AZ Basketball is ON!

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I am so happy to see where Arizona basketball is right now. The past week, the state of Arizona hoops has been on as high of a platform as we have seen it in a very long time. Rather you are talking about some of the state’s elite talent or top teams, these boys and the coaches are definitely putting on for the city!

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Last Friday night was one of the most entertaining basketball environments I have been apart of in quite some time as Shadow Mountain, led by ASU-signee Jaelen House and GCU-signee Jovan Blacksher Jr. headed over to Pinnacle High to take on Arizona-signee Nico Mannion. The news had dropped a few days prior that Pinnacle’s 6-foot-6 Division-I prospect Jordan Mains would be out for the game and most had it going in Shadow Mountain’s favor anyway, after a convincing victory last year against a team that not only had Mains, but Oklahoma football-signee Spencer Rattler (who might have been Pinnacle’s best player that game) and a in-shape Tosh Baker, who this year was only a few appearances in from football season.

However, what Pinnacle didn’t have last season was 6-foot-2 senior guard Trent Brown (who was out with an injury) and this version of Niccolo Mannion, who has looked like a different animal from what I saw of him last season. Mannion absolutely took over in the 2nd half of that game against Shadow before hitting one of the more improbably and incredible buzzer-beating shots to beat the Matadors for the first time in Arizona since my memory will ever allow me to remember.

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That loss also made me reflect on what Shadow Mountain has done for the city and the state of Arizona basketball. The national stage they have put themselves on and bringing that attention back home. House had one of his poorest shooting performances, Blacksher fouled out for possibly the first time since I have been watching him play and some balls had to bounce Pinnacle’s way. As impressive of a win as it was by Mannion and the Pioneers, it does nothing to diminish what this Mike Bibby-led team has accomplished and will continue to accomplish. Shadow will continue to play on a national stage and here shortly they will be able to use the services of their 6-foot-9 senior transfer Malik Lamin. As hard as this team plays and as skilled and as athletic as they are, that size in the middle is the one thing they have never had. The missing ingredient to a masterful dish. Where this team ends up is going to be exciting.

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Fast forward to last night, in front of yet another packed house. Mountain Pointe hosted that same Pinnacle team. The NIco Mannion-effect was in full force with good ol’ fashioned taunting and trash talking and you had this overwhelming feeling that the Red Mamba was going to strike again. However, Head Coach Kirk Fauske had other plans in mind as the Pride dominated Pinnacle in every facet of the game. While most were surprised they took a narrow lead into halftime, they absolutely crushed them in the second half on their way to a rout of what most believe is a preview of the 6A state finals.

The Mountain Pointe Pride could very well be the most complete team in the state of Arizona. After last night, does anyone dare to argue? It is a system that was set by a Duane Eason foundation last season that brought out the best of some of the guys that are such an important part of this years team. Current Head Coach Kirk Fauske has done a great job maintaining that system and toughness and bringing together all this talent for the purpose of finishing off this season, where they fell one game short of last season.

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Much like Pinnacle has a 3.0 version of Mannion, this team has a different version of their 6-foot-9 super athletic big man, Jalen Graham. Graham is unquestionably a top-5 player in the state. He understands the game better and he is looking to catch an attempted murder charge on anyone who decides to step out and guard him. I will be the one to say it, I believe this kid is going to be collecting checks from the NBA one day.

While Graham is the anchor for this team, his front court mate, 6-foot-7 junior DeAndre Henry, is the muscle. The guy that takes the physicality right at you. His effort and motor are unmatched. He is starting to develop that perimeter shot that does not allow for guys to sag off of him consistently. He is getting more shifty with the ball in his hands and avoiding charges that plagued him in years past on the offensive side. He finished with 2 dunks in traffic last night that make you see he is becoming more of a true basketball player than just a physical beast.

Their 5-foot-10 senior guard Khalid Price is the heart and soul of the team. While slight in stature, he is the one who exemplifies that way this team plays. The one that steers this high-octane vehicle. When his shot is falling from the outside, this team may be close to unstoppable. His defensive pressure on the ball sets a tone and what this team is able to do in the open floor is usually accredited to what Price is doing with the rock in his hands.

While those are the ‘Big 3’ of this team, their X-Factor guys are what put them over the top. I was very much impressed with their 5-foot-10 sophomore guard Jason Kimbrough last night. That kid has some real game in him. His floaters off of penetration are almost textbook and he is not afraid of taking shots when the team needs a basket. He showed you a little bit of everything last night and has to be mentioned in the list with some of the top 2021 guards.

Also impressing me last night was the play of 6-foot-2 senior combo guard J’Saan Strover. I have not always been a fan of his game, though I have always respected his ability to play downhill and score the ball. But his game seems to be evolving with this team. While he gave you some big time buckets last night and abused just about anybody who stepped in front of him, he was giving you those buckets in facets I haven't seen much in the past. He was creating second-chance opportunities on the glass and not forcing the action, but letting the game come to him. Add in the contributions that guys like 6-foot-6 senior wing Jonah LaBranche and 6-foot-4 Rashaan Toombs bring to this team to really round them out. Their ability to help make plays and their versatility on both ends give this squad what most talented teams lack. They are difference-makers for sure.

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On Thursday night, Hoop Hall West arrives to Chaparral High School. In that event, two of the top prep schools on the West Coast will take the court. They are both based in the valley as Bella Vista, led by the likes of Arizona-signee Terry Armstrong, 5-star prospect Addison Patterson and 4-star prospect Dayten Holman, will take on the ultra-talented and national powerhouse Spire Institute, led by Lamelo Ball on Friday night. That game will unquestionably pack the house and create one of them crazy basketball environments that we have been privileged to see a couple times in the past few weeks.

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On Saturday night, 5-star guard Kyree Walker and 4-star prospect and Phoenix-bred Dalen Terry will lead a loaded Hillcrest team into a game with Denton Guyer (TX). That game should be another one to remember and another game that puts Arizona on a platform, no matter where your allegiance lies.

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I understand the politics of the Arizona basketball landscape. It’s a very different kind of garden to say the least. I have been involved with it long enough to admit that. But how can we not be proud when you see where we are at right now? When you see teams like Buckeye Union led by Otis Frazier and Tay Boothman, or Salpointe Catholic led by Majok Deng and Evan Nelson, or what Deer Valley is doing to teams in the 4A conference. Buckeye can flat out play with anybody in the state and bring a very entertaining brand of basketball to the floor every night. Deng and Nelson are both certified Division-I players and Deer Valley brings it night in and night out!

In 5A, Millennium is really shaping into a team to be reckoned with, led by nationally-ranked 6-foot-8 sophomore forward DaRon Holmes and 5-foot-11 sophomore guard Justus Jackson. Senior wing Emmanuel Taban and sophomore guard Paris Woods have the Hawks from Apollo flying high and the 2-time defending state champions, the Sunnyslope Vikings, have shown that they haven't went nowhere. Add Gilbert High to that mix, who have been annihilating teams in 5A this season, led by Brycen Long and Griffin Lamb.

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6A is as top heavy as they come, but Perry High has the talent to compete with anybody, led by Santa Clara-signee and sharpshooting and ultra-skilled guard Jalen Williams and nationally-coveted 6-foot-10 freshman big man Dylan Anderson. With their 6-foot-6 do-everything forward Kyle Patterson returning to the hardwood from the gridiron, this team is going to be as good as they come.

While the division is very top heavy as far as the team goes, they really do have an extreme amount of talent. Cesar Chavez brings one of the most talented young backcourts in the state with sophomore-duo TyTy Washington and Ricardo Sarmiento wreaking havoc. Liberty High’s 6-foot-1 crazy-bouncy combo guard Josh Ursery has looked un-guardable thus far this season. And Westview’s 6-foot-4 senior bull-of-a-guard D’Maurian Williams has been very impressive in leading that team to some good wins early in the season.

From the small school side, we’ve really got some very talented, skilled and entertaining teams. Paradise Honors looks like they are on their own path to a 3A state championship led by a group that looks like they can hang with just about anybody you put in front of them. Rancho Solano Prep is as young and impressive as they come with a roster filled with 2021 and 2022 talent to go with 6-foot-4 junior guard Kiimani Holt. Teams like Valley Christian, led by Connor Braun and Logan Phillips and Gilbert Christian, led by Trey Donaldson, can all play at an extremely high level.

Let’s get it AZ!!! #BeRelentless

Justin VargasComment