Multiple ACC signees were on display at the recent City Of Palms Classic.
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Parents, it’s 11 p.m. Do you know where your kids are?
Last Friday night the answer was easy: At Bishop Verot High School watching Jahlil Okafor and Chicago Whitney Young against Jalen Hudson and Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Don’t worry. Dad’s with them.
Nearly midnight, almost 2,000 fans stuck around to watch Whitney Young hold off St. Vincent-St. Mary 52-45 in the Culligan City of Palms Classic Basketball Tournament on the Friday before Dec. 25.
For hoops fans, this was Christmas come early – six days, 28 teams, 37 games. This was the 41st year of the Classic, which featured 11 of the top 50 high school teams in the country, according to Clark Francis, editor and publisher of Hoop Scoop.
There also were seven players who’ll be with ACC schools next year. The 6-foot-10 Okafor was joined by future Duke teammate Grayson Allen of Jacksonville.
Hudson’s future Virginia Tech teammate Justin Bibbs plays for Montverde (Fla.) Academy, considered by many to be the No. 1 team in the country. From past years, 21 current players on ACC teams have played in this event.
North Carolina signee Joel Berry - Orlando (Fla.) Lake Highland Prep - was here as well as future Hurricane Ja’Quan Newton - Philadelphia (Pa.) Neumann-Goretti - and Georgia Tech signee Tadric Jackson - Tifton (Ga.) Tift County. Almost 50 players who competed in this event have committed to Division I schools.
Whether it’s watching up-and-coming pros – 77 past and present NBA players have competed in this event – seeing if LeBron James flew in on his helicopter to see his alma mater St. Vincent-St. Mary – he didn’t - or eating grouper fingers, fried okra, jumbo bratwurst, catfish sandwiches or cheesecake tortillas, fans have packed this high school gym for years.
After midnight, fans waited almost 30 minutes to get Okafor’s autograph.
“It’s common, wherever we go,” a student manager said.
Friendly, easy-going and laid-back, Okafor patiently signed every autograph and thanked anybody who complimented him. To Francis, that may be a problem on the court, where he says he disagrees with the media establishment – Rivals, ESPN, Scout – who have him listed as the No. 1 prospect.
“I’m one of his biggest critics,” Francis said. “He might be too nice a kid, who doesn’t want it bad enough. I don’t know if it’s entitlement syndrome. At the Las Vegas Classic, he said he was too tired to play. It was a sixth game in 26 hours but a fierce competitor would play. I’ve got him sixth in the country. I’m not putting him in my top five until he shows me his heart and determination. I want to see if he turns it on.”
Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter disagrees with the criticism of Okafor and said his player is plenty motivated.
“He loves competition,” Slaughter said. “I think the most effective areas for him will be at the offensive end and rebounding the basketball. Those are two areas he’s really committed to.”
Okafor agrees. He said that’s where Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wants him to be dominant.
“That’s my definitely my focus,” Okafor said. “For forever how long (Krzyzewski) is there, he’ll elevate my game.”
Allen watched Okafor and has talked with him since the big man’s committment. They’re part of a Duke class ranked by most as the top class in the country. It also features point guard Tyus Jones from Apple Valley, Min. and forward Justise Winslow from Houston.
Francis said Allen may be the only one of the four who isn’t a five-star player but loves him as a hard-nosed competitor.
“He really can shoot and is more of an athlete than people realize,” Francis said.
The 6-4 Allen earned a few oohs and ahhs in the crowd with his dunks and blocks where his arm was well above the rim.
“I want to dunk it has hard as I can,” he said. “I’d like to break the rim off. An adrenaline rush helps me get up there. I love to chase down players and kind of surprise people who get lazy and go off the wrong foot.”
He calls going to Duke a dream.
“It was always my favorite school growing up,” he said. “It was real exciting once it became a realistic goal and once they offered me, it only took me a week to call them back.”
Two other future teammates in this tournament – Virginia Tech signees Hudson and Bibbs – also have kept in touch through calls and texts. With 6-7 forward T.J. Lang from Mobile, Ala. joining them, Hudson said, “We can cause havoc. The bigs they have there are developing and we’ll come in and develop very fast.”
Both Hudson and Bibbs like Hokies’ coach James Johnson’s style. While Bibbs sees himself as a defensive stopper who also can score, the 6-5 Hudson feels his offensive abilities will be brought out.
“The one thing he told me that I remember is that if I do it in the open gym, I can do it in the game,” he said. “He wants me to play comfortable and free.”
Francis said Berry is an underrated 6-0 point guard, a “no-frills player who runs the show” and had a great summer. He noted that the 6-2 Johnson is an athletic, slashing two guard who’s a top-50 player in his estimation.
For more on Newton, look at this week’s story on the Miami Hurricanes.