SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Whenever the No. 1 player in any class takes the floor, he is going to be the center of attention. The top player for 2014, Jahlil Okafor of Chicago (Ill.) Whitney Young, relished the spotlight and led his team to a dominant performance over Long Beach (Calif.) Poly in Saturday's premier matchup at the Hoop Hall Classic. Okafor's junior teammate Paul White continued a strong season, Rondae Jefferson played with toughness, Ja'Quan Newton got to the rim and [/db]Chris Baldwin[/db] had a big night.
Okafor dominates; White improves
Technically, no game at the Hoop Hall Classic gets top billing. But on Saturday night one could easily look to the matchup between Whitney Young and Long Beach Poly as the most anticipated game of the day. Featuring the nation's top player in Okafor, Whitney Young faced a Poly team full of athletes and defensive toughness.
Early, the game played out as expected as both teams competed on each end. But about midway through the second quarter the 6-foot-10 Okafor began to assert himself in the post and the game made a decided turn in Whitney Young's favor. The Dolphins ran away and hid in an 85-52 win.
Okafor had plenty of help -- most notably from four-star junior White -- but let's start with Okafor's play. The big man once again showcased his back-to-the-basket polish, great hands, strength and ability to score all over the lane in an efficient 13-for-17 outing that led to 26 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. When he needed to bulldoze, he bulldozed. When he needed to use spins and fakes, he did. Most of all, he just drove to the rim for powerful jams.
Then again, Okafor making it look easy is something we've come to expect. Something else that is becoming a regular occurrence is a big outing from White. A four-star prospect and 6-foot-8 forward who has always shown flashes of impressive ability, White has started to put it all together.
In the past he's been a bit flat in terms of emotion and aggression, but he's really ramped it up in both areas and the results have been impressive. He can shoot deep jumpers, handles it pretty well, has slashing ability and is a fluid athlete who can be put at various positions on the floor to generate matchup problems.
"I've had everybody telling me to just be confident because they know I can play like that," White said after a 20-point, seven-rebound effort. "I'm just relaxed out there and having a lot of fun."
Ranked just inside of the top 50 of the class of 2014, Philadelphia (Pa.) Neumann-Goretti's Newton has a great understanding of his game. The 6-foot-2 combo guard is wiry, strong, deceptively quick and one of the best off-the-drive scorers in his class.
On Saturday, Newton was at his best using his ability to change speeds and get to the rim and his crafty midrange scoring tools to do damage during a 17-point, four-assist, six-rebound effort. His jumper wasn't falling as much as he would have liked, but he looked much more relaxed and shot with a more crisp stroke than he has at times in the past.
"I've been playing pretty good, and I'm feeling more comfortable with my jumper," Newton told Rivals.com. "I've been in the gym working on my jumper and have put in time."
Newton said he and his family have talked about taking official visits this spring but they need to narrow the list.
"I would like to maybe take a couple of visits this spring," Newton said. "Me and my family need to kind of sit down and sort things out first."
Jefferson and Baldwin play with purpose
It's probably not right to say that Jefferson had anything to prove. The 6-foot-7 senior from Chester (Pa.) High is a five-star forward headed to Arizona with a well-earned and cemented reputation. But just a week ago things looked bleak when Jefferson was worried that a shoulder injury could cost him his season.
On Monday he had an MRI, and the good news was that he was all right. On Saturday, he hit James Naismith Floor at the Blake Arena with plenty of purpose. The owner of one of the best motors in the senior class, Jefferson was an animal around the glass early and set the tone with his inspired play near the bucket. He's not a great shooter, but he compensates for that with his warrior-like play, ability to slash off the dribble and desire to win. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him play the three and the four in Tucson. Jefferson finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals.
Whereas Jefferson has a well-established rep, sophomore power forward Baldwin of Springfield (Mass.) Central is trying to make his. Recently challenged by his coaching staff to commit himself to the game and change his approach, the 6-foot-7 Baldwin played with a passion that was hard to deny and made a compelling case to establish four-star status in the class of 2015.
Athletic, tough and skilled, Baldwin put together a 23-point, 18-rebound, eight-block performance and was the most dominant player on the floor in Central's win over Manchester. He is quick off the floor and has good length and the ability to face and shoot the ball. After settling too much for jumpers early, Baldwin got aggressive and went to work on the interior. On top of everything else, he played on the edge with a fiery attitude that rubbed off on his teammates. UMass is his first offer, but he's likely to pick up a lot of more if he can replicate Saturday's effort.
Final Saturday notes
Kris Jenkins of Washington (D.C) Gonzaga did all he could to keep his team in it against Jefferson and Chester. Unfortunately for him, he just didn't get a lot of help outside of junior Jordan Abdur-Ra'oof, who came alive with a 16-point, 13-rebound effort. Jenkins is a big-bodied kid who has a nice inside/out game and a good-looking jumper. A college weight room should tone him, but he's rugged, has a high hoops IQ and never gives up. Jenkins finished with 23 and six. Abdur-Ra'oof is a lean and wiry 6-foot-6 power forward who will start generating more attention if he plays with consistency and keeps that motor running on the glass.
Although we didn't get to see their entire game, we did arrive in time to see junior Victor Law and sophomore Charles Matthews of Chicago (Ill.) St. Rita's at the end of their blowout win. A 6-foot-7 combo forward, Law has been generating a lot of buzz and he backed it up with 17 points and 19 rebounds. He's quick around the rim, has a great motor and is putting together his perimeter game. He listed Harvard, Virginia Tech, Providence, Kansas, DePaul, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Iowa and more. Law feels like he has offers from the Hokies, Friars and Blue Demons. A five-star combo guard, Matthews still struggles some with turnovers. But his near 6-foot-5 size, slick handle and playmaking will make him very dangerous down the road. It's just a matter of settling in and being consistent.
Long Beach (Calif.) Poly senior Roschon Prince is dealing with uncertainty. The USC signee has seen his future coach get fired, and he's waiting to see what the Trojans do for a replacement. According to Prince, the USC assistants and athletic director have been communicating with him and he's open to sticking with his commitment but just needs to see who they hire. A local kid whose sister plays for the Trojans, Prince would seem to be someone the new coach will have a good shot at retaining.
Jordan Bell didn't go down without a fight against Okafor. The 6-foot-7 Oregon signee did his best to play the nation's top player with physicality and used his quickness and athleticism to cause early problems. Eventually, giving up three or four inches and about 60 pounds was simply too much to overcome. Look for Bell to be an instant contributor on the glass and in transition in Eugene. Top 50 junior Kameron Chatman continues to sit because of a transfer ruling. It's looking like we won't see the skilled 6-foot-6 player until the spring.