in the games I watched: PK Flash vs. Athletes Plus (17U), Philly Pride vs. Maryland Elite (16U), Philly Pride Gold vs. PPA Broncos (17U), SJ Hoops Elite vs. The House We Built (17U).
Horace Simmons (2023/Philly Pride 16U)
It’s tough to say who’s the best knockdown shooter in the Philadelphia area, but there’s no doubt that Simmons is putting his name in the mix. As a sophomore at La Salle College HS, all the 6-foot-6, 185-pound wing did was knock down better than 50% from 3-point range (22-of-43) in 14 games, picking his spots carefully and making them count when he let it fly. Simmons was even hotter as Pride’s 16s thumped an overmatched Maryland Elite, going 6-for-9 on 3-point attempts en route to a 20-point outing, with a handful of boards and a few assists as well. While Simmons might not jump out with flashy handles or big-time slams, he knows where his strengths are and plays to them — and his strengths are quite strong, including a smooth mid-range pull-up and good defensive instincts along with a nose for the glass. In a normal year, he’d have a few offers already, but he’s got interest from George Washington, Princeton, St. Joe’s and Drexel to begin the offseason, and expect more to get involved before long.
Dylan Blair (above) dropped 22 points in the opening day of the Hoop Group Spring Jam Fest. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Dylan Blair (2023/Philly Pride 16U)
A two-year starter already for Downingtown West (Pa.), Blair looks every bit the part of an experienced guard at a time where many players his age are still adjusting to the varsity level or getting ready to make that transition. Blair’s the son of West Chester head coach Damien Blair, and he’s definitely got that’s ‘coaches’ kid’ feel to his game: he excels on the defensive end, where he takes advantage of his natural athleticism and his strong 5-10 frame to get up into his man and disrupt the point of attack. He’s also an adept scorer, which he showed with a 22-point outing, hitting 3-of-4 from 3-point range. Plays with his head up, doesn’t take plays off and was always looking to push the action one way or another.
Devin Carney (2022/PK Flash 17U)
The top draw on PK Flash from a collegiate perspective, Carney enters this offseason with offers from Robert Morris, St. Francis (Pa.), Bryant, Elon and Drexel, with further interest from Vanderbilt, Duquesne, and NC State. Makes total sense after a junior year in which the 6-1, 175-pound lead guard averaged better than 30 points per game for Butler Area (Pa.), soaring past the 1,000-point mark as a result. He had 16 points in PK Flash’s win over Athletes Plus, getting started with a couple drives to the rim but then heating up from beyond the arc. Where Carney stood out was the ability to get his own bucket, needing only a sliver of space to pull up and knock down from deep 3-point range, but he’s a quick dribble-drive guard who can get out and run in transition and knows how to make the extra pass. Also defends well with his feet, gets low in his stance and engages his man well in the half court.
Landon Butler (2023/PK Flash 17U)
If the name Butler and the PK Flash program sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. Landon is the third Butler brother to stand out for the western Pa.-based program and Latrobe (Pa.) high school, following older brothers Austin, who’ll be playing his final year of college at Charlotte after scoring 1,321 points at Holy Cross, and Bryce, who averaged 10.7 ppg and 4.7 rpg as a sophomore at D-II Elite 8 finisher West Liberty (W.Va.). Like his brothers, Landon Butler is a big guard (6-4), and he stood out in PK Flash’s win over Athletes Plus without scoring: continually pushing the ball in transition and attacking in the halfcourt, Butler’s got a great handle and a lot of crafty moves to create space or get past defenders, kicking out to a number of PK Flash shooters who were having hot nights. He also dove on the floor for several loose balls and had no shortage of hustle points all night long. Oh, and there’s another Butler brother — Max, two years behind Landon.
Gavin Cote (above) had four 3-pointers on the first day of the Hoop Group Spring Jam Fest
Gavin Cote (2022/PK Flash 17U)
Speaking of shooters that Butler was finding, Cote had four 3-pointers en route to a 16-point game for PK Flash, doing most of his damage in the first half while his teammates got hot after intermission. A 6-5, 185-pound off guard, Cote has length and a quick, smooth, high release with a high-arcing shot that suggests his hot shooting performance Friday night was no aberration. Cote said he’s already hearing from several PSAC schools from that part of the state, including IUP, Cal U (Pa.) and Slippery Rock, while working on his handle and attacking the rim.
Tarique Foster (2022/PPA Broncos 17U)
A lanky, athletic, 6-8 wing forward out of Cardinal Hayes (N.Y.), Foster did a lot of good things in the Broncos’ win over Philly Pride Gold in their 17U showcase matchup, leading his team with 17 points. Even against a Pride Gold squad that consisted mostly of forwards and big guards, Foster didn’t have issues getting to the rim and scoring through the trees, or grabbing more than his share of rebounds. Does a lot in the ‘hustle’ category, which makes up for a lack of high-level dribbling or shot-making abilities, though he’s competent in both areas. Bryant’s already offered, and don’t be surprised to see more low-to-mid-major types getting on board.
Nix Varano (2022/Philly Pride Gold 17U)
It was a good shooting night for La Salle College HS products, as Varano joined his high school teammate Simmons with a sharpshooting effort, knocking down five 3-pointers in a losing effort Pride Gold’s 17Us. As a junior for the Explorers, Varano averaged 12.8 ppg and knocked down 37 3-pointers, and he does a great job at moving without the ball and sliding to his spots, finding himself open in the corner and on the wing time and time again, with effective range several feet beyond the arc. A 6-3, 170-pound guard, Varano’s still working on using his shooting to open up driving lanes for himself, but he’s already catching the eye of local D-III schools including Ursinus and Franklin & Marshall, and he added that Lehigh had also reached out.
Andrew Ball (above) is a shooter and a solid athlete with good fluidity. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Andrew Ball (2022/Philly Pride Gold 17U)
It wasn’t the best shooting night for Ball, who utilizes the 3-point arc as a major weapon at his height and length. But there’s a lot to like about this 6-8, 185-pound off guard, who connected on a couple triples as part of a 12-point effort against PPA Broncos. Ball already has an offer from Bucknell and interest from a host of high-academic types, including Lafayette, Lehigh, Delaware, Cornell, Dartmouth, Penn, New Hampshire and William & Mary. But he’s not just a shooter; Ball is an above-average athlete with good fluidity in his movements, and he did plenty of pushing the ball in transition and bringing it upcourt. Still working on creating for himself in the half-court, but he didn’t have much of a junior season, with three COVID pauses limiting his team to only six games. Lots of upside.
Quion Burns (2021/The House We Built 17U)
Didn’t keep stats for the final game of the night, as SJ Hoops Elite just held off The House We Built (formerly known as WrightWay Skills Academy). But the handful of scouts sitting courtside were all impressed with Burns, a silky-smooth 6-6 wing out of Lee Academy (Maine), who according to social media dropped a 48-point outing on Putnam Science (Conn.) a few weeks back. Burns is a 6-5 guard with great body control around the rim, finishing on several impressive drives, and he’s got a smooth outside shot as well.