COVID-19 has impacted the sports world in many forms, including forcing many long standing high school basketball tournaments to take a hiatus through the 2020-21 season. This was a large part of what led to the inception of The St. James NIBC Invitational in Springfield, Virginia, which was recently played between January 8-18. Featuring 15 teams from across the country, 11 of which were featured in the MaxPreps Top-25, this event even included a slate of ESPN-televised games over MLK weekend. In a showcase that featured so much talent, we asked Pro Insight’s Andrew Slater, Nick Danforth and PD Web to weigh in on arguably the most valuable evaluation opportunity that’s taken place during the global pandemic.
Who was the top prospect at The St. James NIBC Invitational?
Andrew Slater: Although it’s been more of a steady progression, I am still a big believer in Dariq Whitehead. Others performed better at this event and others are capable of ultimately being a better NBA player, but, in terms of the highest upside, Whitehead. The New Jersey native will eventually have five years of Montverde-level competition in practice and games, along with a coaching staff that has a hard-earned reputation of pushing a player’s development curve. While being one of the youngest in the class of 2022, Dariq has prototypical wing size, elite-level athleticism, an ever-improving perimeter shot (the key “swing skill” for him), is a physical defender, and has an improved handle. Dariq Whitehead has been Coach Boyle’s “pet project” for over three years. Over the next seventeen months, I fully expect him to develop into the next great Montverde wing.
Nick Danforth: While not the typical player archetype I prefer, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Jalen Duren. The 2022 big man from Montverde clearly stood out as an elite physical prospect, even during their battle with IMG on a court loaded with high level prospects. Over seven games, Duren averaged 15.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 63% from the field and controlling the paint on both ends. He also surprised me with his ability to pass out of the post, averaging more than 2 assists per game and making accurate passes to shooters on the perimeter and cutters in the paint. He’s unlikely to ever be a number-one option at the highest level but his offense has progressed, and his rim protection and mobility should allow him to anchor a defense.
PD Web: 2022 Dariq Whitehead (6’5 W Montverde (FL)) is my pick. His stats aren’t eye-popping, 10.1 PPG / 4.3 RPG / 2.3 APG / .8 SPG, 5/18 on 3s, 12/15 FTs but this is another step in the progression of a player who has game changing potential on both ends. Whitehead is both one of the youngest players in his class and in his 4th year in the Montverde system under Head Coach Kevin Boyle - and those two features create a unique mix of mature decision making and a natural ludicrous slashing ability on ball. On defense, Dariq is the next in line of the Montverde weakside terrors, capable of using his elite quickness and huge wingspan to maintain help side responsibilities while threatening passing lanes. As a point of attack defender Whitehead is similarly potent - being strong enough to handle wings and fast enough to slide with smaller primary creators.The shooting is the swing skill to watch, but the form looks much improved, as does the willingness to take the open shots that defenses give him or self-created off the dribble attempts. Whitehead is just starting to put it all together, and I think there are more games like the efficient 18/8/4 vs. Sunrise on the way.
Which player was the most pleasant surprise of the event?
Andrew Slater: Jalen Duren. He’s had the physical tools to be the best big man in the class, but rarely demonstrated long stretches of effort. His motor and ability to stretch the court have been major questions heading into his junior year, when bigs will often begin to show if they’re the real McCoy or just the latest overhyped big, who has been blessed with immense physical tools. Duren said he left Roman Catholic to be pushed, both in practice and through their fierce national schedule, but the reality is often it’s difficult to change bad habits. After the first month, reports were that he was largely the same physically dominant, but offensively limited player that he had shown for two years in Philadelphia. In October, Duren began to adapt mentally to the Montverde culture, where a weak or sporadic motor would simply not be acceptable. He has since added more of a consistent face-up game, which still needs to be refined and expanded, but certainly was a welcomed sight. Defensively, his streadier motor manifested itself in some eye-popping blocked shots and physicality in the low-post. An opposing coach, which has produced some very recent NBA big men, felt Jalen Duren was the best big man he’s ever coached against.
Nick Danforth: Derik Queen. If he wasn’t already on the national radar, the big man from Baltimore should be now. One of the few freshmen at this event to receive consistent playing time, Queen improved every time he took the court culminating in a 23 point, 13 rebound, 4 assist, 4 block performance against DeMatha. Queen has a versatile offensive skill set that better resembles a guard or wing than a traditional big man; leading fast breaks, making off-the-bounce 3’s and setting up teammates. If he continues to grow and fill out in the weight room, Queen may reach the high upside his game shows flashes of, and high major programs should make him a priority now.
PD Web: 2021 Johnathan Lawson (6’6 W Houston (TN) Oregon commit) has been a flashes guy for me for a while. The long-armed high upside small forward had a wonderful “putting it all together” game in the upset of top-5 Paul VI (VA) - 20 points/7 rebounds/5 assists/5 steals is a good representation of all Lawson could be. There were real halfcourt passing flashes, an improved shooting stroke and deflections galore on the defensive end. His progression at Oregon is something to keep an eye on as few wing prospects have the tools, movement skills and attacking ability intersection that Lawson presents. If he can continue this level of play, the sky is the limit.
How about the biggest surprise from a team perspective?
Andrew Slater: Hamilton Heights had some big surprises, but, on the court, I thought Oak Hill’s ability to be resilient in the face of losing two of their three primary scorers that they entered the season with was a major credit to Steve Smith. Even in effectively 50/50 level competitive games against some of the strongest national competition, his steady hand and late game decisions enabled his team to execute down the stretch for victories.
Nick Danforth: This was my first chance to see many of these programs this season, but I was surprised by the struggles of Legacy Early College. Ranked at #9 entering the event, Legacy went 1-6 in their seven games losing by an average of 16 points. If not for a 38-point outburst by Nebraska commit Bryce McGowens, they may not have won a game.
PD Web: I, like many people, had written off Oak Hill before the season began. Losing Dior Johnson and Zion Cruz to transfers (respectively: Centennial, CA & St. Patrick’s, NJ). Oak Hill didn’t have the pop on the roster that they usually do and it looked to me like a rebuilding year for the Warriors. Well, it appears I was wrong. 2022 MJ Rice, 2021 AJ Williams, 2023 Caleb Foster & co. flat out competed in their games at NIBC. Oak Hill beat Wasatch, Hamilton Heights and Legacy Early pretty convincingly to start the event. Not finished, the Warriors held close to MVA for a half, before losing the plot in the third quarter, but finished strong getting two more good wins against two talented teams in LaLu & iSchool of Lewisville. It may not have the star power on the marquee, but at 13-1 through 14 games, Oak Hill’s record looks very Oak Hill-ish.
Which player would you say helped raise their stock more than anyone else?