One year ago, virtually all basketball events were canceled due to COVID-19. This included the GEICO High School Nationals, where some of the top schools in the nation compete for what has become the de facto national championship tournament. Last year, a Montverde team that was considered one of the best teams in recent memory was not able to compete for the crown nor was IMG Academy able to defend their 2018 title. The 2021 edition of GEICO Nationals will be held at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida.
The tournament will begin with two play-in games, featuring Prolific Prep (CA, 7th seed) against La Lumiere (IN, 10) followed by Pace Academy (GA, 8) taking on Oak Hill Academy (VA, 9) on March 31. The winners of those match-ups will play Sunrise Christian (KS, 2) and Montverde Academy (FL, 1), respectively, on April 1. Rounding out the quarterfinal matchups: Arizona Compass Prep (AZ, 4) versus Wasatch Academy (UT, 5) and IMG Academy (FL, 3) against Milton HS (GA, 6). The semifinals will be held on April 2 with the finals being held on April 3 at 12 PM (EST) on ESPN.
This year’s event will feature six McDonald’s All-American selections, along with a number of highly sought after future high major prospects. Historically, Montverde has won the tournament four times — most recently in 2018. Montverde’s lone loss this season is to second-seed Sunrise Christian, who they have also beat twice on the year.
On the eve of GEICO Nationals, Pro Insight held a roundtable discussion to preview the event, featuring top storylines, a list of players to watch, along with an idea of what some teams bring to the table, collectively. This features questions by Pro Insight’s Michael Visenberg, answered by PD Web, Andrew Slater and Matt McKay.
Michael Visenberg: Who are three of the top prospects that you are most excited to see and what do you hope they show during the tournament?
PD Web: Kamari Lands of Prolific Prep has flown a bit under the radar this year. Lands, the long 6’7 wing, transferred in from La Lumiere after a strong sophomore season and immediately fit in well with this big-centric roster, adding needed perimeter scoring and a do-it-all ability. Lands doesn’t have a singular skill that stands out strongest, he is best when filling every category of a stat-sheet from points on down to steals. Lands contributes to winning in a multi-faceted approach that certainly will overjoy his college and pro coaches in the future. If Lands gets hot from 3 to pair with the Bittle/Gueye/Bona frontcourt trio — Prolific will be a tough out. Bruce Thornton of Milton is one my personal favorites to watch. The Ohio State commit & GSHA 7A state Player of The Year doesn’t have the flashiest game, but it is a joy to watch a young guard who “gets” it. Thornton’s combination of strength, poise, pull-up shooting and feel has proven to be a dangerous mixture for opposing defenses this season. Milton has a strong 1-2 punch at the guard spot between Thornton and Kanaan Carlyle and the GA 7A champs are out to prove Georgia success translates to a national stage. Eric Dailey, Jr. of IMG may be the highest ceiling player on the Ascenders roster, it’s just a matter of when Dailey puts tools and the flashes together every time on the court. I’ve really liked the two-way potential of Dailey, who has the versatility to slide between multiple types of defensive assignments as needed. Offensively, Dailey has shown offensive development this season to potentially have some creation ability, but is as comfortable finding opportunistic scoring through cuts and in transition. I’ve liked his passing chops and once in the paint Dailey has the physical talent to finish over and through defenders at the rim.
Andrew Slater: The three I’m most curious about are: Bruce Thornton, Matt Cleveland, and Adem Bona. For Thornton and Cleveland, this is a significant jump in competition and therefore helps further gauge or help calibrate their respective strengths and weaknesses. With Bona, he’s been fortunate to play in The Grind Session, but the combination of coaching and collective talent with higher perceived stakes will help highlight the areas that he needs further development in. Two others would be Jaden Bradley and Nate Bittle, who will both get their first tastes of GEICO competition. While neither have to carry the burden of a Cleveland or a Thornton, they’ll have to produce consistently, in order for either of their respective teams to have a chance at the title.
Matt McKay: The three that quickly come to mind for various reasons: Matthew Cleveland, Dariq Whitehead, and Jaden Bradley. Cleveland was arguably the best player not named to the 2021 McDonald’s All-American Game. He’s a wiry, lanky, do-it-all wing that is bound to flourish for Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. Whitehead has been one of my favorite prep prospects since getting the chance to see him live at the October 2018 USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp in Colorado Springs. The 2022 wing has made significant strides in literally every viewing since that initial evaluation, and now stands 6’5” with a plus-five inch wingspan and has become one of the most dangerous transition players in America. He’s improved his range shooting and playmaking chops, as well, and is trending toward becoming yet another one of Montverde’s NBA success stories. Bradley is an interesting case study. He achieved tremendous success in his first two years of high school at Cannon School (NC), and made the understandable pivot to IMG for the 2020-21 season. Since then, things haven’t gone south by any means, but this season has presented some challenges for the five-star 2022 PG. At his best, Bradley is a table-setter on offense with the ability to call his own number. He keeps the defense on its heels, plays with great pace and does a nice job keeping his teammates involved. Other times, he can tend to blend in amongst the crowd and struggle vs. elite size, strength and athleticism. I’ll be watching closely to see which Bradley shows up at GEICO.
MV: Who are three of the top long term underclassmen prospects? What skills do they have that merit excitement about them as prospects and what should we look out for from them during GEICO Nationals?
PD: This year’s GEICO field is thin on volume of underclassmen compared to previous years, but the talent for the freshman and sophomores is as real as ever. The two names that standout most to me are Kanaan Carlyle of Milton and Caleb Foster of Oak Hill. Kanaan Carlyle, a 6’2 explosive scoring guard, has produced at every stage of the season including 24 points against Pebblebrook in the 7A state semifinals and a game-high 15 in the state final win over Berkmar. His scoring prowess will need to be on showcase to overturn national powerhouse IMG. Caleb Foster wasn’t a name I was hip to before the season started — HUGE performances at MAIT and NIBC raised his stock to national prominence. Often with young point guards, it’s scoring and scoring bunches that drives attention (and don’t get me wrong, Foster can fill it up), but it is his maturity that sticks out. The game that really stood out from his breakout season was the 2OT clash against Lewisville — Foster played 40 high intensity pressure packed minutes and registered only 1 TO. The rest of the statline was great: 17/7/8, but to play a game that [intense] while maintain a sterling A:TO is special. I’m very much looking forward to a potential matchup between Foster and Nembhard should Oak Hill get past Pace in the opening round.
AS: Due to the stakes, the underclassmen usually don’t get much of an opportunity to play, but three that will need to contribute: Kanaan Carlyle, Caleb Foster, and Jeremy Fears, Jr. This will be a good test for all three, but they also wouldn’t be playing, if their respective coaches didn’t think they could perform and didn’t have a necessity at their position. Two others to watch long-term are sophomore Gus Yalden and freshman Anthony Gilkes of IMG, but I don’t expect either to get major minutes in this setting.
MM: Three 2023 guys stand out in my mind. I’m eager to see if Caleb Foster can pick up where he left off from when Nick Danforth, our regional analyst, watched him ball out at The St. James NIBC Invitational in Virginia several weeks ago. He’s a tough, heady point guard with a very bright future in Steve Smith’s Oak Hill program (and beyond). La Lumiere’s Jeremy Fears, Jr. is another young guard that stood out at NIBC with his handle, finishing upside, lateral mobility and toughness. I’ll be looking to see how he handles bigger. older, stronger opponents in Fort Myers. Lastly, Milton’s Kanaan Carlyle is billed as one of the top guards in the 2023 class and is fresh off a state championship run in Georgia where he played a major role as a sophomore. He’s one I haven’t been able to see live, yet, thanks to COVID...but I will be watching intently as his team looks to upset IMG in the quarterfinals.
MV: Who is the best unsigned 2021 player in the tournament and what will they bring to a college?
AS: TyTy Washington. If he attends college, he should bring an ability to step in and contribute right away, both on and off the ball. He’s more valuable on the ball, due to his relative size and physique. He constantly looks to put pressure on defenses with his aggressive style, while developing as a shooter and passer. Defensively, he’s become a solid ball-hawk, while using his mix of size and strength.
MM: TyTy Washington and it’s not even close. His senior year ascent has been well-documented. The former Creighton commit is not lacking options and it will be interesting to see if he chooses the more traditional college route vs. exploring the professional pathway. Tangibly, Washington brings positional size, two-way ability, functional athleticism, playmaking, and enough range shooting to even play some off the ball. This is a name NBA teams need to be aware of, whether for the 2022 or 2023 draft.
PD: There is a case that AZ Compass Prep has the two best unsigned players in the previously lauded TyTy Washington and late-blooming 6’6” wing Glenn Taylor, Jr. — a great slasher who has been putting heaps of pressure on the rim at one end and bringing high energy multi-positional defense at the other. This AZ Compass Prep campaign has been one for the ages, and Taylor has been a big part of that success. The shooting has been streaky, but with college development it is easy to see a HM contributor in the top-150 ranked senior.
MV: What 2021 and underclassman outside of the top-75 in their class should be in line to move up the rankings?
AS: Milos Uzan of Prolific Prep and Mouhamed Gueye of Prolific Prep and Chisom Okpara of La Lumiere have an opportunity to move up through the event’s mix of evaluator scrutiny and their talent levels.
PD: With DaRon Holmes ruled ineligible, I am looking for 6’6” AJ Storr to step up for AZ Compass Prep in the Dayton commit’s absence. Storr is an athletic wing scorer who can get hot in a hurry — a really fast riser in the rankings who can rise even higher should he [step up] at GEICO. Willie Lightfoot of Sunrise is a sub-6’0” guard ranked outside the top-150. To me, this is madness. Rankings are about a lot of things, but if rankings are about winning at a high school and college level, Lightfoot needs to be higher in the next update. At GEICO, expect the SCA PG to do all the valuable PG things — pressuring the ball, setting the tone and the table, getting two feet in the paint — that translate to winning.
MM: Some terrific names have been mentioned, already. I’ll add on two 2021 players, Glenn Taylor, Jr. from AZ Compass and Robbie Armbrester from Wasatch. As of writing this, Taylor remains unsigned but with some solid options all over the west coast; Armbrester, originally from the Atlanta area, is committed to Houston. With a strong performance in Fort Myers, I could see either prospect make their way up the final 2021 rankings. Taylor brings a lot to the table as an ultra-versatile perimeter piece that brings positional size to multiple positions. His athletic ability will allow him to compete at the college level sooner rather than later. Armbrester was a great find by the Houston staff and in my opinion seems to be underrated nationally. He epitomizes positionless basketball and has a motor worth writing home about. He’s the heartbeat of a talented Wasatch team, not to mention a powerful finisher in the paint. Look for both of these guys to potentially make some noise at GEICO.
MV: Which team among the first four in the tournament (Prolific Prep, Pace Academy, Oak Hill and La Lumiere) has the best chance of pulling an upset in the quarterfinals?
PD: Not an easy call — I want to lean Pace, as they have the best individual player in Matt Cleveland among the four lower-seeded teams, but I think their matchups to the strengths/weakness of Montverde is not suited for a Pace upset chance. I think the answer is ultimately Prolific, having that many strong bigs really has the potential to put the lid on any game, setting the stage for an upset.
AS: Prolific Prep has the best talent level and relative depth of the four.
MM: This is a tough question. I’m going to go with Prolific. Between Nathan Bittle’s rim protection, Mouhamed Gueye and Adem Bona’s switchability, and the positional size Milos Uzan and Kamari Lands bring to the perimeter, they could potentially give Sunrise some problems.
MV: What semifinals match-up are you most hoping for and why?
PD: Wasatch/Montverde. It was the matchup I was most excited to see last year at the GEICO that was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19 — I thought that Wasatch team had enough offensive firepower to challenge the defensive juggernaut of 2020 Montverde. While there have been large changes to both rosters over the last year, this is still the most interesting stylistic battle due to the larger frameworks. Wasatch has the guard talent to handle pressure, the shooting profile to go on their own scoring runs and the size, depth and athleticism to challenge Duren at the rim. Like any great matchup, it all comes down to execution.
AS: IMG/Sunrise for the coaching match. These are two of the best coaches in high school basketball, both with enough talent to win the title. This should be the best tactical matchup of the likely four. I do appreciate the growing animosity between perennial power and the burgeoning AZ Compass.
MM: There are a lot of really intriguing potential storylines, here, but an IMG / Prolific Prep matchup would be awesome. Two elite national programs, from each side of the country, with loaded rosters, especially in the 3-5 spots. It doesn’t get much better from an evaluation perspective than watching IMG’s Moussa Diabate/Jarace Walker/Eric Dailey, Jr. trio of forwards vs. Prolific’s Nathan Bittle/Mouhamed Gueye/Adem Bona.
MV: Which player match-up is a must watch in the tournament if it breaks the way you predict?
MM: Luckily for me, I’m guaranteed to get the match-up I’m most looking forward to! I can’t wait to watch TyTy Washington and Nolan Hickman go head-to-head in the quarterfinal between AZ Compass Prep and Wasatch Academy. I know both guys will be up for the challenge and it should make for must-see TV.
AS: There are so many to choose from, but a guaranteed match-up of two of the top 2022 PGs, Bruce Thornton and Jaden Bradley, will occur in the first round. It’s not an even match-up, due to the depth of talent on IMG, but theoretically should provide a glimpse at the relative development and potential of each.
PD: Rather than look ahead, I’m locked in on what’s for sure: Matt Cleveland vs. MJ Rice in the opening round. I don’t know how much they will spend guarding each other, but this game will hinge on which high profile will have the largest imprint. Both players are talismans of their team’s success this season, and with a big performance can get a shot at number-one Montverde.
MV: Which team has the best backcourt among the GEICO National teams?
AS: For sheer depth, I’ll go with Montverde. Justice Williams and Jalen Hood-Schifino would start for nearly every other program in the country.
MM: I want to give a nod to Tennessee-bound Kennedy Chandler and Sunrise, but my answer is Wasatch Academy. For me, it’s going to be hard to beat the combination of Kentucky-bound Nolan Hickman, Ohio State-bound Roddy Gayle, and five-star PG Pop Isaacs. Hickman brings poise and playmaking, Gayle brings size and versatility, and Isaacs brings microwave scoring ability. Don’t sleep on unsigned senior Brennan Rigsby, either. This is a fun group to watch.
MV: Which team has the best frontcourt among the GEICO National teams?
PD: For me, this crown belongs to Montverde until a big outplays Jalen Duren. The GEICO field will be a tough test for certain, but no team has been able to stop the big man in the middle for the Eagles this season. Duren has been a monster, rising to each challenge this year, earning a 2nd team nod on the Naismith High School All-American Team. The potential matchup between Duren and the Prolific Prep big man platoon matchup looms large and promises to be a goodie, if both teams can survive to the final.
AS: For an individual frontcourt player, I’d go with Jalen Duren without question, but the relative depth of Prolific Prep will help sustain and navigate them through potential foul trouble.
MM: As much as I’d like to go with Montverde, here, the combination of Nathan Bittle, Mouhamed Gueye and Adem Bona over at Prolific Prep is a trio I don’t think gets enough national credit. You have a consensus five-star 2021 big in Nathan Bittle, who’s a threat from out to 25 feet; then there’s 2022 Mo Gueye, who is as switchable defensively as you’ll ever see in high school basketball; and last, but certainly not least, Nigerian/Turkish prospect Adem Bona brings endless energy and has a frame that would allow him to step onto an NBA court tonight. All three frontcourt players boast wingspans of 7’3” or longer. Jalen Duren is a manchild, but Prolific is three deep at the 4/5 spots and when clicking, they’re the best frontcourt in this year’s GEICO field.
MV: What player could really increase their case as a top prospect in their class during this tournament?
PD: Dariq Whitehead. Dariq Whitehead. Dariq Whitehead. Whitehead is a consensus top 7-15 prospect in his class, and I think this is the event that can and will push him higher. Whitehead is one of the youngest players in his class, who has been a key part of a dynastic run during his time at Montverde. Each year Whitehead has brought a little bit more to the table for the Eagles and this season it's the shooting that has evolved past a formerly questionable status. We are looking at a defensive difference-maker who can make good decisions with the ball in his hands, force mass rotations with his ludicrous first step, and now knock down shots off-ball. That’s a near complete wing prospect.
AS: The two with the best opportunities are Bruce Thornton and Matt Cleveland. If Thornton can somehow pull off a massive upset of IMG, then he would certainly put himself in the conversation for the top handful of players in the class. I don’t anticipate him being able to pull off the feat. Cleveland, having missed the McDonald’s All-American distinction, has a chance to demonstrate what he’s capable of against a historical power in Oak Hill. Given that the traditional power was weakened by some early transfers, it’s certainly plausible that he can pull off a win versus the lower seeded OHA, while a strong showing against Montverde would give him an opportunity to move up the rankings. These are both significant challenges with long odds, but they do provide an opportunity to increase their respective cases. Cleveland has the easier path, which should help.
MM: Despite being a top-50 recruit, I still feel IMG’s Jett Howard is underrated. There’s really no major weakness in his game and his skillset integrates into any system imaginable. Only a high school junior, but already seasoned (he was a difference-maker for U-School as a freshman), Howard is comfortable playing under the bright lights. He’s a secondary playmaker who can knock down open shots from range and matchup with at least three positions on D. There’s so much talent on this IMG squad that Howard doesn’t have to carry a large burden on either end, but when called upon in Fort Myers, I expect him to rise to the occasion. There’s five-star upside, here, in my opinion.
MV: Who do you predict to win the 2021 GEICO Nationals Tournament and who will they play in the finals?
PD: My pick is Montverde over Sunrise. Compass Prep and IMG merit strong consideration, but Compass being without DaRon Holmes makes a huge difference and IMG’s struggle to shoot throughout the year just fall a bit short. What a year, where the number-one and number-two teams in America have played three times, and there could be a fourth on the table. While MVA has the 2-1 series, this final game is obviously winner take all. The 2020 MVA team didn’t have an opportunity to close out it’s storybook season, and I’m going to think there is a sense of unfinished business for the returners. With a field this strong, it’s gonna be a battle, especially if the final opponent is Sunrise.
AS: I think there’s three teams capable of winning it all: Montverde, Sunrise, and IMG. Given that the last two will likely be playing each other in the semifinals, it gives Montverde the clear edge. The marginal difference in talent amongst the three has never been closer, which should make for great television and highly competitive games.
MM: I really don’t have a hot take or potential Cinderella story to go with, here. I think there’s an enormous amount of value in having “been there before,” and I project Montverde to edge out IMG in the championship. Every time these heavyweights meet in the ring, it’s an epic battle and I expect this time to be no different.