While the rest of the world slept in on Saturday, I was on the road driving the two hours and 15 minutes from my apartment in Silver Spring to the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion to watch a high school basketball game. Westtown School (PA) and Maryland signee Jared Nickens matched up against Life Center Academy (NJ) and fellow commit Trayvon Reed. The game was the first of nine that day, comprising the Kobe Bryant Classic (Bryant played at Lower Merion High School).
I went specifically to see Nickens and Reed, but wanted to keep my eye on two of their teammates. Westtown 7-1 junior center Georgios Papagiannis (I'll call him "GP" in this piece because I don't want to type the whole name every time) is starting to draw attention from major programs around the country, but Maryland was one of the first to offer him. On the other side, Life Center 6-4 junior guard, Malik Ellison, son of coach and former Louisville star Pervis Ellison, has offers from Maryland, La Salle, Penn State, St. Joe's and Temple.
Reed won the opening tip easily over GP and, after a turnover, the ball went inside to GP, who tried to back down Reed in the post. Reed, as he would display throughout the game, is a very willing post defender, but once his man makes his move, Reed is often unsure of exactly what to do. On this occasion he missed on a block attempt, but altered the shot enough that it didn't hit iron.
In the early going, Nickens tended to camp in the corners on offense, but once he got the ball had a very quick trigger. His shot was off at first but he showed no hesitance in taking it. It's pretty clear he knows he is the best perimeter player on his team. The stroke was smooth as silk and every shot looks like it's going in.
The first quarter was sloppy by both teams. Reed finished an alley oop off a nice pass from Ellison, and GP had a very nice drive for an and-one past Reed. Nickens missed on a three with a hand in his face and a pull up jumper in transition. Ellison looked incredibly smooth with the ball and was able to get to the bucket at will. The score was 12-10 Westtown.
At the start of the 2nd quarter, Nickens was running the offense. He made some nice entry passes to GP, who then showed a knack for passing out of the post to open teammates. GP had a huge block on the defensive end, ran down the court, got open from the top of the key, and in a twist I did not see coming, the seven-footer took a three. He missed badly, but it looked like he was comfortable with the shot. Ellison came down with the ball, streaked to the other end and threw home a vicious dunk.
Nickens finally got on the board after being fouled on a pull up jumper after a really good GP screen. His free throw stroke was pure and he hit both (he would finish, by my count, 7/7 on FTs). A few minutes later, GP threw a no-look pass to Nickens, who hit a deep three over a defender's hand. On defense, Nickens stole the ball and had his own no-looker to his teammate, who had his shot blocked at the rim. Ellison hit a mid ranger jumper and Reed finished the half with an emphatic dunk. The score was 32-24 Westtown.
To say the game picked up in the second half would be an understatement. Ellison hit two threes in the first few possessions. He is very, very good. Like, very good. He also finished an alley oop and played fantastic defense.
Nickens started to come alive after being fouled on a drive to the basket. He hit his FTs, got a block, and finished a tough baseline floater with contact (that should have been called a foul).
The real star of the quarter was GP, who tried a few more times to back down Reed, one of them ending with a successful hook shot. He followed that up with a three from the top of the key and a block on a dunk attempt by Ellison. Reed had a block, a dunk and a few rebounds. The quarter ended with a GP dunk of his own and the score was 47-40 Westtown.
GP and Ellison's dominance continued into the last frame. After a powerful Reed dunk, GP hit a mid range jumper. Ellison, who played off the ball much of the game, started to run the point and assert himself with some FTs and shots around the rim. Life Center, who had been down the entire game, started to make a run and get close to tying it up when Nickens hit a three and was fouled, finishing a 4-point play.
Reed was in foul trouble down the stretch, so Coach Ellison had to sit him while his team was on defense and put him in on offense. GP had a handful of blocks and some impressive dunks while Reed sat.
Ellison had a few more threes, Nickens added one more of his own and the game ended Westtown 71, Life Center 61. Ellison was named the MVP.
Here are my overall thoughts on each player of interest:
Jared Nickens- The kid can shoot. He reminds me of Danny Green, currently on the Spurs and formerly of UNC. His mechanics are flawless, but I can't wait until he works with college-level coaches that can teach him how to convert the raw tools into a consistent shooter. He's skinny but very athletic, and uses his body well to finish through contact. Putting on weight in college will only make him better, but I hope he retains his fluidity. On defense he can drift but he's always looking to make a play.
Final line- 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 steals
Trayvon Reed- This was not Reed's best game, but it's obvious that the talent and effort is there when watching him in person. That coupled with the fact that he will probably be the tallest player in every game he will ever play is a recipe for success...eventually. It's not often two 7-footers go against each other in a college game, let alone a high school game, and he certainly struggled on offense versus GP. I'm not sure he tried a single post move all game. What he can do is dunk, slam dunk, alley oop dunk and also dunk. He didn't have a ton of blocks in the game but he altered almost every shot that came his way. His defense is far beyond his offense at this point. Reed is already a very good one-on-one and team post defender. This will be a project for Maryland, and I don't think they expect him to play a significant role in year one. A project with a 7-footer is a fun project.
Final line- 6 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 block
Georges Papagiannis- Ooooooooh man is he a good one. I went into this expecting to be impressed but I was blown away. First of all, he has the athleticism and coordination of Alex Len. There were times he brought the ball up the court of his team, and while guards were trying to swarm him and steal it, he either dribbled past them or got the ball to a teammate very easily. He has a very nice shot, a good face-up game and was able to finish post moves and alley oops over everyone. On the defensive end I could have sworn he had at least eight blocks but he only had five. He is a fantastic outlet passer and is both willing and able to pass out of the post. Did I mention I was impressed? Well, I was very impressed. Papagiannis is a future pro and Maryland should go all out for his services.
Final line- 15 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks and ∞ drooling scouts
Malik Ellison- Another very impressive player. He's listed as a point guard but at 6-4 and still growing, I think he projects more as a wing in college. Ellison has every tool you want in a great college wing- shooting, athleticism, craftiness, smoothness, leadership and guts. It's obvious he is the son of a basketball star. While GP, Reed and Nickens disappeared at times, Ellison was omnipresent: always around the ball, always making a play. I'm not sure what one thing he is great at, but he does everything on the court well. I cannot imagine his list of offers doesn't explode in the coming months. He is in the Class of '15, so there is plenty of time. With all the guards Maryland has coming in, there might not be a spot for him unless he grows a few inches.
Final line- 22 points and 5 rebounds
Another name to keep an eye on: 2016 Westtown guard Jair Bolden. Very young, but has all the makings of a high major college player.
One last note: Bino Ranson was in the crowd and I saw him talking to Nickens and his family after the game. Bino knows everybody. At least a dozen people came up him and he treated them all like lifelong buddies.
Well, there you have 1,500 words on a high school basketball game. Stay tuned next week when I head up to Baltimore to watch Dion Wiley and go down to O'Connell for Romelo Trimble.