Mr. Basketball USA Handicap!
National Grassroots Editor
Ronnie has evaluated basketball talent for 20 years and has over 15 years of experience in publishing, editing and managing high school sports websites for companies such as Student Sports, ESPN and Ballislife. Ronnie compiles the FAB 50 National Team Rankings while serving as an account manager and consultant for grassroots event run by Ballislife and other companies, in addition to serving as a color commentator on high school broadcasts.
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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 seven early favorites and list other potential candidates. Now in its 13th year, the Mr. Basketball USA Tracker begins with its preseason voting results Nov. 18-19.
RELATED: Preseason East Region Top 20 | Preseason Southeast Region Top 20 | Preseason Midwest Region Top 20 | Preseason Southwest Region Top 20 | Preseason West Region Top 20 | Preseason 2018-19 FAB 50 (1-15) | Preseason 2018-19 FAB 50 (16-30) | Preseason 2018-19 FAB 50 (31-50)
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 affected by factors such as team talent level (or lack thereof), injury or ineligibility. While those factors can fluctuate, there are three concrete factors that play a role in each season in the national player of the year race. With the season jumping off, we decided to break down the criteria and give some insight on the selection process. What separates the winner from other strong candidates?
This is the most important factor. The winner must possess the skills to make an immediate impact on the college level. Nearly all past winners projected as NBA players, but not all of them start the ascension to player of the year candidate from the same point.
For instance, take the case of 1997 winner Tracy McGrady compared to runner-up Lamar Odom. As an underclassman, McGrady was a non-descript forward at Auburndale (Fla.). He wasn’t on anyone’s national radar prior to the summer of 1996 when he attended the ABCD Camp before transferring to Mount Zion (Durham, N.C.), whereas Odom was one of the nation’s best players since his sophomore year at Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.).
Of the 57 eventual Mr. Basketball USA choices, only two did not go on to log NBA minutes: forward Bill Raftery of St. Cecelia’s (Kearney, N.J.) in 1959 and Damon Bailey of North Lawrence (Bedford, Ind.) in 1990.
Of course, talented players can’t always control the talent level surrounding them, but they can control their effort and help their team win. Leading a FAB 50-ranked team and helping it win a state title is a significant factor. Those teams generally play tough competition, which nowadays means the candidate’s team challenged itself against competition from outside its region.
In 2010, Jared Sullinger of Northland (Columbus, Ohio) led the nation’s No. 1 ranked team before the Vikings were stunned 71-45 in the Ohio regional playoffs by an unranked team. The other top candidate that season, fellow Ballislife All-Decade selection Harrison Barnes of Ames (Iowa), led his team to a 27-0 record and No. 10 final FAB 50 rating. If Barnes’ team would have lost even one game, or if Sullinger’s team would have won the state title and finished No. 1 in the country, the Mr. Basketball USA panel might have voted in favor of Sullinger over Barnes.
Many of the 10 experts on the tracker panel weigh this factor nearly as much as individual talent, while others don’t penalize individual talent and production should that player’s team fall a bit short of its goals.
This doesn’t happen often, but it’s a factor that can’t be overlooked. In 2011, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) and Austin Rivers of Winter Park (Fla.), played against each other on national television. St. Patrick won 75-66.
Gilchrist scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds and had the stronger supporting cast. In the balloting the week following that game, the panel didn’t penalize Rivers much, if at all. He did score 38 points to keep his team within striking range.
Gilchrist was the eventual Mr. Basketball USA choice, but what if Rivers had scored 38 points in a Winter Park victory?
State and National Records
Raftery and Bailey never played in the NBA, but they have something else in common: both enjoyed record-breaking prep careers for winning programs.
Raftery scored 827 points in 1959, then a New Jersey single-season state scoring record. Bailey lived up to the tremendous hype that Hoosier Hysteria created around him. Bailey averaged 31.3 points per game as a senior for a state title-winning team in the Indiana single-class tournament. His team finished ranked No. 15 in the National Prep Poll (FAB 50 precursor) and he finished with 3,134 career points, a state record.
It’s not hard for respected scouts to pick out the nation’s best players, but it’s never easy to predict how the season will play out or forecast the one national player of the year award that is truly based on season on-court performance.
For now, we present some of the eligible candidates who figure to factor in the 2019-20 Mr. Basketball USA race.
The Early Mr. Basketball USA Favorites
Emoni Bates, Lincoln (Ypsilanti, Mich.) 6-8 Soph.
Why He Could Win: The 6-foot-8 forward with a sweet shooting touch was so impressive in leading Lincoln to the MHSAA D1 state title he was named D1 state player of the year by the Associated Press and Gatorade State Player of the Year as a freshman. Bates led Lincoln to the D1 state crown by scoring 23 points in a 64-62 victory over University of Detroit Jesuit. It’s pretty safe to say Lincoln wouldn’t have been in position to win a state crown without Bates, as he had 31 points and 14 rebounds in a 72-56 state semifinal win over Howell and hit two game-winning post-season shots. For the season, Bates averaged 28.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. Simply put, he’s one of the most talented players in the country regardless of class.
Why He Wouldn’t: It could be argued junior Sharife Cooper was the most productive player in the country last season, but he didn’t get the recognition from the panel that he likely deserved based on individual numbers and team success. The panel traditionally tends to favor seniors for Mr. Basketball USA honors, unless the player is a generational prospect (LeBron James, Lew Alcindor, etc.). Simply being a sophomore could hurt Bates’ candidacy, as no tenth-grader has ever been named national player of the year going back to 1955. James was the last one to even be in the running back in 2001.
Sharife Cooper, McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.) 6-0 Sr.
Why He Could Win: He controls the outcome of games as much as any player in the country, and his high school team wins. A leader and clutch shot maker who can get to any spot on the floor, Cooper averaged 28.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 8.2 apg and 4.0 spg as a junior and was named MVP of the City of Palms Tournament and the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions as the Indians finished 32-0 and No. 2 in the FAB 50.
Why He Wouldn’t: Cooper earned first five All-American status as a junior after the Indians went unbeaten against one of the best schedules in the country. He was the only underclassman to make the first five, but despite his ultra-impressive season, Cooper was No. 6 in last year’s final balloting. McEachern begins at No. 10 in the preseason FAB 50, but if the Indians don’t have as much team success, will Cooper be penalized? Will he be judged on this season’s merits, or will his senior season be judged by what happened last season? The latter could hurt him.
Cade Cunningham, Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) 6-7 Sr.
Why He Could Win: He is the best all-around player on a team that could end up being the nation’s best. A recent Oklahoma St. pledge, Cunningham finished tied for No. 12 in last year’s final tracker, but had a big-time summer travel season, pushing Evan Mobley for the No. 1 overall prospect tag with his terrific approach to the game as a big guard. Cunningham plays for a team that will get tons of national exposure, he’ll have the ball in his hands and he impacts winning basketball.
Why He Wouldn’t: Cunningham averaged 25.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 5.2 apg for the Texas Titans on the EYBL circuit and enters the 2019-20 season with great momentum. On his high school team, his individual numbers have not been so gaudy and for good reason: Montverde Academy has one of the most talented rosters in high school basketball and there is simply no need, as the focus is winning not individual accolades. Last season, Cunningham averaged 11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 5.5 apg for a team that finished No. 4 in the FAB 50. If he has similar numbers as a senior, will it be enough for the panelists to put him No. 1 on their ballots should Montverde Academy live up to preseason expectations? Another top candidate could have monster individual numbers that could sway the panel.
Jalen Green, Prolific Prep (Napa, Calif.) 6-4 Sr.
Why He Could Win: Arguably the most explosive guard in the country, Green is productive and plays at the high level necessary to earn national player of the year honors. Green earned Cal-Hi Sports State Sophomore of the Year honors in 2017-18 after averaging 27.9 ppg at San Joaquin Memorial (Fresno, Calif.) and upped his overall production as a junior to 31.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and 3.6 apg while shooting 63 percent from the field as the Panthers won their second consecutive CIF Central Section D2 crown. He was named a second team All-American (along with Bates, Cunningham, Jalen Johnson, and Jalen Suggs), but finished only tied for No. 23 in the final balloting. It will be important for him and his team to get off to a hot start.
Why He Wouldn’t: At San Joaquin Memorial last season, he was edged for State Junior Player of the Year honors by Evan Mobley and being in the same state/region, the panel could look at an individual comparison between the two (based more on long-term potential) instead of judging him on his individual merits against the field of candidates. Green is in a similar boat to Johnson in that his role will somewhat change joining an independent program that has a lot more size and depth than the school he played at as an underclassmen. Will the transfer hurt or help his candidacy?
Jalen Johnson, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) 6-8 Sr.
Why He Could Win: IMG Academy begins at No. 1 in the FAB 50 and Johnson could emerge as its top honors candidate. Last season at Nicolet (Glendale, Wis.), Johnson was named The A.P. State Player of the Year and a second team All-American after averaging 19.7 ppg, 11.7 rpg and 5.9 apg for the WIAA D2 state champs. His team finished 27-1 and No. 24 in the FAB 50, and Johnson finished tied for No. 16 in the final 2018-19 balloting. Johnson has the necessary talent and will get the necessary exposure to move up in the balloting.
Why He Wouldn’t: Similar to Cunningham, Johnson plays with plenty of talent around him, as he joins the defending FAB 50 national champions after it graduated three McDonald’s All-American players. The Ascenders are the deepest team in the country, so Johnson won’t always have to be the player to shine or compile gaudy statistics for IMG to win. That could possibly hurt him, or a teammate such as point guard Jaden Springer (the standout in last year’s GEICO Nationals run) could emerge as the Ascenders’ top candidate. He isn’t likely to post the stats he did at Nicolet, as Johnson will have a slightly different role on a team with four players 6-foot-10 or taller.
Evan Mobley, Rancho Christian (Temecula, Calif.) 7-0 Sr.
Why He Could Win: For a portion of last season, this talented seven-footer was in the thick of the Mr. Basketball USA race alongside honoree Isaiah Stewart and runner-up Cole Anthony. The agile center with great patience and a high skill level averaged 19.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.7 bpg, and 3.3 apg and bolstered his All-American candidacy with a 13-point, 3-block performance in a win over Memphis East and first five All-American James Wiseman. He’s is simply that good of a high school player and will have plenty of opportunity to display his talents against a demanding schedule.
Why He Wouldn’t: Mobley finished No. 3 in the final balloting last year behind Stewart and Anthony, but his candidacy suffered when the Eagles underachieved in sectional and regional play. Rancho Christian finished No. 39 in the FAB 50 at 25-6 and for some panelists that might have been disappointing since team expectations were so high. It would definitely help Mobley’s candidacy is the Eagles move up from their preseason No. 21 position and win the CIF Southern Section and/or CIF state open championship.
Jalen Suggs, Minnehaha Academy (Minneapolis, Minn.) 6-3 Sr.
Why He Could Win: Suggs is one of the best athletes in the country, as he’s a highly-regarded prep signal-caller in football and was named our national class player of the year as a freshman and sophomore. Suggs averaged 24.2 ppg as a junior playing alongside elite 2021 prospect Chet Holmgren (18.6 ppg) and together they form one of the best 1-2 punches in the country.
Why He Wouldn’t: Even though he’s been considered one of the very best players in the 2020 class since his freshman campaign, Suggs wasn’t mentioned as a serious national Junior Player of the Year candidate last season because of the emergence of Mobley and the terrific campaign of Cooper, so he has some ground to make up. Minnehaha Academy begins at No. 14 in the FAB 50 and could challenge for the highest FAB 50 ranking ever for a Minnesota team (No. 11), but Suggs’ candidacy will be heavily dependent on his performance on January 4 versus No. 6 Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) because the MSHSL limits travel for its member schools. What is he doesn’t have a big game or Minehaha Academy loses big? It could very well be that Holmgren emerges as the team’s top honors candidate.
OTHER SENIOR CANDIDATES
FROM STRONG PROGRAMS
F — Jabri Abdir-Rahim, Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.) 6-7
G — Adrian “Ace” Baldwin, St. Frances (Baltimore, Md.) 6-0
F — Scottie Barnes, Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) 6-8
G — Reece Beekman, Scotlandville (Baton Rouge, La.) 6-2
F — Brandon Boston, Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) 6-6
F — Greg Brown III, Vandegrift (Austin, Texas) 6-8
F — Jaemyn Brakefield, Huntington Prep (Huntington, W.V.) 6-8
G — Josh Christopher, Mayfair (Lakewood, Calif.) 6-4
F — Terrence Clarke, Brewster Academy (Wolfeboro, N.H.) 6-6
G — Jalen Cook, Landry Walker (New Orleans, La.) 6-0
G — Andre Curbelo, Long Island Lutheran (Glen Head N. Y.) 6-0
G — Jyare Davis, Sanford School (Hockessin, Del.) 6-7
G — R.J. Davis, Archbishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.) 6-1
C — Hunter Dickinson, DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) 7-2
G — Noah Farrakhan, Patrick School (Elizabeth, N.J.) 6-2
F — Cam’Ron Fletcher, Vashon (St. Louis, Mo.) 6-7
F — P.J. Hall, Dorman (Roebuck, S.C.) 6-9
F — Keon Johnson, The Webb School (Bell Buckle, Tenn.) 6-5
G — Caleb Love, Christian Brothers College (St. Louis, Mo.) 6-3
G — Tristan Maxwell, North Mecklenburg (Charlotte, N.C.) 6-3
G — Carson McCorkle, Greensboro Day (Greensboro, N. C.) 6-4
F — Adam Miller, Morgan Park (Chicago, Ill.) 6-4
G — Ethan Morton, Butler Area (Butler, Pa.) 6-5
G — Dashien Nix, Trinity International (Las Vegas, Nev.) 6-4
C — Cliff Omoruyi, Roselle Catholic (Roselle, N.J.) 6-11
F — Micah Peavy, Duncanville (Texas) 6-7
G — Jeremy Roach, Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.) 6-2
G — Samson Ruzhentsev, Hamilton Heights (Chattanooga, Tenn.) 6-8
C — Day’Ron Sharpe, Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) 6-9
F — Mady Sissoko, Wasatch Academy (Mt. Pleasant, Utah) 6-9
G — Deivon Smith, Grayson (Loganville, Ga.) 6-1
G — Jaden Springer, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) 6-3
G — D.J. Steward, Whitney Young (Chicago, Ill.) 6-4
G — Cam Thomas, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) 6-3
F — J.T. Thor, Norcross (Norcross, Ga.)
G — Bryce Thompson, Booker T. Washington (Tulsa, Okla.) 6-5
F — Earl Timberlake, DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) 6-6
F — Isaiah Todd, Word of God (Raleigh, N.C.) 6-9
F — Terrence Williams, Gonzaga (Washington, D. C.) 6-6
F — Trey Alexander, Heritage Hall (Oklahoma City, Okla.) 6-4
G — Devin Askew, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) 6-4
F — Patrick Baldwin Jr., Hamilton (Sussex, Wis.) 6-8
C — Nate Bittle, Crater (Central Point, Ore.) 6-11
F — Kendall Brown, Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Air, Kan.) 6-7
G — Kennedy Chandler, Briarcrest Christian (Eads, Tenn.) 6-1
F — Paolo Banchero, O’Dea (Seattle, Wash.) 6-9
F — Max Christie, Rolling Meadows (Rolling Meadows, Ill.) 6-6
G — Zaon Collins, Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.) 6-1
G — Rashool Diggins, Archbishop Wood (Warminster, Pa.) 6-1
C — Michael Foster Jr., Hillcrest Prep (Phoenix) 6-8
G — Wendell Green Jr., La Lumiere (La Porte, Ind.) 5-11
G — Adrian Griffin Jr., Archbishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.) 6-4
G — Jaden Hardy, Coronado (Henderson, Nev.) 6-4
G — Zion Harmon, Marshall County (Benton, Ky.) 5-11
G — Chucky Hepburn, Bellevue West (Bellevue, Neb.) 6-1
C — Chet Holgrem, Minnehaha Academy (Minneapolis, Minn.) 7-0
F — Daron Holmes, Millennium (Goodyear, Ariz.) 6-9
F — Harrison Ingram, St. Mark’s (Dallas, Texas) 6-7
F — Will Jeffress, McDowell (Erie, Pa.) 6-6
G — Jackie Johnson, Wichita Southeast (Wichita, Kan.) 5-10
G — Trevor Keels, Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.) 6-5
F — Jonathan Kuminga, Patrick School (Elizabeth, N.J.) 6-8
F — Aminu Mohammed, Greenwood Laboratory (Springfield, Mo.) 6-5
F — Trey Patterson, Rutgers Prep (Somerset, N.J.) 6-7
G — Daeshon Ruffin, Callaway (Jackson, Miss.) 5-9
F — Jabari Smith, Sandy Creek (Tyrone, Ga.) 6-8
G — Amari Bailey, Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) 6-4
G — Jaden Bradley, Cannon School (Concord, N.C.) 6-2
G — Jameel “Milzy” Brown, Haverford School (Haverford, Pa.) 6-1
G — Zion Cruz, Hudson Catholic (Hudson, N.J.) 6-3
C — Lee Dort, North Dallas Adventist Academy (Dallas, Texas) 6-10
C — Jalen Duren, Roman Catholic (Philadelphia, Pa.) 6-9
G — Bryce Griggs, Fort Bend Hightower (Missouri City, Texas) 6-1
G — Richard “Pop Pop” Isaacs Jr., Wasatch Academy (Mt. Pleasant, Utah) 6-1
G — Chris Livingston, Buchtel (Akron, Ohio) 6-5
G — Knasir “Dug” McDaniel, Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.) 5-9
G — Aidan Mahaney, Campolindo (Moraga, Calif.) 6-2
F — Tai Manning, Grandview (Mo.) 6-6
F — Mark Mitchell, Bishop Miege (Shawnee Mission, Kan.) 6-6
G — M.J. Rice, Durham Academy (Durham, N.C.) 6-5
F — Perry Smith Jr., Legacy Early College (Greenville, S.C.) 6-8
F — Jarace Walker, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) 6-6
F — Jordan Walsh, Faith Family Academy (Dallas, Texas) 6-6
F — Kijani Wright, Windward (Los Angeles, Calif.) 6-8
*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.