Inside Look at Mr. Basketball USA Candidates
Flores, RonnieRonnie has scouted and evaluated high school basketball talent for 20 years (and counting) and has over 15 years of experience in publishing, editing and managing high school sports websites for companies such as Student Sports and ESPN. He also serves as a manager and consultant for grassroots high school events run by Ballislife, as well as other independent operators and major shoe companies. Ronnie also serves as an account manager and production supervisor for television and online streaming broadcasts while working with companies such as ESPN and Facebook. Ronnie has been quoted in numerous publications such as the Los Angeles Times and has appeared on radio sports talk shows to discuss high school and grassroots basketball, as well as serving as a color commentator on numerous high school broadcasts. The only scout/prep journalist to once serve on the prestigious Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Best of the West panel for both football and boys’ basketball, Ronnie has also served on the selection committees for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year program, the John Wooden Award for high school basketball players and as a player personnel director for the Ballislife All-American Game and Under Armour Elite 24.
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Mr. Basketball USA is the title bestowed upon the National High School Player of the Year honor presented by Ballislife.com. The Mr. Basketball USA Tracker tracks the progress of the top player of the year candidates throughout the season. We examine the resumes of four early favorites, five others with strong cases and list other potential candidates. Now in its ninth year, the Mr. Basketball USA Tracker begins with its preseason voting results Nov. 23.
During the regular season, Ballislife.com will publish the Mr. Basketball USA Tracker, an inside look at the nation’s top on-court high school performers, according to a panel made up of 10 high school basketball and recruiting experts, including six McDonald’s All-American selection committee members.
Every season the race for national player of the year is altered by an early season occurrence. For instance, early in the 2012-13 season, current Los Angeles Laker forward Julius Randle (Prestonwood Christian Academy, Plano, Texas) suffered a broken foot. There’s no telling how strongly he would have challenged eventual Mr. Basketball USA honoree Andrew Wiggins, last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sometimes the occurrence is injury, other times it’s ineligibility or a player re-classifying up and leaving for college early (current Duke freshman Derryck Thornton Jr. and N.C. State freshman Maverick Rowan come to mind).
We can’t recall a preseason like this one where the race has been so significantly altered before it really even has gotten started.
First, athletic point guard Dennis Smith Jr. of Trinity Christian (Fayetteville, N.C.) tore his ACL at the second-to-last major Grassroots event of the summer (adidas Nations). He was presumably one of the top candidates coming into the fall. Then, in the opening minutes of the opening game for preseason FAB 50 No. 1 Oak Hill Academy, its best player, forward Harry Giles, tore his ACL. One has to figure he was a favorite considering he was last year’s National Junior of the Year.
Then in the past week, Marvin Bagley III, last year’s National Freshman of the Year at Corona del Sol (Tempe, Ariz.), left Hillcrest Academy (Phoenix, Ariz.), a relatively new program with national aspirations. Even though the prep school Bagley attended was not formally recognized by the residing state athletic association (in this case the Arizona Interscholastic Association), therefore making it ineligible for the FAB 50, the sophomore power forward was still eligible for the nation’s highest individual honor because he presumably was a student in good standing with three years of regular high school eligibility remaining.
For now, Bagley is not eligible for any individual honor because he’s not enrolled at a school, nor is he currently playing for a varsity program. Reports have surfaced that Bagley’s family is inquiring about the possibility of him returning to Corona del Sol. Then the next natural question is, does he regain his athletic eligibility?
As if that wasn’t enough, last year’s National Sophomore of the Year, 7-foot DeAndre Ayton, joined the Hillcrest Academy program after playing his sophomore season at Balboa City School (San Diego, Calif.). For now Ayton is eligible for Mr. Basketball USA, but you have to wonder how playing with Bagley for a few games and then seeing Bagley leave the program, and the general uncertainty surrounding the program, is going to affect his candidacy.
For now, we present some of the eligible candidates who figure to factor in the 2015-16 Mr. Basketball USA race.
The Early Favorites*
DeAndre Ayton, Hillcrest Academy (Phoenix, Ariz.) 7-0 Jr. C
Resume: The 2014-15 national sophomore of the year averaged 21.1 points, 16.0 rebounds, 3.8 blocks, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals for Balboa City School (San Diego, Calif.), a private institution that played mainly prep school and academy program competition. Ayton didn’t always get the ball in prime spots, but still put up impressive numbers.
Why He Could Win: This talented center was a second five All-American by GrassrootsHoops.net last season as a mere sophomore. At the time, some respected prep evaluators felt the Bahamian native might have the best long-term potential of any player in high school basketball regardless of class, sans Ben Simmons, the 2015 Mr. Basketball USA whom some feel is already one of the nation’s top college basketball players. Ayton has that much potential.
Why He Wouldn’t: It seemed Ayton was a surefire national player of the year candidate with Ben Simmons moving onto college, but over the summer he wasn’t as dominant and he seemed to labor at times. He has since left Balboa for another prep school situation where the program is not recognized by the residing state athletic association, and that could hurt his chances. He was supposed to team up with super sophomore Marvin Bagley III to form one of the best 1-2 big man punches in high school we’ve ever seen, but Bagley is now gone and the situation seems a bit shaky and that could scare the Mr. Basketball USA panel.
Lonzo Ball, Chino Hills (Chino Hills, Calif.) 6-6 Sr. G
Resume: The Cal-Hi Sports State Junior of the Year averaged 24.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 4.5 steals and 3.5 blocked shots per game for a team that advanced to the CIF Division I state title game. He was a third five All-American with now graduated standouts Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard, Dedric Lawson and Caleb Swanigan.
Why He Could Win: One word that describes this UCLA commit is “unique.” He is a pin-point passer all 84 feet of the court and has grown to a true small forward size with uncanny rebounding ability for a true point guard. Ball is the CIF’s best player (Josh Jackson’s Prolific Prep team is an independent program), he’s one of the state’s best scorers, the best passer and could very well be the best rebounder. He’s that good.
Why He Wouldn’t: Ball is one of the most polarizing elite players on social media, as some feel the style in which Chino Hills and his travel ball club play doesn’t translate to the next level. Others feel he is a generational talent at the point guard position. Because of the mixed bag of opinions, Ball might be high on some lists and lower and others. Regardless, he’s going to have to play his best at the City of Palms Tournament and winning a CIF state title would go a long way, too.
Josh Jackson, Prolific Prep (Napa, Calif.) 6-8 Sr. G
Resume: After earning National Sophomore of the Year honors two seasons ago at Consortium College Prep in Detroit, Jackson made the decision to leave the state of Michigan and attend an academy-type program based in Northern California. On a team that played a national schedule, Jackson averaged 28 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists per game. He also led his travel team, 1Nation, to the Las Vegas FAB 48 invitational title in July.
Why He Could Win: With his size, explosiveness, passing and rebounding ability, Jackson is clearly one of the elite players in the country. At the USA Basketball Mini-Camp in October, he was the best performer and showed the alpha male mentality and competitive instincts to be a long-time NBA player.
Why He Wouldn’t: Jackson wasn’t eligible for end-of-the season honors as a junior because the players on Prolific Prep’s team attended various high schools (which made them an after-school academy). This season, all the players attend Justin-Siena High School, so Jackson returns as a serious candidate. The Mr. Basketball USA panelists were made aware Jackson is eligible, but some might favor a candidate from a traditional high school. Other than that or the injury bug, Jackson should be in the thick of the race.
Jayson Tatum, Chaminade (St. Louis, Mo.) 6-8 Sr. F
Resume: As a junior, Tatum averaged 26 ppg, 11 rpg and 3 apg for a 25-4 team. Tatum was named Gatorade State Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, but his team was shocked in the state semifinals.
Why He Could Win: The Chaminade Red Devils, ranked No. 7 in the preseason FAB 50, is a team that really has a chance to challenge the academy-type powers for the FAB 50 national title because of their national schedule. The Duke-bound Tatum is a household high school basketball name and will be on national TV versus No. 1 Oak Hill Academy and No. 5 DeMatha Catholic. If Tatum plays well in those games, plus at the City of Palms Tournament, it could catapult him to the top of the Mr. Basketball USA conversation.
Why He Wouldn’t: Perhaps Chaminade falters from a team perspective and that could hurt him from an individual perspective. Winning the state title would clearly help Tatum’s candidacy because expectations are so high from a national perspective for his team. It’s not too often Missouri has a bonafide Mr. Basketball USA candidate (only Crystal City’s Bill Bradley has been honored from the state for the 1960-61 season).
Edrice Adebayo, High Point Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.) 6-9 Sr. C
Resume: As a junior, Adebayo averaged 32.1 ppg and 21.0 rpg against small-school competition at Northside (Pinetown, N.C.). He was named an Underclass All-American by GrassrootsHoops.net.
Why He Could Win: This summer, Adebayo was one of the top five performers at the prestigious NBPA Top 100 Camp and showed why he’s considered one of the top true post players in the country. This winter, his new high school team will play in enough big games for “Bam” to become a serious candidate. High Point opens up No. 25 in the preseason FAB 50 with “Bam” on board. His team plays in the NCISAA Class 3A ranks, which offers good competition and is good for his candidacy.
Why He Wouldn’t: Bam may not put up prolific numbers as he did last season, because he’ll be facing better competition and has more talented teammates. Eye-popping numbers, especially for a big man, always help. There has only been one true post player to earn this honor in the last 25 years (Greg Oden in 2005-2006) as the game has gone away from the big man. That could hurt “Bam” because analysts and fans are more drawn to skill, rather than size, than in the past.
Rawle Alkins, Word of God Academy (Raleigh, N.C.) 6-5 Sr. F
Resume: He was arguably the best player on the summer Grassroots circuit after an impressive junior season at Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.), which he led to the CHSAA Class AA title after helping the Royals win New York Federation titles as a freshman and sophomore. Alkins shared Pangos All-American Camp MOP honors with fellow Mr. Basketball USA candidate Mustapha Heron, led the New York Rens to the title of the adidas Uprising Gauntlet Finale championship and later led his team to the championship of adidas Nations.
Why He Could Win: Alkins helped Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.) win big time games, but eligibility issues loomed so he decided to take his talents to North Carolina, where he leads one of the better independent schools in the country. Alkins wins in whatever setting he plays in and that combination of production and winning could put him in the national player of the year conversation.
Why He Wouldn’t: The Holy Rams have a talented roster and open up No. 37 in the FAB 50, but should they falter it could hurt Alkins’ candidacy. Word of God doesn’t compete for a state title, and playing an independent schedule could be a hindrance for Alkins, especially if Word of God is not selected for Dick’s Nationals.
Trevon Duval, Advanced Prep International (Dallas) 6-2 Jr. G
Resume: This fast-rising point guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season in leading St. Benedict’s (Newark, N.J.) to the Prep A title. He also was stellar in the Under Armour Association and in Las Vegas at the Fab 48. Duval decided to leave the Garden State for API and joins a strong nucleus of players at a brand new program.
Why He Could Win: An Underclass All-American last season at St. Benedict’s, Duval has elevated his game to the point where where he’s now considered the best underclass point guard in the nation and arguably the best overall 2017 prospect. API opens up No. 8 in the FAB 50 and with Duval as the catalyst, the Bulldogs like their chances to move up in the rankings. The better API does, the better Duval’s chances are.
Why He Wouldn’t: Duval could lead his new team to a memorable season, or he could get outshined by another elite talent on his own team. Some Mr. Basketball USA Tracker panelists could feel junior forward Billy Preston or senior wing Terrence Ferguson is the more viable candidate on API’s team. Sometimes teammates help, and sometimes they cancel each other out when it comes to individual awards.
Mustapha Heron, Sacred Heart (Waterbury, Conn.) 6-5 Sr. F
Resume: Heron led Sacred Heart to its second consecutive state title and a perfect 28-0 record. Only the second junior ever named New Haven Register State Player of the Year, Heron averaged 22 ppg and 5.3 rpg. He also had an excellent summer, earning co-MOP honors at the Pangos All-American Camp with Rawle Alkins.
Why He Could Win: You have to like the best player returning from an undefeated state championship team who is clearly one of the best players in his region. If Sacred Heart builds an unbeaten record and remains FAB 50 ranked (it opened the season No. 21), Heron could gain traction in the race over the course of the season.
Why He Wouldn’t: Position factors and regional factors. There is a lot of shooting guards/small forwards types in this year’s crop of candidates and perhaps the panel might like another one just a bit more. There’s been only one Mr. Basketball USA from Connecticut and that was in 1965-1966 (the great Calvin Murphy) and no panelist will see Sacred Heart during its league/conference schedule.
Malik Monk, Bentonville (Bentonville, Ark.) 6-3 Sr. G
Resume: He averaged 26.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, and 2.6 apg and also had a solid showing on the summer Grassroots circuit. Monk was one of only three juniors named All-American (along with Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball), so he definitely has an opportunity to impress the panel.
Why He Could Win: Monk led Bentonville to the Arkansas Class 7A title game, where it lost. This season, Bentonville has a lot of firepower and opened up No. 24 in the preseason FAB 50. Winning a state title and some big scoring outputs would keep Monk in the conversation with the other candidates.
Why He Wouldn’t: They will play in some big tournaments and showcase games, but if Bentonville doesn’t win those games, Monk could fall on ballots even if he puts up numbers. Some of these games will be potential head-to-head matchups against other guards and sometimes too much emphasis (good or bad) can be placed on one game.
OTHER SENIOR CANDIDATES
FROM STRONG PROGRAMS
G — Bryce Aiken, The Patrick School (Elizabeth, N.J.) 5-11
C — Udoka Azubuike, Potter’s House Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.) 6-10
G — Tyus Battle, St. Joseph’s (Metuchen, N.J.) 6-5
F — Braxton Key, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) 6-7
F — Miles Bridges, Huntington Prep (Huntington, W.Va.) 6-6
G — Tony Carr, Roman Catholic (Philadelphia) 6-3
G — Anthony Cowan Jr., St. John’s (Washington, D.C.) 5-11
G — De’Aaron Fox, Cypress Lakes (Katy, Texas) 6-3
F — Markelle Fultz, DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) 6-5
G — Alterique Gilbert, Miller Grove (Lithonia, Ga.) 6-0
F — Dewan Huell, Norland (Miami, Fla.) 6-9
G — Frank Jackson, Lone Peak (Highland, Utah) 6-2
G — Andrew Jones, MacArthur (Irving, Texas) 6-4
F — Mario Kegler, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) 6-7
F — V.J. King, Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.) 6-6
G — Josh Langford, Madison Academy (Madison, Ala.) 6-5
F — T.J. Leaf, Foothills Christian (El Cajon, Calif.) 6-9
G — Shamorie Ponds, Thomas Jefferson (Brooklyn, N.Y.) 6-1
G — Kobi Simmons, St. Francis (Alpharetta, Ga.) 6-5
G — Xavier Simpson, Lima Senior (Lima, Ohio) 6-1
G — Seventh Woods, Hammond (Columbia, S.C.) 6-1
JUNIORS TO WATCH
C — Mohamed Bamba, Westtown School (West Chester, Pa.) 6-10
G — Alex Barcello, Corona del Sol (Tempe, Ariz.) 6-2
F — Brian Bowen, La Lumiere (LaPorte, Ind.) 6-6
G — Troy Brown, Centennial (Las Vegas, Nev.) 6-5
C — Zach Brown, Miami Senior (Miami, Fla.) 7-0
C — Wendell Carter Jr., Pace Academy (Atlanta) 6-10
G — Jalek Felton, Mullins (Mullins, S.C.) 6-2
G — Quade Green, Neumann-Goretti (Philadelphia) 5-11
G — Jaylen Nowell, Garfield (Seattle) 6-5
F — John Petty, J.O. Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) 6-6
G — Michael Porter, Father Tolton (Columbia, Mo.) 6-5
F — Billy Preston, Advanced Prep International (Dallas) 6-9
G — Paul Scruggs, Southport (Indianapolis, Ind.) 6-3
F — Cody Riley, Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) 6-7
C — Jeremiah Tillman, La Lumiere (LaPorte, Ind.) 6-10
G — Gary Trent Jr., Apple Valley (Apple Valley, Minn.) 6-4
G — Jarred Vanderbilt, Victory Prep (Houston) 6-7
F — James “M.J.” Walker Jr., Jonesboro (Jonesboro, Ga.) 6-5
F — P. J. Washington, Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) 6-8
G — Trae Young, Norman North (Norman, Okla.) 6-2
F — De’Sean Allen-Eikens, Williston (Williston, N.D.) 6-5
C — Jordan Brown, Woodcreek (Roseville, Calif.) 6-9
G — Marquis Brown, Simeon (Chicago) 6-0
F — Silvio De Souza, Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) 6-9
F — E.J. Montgomery, Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) 6-9
G — Cameron Reddish, Westtown School (West Chester, Pa.) 6-10
F — Naz Reid, Roselle Catholic (Roselle, N.J.) 6-8
G — Javonte Smart, Scotlandville (Baton Rouge, La.) 6-3
F — Robert Woodard, Columbus (Columbus, Miss.) 6-5
*Editor’s note: Listed alphabetically; The Mr. Basketball USA honor is based on high school accomplishment, not future college/pro potential. Ballislife.com does not knowingly select fifth-year players, and those ineligible due to age or academics, as Mr. Basketball USA or to the various All-American teams it publishes.