2018-19 Arizona High School Preview
The start of the 2018-19 high school basketball season is right around the corner. With so much anticipation building up in the valley, and around the state, I had some thoughts kicked around in my head and some things to touch on.
Let’s go ahead and start with the small school stuff…
Rancho Solano Prep has some serious talent. With three starters with multiple Division-I offers in 6-foot-4 junior guard Kiimani Holt, 6-foot-9 junior big man Hunter Ruck and 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Brett Hardt Jr., there is no other team in 2A with that on paper. They round out the roster with some young guys with some promising futures, starting with 6-foot-5 freshman wing Elijah Saunders and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Creed Williamson. They have had a few struggles in the fall in the few times I have gotten to see them, but the talent they possess should be able to right that ship for Head Coach Aaron Trigg and the Mustangs.
Though Rancho will undoubtedly be the favorite to take it all, the 2A player of the year could very well be Morenci High’s 6-foot-10 senior do-it-all big man John Olmsted. Olmsted does so much for this team on both ends of the floor. He may be the sole player in the state that is his teams best of everything. He is their strongest rebounder, best shot blocker, best creator and passer and might just quite be their best shooter. However, they do have a couple guys that can really knock it down from the outside. If those shooters can keep defenses honest, they will have a chance with Olmsted leading the way.
With no disrespect intended, Paradise Honors should flat out run away with the 3A conference. This team could very well contend for a 6A title run with somewhere around eight players on their roster who are projected to play college basketball at some level. Head Coach Zach Hettel’s 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard Jalen Scott is the quarterback of this high-powered offense that is loaded with size and athleticism and speed and explosiveness. His ability to push the tempo and get them out in the open court is a difference maker. Their seniors, 6-foot-3 guards Josh Hawkins and Jon Jackson, will be the calming influence that can get a little turnover happy at times. 6-foot-6 junior wing Jerry Iliya should lead the team in scoring, though he will have plenty of help in that area. 6-foot-7 junior forward and 6-foot-10 sophomore center Matur Dhal are unmatched down low by just about any program in the state, much less the 3A conference. Where Eze is strong and wide, Dhal is agile and long. The two make for a nice interior combination down low when they are on the floor together.
The team that could give them some fits come playoff time is Valley Christian who are armed with two guys that are projected to play basketball at the next level in 6-foot-8 senior forward Connor Braun and 6-foot-6 junior wing Logan Phillips, who looks like he grows a half inch every time he eats a meal. While they will need much more help around them, their talents coupled with experienced and great coaching from Head Coach Greg Haagsma. They will face off with Paradise Honors twice during the season in what should be two highly competitive contests.
3A Players to Watch: Trey Donaldson (Gilbert Christian), Lucas Elliot (Pusch Ridge), Phoenix Katz (Sahuarita)
The 4A conference is going to be something else this season. There haven’t been any secrets here in Arizona with 4A basketball in quite some time, with Head Coach and Arizona legend Mike Bibby shutting down shop for so long as they chase a fourth straight state championship. That would send senior guard combo Jovan Blacksher Jr. (GCU commit) and Jaelen House (ASU commit) into the sunset winning a ring for every year of high school. The Matadors bring back their core with that talented backcourt to go with super-athletic 6-foot-4 wings Jalen Williams and Shemar Morrow. They will miss the activity and versatility from Immanuel Allen (graduation) and the outside shooting from Antonio Reeves (transfer), but they reloaded with some guys as well. They will welcome one of the top freshman on the west coast in 6-foot-3 combo guard Devontes Cobbs and his big brother, 6-foot-4 junior bouncy guard/wing Davon Cobbs by way of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 5-foot-10 junior point guard Robby Kinnard Jr. will give them some solid minutes off the bench. Though the conference has possibly the most competition this group has encountered in the past few years, they will still go into the season as an overwhelming favorite to win it again and move on to the Dick’s National tournament to play for a national championship.
The team that is going into the season with the most hype to meet Shadow there is Buckeye Union, led by 6-foot-5 talented senior guard/wing Otis Frazier III and 6-foot-1 sharp shooting point guard Tay Boothman. Both were there last year, as the team fell short in a heartbreaking overtime loss to Salpointe. They will welcome transfer 6-foot-4 senior guard Isaiah Marin to the roster, as the big guard is a match-up nightmare for most teams with his size and length at the guard position and his presence on the defensive end. 6-foot-8 senior forward Adam Hamilton will need to have a big year for the Hawks and Head Coach Randy Bland, as the backcourt trio will need a presence to hold down the inside so they can do what they do best on the perimeter. Another player who could factor into that role is 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Andrew Yeahquo, who has performed well during the fall. They should not see much competition during region play, but will have a big time match-up against a team that has given them fits in the past as they square up against a very tough Peoria squad on the road on December 17th. They are also scheduled to take part in some highly competitive tournaments during the holiday break in December.
The team that knocked off them Hawks, Salpointe Catholic, is southern Arizona’s top team. They are led by a pair of next level prospects in 6-foot-5 senior guard/wing Majok Deng, who is a perfect compliment with his sniping capabilities from the outside to one of the better point guards in the state, 6-foot-2 junior Evan Nelson. The Lancers from Salpointe should run thru region play, though they will play some tough games against the likes of solid teams like Catalina Foothills and Amphitheater. However, when they head into the 4A state playoffs Deng and Nelson will need some similar, if not more, production from their role players. In their run to the state championship, in which they had Shadow Mountain down by double digits in the 4th quarter, they got some big shots out of their “guys on the side.” They will need that more than ever this season if they want to get back to the game they were in last year at the end.
The newcomer to this conference is the Deer Valley Skyhawks. They will step into 4A after advancing to the state championship game last year before falling short to Sunnyslope. Head Coach Jed Dunn did indeed lose a lot of their production from last season, losing three of their starters to graduation. However, they bring back and talented core that seem to enjoy playing together and have a good chemistry on the court. They went 2-0 a couple weekends ago after defeating Desert Vista and Buckeye in a fall ball showcase. Their 5-foot-10 senior point guard Johnny Diaz will have to play on a whole other level this season for the Skyhawks to compete is such a tough conference. His play on both ends will be a catalyst. Jaret and Jalen Allen will be who they are just about every game, providing scoring and athleticism from the wings. But it is 6-foot-7 senior power forward Brandon Savage that has such a huge impact over this teams success. They are going to be an interesting match-up for most teams because, as of right now, they possess possibly the best rim protector in the conference in Savage. His scoring is just a cherry on top, but what he brings on the defensive end is the thing that can not be replaced.
Moon Valley welcomes one of the most athletic players I have seen in a while with 6-foot-3 junior guard/wing Ty Harper. The Atlanta, Georgia product brings the toughness and bounce that has been a staple at Moon Valley for as long as I can remember. He is a great defender on the perimeter and doesn't ever seem to be afraid of the moment. It is so easy to get caught up in his leaping ability that you overlook his ability to knock down shots and truly get buckets at times. His shot on the perimeter can be streaky at times, but he also has the ability to light up a scoring column. He will join one of my favorite guards to watch play in the state in 6-foot-1 junior point guard Trent Hudgens. Hudgens is a baller! A battle-ready guard who flourishes in almost every aspect of the game. He plays strong on both ends, distributes the ball well, makes the right pass and is a really good shooter from the outside. The fact that he is finding his athleticism is going to be a scary thing for opponents moving forward. This team will only go as far as this duo takes them. They will be small and they will struggle from the perimeter at times. However, the team will be able to get out and run and defend, as they try to get back to the final four after they surprised the state with their presence in the Arena last season. They will have to square up against national powerhouse, Shadow Mountain, twice this season.
I have Peoria down as a huge dark horse in 4A. The Panthers are loaded with backcourt talent, with a trio of 5-foot-9 sophomore Tre Bell, 5-foot-10 senior Kaleb Brown and 6-foot sharpshooting junior Isaac Monroe. They are an interesting match-up as well, as they can play in the open court as good as anyone. And this is a conference that will live in transition for long stretches. Their guards can score with the best of them and they have some decent size down low. However, it is their toughness as a team that stands out. They are a rough riding group of young hogs. 6-foot-7 senior forward John Price will have to be big for them down low. The good news for Head Coach Will Roberts is that is exactly what Price loves to do. He can be a force on the boards and does all the small things that allow them guards to get out in the open floor. It will be very interesting where this team ends up at. If they can limit in-game mistakes and turnovers, they should be in a good position.
4A Players to Watch: Jackson Ruai (Amphitheater), Carter Murphy (Arcadia), Max Majerle (Arcadia), Kingdom Artis (Mesquite), Shaun Wahlstrom (Estrella Foothills), Rai’Shun Wilson (Vista Grande)
The 5A conference has a little bit of a different landscape this season. For arguments sake, I will start with the defending champs, the Sunnyslope Vikings. Head Coach Ray Portela runs that system like a well-oiled machine. If you can show me a team in the state that turns the ball over less than them, you would shock me. Yes, they loss possibly more production to graduation from last season, but they really have a loaded boat of young talent. Those youngsters will be led by 5-foot-11 senior point guard Zach Paloma, who spent the summer playing on the Under Armour circuit and played well. He will be a catalyst on the defensive end on a team that will flourish on that side of the ball. 6-foot-4 super athletic junior guard Chance Garland, 6-foot-4 senior guard Ivan Palomar and 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Grady Lewis will be interesting to see. I am predicting the talented forward will have a breakout season in 5A for them.
The favorite to win it all in 5A is a new addition, as the Millennium Tigers step down from 6A and are ready to have a big season with one of the most highly regarded prospects on the west coast in 6-foot-8 sophomore wing/forward DaRon Holmes. He will be the focal point for a very young but talented squad fielded by Head Coach Ty Amundsen. Holmes has the ability to be a huge factor on the outcome of this conference. His partner in crime, 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard Justus Jackson, is coming off of a breakout freshman season and will attempt to increase his impressive first high school season. He will knock down shots and make some plays for the Tigers, but he will need to take his game to the next level if they want to follow through on the expectations that are being put on such a young squad. The talented young bulls have some additional help though. 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Coleman Fields is a huge X-Factor and unsung hero for them at times. 6-foot-9 senior big man transfer Cameron Katal will be a huge difference maker for them after he sits out his 9 games per AIA transfer rules. Another transfer that will make a difference for them is Chicago-native, 6-foot-2 combo guard Shemar Grant. He brings toughness to this team that most Chicago kids bring and plays downhill and strong. He will give them a “veteran” presence that such a young group will crave. They also have some guys that can absolutely light it up from the outside to keep defenses from honing in on their “stars.”
Apollo lost very little from a team that saw some success last season. The Hawks are led by their star 6-foot-7 senior wing Emmanuel Taban. He will have to be “the guy” for Head Coach Joc Marin. If they can figure out a way to get him the ball in isolation where he can utilize his assortment of offensive moves and that deadly outside shot that he has become so known for. The player on this team that will be able to make that happen is one of the better sophomore’s we have in Arizona in 6-foot-4 sophomore shooting guard Paris Woods. He has the pure scoring ability that can take some pressure off of Taban’s shoulders. The point guard spot will be the biggest question mark for this squad as they will rely on some young guys to take on that responsibility and get the ball in the hands of their top scorers. They have some really solid and tough pieces around them. If they can hold up on the glass against the top part of this conference that possesses much more size, they will be heavily in the conversation towards the end of the season.
Gilbert High joins Millennium in moving down to 5A from last season. They will do so with a very talented duo in 6-foot-2 junior guard Brycen Long and 6-foot-8 junior forward Griffin Lamb. Long owns one of the best straps in the state of Arizona from the outside. The kid shoots it at a ridiculous clip. If the Tigers can get him open on a consistent basis, they will be in great shape. The more open looks for Long, the better off Gilbert will be. The issue for Lamb will solely be based on his health and how much he can stay on the floor. All the tools are there for the talented power forward. However, he has battled some nagging injuries in his young career, as the Tigers hope to keep him healthy for his junior season. They will play both Sunnylope and Millennium early on in the season, which will be a good gauge for them and how there season will play out.
5A Players To Watch: Jason Harris (Higley), JT Elder (Cienega), TJ Green (Carl Hayden), CJ Nnorom (Cactus Shadows), Josh Baker (McClintock), Dominic Gonzales (Ironwood), Emad Elniel (Independence)
6A is where the big dogs come out to play, though I personally believe it is a little more top heavy than years past. The defending champs, the Pinnacle Pioneers. Of course we all know they are led by one of the better point guards in America, Arizona-commit Nico Mannion. Mannion makes this team really go. What he does for these big-time shooters is irreplaceable. You almost forget that when you get caught up in everything else he does on the floor. He is a special player. Two of those shooters are 6-foot-2 senior guard Trent Brown and 6-foot-6 wing/forward Jordan Mains. Both have the ability to send a team packing at halftime if one or both get hot. Brown allows Mannion to run off the ball at times when he gets into scoring mode and Mains is such an underrated rebounder and athlete. They will miss the play and production of Spencer Rattler this season, who gave up the hardwood for the gridiron for good. He was huge for them at times last season. But they can bank on their 6-foot-10 junior center Tosh Baker coming back this season bigger and better. The big man could be the biggest difference this upcoming season and give them a chance to repeat.
Pinnacle’s toughest competition will probably be the team that they beat in the state championship, the Mountain Pointe Pride. While the roster will not look too different, the sidelines will. Last years Head Coach that led this team to an improbable and very successful run has become the head coach of Phoenix College. However, his replacement is his head assistant, Kirk Fauske, who seems to have the attention and respect of a roster that knows exactly what they are capable of. As good as the Pride’s 6-foot-9 talented big man Jalen Graham was, he is arguably the state’s second best senior prospect today. The Santa Clara commit just looks dominant as of late and you will be hard pressed to find anyone in the AIA who will be able to stop him with his combination of size, skill and athleticism. Their other big man, 6-foot-7 junior forward DeAndre Henry has improved greatly from last season as well and few players in this state have a higher motor than the Division-I prospect. The question mark is how fast he gets back to form after a minor knee injury. However, you just know he will be back to true form by the playoffs, so the state might be in some trouble. How you guard both Graham and Henry together is going to be harder to solve than a Rubik’s Cube. As talented as that duo is, Coach Fauske’s most irreplaceable guy might be 5-foot-10 senior point guard Khalid Price. They don't come much tougher than ‘Lid’. Though he has the ability to knock it down from the outside, it’s his presence on the defensive end of the ball and his ability to pressure the ball for 94-feet and his leadership with this team on and off the court. This team really does take on the character of him. They also bring some really good X-Factors into the mix with guys like 6-foot-6 senior wing Jonah LaBranche, 6-foot-4 guard/wing Rashaan Toombs and 5-foot-10 guard Jason Kimbrough. Those pieces are just as important to this teams success as their go-to guys.
The other team I believe will be involved in this mix is the Perry Pumas, coached by local legend Sam Duane Jr. Coach Duane is armed with a ton of talent on the roster starting with one of the top shooters in Arizona, 6-foot-4 senior guard Jalen Williams. As much talent that is on this roster, this team goes as far as the crafty volume-scoring guard takes them. The better he plays, the better their chances are that the 6A State Championship match-up is not a repeat of last season. No doubt, this will be Williams’ best supporting cast yet in his high school career. That supporting cast includes one of the top freshman prospects on the West Coast in 6-foot-10 super talented Dylan Anderson. It is still unseen and untested as to just how fast Anderson will pick up the high school game. It might even be quite a while before we truly see what will come of him this season, as Perry will not play much of a loaded schedule until playoff time. But it’s hard to bet against a kid with the abilities of Anderson. 6-foot-5 two-sport senior stand-out Kyle Patterson will probably be the Puma’s most efficient player next to Williams. The kid is a man amongst boys at times and is just flat out effective. He impacts a game in almost every facet. The team has a pair of big men in 6-foot-9 senior Miles Houston and 6-foot-9 sophomore Carter Van Hammond that will make this team, by far, the longest team in the AIA. The damage this team will do on the boards on most nights is just unfair. Mark down 6-foot-6 junior wing Evan Skeoch as a huge X-Factor for them with his ability to knock it down from the outside and get some sneaky buckets cutting to the rim from the off-ball side.
While I believe that these three teams are on a whole separate latter in this conference, there are some squads in Arizona that will not be a tough out. Cesar Chavez and Desert Vista could put together a string and shock a few people. Teams like Skyline, Valley Vista and Liberty will not be hard to put away on any given night. Mesa, Brophy and Chaparral all have guys on their roster that could get red hot from the outside and scare some heavy hitters. Shadow Ridge could be a dark horse come late in the season
6A Players to Watch: TyTy Washington (Chavez), Ricardo Sarmiento (Chavez), Osasere Ighodaro (Desert Vista), Anthony Garza (Shadow Ridge), D’Maurian Williams (Westview), Josh Ursery (Liberty), Dayton Harris (Skyline), Josh Holloway (Valley Vista), Zach Hobbs (Mesa), Alem Husenevich (Chaparral), Nahshon Harper (La Jolla),