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?
Andrew Slater: I really like the choices of Bates and Queen, but I think Ryan Nembhard will have technically raised his stock more than anyone else. The Creighton commit came into the event outside of the consensus Top-100. The book on him was largely to force him to shoot and/or score, rather than allowing the pass-first Canadian PG to distribute to one of his offensively-gifted Montverde teammates. La Lumiere and IMG both tried to force Nembhard to be the one to defeat them...and, in the end, he did. My assumption is that his performances at that event will cause his ranking to be the most improved of the various players in attendance. Bates’ ranking or stock had already been adjusted and significantly improved, due to performing well in events with IMG earlier this season. The 2024 players will begin to be ranked over this coming summer.
Nick Danforth: Tamar Bates. Although he’s already committed to Texas, Bates is ranked well below many of his IMG teammates. However, at the NIBC, Bates stood out among his squad. He averaged an impressive 16.7 points while shooting 59% from the field and 50% from 3. Bates continually made contested shots off the dribble and played with an edge and energy that his team clearly fed off of. His shot-making kept IMG within striking distance in their showdown against Montverde, and Bates showed that he belongs alongside his teammates closer to the top of the rankings.
PD Web: 2024 Derik Queen (6’9 W/F St. Frances Academy (MD)) was a name I had heard a little bit coming into the NIBC, and Queen ended up as one my biggest standouts on the week. High level freshman often ooze potential, Queen is the rare freshman who was ready to produce. 17 PPG / 9.7 RPG / 1 BPG is a strong stat line considering the competition level, regardless of age. Queen was outstanding in a hard-fought 74-63 L to DeMatha, logging 23 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists & 4 blocks. The 6’8 big body is as comfortable reading the angle of the ball off the rim as he is reading the defense on a press or the help side when facing up in the mid post. The shooting is interesting as well (5/15 from 3). His good movement skills could allow Queen to develop into a bigger wing or a mobile big as his high school career progresses.
Who’s a prospect you most want to see more of now that you have a general idea of their game?
Andrew Slater: For the most part, I had seen most of the 2021-2023 kids, but feel relatively ignorant on the 2024s, including Jeremy Fears, Jr. and Derik Queen. Of the two, Queen is the one I’ve seen less and am definitely intrigued by after two games at this event, while I am likely to see much more Fears, through LaLu’s challenging national schedule.
Nick Danforth: Caleb Foster. The 2023 guard from Oak Hill proved to be a steady hand for Coach Steve Smith’s squad. Foster plays a poised and patient brand of basketball and posted a ridiculous 38 assists to just 5 turnovers while leading the entire invitational in minutes played. He already has good size and a strong frame considering his age and will be an intriguing player to track as his game develops.
PD Web: 2022 Gradey Dick’s (6’6 W Sunrise (KS)) development as a shooter totally changes his upside as a player. Dick was previously known as a slasher who made good reads with the ball and his hands, and when closed out on hard, got where he wanted. In the NIBC, Dick shot 10/24 good for 41.7 % from 3, 6/6 from the FT line & it totally changed how defenses had to defend Sunrise. The 3 has a good degree of versatility, not just catch and shoots but some movement and even a nice 3 off an elevator set. This ascension really connects his advantage passing, the possibility of closeout creation at the next level and it really leverages his athleticism attacking the rim.
What was the best team performance you witnessed throughout the event?
Andrew Slater: I really enjoyed quite a few of the games, but the first heavyweight battle between IMG and Montverde was a personal favorite. Knowing the stakes and feelings of both programs towards the other, as well as the caliber of player on both rosters just heightened what turned out to be a defensive slugfest that felt intensely personal, culminating in some postgame shouting, etc. between the two powerhouses. There is respect, but no love lost between the two.
Nick Danforth: Sunrise Christian Academy in their win over IMG. I thought this was the most entertaining game of the event, which resulted in a 69-62 win for Sunrise. IMG jumped out to a 9-0 lead and led by 10 at the end of the 1st quarter. But Sunrise steadied the ship and outscored IMG 58-41 over the final three quarters. Kennedy Chandler led the way (see below) but Kendall Brown started the comeback with a few timely steals and transition buckets. Brown finished with 17 points while Zach Clemence chipped in 8 and Jaden Akins scored 10 off the bench. As a team Sunrise shot 62% from the field in the second half and made 12/12 free throws in the 4th quarter to hold off the IMG comeback attempt led by Bates.
PD Web: iSchool vs Oak Hill, the 2 OT affair that got greater later, is going to get a lot of votes, as will the IMG/MVA matchup but my choice would be Sunrise’s performance vs Wasatch. It wasn’t the most venerated of matchups, but it felt like a title fight from the very start. Sunrise ended up winning 77-68, but it was a case of two well matched teams playing well while executing at a high level. Sunrise got 19 from Kendall Brown, 17 from Zach Clemence & 10 from Kennedy Chandler & solid contributions from 4 other players scoring 6+ pts. It felt like a GEICO game, not teams spreading their wings early in their seasons.
How about the best individual performance?
Andrew Slater: I would go with one of the two listed below. For purposes of time, I’ll briefly highlight Legacy Charter senior Bryce McGowens’ 38-point performance versus Hamilton Heights. It was easily his most efficient performance of the event. There was a lot asked of him, due to being down a key piece, but this was, far and away, his best performance and demonstrated a notion of what the volume scorer is capable of, when hitting on all cylinders. Two others, who deserve some recognition for their sustained quality performances, would be seniors Moussa Diabate of IMG Academy and Kendall Brown of Sunrise Christian Academy.
Nick Danforth: Kennedy Chandler against IMG. This game looked like it might get out of hand early, with IMG racing out to a double-digit lead and Chandler picking up two early fouls. A few big baskets from Kendall Brown steadied the team and then Chandler took over. He scored efficiently from all over the court, draining pull up 3’s, finishing at the rim and making 8 of 9 free throws. Chandler scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half and scored or assisted on nearly 50% of Sunrise’s points.
PD Web: 2021 Ryan Nembhard (6’1 G Montverde) in the main event, a 55-51 win versus IMG. It’s not the most eye-popping stat line (10 PTS, 5 REB, 4 AST) in a low scoring affair, but Nembhard controlled a game that desperately needed controlling from chaos and sloppiness. While one of the seemingly few players on the floor not ranked in the top 100, Nembhard was the standout guard on the floor, out-performing 5-star Jaden Bradley. Nembhard made the shots he needed to in a game that featured a lot of misses, got the offense to the right spots on offense and coordinated a swarming defense - the game couldn’t have been won without this level of performance.
Biggest takeaway high level when it comes to evaluating teams/players during a pandemic?
Andrew Slater: I try never to get too high or low on a player off of any individual performance in a normal year, but find it’s better to try to get a better gauge on a player’s strengths and weaknesses through as many viewings as time permits, preferably against as high quality of competition as possible. This year, due to the nature of staggered starts and seemingly endless Covid outbreaks or restrictions, it’s important to be even more patient than usual. The “apples and oranges” nature of this season may have been best exemplified by the initial game between La Lumiere, which was playing its first game of the season, versus Wasatch Academy, which had played a dozen games by the time of tip-off. Hopefully, everyone has less hot takes and more patience.
Nick Danforth: The difficulty not only for the players involved, but also those evaluating. Similar to the NBA bubble, some of the teams at the NIBC stayed in Virginia the entire event, playing as many as seven games. A few players remarked how grateful they were to be playing at such an event during Covid but also how draining the event was. NBA stars have been vocal about the challenges of playing in such conditions, particularly to their mental health. It is impossible to know the challenges each player is facing, but it’s something to keep in mind before drawing too many conclusions about prospects who had a down performance.
PD Web: Players and teams need more viewings than normal to get a good feel for their true level. Teams are all at different places in their seasons, there have been some last minute matchup adjustments and it has led to moments of basketball that are…. less crisp than what we are used to seeing out of this level. Giving each team and player a couple extra games is needed to adjust for the circumstances of the unique time we are living in.
Pro Insight's event standouts:
Jaden Akins, Robbie Armbrester, Tamar Bates, Kendall Brown, Camryn Carter, Kennedy Chandler, Moussa Diabate, Cole Farrell, Ismail Habib, Jordan Hawkins, Nolan Hickman, Caleb Houstan, Trevor Keels, Caleb Kenney, Johnathan Lawson, Langston Love, TJ Madlock, Bryce McGowens, Yerald Mieses, Jalen Miller, Mason Miller, Ryan Nembhard, Kenny Pohto, Julian Reese, Fousseyni Traore, Jacobi Wright
Eric Dailey, Gradey Dick, Jalen Duren, Jayden Epps, Roddy Gayle, Keyonte George, Jett Howard, Pop Isaacs, Vince Iwuchukwu, Dug McDaniel, Chisom Okpara, Felix Okpara, MJ Rice, JJ Starling, Mady Traore, Jarace Walker, Tyrell Ward, Dariq Whitehead
Camden Andrews, Malik Bowman, Jeremy Fears, Caleb Foster, Jacoi Hutchinson
Ahmad Nowell, Derik Queen