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Hoop Group Elite Camp I Notebook (July 11)

07/12/2018, 7:30am EDT
By Josh Verlin & Teddy Bailey

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin) &
Teddy Bailey (@ByTeddyBailey)
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READING, Pa. — The Hoop Group’s first Elite Camp of July brought over 600 high school basketball players to Albright College for a week of competition and recruiting exposure. After Tuesday’s tryout games, the camp was put onto their official teams Wednesday, with the college coaches arriving throughout the day and Division I coaches allowed in for the evening sets.

Here’s a notebook from Wednesday’s action:

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Luke Kolaja (above) is transferring to Blair Academy (N.J.) for his junior season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Luke Kolaja (2020/Blair Academy, N.J.)

At 6-foot-8 and just shy of 210 pounds, with a mobile, athletic frame, there’s no doubt that Kolaja is a Division I prospect.

The question he now has to answer is just how good he can be before he has to make his collegiate decision. That’s why the former Montclair Kimberely (N.J.) standout decided to head over to prep powerhouse Blair Academy for his junior year, to take the sport even more seriously than before.

“At the old school I was at, nobody really knows of it, it’s an academic-based school, but basketball wasn’t really that good,” he said. “So I decided that I had to figure out how to get better, and that the move [to Blair] was the best option to do it.”

Entering July, Kolaja already has a quartet of Division I offers, from Lafayette, Bucknell, Boston University and Penn. He claimed “pretty high interest” from Princeton and mentioned he’s been talking to Michigan State and Notre Dame a bit as well since the June 15 date when D-I coaches could start contacting rising juniors; he also attended a couple Villanova games as a sophomore.  

For now, though, Kolaja isn’t focusing too much on potential landing spots, though he’s taken several unofficial visits, including to Penn and Lafayette.

“I’m kind of basing it on how good I’m going to be my senior year,” he said. “Do I want to go to [more of] a basketball school, see if I can make it as a professional somewhere, or go to an academic-related school and try to get a career through there. As of now, I’m not super-caught-up in things yet.”

Kolaja also switched AAU programs this summer, moving from the NJ Playaz over to the PSA Cardinals, with whom he’ll play in a tournament in Springfield (Mass.) this weekend and at the PSA Cardinals Combine next week at the Westtown School.

In game action early Wednesday afternoon, just before the Division I coaches arrived, Kolaja made his presence felt early with a thunderous dunk, then followed that up with several impressive moves, including a gliding layup where he switched to his off (left) hand in midair for a finger-roll, and a step-back 3-pointer that found nothing but net.

“I want to work on my dribbling and my shooting,” he said. “I’ve been working a lot on that, and I think I can continue working on it in order to make every open shot, basically; that’s what I want to do.” -- Josh Verlin

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Steve Payne (2019/Lower Merion)

Playing on a floor alongside clear Division I talent in Bradford Christian’s (Mass.) Gob Gabriel and Manheim Township’s Tyler Crespo, it was Payne who stole the show.

Except, as he readies for his senior season as the Aces point guard, Payne is still without a Division I offer. The 6-foot-1 guard was everywhere for his team in Wednesday’s afternoon set -- splashing a pair of 3-pointers, completing and-one plays at the basket, and even taking three charges to hand his team possession. By all accounts, he was the best player on his floor Wednesday.

“My mindset is to show the coaches that I’m a true point guard that can lead a team,” Payne said. “I play really tough and I don’t give up on any possession. I’m willing to take charges, do anything really.”

There is interest in Payne, and for good reason. He remains one of the area’s best in attacking at the basket and handling the ball. In the past, it had been Payne’s outside shot that had served as his missing piece to hesitate Division I interest. July is a grueling month, especially for a player searching for an offer in his final summer on the trail. But Wednesday, Payne displayed a level of improvement in confidence and accuracy from outside.

“I think it was true,” Payne said of his jumpshot. “Coach Downer told me, to become a Division I point guard, I have to be able to shoot the outside ball. Every day in the summer, I took 500 shots a day. And it improved.”

Payne has no shortage of confidence, athleticism, and high-IQ play. He cited interest from both Boston University and Army West Point following Wednesday’s session. Every player during July’s Live Period is playing under a level of pressure to secure offers and interest form Division I coaches. Payne’s is different, with time running out to secure a Division I scholarship despite proven success both on the trail and at Lower Merion.

“It definitely gets frustrating,” Payne said of playing without a Division I offer. “It’s big mentally. You have to learn how to control your mind. I try to play every game with the same focus, and that’s to play hard and win. I feel like I’m very underrated and overlooked. All these kids are ranked and stuff, I just want to prove myself to these coaches.”

While still searching for a deeper run in the PIAA State Playoffs than last season’s second-round exit to Neshaminy, Payne was one of head coach Gregg Downer’s workhorses last season -- tallying 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and the game-winning layup to lift the Aces to another Central League title against Penncrest. In the last hurrah for Payne and Lower Merion’s rising senior class, the sights are set higher.

“To win a state championship,” Payne said. “Nothing less.” --Teddy Bailey

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Bol Akot (above) has offers from Rutgers, St. Bonaventure and UMass-Lowell with interest from several more. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Bol Akot (2020/Proctor Academy, N.H.)

Camp settings aren’t always easy for point guards, especially the ones who actually like to share the ball. Five minutes of practice time doesn’t really give players time to get to know one another, and with dozens of coaches sitting at every court, everybody just tries to show what they can do.

With that in mind, what Akot did in his first game of the live period was quite impressive. The 5-11, 155-pound lead guard acted like he’d been playing with his teammates for years, dishing out assist after assist in all manner of ways: outlet passes hitting his man in stride, a perfect slip pass off a pick-and-roll, an alley-oop for a dunk. All made to look easy by the New Hampshire guard.

“Being a good point guard, you have to know your team, talk to them off the court,” he said. “You have to think get everybody involved and score in your own way.”

Akot did a little scoring of his own, hitting several 3-pointers and a pull-up mid-range jumper, something he said he’s been working on this summer.

He’s been a Division I recruit for several years, picking up offers from Rutgers and St. Bonaventure as a freshman at Proctor Academy. But he didn’t get anything else until this April, when UMass-Lowell became his third D-I offer. Akot said he’s also been hearing from “UConn, Seton Hall, Robert Morris, Saint Joseph’s, Seattle University and a little bit from Maryland” of late.

“I’ve been in contact with a lot of schools,” he said, “but we’re going to see how the summer goes.” -- Josh Verlin

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Khai Champion (2020/Shipley)

More or less, Khai Champion has been playing in someone else’s shadow for the last few seasons. As he turns toward his junior season, one changing facet of Champion’s game will be his role.

The younger brother of current Loyola (Md.) guard Chuck Champion and former second-fiddle to incoming Binghamton freshman Sam Sessoms at Shipley, 6-foot Khai Champion now has the reins to himself. In Wednesday’s early session at Albright College, Champion impressed with his ability to facilitate, knock down open jumpers, and finish at the rim. His quickness on both ends, however, has become his signature asset. It’s why the younger Champion says he’s hearing from the likes of Lafayette, Colgate, and American as his recruiting starts to take shape.

“I like to run up and down fast,” he said. “Run and grind, that’s how I prefer to play. I think I’m a shooter that’s aggressive on offense. Right now, I’m just trying to showcase what I can do. It’s a great opportunity to have some exposure and hopefully get some offers on my plate.”

As a rising junior at Shipley, it’s rather early to finish the process of evaluating Champion’s game. After all, the elder Chuck used the summer before his junior season at Friends Central to become a certified 6-foot-3 guard at the Division I level with Loyola. It’s something Khai hopes to emulate as he learns how to navigate the process of live periods.

“He gives me a lot of advice when these live periods come around,” Champion said of his older brother. “He always says to stay calm and play your game. Which is always hard, with all these coaches. It’s tough to stay calm, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

Khai averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore at Shipley, a number that will likely rise with an added emphasis on his production for the Gators as well as improvement on the trail this summer.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Champion said of his increased role at Shipley. “Just having a bigger role, I’ve always been behind Sam in his shadow. But now I can show what I can do by myself. With Sam, I learned how to play hard all the time. Just play the same way all the time.” --Teddy Bailey

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Quick Hits

Eddie Davis isn’t one of the bigger guards around, but there’s a lot of talent in his 5-10, 150-pound frame. The Pope John XXIII (N.J.) rising senior point guard is a high-level athlete, and he puts his terrific foot speed and quick hands to work on the defensive end, where he excels at keeping opposing ball-handlers in front of him, even in a camp setting that doesn’t typically emphasize strong work on that end of the court; he even threw in a block or two for good measure during an early afternoon game set. He’s been hearing from a bunch of Division I schools, including FDU, UMass-Lowell, Hartford and Drexel, who will be tracking him this summer, but if he doesn’t land a D-I scholarship, you can bet D-II types will be all over him before long.

-- Emmaus (Pa.) rising senior Zach Sabol has dropped 15 pounds over the last year, and that’s made a big difference for the 6-8 forward. Now standing about 240 pounds, Sabol is much more mobile and active on both ends of the floor, and while it was his solid size early on that made him a player to watch, it’s now much more about his production; he didn’t do anything too special on Wednesday, but displayed good hands and footwork, demanding the ball in the post and finishing around the rim. He’s awaiting his first scholarship offer at any level, but doesn’t have a quiet phone; D-Is Lafayette, Albany, Holy Cross, Mt. St. Mary’s, St. Francis (Pa.) and Navy and D-IIs East Stroudsburg and Gannon have all been in touch.

-- While certainly not near the 6-foot-8 height of his older brother, Matt, at Lafayette, Noah Klinewski has suddenly evolved into a 6-foot-2 point guard as he enters his junior year. The younger Klinewski was merely 5-foot-7 entering his freshman year, and has adjusted to his newfound frame. In the morning session Wednesday, Klinewski showed off his tenacious play -- leading his team with 12 points, primarily in transition and at the basket. It was obvious that Klinewski was not only the hardest worker on the court, but the most vocal as well. As he develops into his longer frame, Klinewski is preparing to take over full-time at point guard for Eastern (N.J.) in the fall.

-- --Will Soucie is arguably one of the hottest names at Hoop Group’s Elite I session and will likely soon add to the four offers he received this past spring. The 6-foot-5 rising junior at Gill St. Bernard’s (N.J.) holds offers from New Hampshire, Hartford, Stony Brook, and most recently North Alabama. Because of his attacking offensive game and athletic bounce, Soucie is starting to hear from the likes of Patriot League and Atlantic 10 schools, such as Lehigh, Lafayette, Holy Cross, St. Joseph’s, and Penn. It wouldn’t be surprising if Soucie’s recruitment broke out by the end of the month -- as his activeness on both ends is complemented by a stable perimeter game. Soucie possesses both the traits, and the time, to develop into a true small forward at the Division I level.

--Rising La Salle senior Konrad Kiszka has missed the last two summers due to injury. Now standing at 6-foot-7, his presence was felt during Wednesday’s session. Kiszka holds an Niagara offer from April of 2016, but his final summer playing on the recruiting trail is essentially his first, as well. Both Princeton and Brown have contacted the athletic, all-around forward who is interested in pursuing high-academic options. Kiszka showcased his smooth jumper and strong passing ability for his size on Wednesday, two traits that accompany his overall game in the paint.


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