CoBL Staff (@hooplove215)
WILMINGTON, Del. — The annual Team Final Scrimmages brought together some of the top talent from the Northeast together at the 76ers Fieldhouse this weekend for a one-day event, as Team Final welcomed fellow Nike EYBL programs Albany City Rocks, New York Renaissance and Team Melo along with a few other regional programs for a couple games of warm-up action.
Here’s a notebook featuring players from several of the 17U games that took place Sunday:
Team Final comes out strong in season debut
It was listed as a scrimmage. It was supposed to be a scrimmage. Though on Sunday, when Team Final U17 Team Blue met U17 Team Melos, there was certainly an edge to their game. The contest was won by Team Final, 58-54, thanks to some clutch late play by Justin Edwards, who scored five of his 12 points in the last 1:23 of the game, and a game-high 16 from James Johns, listed as a 6-foot-6 junior from Long Island Lutheran, though a resident of nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
James Johns (above) and Team Final's 17Us are defending last year's Peach Jam crown. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
“Oh yeah, there was a little Philly-Baltimore thing working there,” Johns admitted. “It was definitely a competitive game and we got those guys twice last year, so I knew that they were going come out wanting to beat us. It was definitely more intense than a scrimmage (laughs). This is great, because it’s all part of the process.”
Team Final held a 20-10 lead at one point, despite giving up substantial size to Team Melo. But by halftime, Team Final held a 24-22 edge, and the heat was turned up so much that the ref had to pull over one of the tournament organizers to douse some building hostilities from the Melo sidelines.
Early in the second half, Johns began showing his range, nailing three-pointers, and Imhotep Charter guard combination of Rahmir Barno and Ahmad Nowell really shined. Nowell canned a three-pointer with 3:42 to play in the game, putting Team Final up, 46-44, and though this was supposed to be a scrimmage, where no one was supposed to pay any attention to the score—everyone watching and playing in the game were paying attention.
Barno finished Team Melo off by hitting a few clutch free throws to give Team Final some cushion. Team Final needed it, because Jayden Ross (2023 | Team Melo | St. James Academy, Md.) wasn’t exactly taking this Sunday game like a scrimmage either. Ross finished with eight, though it seemed like more.
Each time it seemed Team Final was going to pull away, each time Ross’ competitive nature and drive kicked in to stop it.
“It was intense,” said Lower Merion’s Sam Brown, playing for Team Final for the first time. “This is a high level and guys want to prove what they can do against the best.”
Some little things that did go noticed was the charge, yes, a charge in a scrimmage, taken by Archbishop Wood 6-8 junior Carson Howard, with less than eight minutes to play. And though Barno is generously listed at 6-foot, he was the smallest player in the court in the last two minutes, and came up with one of the bigger plays, helping out to rebound. It’s the little things like that which grabs a college coach’s attention in settings such as the one on Sunday.
Ruben Rodriguez (2023 | Team Final Red | Reading, Pa.)
After spending his freshman season at Muhlenberg High, Rodriguez transferred to Reading and has made his presence felt in just two seasons. His career with the Rockets started off with first-team all-state honors and a PIAA 6A state championship, and as a junior, Rodriguez won Berks Co. Player of the Year.
Ruben Rodriguez (above, in Dec.) is playing with Team Final Red this offseason. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound guard is uber-quick with an elite ability to pass the ball and get to the basket, finishing with 16 points on all layups or dunks in Team Final Red’s 70-51 victory over Team Final Black.
Rodriguez boasts offers from Saint Peter’s and Jacksonville and has garnered interest from schools like Fairleigh Dickinson, William and Mary, Wake Forest, Holy Cross and Colgate. Following Saint Peter’s Elite Eight run, head coach Shaheen Holloway has departed and is now at Seton Hall, and Rodriguez mentioned that he has still been in touch with Holloway since his new gig.
After spending time with Team Final Blue a year ago, Rodriguez played in the 2021 Peach Jam with Finals’ 16U squad, where one thing became apparent: there’s a lot of talent everywhere.
“I’ve really learned that there’s a lot of really good basketball players around this country,” Rodriguez said. “Like last year traveling to Peach Jam, it was crazy. [...] Like everyone there is good. So it’s just seeing all the crazy skilled athletic people that you see down there is ridiculous. So just really getting a chance to see all this competition was really good.”
This offseason, Rodriguez will play with Team Final Red 17Ut5, where he hopes to become a better all-around player and improve his handle, athleticism and strength to get ready to play at the next level.
“Keep trying to get better and just keep trying to improve my weaknesses just so they won’t be weaknesses anymore,” Rodriguez said, “and I can just be an all-around good basketball player.
“I just really want to be able to do whatever the coach asks me for, and whatever the team needs me to do.”
Rahmir Barno (2023 | Team Final Blue | Imhotep Charter)
Temple, Bryant, La Salle, VCU, George Washington and Virginia Tech have offered the 6-foot Imhotep Charter guard. Barno may in a little limbo with La Salle and George Washington, since both coaches of those schools have been fired. Barno showed poise amid the chaos of a sloppy game, and found open players. He also showed some moxie, hitting the boards though he was the shortest player on the court, and coming up with a key defensive rebound in the victory over Team Melo. In other words, Barno is not afraid to do some dirty work.
Sam Brown (2023 | Team Final Blue | Lower Merion)
The 6-3 guard plays like a coach’s son, because he is a coach’s son. Sam, the son of former 76ers’ coach Brett Brown, continued to show heady play, and what coaches have to like is even when his shot wasn’t falling, which it wasn’t in the second game, Brown did not let that affect the other areas of his game. He was good with help defense, and there were a few times he drove to the basket, only to have the ball bounce twice off the rim and fall away. Sam has received offers from Albany, Lehigh and Penn. “I could have gone back to play at a lower AAU level, but I can’t be happier to play at the highest level there is,” Brown said. “This is definitely a lot more competitive and it’s going to help me in the long run. This is a completely different game. These guys play above the rim. Some of the guys are going to be in the NBA one day.”
Tafara Gapare (above) is an intriguing 6-10 center out of New Zealand. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
Tafara Gapare (2023 | Team Melo | South Kent, Conn.)
The New Zealand native just completed a prep season at South Kent (Ct.) and is still deciding what’s next in his basketball career because of a visa situation. But the reason he holds offers from schools like Maryland, Virginia Tech and has gotten a look from Gonzaga is for his length. On Sunday the 6-10 center blocked three blocks and had one steal and got his hands on several other passes plus his jumper looked fluid as he knocked down a three-pointer. When Gapare does decide on what school he wants to attend, player development will be his main concern, “They have to be able to develop their players, especially international players,” Gapare said.
Ian Harvey-Williams (2023 | Team Final Black | TBD)
After finishing out his career at St. Joe’s Hammonton (N.J.), Harvey-Williams will reclassify from the class of 2022 to 2023 and will likely play at Olympus Prep (N.J.). The 6-1, 175-pound guard is athletic and can attack the basket, finishing with 15 points, all coming inside the paint or at the free throw line. This offseason he is focusing on getting his teammates more involved and wants to show coaches that he can “do everything.” Harvey-Williams doesn’t have any offers but said he has been in communication with Fairleigh Dickinson and Florida Gulf Coast.
Carson Howard (2023 | Team Final Blue | Archbishop Wood)
The 6-foot-8 junior has an offer from one of the hottest programs there is in college basketball—St. Peter’s University, with Patriot League interest from Bucknell and Lafayette. Howard had his hands full dealing with imposing Team Melo monsters, like 6-9 Tafara Gapare. There was one integral sequence in which Howard stood his ground and took a charge in the second game when Team Final needed a stop. “I’m still talking to St. Peter’s and Bucknell and Lafayette have come to my games at Wood, but no offer yet,” he said.
James Johns (2023 | Team Final Blue | Long Island Lutheran, N.Y.)
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound wing forward has received offers from Wake Forest, Miami, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, UConn, Dayton and Fairfield. Johns helped himself hitting a few clutch 3-pointers, and showed a very competitive edge. He crashed the boards and wasn’t afraid to play intense defense. He showed he could go to his left and his right and wasn’t afraid to fire the big shot.
Braxton Jones (2023 | Jersey Force | Roselle Catholic, N.J.)
Braxton Jones also played a large part in Jersey Force’s win over Team Final. The 6-0 guard consistently created a tremendous amount of separation on his crossover and put constant pressure on the Team Final defense. He finished with 9 points (7 in the second half) to secure the victory. So far in Jones' career his shot making has been based around his catch-and-shoot ability. This summer though he is working on suffering up his ball-handling skills and improving his shot off the dribble to compensate for being undersized. Jones currently has interest from Quinnipiac, Maryland, St. Francis and several schools from the Northeast Conference.
Christian Pierre-Louis (2023 | Jersey Force | Roselle Catholic, N.J.)
Christian Pierre-Louis is following quite the basketball path paved by his older brothers. His oldest brother Nate plays for the South Bay Lakers in the G-League and his other brother, Josh, plays for UC Santa Barbara. Christian shined in Jersey Force’s 52-50 win over Team Final, scoring 16 points. This offensive showing is something that the 6-2 guard wants to become a consistent part of his game. “Everybody focuses on my defensive side, but honestly I have both sides of the game,” he said. “I just do a lot of the things that nobody likes to do, that’s why it sticks out.” His defensive intensity and energy has schools like Siena, UC Santa Barbara and several Ivy League schools interested. But he wants to use the summer to improve on offense and prove his two-way potential.