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Wrisby-Jefferson pushes Phelps past Hill in invitational semifinal

11/19/2022, 11:00pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

MALVERN, Pa. — John Harmatuk’s sophomore class at the Phelps School is impressive and deep, a quartet of underclassmen on the Malvern prep school’s top squad all with realistic Division I aspirations, their collective play a significant factor in the Lions’ success or lack thereof in 2022-23. 

But it was clear from watching Phelps top the Hill School in a semifinal game of the Phelps/Westtown Invitational on Saturday afternoon, that it’s senior guard Malcolm Wrisby-Jefferson who’s going to be at the middle of it all. 

Malcolm Wrisby-Jefferson (above) had a double-double in Phelps' win on Sunday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I feel like I’m playing a leadership role right now,” Wrisby-Jefferson said after flirting with a triple-double with a 13-point, 16-rebound, five-assist performance. “I feel like my game, I can do everything. Getting my teammates involve offensively and leading the talk on defense, while also being able to share the ball and communicate on offense, get guys to where they’re supposed to get, I feel like that’ll be helpful in the long run.”

Wrisby-Jefferson came to the Phelps School two years ago a kid from the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, chasing a Division I basketball dream, still a ways away from achieving it. He’s now getting ready to depart as one of the Lions’ leaders, a D-I signee, only his final year of prep school lying between him and Brown University. 

He was dominant in the Lions’ 98-87 win on Saturday, only taking seven shots but getting it done on both ends. Playing as Phelps’ primary ball-handler, he helped orchestrate an eight-man rotation that saw nobody score fewer than eight points and nobody more than 18. Wrisby-Jefferson led all players in a high-level game in rebounding, able to be a one-man press break, a lead guard with size (6-foot-4) who could get into the lane, hit shots, and make passes from all over the court.

“Yeah, he’s great at everything,” Harmatuk said. “He can shoot it, and handle it, and he gets to the rim, he’s unbelievable defensively; he had close to a triple-double, and he usually does just about every game.”

Wrisby-Jefferson came to Phelps to play for head coach Trey Morin in 2020, when the pandemic had everything shut down in New York. But a year later, Morin left for a job in Texas, leaving Phelps in the hands of former Malvern Prep coach John Harmatuk, a native Texan who’d been up in the Philly area for the last decade. 

Considering the timing of the move, just ahead of the 2021 June scholastic live period events, Wrisby-Jefferson didn’t have much of a choice but to stick it out at Phelps and see what the new regime had to offer. 

“Our first games, (Harmatuk) didn’t coach us, he was just scouting and seeing what we can do,” Wrisby-Jefferson said. “And then when we came to our first practice, he was teaching his philosophy and what he wanted to do on offense and defense, I was like ‘maybe this can work,’ because everybody can share the ball, everybody can do what their game allows them to do. I feel like that was an advantage for me because I was able to fit in right with everybody.”

Wrisby-Jefferson mostly played off the ball last season, Chas Kelley (Boston College), SJ Hutchinson (Wheeling University), and Jack Collins (Monmouth) taking care of most of those duties, in addition to Wrisby-Jefferson’s classmate, Saleem Payne. But with that trio off to college, Wrisby-Jefferson has shifted to primary ball-handler, which has allowed him to show off his full set of talents. 

Wrisby-Jefferson (above) signed with Brown earlier this month. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

College coaches took notice this summer, too, though Wrisby-Jefferson went through the whole June and July recruiting season without pulling in a Division I scholarship offer. It was on a visit to Brown in August that Bears coach Mike Martin offered him a roster spot (Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships); Wrisby-Jefferson accepted less than a week later.

“It was a blessing, knowing that I’m able to get a great academic education while knowing I’m able to play great basketball,” he said. “(My family was) waiting and waiting and waiting, and we finally got the opportunity, and we were ecstatic when we got the news and once we got it, it was like I had to take it.”

Wrisby-Jefferson said he plans on majoring in Computer Science at the Providence (R.I.) school, a subject he’s taken at both Kew-Forest and Phelps, where he’s done some game design. He said the Brown staff hasn’t specifically told him anything to focus on for next year, but that doesn’t matter. He’s already identified several areas for self-improvement before he gets to campus.

“I feel like I can shoot it better,“ he said. “I know I can shoot the ball, but obviously everybody wants to perfect it, so I just want to get better at it. And also defensively, I feel like I can get my athleticism up, just to keep guys in front — I do it now, but just to be an elite defender, to bump everything up, get it to a higher level so I can excel in college.”

Saturday’s win moved Phelps to 6-0 on the young season, dozens of games left both in the region and at showcase events around the country, the benefit of not being a non-PIAA entity. The Lions will certainly have their eyes on the Pennsylvania Independent School (PAISAA) championship come March, something the program last accomplished in 2015, led by Mike Watkins (Penn State) and Quincy McKnight (Sacred Heart/Seton Hall).

There’s plenty of time to get there, however, and with the young core, plenty of work to do despite the positive early returns. The sophomores played well on Saturday: 6-6 shooting guard Will Riley scored 18 points; 6-7 wing Onyx Nnani popping in 13 on 3-4 shooting from deep; 6-11 forward Justin Houser had 18 points and three blocks; 6-3 guard Gavin Doty had 13 points, including three 3-pointers. 

“I feel like we have great chemistry so far, we want to build on it obviously. We share the ball a ton, I feel like we can glue together defensively, once we do that I feel like we could be a great team,” Wrisby-Jefferson said. “We just get that to a higher level and keep going in the right path, I feel like we’ll be an unstoppable team.”

Box Score

Phelps School:  43  |  55  ||  98 

Hill School:        30  |  57  ||  87

Phelps School: 32-68 FG (14-30 3PT), 20-25 FT
Hill School: 33-73 FG (6-19 3PT), 15-23 FT

Phelps School: Riley 18, Doty 13, Houser 13, Nnani 13, Wrisby-Jefferson 13, Bell 10, Pettit 10, Payne 8
Hill School: Gerhart 26, Cameron 22, Molen 15, Meachem 14, Brndjar 6, O’Neil 4

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