Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It’s a loss that’s been stewing for two years.
The members of Team Final’s 17U squad that were part of the 15U team in 2019 — and that’s most of the nine-man roster — remember all-too-well the run to the Peach Jam championship as rising sophomores, only to fall short in a loss to Nightrydas Elite (Fl.) at the end. With no 16U summer to speak of due to the COVID pandemic, the oldest group in the Nike-backed program has gone nearly two years since playing in the Elite Youth Basketball League.
Jameel Brown (above) is one of six players from Team Final's 15U squad still around for the 17U summer. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
They’re finally going to get their chance at redemption. Final departed Sunday by bus for North Augusta, South Carolina, the home of the 2021 EYBL ‘regular season’ and Peach Jam, a two-week grassroots extravaganza featuring 30 17U teams as well as 16U and 15U programs which will culminate in the summer’s biggest tournament prize.
“We’re definitely just ready to go and get that championship back,” Westtown School senior Jameel Brown said Saturday after a game at the Hoop Group’s Summer Jam Fest, Final’s last warmup event. “It’s our last tournament, so we’ve got to go out with a bang.”
Brown is one of six on the team who’ve been with director Rob Brown and assistant director Aaron Burt’s program since at least that 15U year, along with fellow rising seniors Jaheim Bethea (Math, Civics & Sciences), Jaden Arline (Paul VI, N.J.), Corey Floyd Jr. (Roselle Catholic, N.J.), Dereck Lively II (Westtown School, Pa.) and Otega Oweh (Blair Ac., N.J.).
It was one of the best groups on the Nike circuit that year, but there’s still a bitter taste in their mouths from their last EYBL contest.
“I didn’t play that well in the championship game, I think I was like 1-for-15 or something like that, so that’s something that’s always been on my mind,” Floyd said. “I kinda feel like I let the team down.
“We came back with a different mindset, and we’re just looking to kill everybody.”
“I was playing up [with the 16U team], but I know that [loss] fuels these guys a lot,” said Jalen Duren, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2022 class and the centerpiece of Final’s oldest group. “To get that far and then fall short, it’s definitely something that brings another level of energy to the team, to get ready for Peach Jam.”
Duren is one of three who weren’t around for the loss two years ago, along with top-50 shooting guard Justice Williams (TBD), who was also on program’s 16U team at the time; Jack Seidler (Marlboro, N.J.), a 6-5 wing with a Drake offer who’s new to Final this year, rounds out the roster.
It’s a group that’s drawn crowds all over the Northeast wherever they’ve played, from their Team Final scrimmages in April to the KYDA Invitational in Scranton in May and the Southern Jam Fest later that same month. It was at Southern where they were briefly joined by Emoni Bates to create one of the more talented grassroots rosters ever assembled, with the No. 1 (Duren), No. 2 (Bates) and No. 3 (Lively) prospects in the 2022 class all on the floor at once, along with numerous other high-major and D-I recruits. Bates isn’t with Final in July; he’ll be back with his team Bates Fundamentals, based out of his home state of Michigan.
Jalen Duren (above, right) is the No. 1 player in multiple 2022 rankings and the centerpiece of Final's 17U squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Even without him, Final has a group well capable of winning the Peach Jam for the first time in program history. They’ve come close before, losing in the championship in 2009 with a team led by Dion Waiters and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and in the semifinals in 2014 with Mikal Bridges, Ja’Quan Newton and company.
And considering the chemistry this group has from several years together, they know they have some serious potential. They also recognize the bittersweet note that comes with realizing this is the final tournament any of them will don the Team Final uniform.
“It’s very special,” Floyd said. “We had our last practice of AAU ever on Friday, and we all just took it in. We’re not taking this for granted.”
“It probably is going to hit home, definitely, when it happens, when the season’s actually over,” Duren said, “but as of right now, we’ve still got a lot more games to play, so that’s what we’re focused on.”
Peach Jam has served as the EYBL’s circuit championship since 2010, save for the pandemic-cancelled 2020 event. It’s typically limited to 24 programs, each of which has qualified by their performance during three separate stops on the EYBL circuit that take place in April and May. The pandemic forced the tournament directors to run things somewhat differently this year, with one mega-stop in July that consists of both a ‘regular season’ and then the Peach Jam itself, though there won’t be any cuts between the weeks.
That’ll make for a stretch of six high-level games in six days from July 13-19, with Peach Jam competition to follow.
“With our guys, it’s important that we be as healthy as possible, get the right amount of sleep,” Duren said. “It’s a long, long two weeks. A lot of games, a lot of up-and-down, a lot of playing. The most important thing is to keep our bodies healthy, keep our bodies on the court.”
Final’s 17s group won’t be the only one in Brown’s stable that’s gunning for a title. Their 16s are also quite good, led by Imhotep wing Justin Edwards and guard Rahmir Barno, George School big man Kachi Nzeh, Salesianum (Del.) wing James Johns Jr. and more. And the 15s group has some developing stars like the PCL backcourt of Archbishop Ryan’s Mike ‘Deuce’ Jones, Neumann-Goretti’s Robert Wright III and Archbishop Carroll’s Moses Hipps, plus Parkland standout Nick Coval and others.
Of course, the EYBL is a loaded league, and just because Final’s group has so much talent doesn’t mean they’re anything like shoo-ins. There have been wake-up calls, like a loss to the NY Renaissance in May, that Final is fallible, and any program good enough to get into the Peach Jam quarterfinals or semifinals is certainly going to be good enough to pull out a win.
Only this time, there wouldn’t be another chance for an AAU title, just plenty of them in college and beyond. Floyd will play his college ball at UConn, Williams at LSU; Oweh, Brown and Lively are selecting from a group of high-major programs, while Duren is deciding between doing a year of college or turning pro. The rest all have scholarship opportunities of their own to pursue.
For two more weeks, none of that matters.
“We all make sure that we don’t buy into any of the fans or anything like that,” Floyd said. “Just stay focused, play within ourselves, do what we do best, and really that’s it.”
Tag(s): Home Recruiting Josh Verlin Jalen Duren Justice Williams Moses Hipps Rahmir Barno Justin Edwards Dereck Lively II Robert Wright III Jameel Brown Nick Coval Deuce Jones Kachi Nzeh Jaheim Bethea James Johns Jr.