Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
HAMPTON, Va. — The Hoop Group’s Southern Jam Fest trucked on during its only full day of action, the 200-plus teams in attendance mostly warmed up from opening-round matchups the evening before. The loaded field with plenty of Nike, Under Armour and Adidas representation hasn’t disappointed, with high-level talent filling all eight courts at the Boo Williams Sportsplex all day long.
Here’s a notebook featuring 16U and 17U Platinum bracket action from Saturday:
Christian Watson (above) showcased a strong all-around game for DC Premier's 17s on Saturday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Fernandez, Watson lead way into quarterfinals for DC Premier
One of four teams in the 17U bracket with a Friday night bye, DC Premier wasted no time getting going, first dispatching District Basketball Club (D.C.) before jumping out to a double-digit lead on New World (Md.) and cruising to a 75-62 win to advance to Sunday morning’s Round of 16.
DC Premier, which plays on the Under Armour Association circuit, benefitted from two standout performances by Christian Watson (2022/St. John’s College, D.C.) and Justyn Fernandez (2022/Virginia Episcopal, Va.), who combined for 34 points on 17 total shots in the wire-to-wire win. They’ll face Nike powerhouse Team Final, now featuring the top two players in the 2022 class, on Sunday morning at 9:15 AM in the quarterfinals.
“(We’re trying) to show that no matter the circuit, we’re the best team out here,” Fernandez said. “I don’t see anybody being able to stick with us.”
Fernandez led the way against New World, shooting 8-of-11 from the floor (4-of-6 from deep) for 21 points. He made a statement early with a high-flying slam and smooth kiss off the glass, then knocked down a pair of deep 3-pointers, all within the first few minutes of action.
A 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard, Fernandez has two scholarship offers thus far, from a pair of Atlantic 10 schools: La Salle and George Mason. He said he’s been talking frequently with La Salle assistant Kyle Griffin, and plans on visiting Philly to see the Explorers’ campus once the NCAA’s COVID-long dead period lifts next month.
“I’m just ready for it, ready to see everything in person,” he said. “It’s one thing to see it over the phone, but to see it in person and see people’s faces is a lot different.”
In addition to his two offers, Fernandez said he’s hearing from high-majors including Virginia Tech, Illinois, Wake Forest, East Carolina and more, who are looking to see him continue to put together more performances like he showed against New World.
Watson — a 6-6, 200-pound wing — scored 13 points against New World, shooting 4-of-6 from the floor and the foul line, hitting one of his two 3-point attempts. He showcased an impressive array of talent, running point guard on numerous occasions for DC Premier, utilizing his crossover to great effect to get into the lane and find teammates, finishing with five assists, five rebounds and two steals in addition to his scoring tally.
While Fernandez is hoping to entice high-majors, Watson already has a dozen-plus high-level offers — most recently this month from South Carolina and Penn State, in addition to those from Providence, Xavier, VCU, Saint Joseph’s, and more.
“It’s a dream of mine, I’ve been dreaming of this since I was young, getting all these offers,” he said. “[I’ve] been looking at the high-major kids in classes ahead of me, so I’m just blessed.”
So far, Watson said he has an official visit set up to Xavier from June 4-6, and just like every other prospect with a bevy of offers and no chance to see any campuses the last year, he’s anxious to start visiting as many of the schools recruiting him as possible.
While on those campuses, he said he’s going to be looking at “the atmosphere, the living style down there, if it’s the right fit, the weather, everything” while overall looking for “[the] relationship with the head coach, assistant coaches. Just the school that has my major [business management], that’s a main factor, and just the playing style, if I fit right away.”
Anthony Purnell (above) transferred out to Kiski Prep (Pa.) last year to enter the 2022 class. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Philly Pride’s Purnell benefitting from prep move
The 2019-20 season was a breakthrough one for almost everybody on the Cardinal O’Hara roster, as the Lions had a six-win improvement in the Catholic League, led by a talented cadre of guards. One of those guards, then-junior Anthony Purnell, averaged just shy of a dozen points per contest, and realized that he could use an extra year in his development to really maximize his potential before getting to college.
“Just get another year to get my body right,” he said. “Get my jumper right, [work on] ball-handling and dealing with pick-and-rolling, giving off to the bigs.”
So he made the decision to leave the Philadelphia suburbs and head out to the western part of the state, attending Kiski Prep (Pa.) and repeating his junior year this past year.
Kiski’s season wasn’t long; Purnell said they only played four games total, including two against the Hill School, but it was still enough to work on the things he wanted to improve. Playing with Philly Pride’s 17s this summer, it looks like that extra year of development is paying off for the 6-foot-tall, 170-pound point guard.
In an 83-54 win over Team Final Red on Saturday evening that put Philly Pride’s oldest group into the Round of 16 (they lost to Expressions Elite later that evening), Purnell had nine points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals.
An energetic defender, Purnell is a jet with the ball in his hands or without, and he thrives in transition, though he can also get defenses moving on his own with his dribble-drive ability. It’s not a team that needs his scoring ability, with the likes of Roman Catholic duo Daniel Skillings and Khalil Farmer as well as Lower Merion’s Demetrius Lilley and Executive Education Charter (Pa.)’s Jevin Muniz, but Purnell’s overall effect on the game is undeniable.
“Just been in the gym a lot,” he said. “Going to a new school, knowing it’s going to be a different type of competition at the new school, I just had to adjust to how everyone was playing, playing faster.”
Purnell’s recruitment is still largely quiet, though he said he knew a few D-I schools had reached out to his coaches. If those scholarships don’t materialize, there’s no doubt plenty of D-II programs would be happy to have him, but there’s plenty of time left in the summer — including the June and July live periods, when Purnell and the rest of the prospects can finally play in front of D-I coaches again — for all of that to sort itself out.
One Big 5 school with a couple recent national championships is talking frequently with 2023 guard Shawn Simmons (above). (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Team Durant’s 16U squad rolls to impressive wins
Strolled into the secondary gym at Boo Williams at one point this afternoon to check on some developing 16U first-round games. While Philly Pride’s 16s were in the middle of a close win against Team Loaded 804 to advance to the second round, Team Durant (D.C.) had no such issue: it was already 50-11 at that point, and the mercy rule win ended well ahead of schedule.
An hour later it was Pride who found out the hard way just how good that Durant squad was, as Durant advanced to the 16U quarterfinals with a 63-40 victory. It’s a group with a ton of size, including 6-8 wing Kwame Evans (2023/Baltimore Poly, Md.), a top-10 prospect in his class, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds in the win.
Also standing out for Durant was Amani Hansberry (2023/St. John’s College, D.C.), a 6-8, 240-pound forward with a strong body and soft hands. Hansberry, who said he’s been working on his face-up game, certainly looked like it as he stroked a smooth 3-pointer to open up a 16-point effort to lead all scorers; he also grabbed six boards.
“[I’m] rying to extend my range a little bit more to the 3-point line, just getting more confident in my skills with the ball-handling, playing on the wing, stuff like that,” he said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to go to play D-I, and I feel like I’m doing good so far, but the job’s not done yet.”
Hansberry comes from an athletic background: his mother, Angela, played at Howard University, one of the dozen-plus schools that have already offered the young forward. A starter from his freshman year at St. John’s, by which point he’d already pulled in his first scholarship offer, Hansberry has since added scholarship opportunities from Ohio State, Rhode Island, LSU, Virginia Tech, Pitt, George Mason, Tennessee and more, with further high-majors keeping track.
“Confidence level has definitely shot up, like a lot, so I feel like all eyes are on me, “ he said. “If I keep doing what I’m doing, I know I can go somewhere.”
Another Durant prospect who showed why he’s also pulling in high-major schools is Shawn Simmons (2023/Life Center Academy, N.J.). Against Philly Pride, Simmons had 11 points and five rebounds, showcasing his high-level athleticism with a big-time slam but otherwise playing a fairly reserved game by his standards.
Simmons, who spent his freshman year at Bonner-Prendergast and then a year at Friends’ Central before going to Life Center, is a 6-6, 190-pound wing with offers from Maryland, Butler, Seton Hall, Pitt, Saint Joseph’s, Temple, La Salle and more, all of whom love his combination of skills, athleticism, and versatility. Others checking in include some of the best programs in college hoops history, including UCLA, UConn and Villanova, who he said he’s hearing from “a lot” lately.
“It feels good to see my hard work is finally paying off, I’m getting recognized for it,” Simmons said, “because I always believe in myself, and it feels good just to get recognized.”
While he’s still got plenty of time life in his recruiting calendar to try to pull in some of those blue-blood offers and show he can play the ‘2’ and ‘3’ at the highest levels of college hoops, Simmons is starting to sort through his options and figure out which will be the best for him long-term.
“I’m trying to figure out their play styles, their history, how many guys have they produced at the next level,” he said. “I want to go somewhere I can go to the next level, who’s going to get me as ready as possible by the time I leave.”
Neel Beniwal (above) showed off his shooting chops with a 5-of-5 performance from deep against Garner Road. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
— First matchup I watched today was Rhode Island Elite taking down Garner Road 70-55 in a 17U Platinum second-round game. RI Elite features a pair of Phelps School (Pa.) prospects, 2022 SG Neel Beniwal and 2023 F/C Isaiah Miranda. Beniwal had a standout game from beyond the arc, knocking down all five of his 3-point attempts as well as two technical FTs and a driving layu; the former Garnet Valley standout transferred to Phelps and reclassified, and the always-strong outside shooter is certainly increased his athleticism and fluidity; he said that he’s just heard from West Point and Merrimack. Miranda, meanwhile, has gotten some buzz as one of the higher-ceiling targets around, and it’s easy to see why; the 7-1 forward moves like a wing/guard, with the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive from the arc for a dunk, though he’s also an inconsistent jump-shooter who needs to take more advantage of his natural abilities.
— Garner Road (N.C.)’s Nikolas Graves (22/Greensboro Day, N.C.) stood out in a losing effort to RI Elite, finishing with 16 points, five rebounds and two steals against RI Elite. A 6-3, 180-pound lead guard, Graves clearly doesn’t shy away from contact, crashing the glass with aplomb on the defensive end and attacking the bucket through defenders in an attempt to get to the line, and he’s got good body control through contact to finish. Graves said he recently picked up his first scholarship offer, from Boston University, and said he was also hearing from a list of mid-majors including Mercer, Tulsa, Elon, UNC-Charlotte, Furman, Princeton, Longwood and more.
— Watched all but the last minute of a NJ Scholars 69-66 win over WeR1 in a 17U second-round game Saturday afternoon. D.J. Wagner (2023/Camden, N.J.) definitely stepped up his game in this one, finishing with 19 points and four rebounds. It’s easy to see why the 6-1 lead guard is so highly-regarded, as he’s got a complete floor game with easy athleticism, gives great effort defensively, has three-level scoring ability and can finish tough shots, and more. Also really impressive for the Scholars this weekend has been Quadir Copeland (2022/IMG Academy, Fla.), who came over from Team Melo earlier this month. A 6-6 point guard, Copeland exited this game late in the first half with a cut over his eye but returned with it bandaged up after halftime and played his best ball yet, finishing with 15 points and five rebounds. Also extremely intriguing for the Scholars is Camden (N.J.) 2023 F/C Aaron Bradshaw, a lanky and athletic 6-11 post whose shooting form didn’t look bad when he took and missed his only outside shot of the game, but he really excels as a rim-protector and rebounder.
— One of the top players in the Lehigh Valley, Jevin Muniz (2022/Executive Education Charter) has had a strong spring for Philly Pride’s 17s, as the 6-5, 195-pound wing has been shooting it from deep at a good clip, while also attacking the bucket and getting second-chance points. Chalk that up to cutting sugar, eating better and dropping 30 pounds last summer, which he said has made a huge difference in the way he’s able to move and play. So far, Muniz has no scholarship offers and only some interest from Albany, but once college coaches see his new body and motor, all it’ll take is a couple games of hitting a few 3s for the offers to roll in.
— Final thought of the day: Lower Merion 2022 F/C Demetrius Lilley has to be one of the more underrated local prospects. The 6-9, 235-pound forward put up big numbers this year for the Aces, and just continues to produce every time he’s on the court. His 16-point, four-rebound effort against Team Final Red was just another example of that; he’s got great hands, is a tremendous finisher on stick-backs and in post-up situations, is able to get to the bucket from 12-15 feet, and is an above-average shooter with his feet set, working excellently as a pick-and-pop big. He doesn’t have elite size or elite athleticism for the position, but he’s far from small and his productivity and consistency can’t be ignored. He hasn’t picked up a scholarship offer since last June (La Salle + Saint Joseph’s), and it’s about time that changed.