Powerhouse 16U Elite is on a Wave!

It was the start of the AAU season in the spring.  Try-outs were being completed and rosters were being set.  I was invited to the first practice of the Powerhouse Hoops 16U Elite team.  I walked into Rancho Solano Prep to lay my eyes on the team that would end up capturing my attention enough to take time writing this article after just getting back from L.A., only to leave back out for Las Vegas in 48 hours.  

However, my appreciation for this team was not a love-at-first-sight affair.  It was a maturation process.  Something equivalent to the couch that your girlfriend picks out that you can't stand, but once you lounge in it in the living room enough, you would not trade it for any other sofa in the world.  

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When this team was assembled it had all the pieces.  To start, it had the thing that most teams from Arizona lack, size in the interior.  That came with 6-9 2020 Rancho Solano Prep PF Hunter Ruck and 6-foot-8 2020 Paradise Honors PF Roy Eze.  They had a pair of freak athletes in 6-foot-4 2020 Rancho Solano Prep guard Kiimani Holt and 6-foot-5 2020 Paradise Honors wing Jerry Iliya. They also held two snipers from the outside in 6-foot-1 2020 Buckeye Union guard Tay Boothman and 6-foot-2 2020 Gilbert High guard Brycen Long.  6-foot-8 2020 Shadow Ridge forward Anthony Garza packed enough energy to make you feel like your watching his games jacked up on a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew. 

They kicked off their spring in the biggest local event in Arizona, the Southwest Showcase Main Event and though they came out of there with an impressive overall record, something just was not clicking.  The team was still a little on the reckless side and learning how to play together.  Long and Ruck, in particular, did not seem comfortable yet.  Holt and Iliya had a habit of having their heads down with the ball in their hands.  Boothman was still trying to figure out how to run the point with the tune it takes to be a real floor general.  He had just come off of a season at Buckeye where he, along with Otis Frazier III, were asked to take on a big part of the scoring load for one of the better teams in the state.  

They walked into a four game showcase event hosted by Gerry Freitas in the L.A.-area and went up against two of the better 16U shoe-circuit teams on the west coast in Team Harden from the Adidas Gold Gauntlet and the Las Vegas Prospects 16U from the Nike EYBL, a Nike-sponsored team that is widely considered as one of the top 16U teams in America.  They finished 2-2 in that event and suffered single-digit losses to both talented squads. 

Spring progressed, as did the team.  Powerhouse Hoops owner and director John Ortega took over the Head Coaching duties, and a few players were exchanged.  They were necessary needs and changes to a roster that was lacking a few intricate things.  One of the constants for this team has been the presence of assistant coach Michael Repko.  The coach that has a passion for this team that is unmatched and handles so much of the behind-the-scenes work that helps make a successful AAU team go. 

The team struggled with turnovers.  It was a glaring weakness.  At any given time, they might have given up the ball like it was giving their hands 3rd-degree burns.  



In came a 5-foot-10 2020 point guard named Robby Kinnard Jr. that was moving to Phoenix from Kentucky.  He was an instant difference maker and a great fit for this team since he probably turns the ball over about as much as I do on the sidelines when I am covering them.  He brought a steady calmness to a team that lived in organized chaos, for better or worst.  

They would also bring over 6-foot-8 2020 Gilbert High power forward Griffin Lamb, who was already playing on another Powerhouse 16U team.  He, too, fit like a glove.  Today, some would consider him one of the most skilled big men on a team filled with Division-I caliber big's.  



Holt started looking like as close to a walking bucket as anyone and cementing himself as one of the more unstoppable offensive forces on the west coast from the guard position.  Adding to his ability for putting the ball in the cup, he started making the right pass and picking his spots.  



Both Ruck and Long started to look comfortable against out-of-state competition.  Ruck found that toughness that his grown-man frame implies that he has.  His skillset at his size became something to shake your head in amazement, at times.  His footwork and feel around the basket took a leap almost over night and he had a new-found hobby of dunking on everybody in the lane.  Long, simply put, became a certified sniper and staked his claim as one of the top shooters in the Arizona 2020 class.  



Eze and Iliya have had the longest strides to take on this team while continuing to learn the American game and run an offensive set.  Nevertheless, their raw athleticism and pure hustle and effort can and have never been questioned.  Neither is their willingness to be coached and the passion they have for the game of basketball.  



Garza has been the glue of this team throughout.  The one steadying presence that was good in the days they struggled and stayed steady as the team has transformed into somewhat of a well-oiled machine.  His effort and determination on both ends of the floor have been a welcoming asset.  His presence on defense and on the glass are unmatched.  He guards just about any position on the floor.  He plays the game like his next meal depends on it.  That energy has become contagious.  



The player that had the biggest transformation to make is Boothman.  Imagine how hard it is to transform your game when you are really good at what you do.  He was an absolute driller with range that stretched to parking lots in his sophomore year at Buckeye.   However, when your playing on a team with Division-I talent up-and-down the roster, those shots have to be tapered somewhat.  Make no mistake, one look at one of his hot streaks will tell you he still likes shooting it from the Principal's reserved parking spot.  However, his game is transforming into being a floor general.  Knowing when to feed the hot hand and gain control of an offense.  On the other side of the ball, he has been a catalyst for a defense that is about as stingy as my grandpa, who took all the grandchildren to McDonald's on payday, only to tell all of us to keep our eyes on the dollar menu.  

This team returned home from Oakland after going 3-1 in that event while playing up into the 17U division and took part in the Prep Hoops Bash In The Desert tournament locally while once again playing up an age group.  They ran through the competition in their first three games before running into a very good Blue Chip Nation 17U team with Division-I prospect Jalen Williams.  It was that loss that made something very evident to Coach John Ortega.  They could score with anybody, but can they get consistent stops on the defensive end when the other team had just as much firepower?

His answer was then Mountain Pointe assistant coach Kirk Fauske , who was coaching one of the secondary Powerhouse teams already.  The defensive minded coach took over the defensive side of the ball as you watched them go from good to great under his tutelage.  Since Fauske has joined the bench for this team back in May, this team has lost just two games.  Both were to two of the most talented and successful 16U teams on the Under Armour circuit and both were single digit losses.  One was to the West Coast Elite 16U UAA squad and the other to the top-ranked 16U UAA team, the G3 Grind.  

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Back in May they played in the 17U division in a loaded playing field filled with the state's top AAU teams in the Southwest Showcase Summer Championships and went undefeated on their way to a championship trophy.  It was a confidence builder for a team that was getting better and better everyday.  

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They traveled to Las Vegas the next weekend for the West Coast Elite Memorial Day Classic with all the swagger they needed for the schedule they were about to face.  They would lose that lone game to West Coast Elite 16U UAA after giving up an 18-point first half lead.  But the message they seemed to take out of that weekend was far different from the losses they suffered in April.  The narrative they wrote on their way back to Arizona was something along the lines of "we can play with anybody!" 

A long June of school summer ball hit and the team went their separate ways and competed locally with their school teams.  Some were a little busier than others but in talking to every one of the kids on this team throughout that month, they were ready for club ball to start back up.  They all knew they were starting to become apart of something special.  They were also chomping at the bit to play like they were playing in the month of May in front of college coaches and to all start earning offers. 



The news would come as the calendar page turned, that the team would be making one more addition to the team to fill out the roster.  One of the top 2020 guards on the West Coast, 6-foot-3 Salpointe Catholic's Evan Nelson would be joining a team that was already clicking on all cylinders. Most that had knowledge of the move, naturally, was skeptical about the addition, given the fact that they were already so guard-heavy and solidified at the position.  However, the team took it in stride and gave it a chance.  

They would kick-off July locally in the West Coast Elite/Powerhouse Hoops Summer Tip-Off and go 4-0 while playing 17U competition and were primed and ready for their trip to the Under Armour Challenge in Atlanta.  More importantly than the undefeated record was the fact that Nelson slid right into the roster and rotation like he was meant to be there the whole time.  He added yet another guard that was a problem for any team to handle.  

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They would go 3-1 after a 6-point loss to the G3 Grind.  However, they would also pick up their most impressive win of the year with a 20-point victory over a Team Rio 16U team that is armed with two high major D1 prospects. It was a statement event for a team that was dying to prove they could take care of business against teams that are currently on the shoe circuit.  

After that first live period event, the offers started to roll in for them.  While Evan Nelson came into the fold with eight Division-I offers already, Kiimani Holt would earn the first one of the summer after a call from Portland State Assistant Coach and Arizona native, Jase Coburn, informed the talented guard that he was receiving his first Division-I scholarship offer.  

The next one to receive one would be Tay Boothman, who was offered by Denver Head Coach Rodney Billups. Northern Arizona would offer both Holt and Ruck the next day.  

After going 4-0 this past week at the West Coast Elite Summer Classic in Pomona, California they have become a topic of discussion amongst Division I coaches all across the country and from all levels.  Not only are they a group of talented young men, but they are a fun team to watch play.  In a day where AAU basketball has gotten very me-first oriented, this team checks in a little different.  When Brycen Long goes on a streak where he gets as hot as a Phoenix summer sidewalk, Boothman is usually the one going crazy for him.  When Holt gets one of them fast break dunks that make people on the other side of the gym look over, the bench is out of their seat to praise their guy.  When Garza is being subbed out of the game, it is not out of the question for him to start grabbing water cups for the rest of the guys on the bench with him.  When one hits the deck, the team rushes over to help him up.  There is unity and a pride of playing together that is refreshing to see on the AAU tournament trail.

When asking Coach John Ortega about this team he finds the parallels of being good to the culture that the team has set. "I think the most special thing about this team is actually the differences.  The difference in racial ethnicities, the side of town each of them grew up on, the contrasting styles of play and what they all bring to the table to benefit the team and the program.  Holt brings that big time athleticism, Garza and Iliya bring their motors, Ruck and Lamb bring a great skillset from the post position.  Boothman is our pit bull.  Long is the shooter that takes us to the next level.  Kinnard has his calming presence and Eze serves as our enforcer down there. Nelson has come in and brought the ability to do so many things with the ball in his hands. Those difference in styles and characters and the fact they have all bought in to what we are trying to do as a collective group is what has made this team so special."

As we head into the last live period event of the summer in Las Vegas, where they will be participating in the Big Foot Summer Classic, there is still a lot left unknown.  As a collective group this spring and summer they have tasted success together.  They are 41-7 overall, after starting off 5-3.  When you wrap your head around the fact that they have won 36 of their last 40 games and factor in that their four losses have come to two very solid 17U teams and two of the top 16U teams on the Under Armour circuit, it is not hard to see why they are such a confident group.  No one knows what level each player on this team will end up.  Each player on this roster still has another year of AAU basketball left.  Next year, this squad will be an official member of the Under Armour Association.    

If you have any wonder as to why I am so enamored with this collective group, know I am not the only one.  A coach from Houston Baptist University has been at every single one of this teams games during the live period.  As I was putting this article together, I received word that they were offering scholarships to four players on this team: Hunter Ruck, Brycen Long, Roy Eze and Jerry Iliya. 

There is little doubt more offers will be coming after Las Vegas for the players on this team.  They will have a very tough schedule in this teams last event together for the year.  However, that is just how they like it...!




Justin VargasComment