Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
HAMPTON, Va. — The Hoop Group’s Southern Jam Fest concluded a terrific three-day tournament Sunday, with the various brackets in the 15U, 16U and 17U age groups all playing their quarterfinal, semifinal and champion games.
Here’s some notes and quotes on players and teams who capped off successful weekends:
Justice Williams (above) and Team Final's 17s took home the Southern Jam Fest championship with a terrific Sunday run. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Team Final makes statement at Boo Williams
Put the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the 2022 class on the same travel team, surround them with hard-playing, high-major talent, and what do you get? Great expectations, and an even greater crowd.
That’s what Team Final, the Philly-area’s longtime Nike-affiliated travel hoops program, walked into this weekend’s deep and talented field when it added top prospect Emoni Bates (2022/Ypsi Prep, Mich.) to a squad that already featured consensus No. 2 Jalen Duren (2022/Montverde Academy, Fl.) alongside UConn commit Corey Floyd (2022/Roselle Catholic, N.J.), top-25 guard Justice Williams (2022/Montverde Academy), five-star 7-foot-1 center Dereck Lively II (2022/Westtown, Pa.) and others.
And after surviving a scare Friday night from one of the biggest underdogs in the field, Final’s oldest group got rolling over the course of the weekend, playing its best ball of the tournament on Sunday in winning three straight to take home the 17U Platinum crown.
“Definitely gives us confidence, not to brag or anything like that but (Bates) is the No. 1 player in the country, and we’ve got No. 2 as well, plus myself and another good core of guys as well,” Williams said after scoring 16 points in the championship game, a 76-58 win over fellow Nike-backed squad Team Takeover (Md.) “Going into the summer I feel like we have a real big push at the Peach Jam [Nike circuit] championship.”
Taking home the tournament title in a bracket stacked with EYBL (Nike), UAA (Under Armour) and 3SSB (Adidas) teams — 12 of the final 16 teams in the bracket were shoe-sponsored teams, including all eight quarterfinalists — was no small feat, and Final made it look easy, winning their three Sunday games (against DC Premier, Team Loaded (Va.) and Takeover) by an average of 16.7 points.
It was truly a team effort: everybody who took the court for Team Final contributed, and all the stars shined brightly. Williams had 16 in the championship game, and Floyd had 14 and four assists; Lively had 13 points and eight rebounds, Jameel Brown (2022/Westtown School, Pa.) had 16 in the semifinals, and Duren had a double-double with 14 points and at least 11 rebounds in the quarterfinal before putting up seven points, six rebounds and five assists in the championship.
“I just felt like everybody knew the goal, the goal was always to win,” Brown said. “Obviously bringing on Emoni brings more attention to it, but it’s always the goal for us.”
Bates, whose presence no doubt contributed to the mass of cameras, scouts and media that followed Final around all weekend, certainly showed why he’s considered the best pro prospect in the prep game; the 6-8 wing can do (and does) just about everything on the court, making tough finishes look easy. But he didn’t dominate the ball for Final, fitting in amongst the talented perimeter group; Bates had 18 points in the semifinal win over DC Assault, 11 in the semifinals against Team Loaded and tied for the team lead with 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting (3-5 3PT) in the championship game.
“Honestly, we’ve kind of been talking about this since 8th grade but never really put it in motion,” Williams said. “He fit in right away, he fit in immediately. It’s just the way that we run, we needed a taller wing and he fits right in.”
Kachi Nzeh (above) has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle to his 6-9 frame over the last year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Kachi Nzeh (2023 | Team Final | George School, Pa.)
It wasn’t just Finals’ oldest group that had a successful weekend at the Boo Williams Sportsplex. Final’s 16U group also had an unbeaten run through its similarly-loaded bracket, taking home the program’s first crown of the weekend with a 57-54 win over Team Melo (Md.) in the championship game after dispatching Team Durant 62-49 (Md.) in the semifinals.
Playing a big role in the middle was Nzeh, the newest member of the 16U squad, who’s joined Final after previously playing with another Nike squad, the NY Renaissance. A 6-9, 210-pound forward, Nzeh brought some serious punch to the Final frontcourt, scoring 12 points with four boards and a couple blocks in the semifinals before contributing six points in the championship game.
He’s come a long way over the last year, transferring from Upper Darby (Pa.) to the George School, a private school in the far Northeast suburbs of Philadelphia, where he became a member of the Class of 2023. Under the tutelage of George School head coach Ben Luber and a staff that includes multiple Division I alumni, including Temple’s Mike Vreeswyk, he’s expanded his shooting range out to 18’, and worked on his footwork and defensive positioning as well.
“He does things that not a lot of coaches would do, you ask him to work out, he’ll wake up with you at 6 AM to go with you to work out, he just wants to get you better and help you achieve your goals,” Nzeh said. “It’s a great coaching staff, love everybody out there.”
The biggest physical difference in Nzeh is the muscle he’s gained; he said he was about 185 pounds last year and now clocks in at 208, a 23-pound jump. That’s made a big difference in his athleticism and physicality in the post, a necessary upgrade if he wanted to compete with the best forwards in the country.
“Definitely [improved] my base, I’ve got a lot of bounce now, I don’t get pushed around as easily and I’m definitely more explosive than I was last year,” he said. “I could barely get up last year but now I can jump pretty high.”
Nzeh’s recruitment has also spiked in the last few months, as he’s added offers from
TCU, La Salle and Creigton to those from Siena, Bryant, Hofstra and others; he also said he’s been hearing from Harvard and Yale, as well as Penn State, and more.
Like other D-I bound rising juniors, he’s excited for the upcoming June 15 deadline when coaches can begin contacting him directly instead of having to go through a coach or parent, as well as the end of the NCAA dead period in June, meaning he can go visit college campuses for the first time.
“I’m pretty excited, just want to see where the coaches are at,” he said, “why they recruited me and stuff like that, just getting to know them, the schools and players if I can, so it’s definitely exciting.”
Paul VI (Va.) point guard Dug McDaniel's got quite a few high-major offers to choose from already. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Dug McDaniel (2022 | Team Takeover | Paul VI, Va.)
McDaniel has something of a special connection to the Philadelphia area, as the electric guard was a sophomore at Paul VI when his squad took Archbishop Wood to seven overtimes in a 130-128 Paul VI victory, scoring 20 points, much of which came in the overtime periods.
More than a year later, the 5-11, 170-pound lead guard has continued to refine his game, and was a big reason why Takeover made it all the way to the 17U championship game. In the final, he had 13 points, four assists and three rebounds, showcasing a terrific burst, sharp passing ability even going behind-the-back and no-look, a terrific handle and scrappy defensive abilities.
There’s a reason that McDaniel said the schools pursuing him hardest were “Michigan, Arizona State, LSU, Penn State, and Florida,” and that he’s gotten indication he’ll be soon speaking to Baylor and Kansas.
So far, McDaniel said he’s set up two official visits, to Michigan and Penn State, and he’s working on setting up others. His main connection with the Nittany Lions thus far has been assistant coach Mike Farrelly, brought over from Hofstra by new head coach Micah Shrewsberry, formerly an assistant at Purdue.
“He said he feels like my team relates well to them and he would love to have me, I would be a great aspect to their rebuilding process,” McDaniel said, “and I like the school as well.”
Penn State’s going to have a lot of competition for McDaniels’ services, including Big Ten foe Michigan, fresh off an Elite 8 run in Juwan Howard’s second year, with former St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli by his side.
“I really like Michigan,” McDaniel said. “I have a genuine relationship with the coaching staff, and I just feel like it’s a great school.”
On his visits, McDaniel said he’s going to be evaluating the complete package of where he hopes to spend his next four years. He said he hopes to have made his decision before the start of his senior year at Paul VI, but he’s not going to rush into a decision if he hasn’t yet gotten to visit his top options.
“Definitely a relationship with the coach on and off the court, and since I’m an outgoing guy, the social aspect of the school,” he said. “Basketball isn’t the main focal point because it is school at the same time so checking out the school, making sure the school’s alright, checking out the guys on the team, making sure they like it, they’re giving me feedback on what it’s like.”
Isaiah Miranda (above) is a high-upside prospect at 7-1 with the ability to stretch the floor. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Isaiah Miranda (2023 | Rhode Island Elite | Phelps School, Pa.)
After his freshman year at Tolman (R.I.) High School, Miranda already stood well north of six feet, but he just kept growing.
“I hit 6-7 in the summer and I wasn’t stopping,” he said. “I was growing out of all my clothes, I just kept going and going and going.”
At that point, Miranda realized, he should take this basketball thing more seriously. At a camp, he caught the eye of the Phelps School head coach Trey Morin, and left his hometown of Pawtucket to come down to the Main Line, spending the last two years at the Malvern prep school where he repeated his freshman year and joined the class of 2023.
But he had a lot of work to do.
“I started playing basketball when I was really uncoordinated, I always had to work on coordination,” he said Sunday. “I feel like I was working on how mobile I can be and stuff like that...being quick, having agility.”
It’s noticeable: Miranda carries his long, lithe frame with ease, only needing a couple strides to cover the ground between the 3-point arc and the bucket, which he did in throwing down a massive dunk during a Saturday afternoon win over Garner Road. In that win, where he had nine points, four rebounds and two assists, Miranda spent equal time in the post and on the perimeter, where he showed he can put the ball on the floor and face up with surprising grace for someone his size.
He’s still very much a work in progress, however: he’s still learning the ins-and-outs of the game, including shot selection and getting a consistent motor, and taking full advantage of his natural physical abilities to impact the game in the best way possible. But there’s no doubt there’s a ton of potential he’s starting to unlock, and that’s why he’s got offers from “Seton Hall, Virginia Tech, Bryant, URI, and Rutgers.”
The biggest key for Miranda will just be continued work against other high-level big men, to challenge his post abilities and give him a measuring tape to see how he stands up. That’s something he was able to test at the Southern Jam Fest, with no shortage of future high-major bigs in the field.
“It’s like a test to see where you really need to improve on,” he said, “and I feel like I really got that here.”
— Could write another 1,500 words on Final’s 16s and 17s this weekend, and they’re going to get plenty of mention in our standout picks, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much. But the Imhotep Charter 2023 duo of Justin Edwards and Rahmir Barno deserve special mention for their play this weekend, especially in the semifinals and championship. Edwards, an athletic 6-7 wing with a rapidly-expanding offensive game, had 18 points and six rebounds in the semis then had 21 points in the championship, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with under a minute remaining and two clutch foul-shots shortly thereafter. Barno, a 5-11 combo guard, had 13 points, six assists and three rebounds in the semifinals and then 10 points in the championship, including the final game-sealing foul shots with four seconds remaining.
— One more thing from Saturday, from CoBL’s Matthew Ryan: Tyson Commander showed out, leading Team Melo 17U to a 2-0 record on the day, knocking down seven threes across both of his games. The 6-4 186-pound combo guard scored 21 points against NJ Shoreshots in his squads 66-55 victory and 15 points in Team Melo’s 21 point victory over Higher Level Premier. Three-point shooting is Commander's strength, but he is not limited to that as he got to the free-throw line and scored inside the arc in both contests on Saturday. The lefty sharpshooter who can find the open man is working on shooting off the dribble and playing the pick and roll. The rising senior at John Carroll (Md.), the reigning Baltimore Catholic League champions, has numerous D-I offers, including Xavier, Iona, VCU, St. John’s, and Howard, and also has interest from schools such as Pitt, Virginia, Cincinnati, and Temple. Commander doesn’t have any visits scheduled at the moment, but he will eventually make it out to VCU, Cincinnati, Xavier, and Iona.