Brian Batko (@BrianBatko)
PITTSBURGH -- Some of the top youngsters on the Philadelphia hoops scene were in action in the winner’s bracket of the 16 and under division of the Pittsburgh Jam Fest Saturday at North Hills High School. A couple of talented teams had their run at a championship cut short, but that didn’t stop a bevy of promising young players from standing out.
Starting with one of the more successful teams of the day, the Jersey Shore Warriors, Taylor Funk lived up to his billing as an intriguing prospect with a versatile game. The 6-foot-8 forward who is adept at facing up, knocking down jump shots from behind the arc and finding teammates for easy baskets had 13 points in leading the Warriors past the Pittsburgh-area Top Level All Stars, 56-46, to reach the third round in the 16U platinum bracket.
“I’ll tell you what, the minute he crosses halfcourt, you better cover him because he can shoot from anywhere. That’s what he can really do,” coach Marty Hoffner said of Funk, whom he expects to garner much more college interest. “He’s pretty special.”
The Manheim Central standout had plenty of help, too, from a deep Warriors team that won the Spring Jam Fest two weeks ago at Spooky Nook. Spring Grove point guard Eli Brooks controlled the game, Germantown Academy wing Kyle McCloskey did all the little things, William Allen guard Talek Williams locked up on defense and Camp Hill Trinity’s Austin Gilbertson hit three 3-pointers en route to 11 points
“We’re getting there,” Hoffner said. “We’re a new team. It’s only our second tournament, our ninth game total. Sometimes in AAU as you go, you get worse, because the kids lose their focus, especially in these long weekends, so we try to avoid that.
"The whole key is to try to get better every game and that was the focus today, let’s just get better. … It’s always tough to play in this tournament, but I love my team. We’re deep, we have a lot of good players, we pass the ball, they all play the right way. I couldn’t be happier.”
As the Warriors continue to win as a team -- they beat the NJ Roadrunners in their second game Saturday to reach the quarterfinals -- the recruitment of each player figures to pick up once summer rolls around. In addition to his impressive crop of juniors to-be, Hoffner has one more ace up his sleeve in St. Augustine Prep (N.J.) class of 2018 standout Marlon Hargis, a long, 6-4 wing who chipped in seven points in the win.
“It’s going to take off for a lot of our guys,” Hoffner said. “Marlon Hargis, only a freshman, everybody better be looking at him. He’s going to be special.”
Tough one for Team Final Black
Things are still coming together for the former Northeast Sting program, but there were certainly some standout performances in a hard-fought 71-69 loss to Western Kentucky Elite.
Coach Chris Roantree said it was one of the best offensive outings for his team of soon-to-be juniors (and one sophomore), thanks in large part to Archbishop Wood duo Collin Gillespie and Tyree Pickron.
The 6-0 Gillespie ran the show with aplomb, as usual, and showed why he could take a big step forward next school season for the Vikings.
“I just try to run the offense, get my team involved. We have a lot of shooters. … I’m trying to be an all-around basketball player where I can score, pass, do all the little things for our team to help us win,” said Gillespie, who had a team-high 22 points.
Ideally, Gillespie’s career path will follow that of high school teammate and Jersey Shore Warriors 17U standout Tommy Funk, who has worked his way toward a likely Division I future as he enters his senior season; Funk just picked up his first D-I offer from Army earlier this month.
“He’s a great player, so he’s kind of like teaching me how to play the game of basketball at Wood and run the offense,” Gillespie said of his fellow point guard. “Because that’s what he was last year, he was the guy. He and Luke [Connaghan] were the guys last year, so I’ll just look up after him and try to follow in his footsteps.”
Pickron, meanwhile, continues to develop his chemistry with Gillespie while also honing what he needs to improve on the most.
“My ball-handling and the mental aspect, how to think the game, pull-ups, that’s what I’m really working on right now,” said the 6-3 guard, who finished with 16 points. “Just wanna keep getting better, working on my game.”
La Salle College sharpshooter Matt Paulus added 16 points for Team Final and Father Judge guard Marc Rodriguez had 15.
Team Final’s next up
While Hargis and Pickron represented for the class of 2018 on their respective squads, an entire team of rising sophomores decided to play up a level this weekend in Pittsburgh. Team Final 2018 got a win Friday night against Boro Elite (PA), but was disappointed with a 65-42 rout at the hands of Young Legends (WI) Saturday morning.
“Our roster is loaded,” said Team Final coach Donnie Carr. “Pretty much wanted to play 16s to get some competition, because these guys can compete at that level.”
The main attraction for Carr’s squad is 6-8 center Marcus Little, an Academy of the New Church prospect whom his coach called a “bull in a china shop” but also tough and skilled.
Little was a bit too physical at times against a smaller team and thus had to deal with foul trouble, but scored 10 points and showed touch around the rim to go with his big body.
Littles’ ANC teammate Matthue Cotton, an athletic 6-4 wing, also looked like an excellent prospect in drilling a couple 3s and slashing to the rim, while Nottingham (N.J.) wing Cliff Joseph used his explosiveness to contribute 10 points.
“At this, stage it’s for developmental purposes, and the better competition we play against, the better understanding you have of what you do good, what you do bad,” Carr said of his precocious group. “Sometimes if you’re playing against inferior competition, you don’t really know what you’re good at.
"So when you play against older guys, that has a tendency to reveal what you’re good at and what you need to work on, so that’s the type of experience we try to give these guys. Guys have to improve. As good as all those guys are individually, they have a lot to improve on, so we just want to develop those guys, instill those fundamental principles.”