Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Rider University played host to several dozen programs from Pennsylvania and New Jersey (and one or two others) this weekend, everybody there getting prepared for the upcoming June and July live periods and the influx of Division I coaches that are finally going to be courtside at events starting next weekend.
Here’s a notebook from Saturday’s action:
Mark Armstrong (above) became Villanova's first 2022 commitment back in April. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Mark Armstrong (2022 | St. Peter’s Prep, N.J.)
While many of his classmates head into the upcoming summer and its recruiting opportunities with pressure to perform well in front of the various college coaches, Armstrong’s got no such worries. The St. Peter’s Prep star got his decision out of the way this spring, announcing in early April that he’ll be continuing his athletic and academic careers at Villanova.
It was a recruitment that went back to Armstrong’s freshman year, when he first started talking to former Nova guard and current assistant coach Mike Nardi, then progressed when he attended the school’s Midnight Madness celebration the following year.
Other schools, including Stanford and Rutgers, made their push for the 6-foot-2, 165-pound guard’s services, but the appeal of playing for the twice recent national champions proved too much to pass up.
“The connection I have with (head coach Jay Wright) and it was just a feeling I had in my gut, and I went with it, I had faith in it,” he said. “It’s just a blessing that (Wright) came, he recruited me, he believed in me, and I took the commitment because we had a good connection and it’s just a great feeling.”
As it turns out, Armstrong’s commitment took on some extra juice when, a month after his decision, Wright was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s an early but well-deserved honor for Wright, who’s 490-189 (.722) in 20 years at Villanova and 612-274 (.691) overall including seven years at Hofstra (1994-2001); he’s taken the Wildcats to 16 NCAA Tournament, including three Final Fours and the two titles in 2016 and 2018.
“I was like ‘wow,’ the timing is crazy, you don’t make it up,” Armstrong said. “That was my reaction, it’s crazy. I talked to (Wright), I said ‘congratulations, Coach’ and we just had a good conversation.”
Armstrong showed why he’s a high-major recruit, and why Villanova’s coaches identified him as a future part of their guard-heavy attack, over the course of the morning at Rider. A high-level athlete of a guard, Armstrong loved to take pull-up jumpers from mid-range and deep, with terrific lift and form on his shot that allowed him to get it off over defenders, and he was a smooth ball-handler who could finish with both hands.
The first member of the Wildcats’ 2022 class, Armstrong could certainly see some company before this recruiting cycle is over. Villanova has three scholarship seniors on its 2021-22 roster, including point guard Collin Gillespie, wing Jermaine Samuels Jr. and forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, so at the moment the Wildcats’ coaching staff has two left to give.
Last year, Villanova went 18-7, advancing to the Sweet 16 despite losing Gillespie to a knee injury in the final week of the regular season. With the Wood product back in the fold, the Wildcats are on the short list for national championship contenders yet again.
Armstrong said he’s looking forward to getting on campus for his official visit, which he said begins Monday: “Just to see the dorms, the whole campus, different things around the campus, it’s going to be good,” he added.
Not long after that, he’ll be headed down to North Augusta, S.C. with his New Heights Lightning squad and the other 39 programs playing on Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), with a week-long EYBL session followed by Peach Jam spanning most of the July live periods.
“This is going to be my first time,” Armstrong said. “It’s going to be a good experience. I’ve actually been there, but I didn’t play in it...it’s going to be different playing in it.”
Jaheim Bethea (above, last month) has been a key reserve for Team Final and a starter for MCS. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Jaheim Bethea (2022 | Math, Civics & Sciences, Pa.)
There was one word Bethea used more than any other to describe his offseason so far: fun.
But who can blame him?
The Mighty Elephants’ starting guard is part of the biggest show on the travel circuit this summer, the Team Final EYBL squad led by the top two prospects in the 2022 class, Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates. When Bates joined the team — which also features high-major recruits in Roselle Catholic’s Corey Floyd (UConn), Westtown’s Dereck Lively II and Jameel Brown, and Montverde Academy’s Justice Williams — for the Southern Jam Fest last month, it immediately made Final must-see hoops for the remainder of the time they’re together, if they weren’t already to begin with.
“It's really good, just a lot of cameras,” Bethea said with a smile. “But it’s like that with my whole team, I’ve got a lot of top recruits on my team, so it’s just cameras everywhere, regardless,” he said. “Been having a lot of fun — that’s all it is, just fun.”
Bethea’s been a valuable reserve for Final, certainly not the role he plays for MCS, where he’s one of the main pieces on a team that’s hoping to dethrone Imhotep Charter, which has been the kings of the Public League of late. With Final, he’ll be headed down to North Augusta, S.C. next month to try to help Final win Peach Jam; two years ago, he was part of a Final squad that lost in the 15U championship game.
A 6-0, 180-pound lead guard, Bethea will be a two-year starter for the Mighty Elephants, part of a backcourt that includes fellow senior Trent Middleton and junior Chauncey Presley; as a junior, he averaged nine points, five assists and five rebounds per game. It’s a physical group that can play at different tempos, and Bethea’s time practicing with his Final teammates and playing against their competition has honed him well.
“Everybody on my team, even the other ones that are just like me, like not a high-[major] recruit, they all push me,” he said. “In practice we go hard, and just have fun with it too. We just push each other, it’s really fun.”
But even though he doesn’t start on the travel circuit, that doesn’t mean his play has gone unnoticed: McNeese State became his second Division I offer last month, joining Saint Peter’s, which offered last fall. Bethea, who said he’s also gotten some interest from Mt. St. Mary’s, Rider and Albany, hasn’t gotten to visit any schools yet due to COVID but said he plans to visit the two that have offered him either this month or next.
Saturday was a solid day for Bethea and MCS, who beat Neumann-Goretti and Devon Prep, their only loss coming to Iona Prep (N.Y.). They’ll be back in action next weekend at St. Joe’s Prep, playing three games as part of the Philly Live I showcase.
“I think my team played good [today],” Bethea said. “We’ve got to play more, the more we play, we’re going to get better at it.”
Malachi Palmer (2024 | Central Dauphin, Pa.)
One of the top prospects of late to come out of the central part of the Keystone State, Palmer has a decision to make. As a freshman at Central Dauphin, he was a sensation, helping lead the way to a 16-2 record and loss in the District 3 6A semifinals against Stevie Mitchell and WIlson.
But he was playing with St. Frances (Md.) on Saturday, a clear indication that he’s at least thinking about whether his future in the prep realm will continue in his hometown or elsewhere.
It’s the same decision several high-level prospects from District 3 have grappled with lately; Lonnie Walker resisted overtures from several big-name prep schools to stay at Reading (Pa.), leading the Red Knights to the 2017 state title; others like Chance Westry (Trinity) and Savon Sutton (York Suburban) departed for prep schools well away from the Keystone State.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “I’m just trying to discuss it with my parents and the people in my life to make the best decision for me.”
Just became Palmer was playing with St. Frances this weekend doesn’t mean his mind is made up. He’ll be playing each of the next two weekends with Central Dauphin at the Philly Live events at St. Joe’s Prep, where plenty of high-major coaches will see him play regardless of high school.
Palmer’s connection to St. Frances, a Catholic school located in Baltimore, comes through two of his teammates with Team Thrill on the Under Armour Association circuit. Palmer plays on Thrill’s 16U squad, alongside St. Frances rising sophomore Derik Queen and rising junior Cortez Johnson. Queen, a 6-8 wing forward, is like Palmer one of the most promising prospects in the entire 2024 class.
Palmer was knocking down long-range jumpers with ease and showing why he’s considered a high-major prospect, with offers from LSU, Virginia Tech, Arizona State, Nebraska, DePaul and more before he’s even fully wrapped up his first year of high school. He’s yet to visit any of those schools due to COVID, and while he says that he wants to see some campuses this summer, he didn’t have any particular schools in mind yet.
In the meanwhile, he’ll be preparing for the UAA championships in Indianapolis this July and working on his overall game, “being a better teammate,” and his shooting as well.
“It feels great,” he said, “to know that my hard work since I was little is starting to pay off.”
Imhotep senior Ronnie Raphael (above) showed off a well-rounded floor game on Saturday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
— Rutgers Prep rising junior guard Jadin Collins hasn’t gotten much of a chance to shine yet, as he was biding his time behind high-major talent like Corey Floyd and Simeon Wilcher at Roselle Catholic the last two years. But the 6-0, 175-pound combo guard was all over the place for the Argonauts as they battled the likes of Imhotep Charter and St. Benedict’s (N.J.), both of whom had trouble slowing him down. Collins is a lightning-quick ball-handler whose quickness extends to everything from his hands to his dribble and his decision-making, and he was able to both get into the lane as well as knock down outside shots. His effort on the day was enough to earn him his first Division I offer from the hosts, and similar outings will mean plenty more low-to-mid-major types will be at least interested when the live periods begin next weekend.
— While Imhotep juniors Rahmir Barno and Justin Edwards get a lot of the publicity for the Panthers due to their status as future Division I players, Andre Noble’s group is much more than a two-man shot. That was apparent on Saturday as the defending Public League champions got strong outings in multiple games from a pair of senior guards, Ronny Raphael and Naji Reid. Reid’s a 6-0, 180-pound guard with deep 3-point shooting range, but he also collected his fair share of boards and assists; he got his first D-II offer recently, from West Chester (Pa.), and is also hearing from a regular top-25 D-III program in Randolph Macon (Va.).
— Armstrong is the star piece for St. Peter’s Prep, but head coach Alex Mirabel has some impressive juniors that look like they’ll be squarely on Division I radars by the end of the June live periods. Against Imhotep Charter, 6-7 lefty wing Matthew Kinzler showcased smooth 3-point shooting abilities off the catch with range, and also attacked the basket through contact with his dominant hand; Kinsler, who plays with the NJ Panthers for his summer ball, said he’s gotten some interest from VMI thus far. Another junior, Jackson Tindall, is a 6-6 wing forward with a strong build who can also stretch the floor; he had two 3-pointers against Imhotep and also grabbed a few offensive boards; he plays his summer ball with the NJ Scholars on the EYBL circuit.
— Based on the way he scored the ball Saturday morning, St. Benedict’s (N.J.) rising junior guard Ty-Laur Johnson could easily go by the nickname ‘English.’ The 6-1, 165-pound guard dropped 20 points in a win over Rutgers Prep through a variety of difficult layups, using the glass and a healthy heaping of spin to get by and around defenders and score from tough angles with ease. Johnson didn’t flash much of an outside shot but he didn’t need to, getting by defenders through use of his excellent handles, a hesitation move and a handful of other tricks to get into space and attack the bucket. DePaul, St. John’s and Seton Hall have already offered; Johnson, who plays with the NY Renaissance on the EYBL circuit, said he’s expecting to hear from UConn, Pitt and Rutgers on June 15.