NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Peach Jam is always going to be Peach Jam.
This week proved it to me.
Despite the fact that the kids that were competing were in living Augusta for two straight weeks, despite the fact that this was the end of a stretch that saw a live period for five out of six weekends, despite the fact that players and coaches alike were seeing their weeks end early after popping a positive test, Peach Jam somehow still delivered.
Team Final, unsurprisingly, won the title. They deserved it. Five stars popped. Guys I had never heard of made names for themselves. The environment was loud and intense despite the fact that fans, in theory, weren’t allowed in the building. It was everything you wanted it to me.
I’m consistently blown away at how high the level of basketball is on the Riverview Park Activities Center courts each and every year. It can get sloppy and scattered, and we certainly aren’t seeing the most disciplined basketball in the world, but I strongly encourage anyone that feels the need to blame the struggles of the USA Senior National team at the Olympics on “AAU basketball” to spend a day watching those games.
You’ll have your mind changed.
Anyway, after spending five days in a gym that was probably riddled with the Delta variant — I’m going to have to rehab my ears after wearing that mask for 13 hours a day, but at least I had gum so my breath smelled minty fresh all weekend — I have takes.
Lots and lots of takes.
Let’s get into them.
1. THERE IS NO NO. 1 PLAYER IN THE 2022 CLASS
The single biggest argument that was had in the bleachers at Peach Jam this week was over who the No. 1 player in this 2022 class is.* Is it Emoni Bates? Is it Jalen Duren? Will it end up being one of the other five-stars that showed out this weekend?
*For the record, the argument in its current stage is mostly irrelevant. The prevailing line of thinking is that both Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates will be in college this fall. Those are the two kids that are considered the consensus No. 1 and No. 2, in some order. When it’s all said and done, neither will be in the Class of 2022 rankings. C’est la vie.
The truth is that this discussion is so intense because every one of the elite players in this year’s class has warts, for one reason or another. Jalen Duren’s a high-motor physical specimen that doesn’t always have the ignition on. Emoni Bates is a natural born scorer that may or may not be able to do anything else. Dereck Lively weighs roughly 150 pounds. Put another way, the Class of 2022 has a bunch of guys that are surefire top 5-10 prospects, but no one that is a “No. 1 player in the class” caliber player.
This is going to be a thing for the foreseeable future as well. The talent currently in the high school ranks is not at the level we’ve come to expect.
As one veteran of the grassroots streets put it to me this week, “there is no surefire NBA star in the Class of 2022, 2023 or 2024.”
That’s not common.
Anyway, here are some thoughts on the guys pushing for that No. 1 spot:
1a. EMONI BATES WAS SET UP FOR FAILURE
Much has been written about Emoni over the course of his time in the spotlight. Some of it has been fair. Some of it has not. Almost all of it has created a firestorm wherein a kid that never asked for the attention has had a level of expectation placed on him that is almost impossible to live up to.
I’m going to make it as clear as I can right now: Emoni Bates is not Kevin Durant. He’s not going to be Kevin Durant. Durant is pushing 7-feet with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. Emoni is 6-foot-8 with something in the range of a 6-foot-9 wingspan. I’m not saying that he isn’t a terrific talent — he is, we’re talking about him as the No. 1 player in a recruiting class — but he’s not KD. There’s a certain level of human being that a high school kid should never be compared to. KD is one of them. We need to stop burdening children with those labels. It’s not fair.
It’s a bit off topic, but I think the biggest issue here is that the general public doesn’t have a grasp on prospects and the concept of range of outcomes. Just because people say, “that kid has a chance to be this good,” doesn’t mean he is guaranteed to get to be that good in ten years.
Think about it like this: When Emoni was a freshman in high school, he was winning state titles as a 6-foot-8 scoring machine with the size, skill and shooting ability that we almost never see in kids that size at that age. Evaluators were, rightly, excited. What if he keeps growing? What if he gets to 6-foot-11 with that coordination? What if he continues to fill out and develop his passing and his defense? What if everything comes together perfectly? There was a world where he could grow into being one of the best to ever play this game.
But that was the very tippity top of his range of outcomes. Considering the fact that he didn’t even have a driver’s license at the point that all this noise started to build, his range of outcomes as a player was enormous. Still is, if we’re being frank. Yes, there’s a small chance he becomes a global megastar. There is also a small chance that he ends up being a total bust that goes the way of Renardo Sidney. The most likely outcome is and always was going to be that he ends up “just” being a really good NBA player.
I like to use Andrew Wiggins as an example here. When Wiggins was the same age as Emoni, he had a similar level of hype. He’s seven years into his NBA career, and he’s averaging 19.5 points over those seven seasons. He’s 26 years old, he’s already banked $106 million and he’s guaranteed another $65 million. I can put together a pretty strong argument that Wiggins ended up near the bottom of his range of outcomes as a player. Put another way, when Wiggins was 14, he was identified as a prospect where something close to a worst case scenario would be a top 100ish player in the NBA.
The hype for him was justified.
He was a terrific prospect.
He just didn’t pan out the way some hoped, but that doesn’t mean the eval was wrong.
Let’s keep that in mind when talking about Emoni Bates, and when discussing the next player that gets tagged with the “best high school prospect since _________” label.
1b. JALEN DUREN vs. EMONI BATES
Emoni is the most talented prospect in the class.
I don’t think anyone is going to debate that. In a world where basketball ability was the only thing to be worried about, he would be the obvious No. 1 player. No second thoughts.
But I understand why there are people that have their doubts about him. It’s not a good sign when the best player in the class wins just one game at Peach Jam. It’s not a good sign when a kid that is supposed to be built to score struggles to post efficient shooting numbers for long stretches of time. I’ll be honest: It’s frustrating at times to watch Emoni dribble back and forth for 15 seconds before settling for a contested, side-step, 25-footer.
The people that don’t want to rank him No. 1 are the people that are people that think he’s going to be nothing but empty calories, that you cannot win with him in the long-term. Low efficiency, ball-dominant jump-shooters that don’t want to defend aren’t exactly something NBA organizations are dying for.
Here’s my full take on Emoni:
When he goes into takeover mode, it’s special. He is the best tough-shot maker in college basketball right now, but just because you can make a shot doesn’t mean that’s the best shot on a given possession. He’s at his best when there’s no fluff, when he gets rid of the crossovers and just goes. When he decides he’s going to get to his spot and elevate over a smaller defender, he’ll be impossible to stop once his frame fills out and he can better handle physicality. It doesn’t help that, on his Bates Fundamentals team, defenses could just pile bodies in front of him. The vision is there, although at this point it’s more flashy dump-offs than live-dribble, cross-court bullets, but I think that will come with time and coaching. The same with his defense. Half the battle is effort. And, respectfully, the effort is not there from Emoni, not yet.
I do think getting him into a program where he’s really, truly coached and held accountable will help work some of that out of his game — it did for LaMelo Ball — and I don’t think that it will hurt him longterm that he’s currently ineligible for the 2022 NBA Draft since he was born January 28th, four weeks passed the cutoff.
But it makes sense if you aren’t a believer, and you think the circus is too much.
The problem is that ranking Jalen Duren over him is probably not the answer right now.
I love Duren in theory. I think he’s precisely what NBA teams are looking for with modern five men. He’s a physical freak in the mold of Onyeka Okongwu and Bam Adebayo. He needs to loosen his hips and better learn how to sit in a stance, but he’s already being switched onto point guards defensively. He’s a ridiculous lob target and vertical spacer that eats rebounds when he decides he’s going to play hard, and I swear he dented one of the backboards when he blocked a shot this weekend. He’s also a better passer than he gets credit for.
The problem with Duren is that I am not sure if he really, truly loves the game. We’ve said that about some big man prospects in the past — DeAndre Ayton and James Wiseman, specifically — and they ended up panning out. But it’s different for Duren, who is 6-foot-9 on a good day. He’s not going to be able to do the things those two do. He’s just not their size.
The key for him is always going to be his motor. He has to play hard. He’s not skilled. He commits more offensive fouls that anyone in the history of AAU hoops. His value is his physical tools and the impact those can have defensively. But his intensity wanes. The first game I watched him play, he went scoreless with three rebounds and was benched for the second half.
Energy guys that don’t bring energy are not useful.
And I think that it should tell you something about the class overall that he’s been tabbed as the guy to replace Emoni atop the rankings.
As far as where those two will end up, sources in the gym told me that both are going to be able to reclassify if they decide they want to. We likely will end up with both players in college in the fall.
The consensus in the gyms on Duren was that Miami made the most sense out of his top three schools — Memphis may or may not be tourney eligible, Kentucky has Oscar Tshiebwe. Miami also hired one of his AAU coaches. The pro route has some appeal, but my personal belief is that it would hurt his draft stock more to put him in the G League right now than in the ACC.
Emoni released a top eight during the week. From what I was told by sources in the gym, three of the five schools listed in the top eight are not even really recruiting him. The prevailing sentiment is still that he likely ends up going the pro route, but I don’t think the Bates’ family has a clear idea of what they want to do at this point. Hell, they don’t even know at this point when Emoni can actually put his name in the draft.
We’ll see where that ends up going.
But I will say this: Oregon offered him this weekend. Oregon is a Nike school. Nike sponsors both Bates Fundamentals and Ypsi Prep. And Emoni is a perfect amalgam of the two types of players that Dana Altman’s Spread Offense works for — shoot-first lead guards and big wings. That’s a spot that makes a lot of sense to me.
1c. DERECK LIVELY MAY END UP BEING THE BEST NBA PLAYER IN THE CLASS
I was really, really impressed with Lively. A 7-foot-1 shot-blocking menace, Lively got it going from three during the knockout rounds. He hit three in a row in the first quarter of one game and has a really nice release for a guy his size. He’s terrific running the floor. His length and his toughness helps make up a bit for his lack of physicality.
But truthfully, what really convinced me was the way Lively was able to defend on the perimeter and against ball-screens. These two possessions happened back-to-back. In the first, Lively is in drop coverage, makes up ground and puts a shot through the backboard:
On the second, he gets switched onto Denver Anglin, a high major point guard, and keeps him in front before tossing his shot:
Not many 7-footers can do all that.
2. THE SLEEPERS WERE EVERYWHERE
The interesting thing about the 2022 recruiting class is that since college coaches had such a limited time on the road over the course of the last 16 months, they don’t have a great feel for the class overall. No one does. You can only get so much from watching a kid on tape, and that’s to say nothing of the fact that we really don’t know how much these kids were able to get into the gym during the pandemic. The amount of time they spent playing during this past high school season varies by state. There was a lot of unknown, which means that there were a lot of kids that “blew up” this week.
Here are the five names I had never heard before Wednesday that I’m not a huge fan of:
2a. OTEGA OWEH
Team Final was loaded. They have two of the five best players in the class. Their point guard, Corey Floyd, is committed to UConn and likely reclassifying to enroll this fall. Another point guard, Justice Williams, is committed to LSU. There is talent everywhere on that team, but I left Augusta the most impressed with Oweh, a 6-foot-5 athletic freak that plays as hard as anyone. He’s powerful. He’s athletic. He’s a menace defensively. He’s going to make some college coach very happy for four years.
2b. DOM BARLOW
Barlow is one of my favorite stories in this class. A 6-foot-9 power forward from New Jersey, Barlow was not known outside of his area. He was playing on a small AAU team and from a small high school when an assistant coach from the NY Rens, Oz Cross, saw him playing in a park last fall. He brought Barlow in for a workout, which he crushed, and nine months later, Barlow finished off a terrific Peach Jam with a trip to the semifinals and an offer rom Kansas. You cannot teach length, you cannot teach athleticism and you cannot teach effort. Barlow has all three in spades.
2c. ELIJAH KENNEDY
Kennedy is actually a 2021 prospect from Virginia Beach that is currently planning on attending prep school in the fall, which is why he was in Augusta this week. He played well enough, however, that a number of schools have started poking around to see if he could be eligible this year. A powerful, 6-foot-4 lefty, Kennedy put on a couple of impressive shooting displays, allowing some coaches to feel like they finally had a chance to evaluate him. He only played in about 10 games during this past high school season.
2d. PAPA KANTE
A 2023 prospect that plays for Expressions Elite and South Kent, Kante spent the last two weeks claiming territory in the paint. His best performance came when he went for 18 points, 14 boards and four blocks in a win over an NJ Scholars team that featured a pair of top ten prospects in Mackenzie Mgbako and D.J. Wagner.
2e. JOSIAH DAVIS
Davis already committed to West Virginia, so it’s not like his recruitment is going to go crazy, but I wanted to mention him because I can’t imagine a more perfect union between player and program than Davis and West Virginia. A 6-foot-3 tank with quads that would make Saquon Barkley jealous, Davis is the smallest point-center in America, a bowling ball with a jumper and a crossover that pounds the glass and blocked a few shots. As one coach put he, '“he is the toughest motherfucker in this event.”
3. LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR TRANSFERS
One of the fascinating parts of the current college hoops landscape is the number of coaches that spent this week recruiting players they knew they had no chance of getting because they need to maintain relationships for the inevitable round of transfers that will be coming.
“We don’t have any scholarships next year,” one mid-major assistant told me. “I’m trying to get the guys I know aren’t good enough for where they’ll end up.”
“The funny part,” he added, “is that I probably won’t even be here when they transfer.”
This was not limited to just mid-major coaches. One high-major coach at a program that is just outside the elite tier told me that he will continue to recruit the guys he’s been recruiting for years even when they blow up.
“Most of these kids don’t give a shit that we’ve been recruiting them for an extended period of time when schools like that get them on campus,” he said. It’s a tough spot for coaches, balancing being happy for a player you have a relationship with when he plays well while lamenting the fact that it means you probably won’t be getting him to enroll as a freshman.
But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop the recruiting process.
“When they transfer we will be in a good spot because they know us extremely well.”
4. COACHES MOSTLY CLUELESS ON NIL STUFF
I thought the most interesting part of this year’s Peach Jam was hearing just how clueless a lot of these coaches are about the power of social media when it comes to NIL and the impact that it can have on a player’s career.
These are guys that eat film for breakfast, that spend weeks at a time on the road, sitting in gyms, watching bad high school basketball. One staff this week flew private to Augusta for a pair of Friday morning games only to fly out for one afternoon game played in a different time zone and then fly back to Augusta to get ready for Saturday’s morning session. They aren’t locked in on CPM rates, the value of 100,000 Instagram followers and what brands are looking for when it comes to social endorsement.
Every coach I spoke with on the subject knows where I stand on this: Hire an expert on this subject and put them on your staff. The programs where NIL is truly a difference-maker can afford to take on another salary. It will help them in the long run.
5. XAVIER’S TYRELL WARD IS A KILLER
He’s not the best player in the 2022 class, but I think the kid that I enjoyed watching the most was Xavier commit Tyrell Ward. An athletic, 6-foot-8 wing, Ward is a maniac, an uber-intense defensive menace that never cracked a smile or showed an ounce of emotion. He did that while winning head-to-head battles with five-stars Dariq Whitehead and Shaedon Sharpe while I watched. Ward is currently ranked somewhere in the 40-60 range, depending on where you look. I would expect that to change when these sites update those numbers.
6. SHAEDON SHARPE IS GOING TO BE A MEGA-STAR
Sharpe generated some buzz in Augusta as potentially the best long-term prospect in the class. He’s a powerful, 6-foot-4 shooting guard that is just an effortless scorer. I watched him go for 33 in one game where he showcased his ability to get buckets at all three levels — catching an oop, scoring in the midrange and hitting a 30-footer while also knocking down a nasty side-step three off of a crossover. That recruitment seems destined to end with Sharpe in Lexington.
7. D.J. WAGNER OUTSHINED BY HIS TEAMMATE
The last time I saw D.J. Wagner, back in June, he was terrific at a high school event in Philly. At Peach Jam, he struggled a little bit. Wagner’s game is different than his father’s. He’s more of a smooth, fluid athlete whose strength lies in his ability to get to the rim and finish with either hand. The size and athleticism of every front court in the EYBL game him some issues. So did the physicality of guards that were a year or two older than him.
DJ looks like he’s 12. I’m not sure he can grow a mustache. He’s 160 pounds soaking wet. His issue isn’t getting where he wants to go, it’s dealing with stronger players once he does. He’ll be fine as his body develops.
I was actually more impressed with his teammate, fellow 2023 prospect Mackenzie Mgbako, a 6-foot-8 athletic monster that spent Peach Jam banging threes.
8. NORTH CAROLINA GOT A GREAT ONE WITH SETH TRIMBLE
I’ll end this notebook with Seth Trimble, who I thought was just terrific. He’s a powerfully athletic point guard that is as poised as it gets for a 17-year old ball-handler. He doesn’t get sped up. He can get to his spots and elevate. He’s tough around the basket, and he showed off a deft array of passing in the games I saw. He will thrive in North Carolina’s system.