CoBL Staff (@hooplove215)
MANHEIM — The Hoop Group hosted its second and final spring live period event this weekend with the Spring Jam Fest at Spooky Nook, where a number of local and out-of-town grassroots programs as well as Division I, II and III coaches descended Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Here's the third notebook catching up with some of the players we saw during the three days of action:
Day 1 Standouts / Day 2 Standouts / Day 3 Standouts (Pt. 1) / Day 3 Standouts (Pt. 2) / Recruiting Notebook (Pt. 1) / Recruiting Notebook (Pt. 2) / Recruiting Notebook (Pt. 3) / Recruiting Notebook (Pt. 4) / Recruiting Notebook (Pt. 5)
Shareef Jackson, 2025 NJ Scholars 16U
Shareef Jackson (2025 | NJ Scholars 16U)
In a sea of AAU players where one player can blur into another, special players just “pop out” at you. Shareef Jackson is one of those players that shines just a little brighter.
The 6’8 sophomore from Roman Catholic is hard to miss especially when he’s in the open court. A runaway freight train comes to mind when the talented Jackson has the ball in his hands. He is a problem for most players he competes against and only the most courageous players would dare step in front of Jackson to take a charge when he is attacking the rim in transition.
While Jackson might be expected to demand the ball to showcase his offensive skills, he takes a much more cerebral and different approach to the game in comparison to many of his peers.
“I can score and do all that stuff, but my main strength is how I do off the ball and playing defense,” Jackson said. “Anyone on my team can score twenty points, but it’s all about how you play on defense and stop the other team. It doesn’t matter what the final score is, you have to play defense to win.”
Jackson is taking the AAU season to finetune his rapidly evolving game. On Saturday against the New Jersey Force, it was Jackson who was the force, dropping a game-high 20 points, 16 of which came in the first half.
“The main thing is I need to get my conditioning up – you can always improve your conditioning — and on defense improve on my lateral movement,” Jackson said. “I need to tighten that up so there’s no loose ends.”
Loose ends or not, Jackson is not just a star on the court but one in the classroom as well, as evident by interest in him by the likes of academic heavyweights such as Stanford, Harvard, and Georgetown along with a host of others.
The bright Jackson doesn’t have to worry about staying humble as his father, former NBA player Marc Jackson, instilled humility into Shareef and his younger brother Sammy.
“Over time he helped me improve my game, specifically my shot, but he’s also given me a lot of very good advice, especially as an NBA player, that helps me know what to do,” Jackson said.
While Jackson draws from his dad’s sage advice, he also has a regular sparring partner for one-on-one games at the Jackson abode in Sammy, who was a freshman at Roman this past season and plays on the Scholars’ 15U team.
When asked who is winning the battle of the Jacksons lately, Shareef did not hesitate to respond.
“I would have to go with me,” Jackson said. “A while ago it would have been him. Even though he is younger, he was beating me awhile but now I got him.” — Matt Gaffney
Anthony Follett (2023 | LI Lightning HGSL 17U)
Following a 42-point performance in Pittsburgh last week, Follet arrived at the Spring Jam Fest with the same energy and mentality. The 6-5 guard from Portledge High in New York has many skills in his bag that can be used at the college level. He has great finishing abilities and is not afraid of contact. The Lightning’s most remarkable guard plays hard on both ends and is ready to help his team get to the next level.
“I feel pretty good, we are new so we are tryna break bad habits but we’ll come together,” Follett said. “I played against a couple of these kids in high school, a bunch of these kids are the main players in their high school teams so we gotta build, break bad habits and come together as one group.
In high school he scored over 1,500 points and was his team’s best scorer with 27 points per game. Follet received multiple state awards and recognition.
“As of right now I am tryna see what colleges are interested in me after this live period. I am thinking about doing a post grad but ultimately I'm just seeing what goes on,” Follet said about his next step.
He said a few Division II and Division III schools have been reaching out, such as Molloy College and St. John Fisher University but “I am tryna see if I can play at the D1 level because that’s where I think I belong,” he added.
This is why he is thinking about doing a post grad year to enhance his chance of getting a D1 scholarship.
“I talked to Springfield Commonwealth Academy [...] very nice coaches, it is a very good program over there,” he said.
Follet is still exploring his options and taking it day by day. In the meantime, he is working on his game and his body.
“I think I need to work on my body a little bit, kids in college are getting old with the transfer portal [...] so if I work on my body and my hand a little bit I think it can really elevate my game. Ever since I was young I was strictly a shooter but I am tryna work on my game, get bigger, tryna get to the rim more, facilitate for my teammates, just be a great teammate,” he added that he is probably going to make a decision about his future after this weekend. — Antonello Baggi
Jaron McKie (2025 | NJ Scholars EYBL 16U)
McKie took a big step forward last year, the sophomore guard establishing himself as one of the top scorers in the area, earning First Team All-Catholic honors, averaging 16.5 ppg and going 68-of-157 (43.3%) from downtown.
The Hawks made strides as well, going 16-7 (9-4 PCL), a seven-win league improvement from the year before, without a senior in the starting lineup. They didn’t make it to the Palestra or earn a bid in the state playoffs, but they’re set up to do both next season.
“I felt like it went great,” McKie said. “We didn’t get the result that we wanted, but we’re still learning, we were young last year, I feel like we have a strong chance to compete for a PCL title and maybe states, too.”
The Scholars’ first EYBL stop didn’t go as well, as they went 0-3 in pool play. They spent the second live period weekend — 16U teams only play in two of the three EYBL stops — at Spooky Nook, where they won one of the three 17U platinum brackets, topping another EYBL team (PSA Cardinals’ 16s) in the finals.
They’ve got one more stop left, in Dallas this month, to attempt to qualify for Peach Jam in July. McKie’s not the only Hawk on that team; backcourt mates Olin Chamberlain and Jordan Ellerbee are with him, as is Roman’s Shareef Jackson, though Ellerbee is currently out with an injury.
While his jumper is no doubt one of the best around, McKie said he’s spending this summer working on finishing around the basket and his defensive abilities.
McKie’s the son of Aaron McKie, who until last month was the head coach at Temple. With that no longer being the case, Jaron’s starting to hear from other schools, mentioning St. Joe’s and Penn as two who have started recruiting him. He said that Hawks head coach Billy Lange has particularly been trying to get him down to see the school.
“They said they wanted to bring me and my family on campus, tour the school, stuff like that,” he said. “I’d been thinking about leaving Philly but it’d be cool to play at one of those schools.” — Josh Verlin
R.J. Smith, 2026 NJ Scholars 15U
R.J. Smith (2026 | NJ Scholars 15U)
As a 5-8 freshman guard on a national power Imhotep program, R.J. Smith certainly wasn’t guaranteed any minutes heading into his first high school season.
He wasn’t going to overtake senior guard Rahmir Barno (Florida Gulf Coast) or junior guard Ahmad Nowell (a high-major target) in the Panthers’ backcourt, but it didn’t take much time for Smith to earn time this winter, becoming the first guard off the bench for a Panthers team that went 30-3.
“As a small guard, you gotta lock up on D, you gotta knock down open shots, and that’s what I did and that’s how I played,” Smith said.
“I had to earn my spot,” he added.
Smith played in some pretty big games this winter as Imhotep won Public League, District 12 and PIAA titles. Some of his biggest points may have come during the team’s City of Palms Classic run, where he made some key buckets to help the Panthers become the first team from Pennsylvania to win the prestigious event.
“First game, I played good, second game, I had some rough plays, but I still got it back. Third game, I was cool. I was calm and collected. Fourth game, that’s when I turnt up and that fifth game when we won that championship, that was special,” Smith said.
Smith said he embraced the opportunity to learn from the older players this past season, that also included Kentucky-bound forward Justin Edwards, who grew up not far from Smith.
He said he feels prepared to play with his own age group with the Scholars this spring and summer as the Imhotep veterans passed down quite a bit, including their leadership.
Sharing the backcourt with two standouts guards also helped him expand his abilities off the ball.
“I was used to playing on the ball, but as a point guard next to a senior point guard, I had to play off the ball,” Smith said. “When he drove, I had to knock down open shots, and I just learned that my time is coming,”
Smith is playing this summer for a Scholars team that certainly isn’t short on talent, including fellow local freshman guards Ian Williams and Nasir Ralls (Archbishop Carroll). He still found a way to stand out during his team’s two wins Sunday, as he tallied seven assists and four steals in the two contests, also going and getting a few buckets when he felt his team needed them.
“My IQ,” Smith said of the defining trait of his game. “I know when to get off the ball, when not to take a shot, when to score. I get everybody involved. I’m able to facilitate a whole team, get everyone together.”
The Scholars have a fun team to watch this summer, as will Imhotep be again next season with Nowell and 6-7 big man Makye Taylor back in the starting lineup along with key bench pieces like Smith and forward Jeremiah White. He’s working on getting stronger this offseason to make sure the Panthers don’t skip a beat. — Owen McCue
Luke Bevilacqua (2025 | NJ Scholars 16U)
At first glance, Luke Bevilacqua has the look of a player who might remind you of various players. The 6-foot-11 George School forward He’s an amalgamation — a touch of Pau Gasol here, a dash of Dirk Nowitzki there, maybe a bit of Kevin Durant as well.
Bevilacqua has the modern game of a stretch four but pairs that with an old school mentality. Even though he has a game that is very 2023, he also isn’t afraid to mix it up down in the paint. “I love to battle, so I just fight and play hard,” Bevilacqua said.
It’s no wonder that with his deft shooting touch, ability to rebound and defend he has drawn interest from St. Joe’s, Cincinnati, UTEP, St. John’s, and Cal State-Bakersfield.
“I consider myself a stretch four, space the floor, shoot the ball, bring the ball up if you need me to,” Bevilacqua said. “But also play that traditional post spot, rebounding, getting putbacks, working hard down low and just playing hard.”
In time, the big man hopes to showcase an even more refined game as he has his mind set on putting the "stretch" in stretch four. Bevilacqua has a nice touch on his jumper. His length and quick release he employs when he steps outside the lane makes him even more challenging to defend.
“I definitely like to shoot the long ball and think I shoot it pretty well, so I like to shoot it when it’s open,” Bevilacqua said. “But I’m just trying to work on every aspect of my game and looking to get better.” — Matt Gaffney
Darius Brant, 2023 PA Coalition 17U
Darius Brant (2023 | PA Coalition 17U)
All Darius Brant wants is an opportunity.
He just completed a standout senior season at William Allen in Allentown, where he averaged 17.4 points per game and garnered a third-team EPC selection. The Canaries, though, had a bit of an up-and-down season, finishing under .500 but Brant made the most of it.
“We made the playoffs, but it was a rough year. We only went 11-12, but we still had a fun season,” Brant said.
Though Brant had a successful individual campaign, the college offers have not exactly been pouring in for the 6-6 forward, who said he’s probably looking toward the JUCO route.
Malcolm X College in Chicago in Central Florida are two of the junior colleges who have been reaching out to his father.
Brant decided to play out the spring live periods with the Coalition as a 2023 in hope of catching a college coach’s eye. In addition to trying to land a spot at a four-year college, he also embraced it as an opportunity to get better.
“(Playing AAU as a senior) it’s benefitted me in a good way,” Brant said. “From the player I was last year to this year is a big, big gap, so this has benefitted me every way possible. I’m trying to be more athletic than I am already, being more versatile dribbling the ball and jumping off the floor quicker and higher and making more open shots.”
He is well aware that his game is far from a finished product, but he has locked in on the style of play he embraces.
“Honestly, I just want to get the rebounds and make the blocks that my “bigs” can’t get. I just try to be their ‘wing man’. I love playing help defense and getting blocks and getting rebounds and hitting the open shots.” — Matt Gaffney
— Ben Costello (2024 | PA Hoops Academy 17U HGSL) resembles the perfect profile for a solid role player at the college level. Devon Prep’s junior guard mainly plays for his teammates and his only focus is to win games, even if it’s for a showcase game. He was PA Hoops' top scorer against York Ballers and then made the winning FT at the end of regulation to beat NJ Shoreshots by a point.
Costello, who plays at Devon Prep, shows great patience throughout the game by playing solid on the defensive end, getting open 3s from the corner and layups when needed. While teammates Duke Cloran (Haverford) and James Anderson (Unionville) take care of the offense with their ball control and ability to get shots, the 6-5 guard makes their life easier by being a facilitator and always being in the right place at the right time. He said the team has good chemistry and he is just trying to be an all-around player.
While he didn’t get many college looks yet, this summer he is going to work on his ball handling and other parts of his game with the hope that more coaches will reach out. And playing with two D1 players like Jacen Holloway (Army West Point ) and Lucas Orchard (Monmouth) definitely helped his growth this past season at Devon. — Antonello Baggi
— Nyle Ralph-Beyer (2023 | East Coast Power HGSL 17U) picked up his first offer last week, from Sacred Heart. One of the Pioneers assistants had texted him after the Pitt Jam Fest to stay by his phone, and then the call he’d been waiting for came in.
“He was just saying how he offered me a full-ride scholarship there,” the 6-4 West Chester Henderson wing said. “He just called me and once he said it, I just had a big smile on my face, I was really grateful and it just felt amazing, really.”
Ralph-Beyer showed why schools have been intrigued in him with a 13-point outing in a game Friday night. Long and smooth, Ralph-Beyer’s best asset is his ability to shoot with range, but he’s also showing he can be aggressive and attack the rim, and he grabbed six rebounds (two offensive) and dished out two assists in the win. — Josh Verlin
— Jeremiah Lee (2024 | Penn Warriors HGSL 17U) watched his older brother Anthony Lee put together a special career at Kutztown, and now he’s trying to out-do him. Anthony was a two-time all-district player at Kutztown and honorable All-American as a senior, scoring 2,292 points — second most in school history — while shooting 46.8% from beyond the arc; as a senior, Anthony averaged 27.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 4.7 apg on .505/.422/.901 splits.
Jeremiah’s coming off a junior year at Abington where he averaged about 16 ppg, the Ghosts earning a district playoff spot but falling short of a state playoff berth. An athletic 6-3 guard, Lee’s in his first year with the Penn Warriors and hoping to catch the eye of a D-I school. He said he has an offer from Kutztown coach Bernie Driscoll to follow his brother’s footsteps, and said he’s also heard from several other PSAC programs. — Josh Verlin