Saturday, December 3, 2016

Uno En Uno With: Nico Johnson

Destroying complacency and providing an immeasurable jolt of energy, Nico Johnson brings defensive tenacity and superior finishing ability.

The 6-foot guard, who recently transferred from Danville (Ill.) to The Conrad Academy (FL), possesses a level of uber athleticism only a select core can simulate. It translates into high efficiency scoring while simultaneously rendering him a key source on transition buckets.

Johnson, who often attacks in the form of a lefty, is transitioning to more of a creator's role this season.

He's turned up his focus in this area, while making his mid-range and pull-up game major options in his toolbox.

Now Johnson will routinely get his big stage teeth cut on a national level.

 And, on TCA team heavily stacked with guards, he's flanked by a pair of high-end recruits in Luguentz Dort and David Sloan.

For Johnson, sustaining the he high adrenaline is integral.

 Especially in a program that employs the speedball approach early and often and effectively.

When gauging Johnson's bouncy athleticism, his skill-set is traceable to his bloodline.

 Johnson's father, Earl Johnson, authored a memorable career at Rutgers and later Iona.

Johnson's mother, LaTana Lillard, starred as a defensive-minded forward under legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers.

Johnson on His Role

My role this year is to be a contributor and a leader, to take care of the ball, to defend, to score here and there and to control the tempo. I think we have the potential to finish the rest of the season undefeated. That's what we plan on doing. We've got a lot of pieces and we'll continue to work until it all comes together at the right time for us.

On His Identity

I take the most pride in my athleticism and that particular aspect of my game. My ability to defend, score, and contribute in a number of ways is just as important.

On His Bloodline

Knowing both my parents had success in basketball, it's a little bit of pressure but there's a lot of support. I inherited a little bit of skill from both of them so I'm thankful for it. I just try to use it to my advantage and go out there and make my own name.

On NCAA Interest

Right now I hold offers from SIU-Edwardsville and Richmond. I'm getting interest from Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Providence, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, and a lot of other schools.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Oldsmar Trounces Hudson In Defensive Outburst

Defense, defense, defense...

For a long time now, Oldsmar Christian has been synonymous with confrontational, wall-to-wall defensive pressure. As soon as first-year head coach and alum John Bianchi inherited an athletic and physically gifted core, he didn't expect the image to change much.

Should the team commit any defensive lapses, Bianchi will be sure to let them know about it.

Sustained defensive relentlessness smothered Hudson en route to an 83-43 walloping on Monday night. Consistent stops enabled the home team to crack open a six-point lead. Oldsmar instigated a storm of turnovers, fueling a monstrous transition game.

"Defense is a big part of winning games, when coach (Bianchi) does tell us we need to tighten up and work on our defense we take that to heart," said 6-foot-4 junior guard Elijah Weaver, who scored 16 points and doled out seven assists.

"It's a big part of winning the game. Defense wins championships. When we turn it up on defense, that starts getting us easy buckets on the offensive end. That's really what blew open the game."

So did Oldsmar's balance across the stat sheet. D.J. Mitchell had 19 points and five assists, displaying a variety of offensive tools and high-rising athleticism. Akeil Shakoor added 15 points and four assists.

Weaver is currently sitting on a variety of offers from some of the nation's traditional powers. Villanova, UConn, Notre Dame, Louisville, Wake Forest, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Iowa State, Louisiana-Lafayette, LSU, and Georgia Tech have all been in steady pursuit of the 6-foot-5, 190-pound point guard.

Even in a blowout of this fashion, however, the importance of Oldsmar's supplementary pieces was evident.

"We have the athleticism and the type of players who can do multiple things defensively," Bianchi said. "That's going to take us to the next level. We had contributions all over today. (SFA-commit) Stefon Fisher, when he plays like he did today, he's pretty good. Different guys brought a lot of energy. Jahkeem Smith, an under the radar senior, he's our best defender and he showed that as he was locked in. Our X-factor I would say is D.J. Mitchell, as he's a flat out scorer. Alex OGuinn was impressive as well."

Make no mistake about it, the game was not a reflection of Oldsmar's strength of schedule. Hudson was an inferior opponent, both in skill-set and athleticism. After hanging tough in a competitive first quarter, they struggled with Oldsmar's speed and attacking.

Tougher days are ahead, as Oldsmar will play the likes of Huntington Prep (WV) and IMG.

Weaver grew in stature on the national scale this off-season. Villanova head coach Jay Wright and UConn head coach Kevin Ollie each stopped by Oldsmar to speak one on one with the four-star recruit, who will fill the scoring void left by since-transferred L.J. Figueroa (now at in-conference foe West Oaks) this season.

While he's very high on Villanova, Weaver said he has no favorite or current front-runner. He plans on visiting UConn and Louisiana-Lafayette in the ensuing months. Shakoor, who Bianchi feels will garner more interest this season, has an offer from Cleveland State. He has additional interest from Florida International University, Kent State, and a bevy of other mid-major programs.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Figueroa To Prolong Career At New Mexico State

Whether he was pulling up from well beyond the confines of the arc, knifing into the teeth of the defense and finishing with contact, or luring in defenders with his handle and kicking it inside to an astonishingly open big man, West Oaks' L.J. Figueroa was the overwhelming factor in his team's thorough throttling of DME.

This was during the Veteran's Day Shootout, the SIAA opening event.

When Figueroa wasn't permeating the driving lanes, creating, and finishing at the rim with ease, he proved his worth as a pesky defender. Even with West Oaks nursing a sizable 26-point lead, the transfer via Oldsmar kept the amplified pressure on.

A few days later, Figueroa committed to New Mexico State. As a four-star recruit and top 100 recruit, Figueroa had emerged into one of the nation's most hotly pursued recruits. It is a major pickup capable of bolstering the basketball culture at NMSU. NMSU beat out Florida, Miami, Boston College, Texas Tech, and a barrage of others in pursuit of the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Figueroa.

Synonymous with a natural nose for the rim, Figueroa has shown an increase in his stroke from mid-range and opened up an NBA 3-pointer. This, coupled with his ability to defend multiple positions, rendered him one of the state's premier talents.

This isn't the first time New Mexico State has nabbed a high-profile recruit out of the SIAA. Several years ago they found Washington, D.C. native Ian Baker from Arlington Country Day School (Jacksonville, FL).

Baker, a 2017 NBA draft prospect, averaged 13.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.7 assists en route to an All-Western Conference Team selection in 2016. Through five games in 2016-17, Baker is averaging 13.0 points and three boards. Initially a Providence commit, Baker had interest from Seton Hall to West Virginia before deciding on the Aggies.

After visiting the campus several weeks ago, Figueroa passed up on more-heralded programs and gave a verbal pledge to the Aggies.

"LJ is exceptionally talented prospect with the ability to play multiple positions on the court," head coach Paul Weir said in a recent statement.

"His ability to fit into our style of play will be seamless given his dynamic offensive skill set and his willingness to run the court and defend."

Monday, November 14, 2016

Uno En Uno With: Karn Goraya, Conrad Hoops

ZS: As a bigger guard on a team laced with guards, what role does coach (Ryan) Rodriguez envision for you and which responsibilities does he entrust in you on a night in, night out basis?

KG: Coach Ryan and I have a great relationship. He puts a lot of responsibility in me and pushes me to play up to my abilities at all times. He really emphasizes that I guard the 1-3 positions and that make my presence known on both ends of the floor. Defense is an aspect of the game he's very high on and he wants our identity to be as a team that makes it ugly for opponents. The other day, against Fort Lauderdale Prep, I had the task of guarding a 6-foot-8 guy. And I'm only 6-feet-2. So, I understand I'm going to play out of position because we have a lot of little guys that can shoot. 

ZS: How would you describe the transition Reno High to TCA? What are some of the main aspects you've had to adjust to and how have you acclimated to the prep competition? 

KG: Here at Conrad, I'm more of a scorer. I look for my shot more as opposed to being a dish-first guard like I was in Reno. My shooting has increased tremendously, most notably because I shoot 500-600 jumpers a day and have more time to work on my game given the prep schedule. I've been in the weight room a lot more and I feel the effects of it in rebounding and everything, basically. 

The prep competition is a bit different because there are guys who are 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11, and have already signed Division-I scholarships. I try to go harder and match their effort, it gives me more motivation when I play against a guy who has an offer and I don't. I want to prove myself every time I'm on the floor. 

ZS: What aspects led you to take the prep route and what do you hope to accomplish in this one season?  

KG: I wanted to expand my game to the point where basketball and a full scholarship was more of a reality to me. I averaged 12 points, four assists, and four rebounds at Reno. I had the opportunity to play alongside my man David Kyle, who is now playing Division-I ball at UNR. I played primarily as a point but wanted to become more comfortable playing the two-guard position and continuing to develop my shot. I figured it would help me get to the next level, as I decided I wanted to be more serous about basketball. 

ZS: What's been key to the team chemistry and how do you make up for a lack of size on a guard-laden team? 

KG: We all connect and have fun off the court, which translates to our play on the court. Everyone respects everyone's game and we have a great overall team identity. We atone for our lack of size by being a strong 3-point shooting team and also thriving in a fast style of play. Guys are starting are show out at the right time. T.J. Gittens had about 20 points the other day is starting to show that he's hungry for a scholarship. Also, Shawn Doctrine has been efficient on the glass and is really playing with a sense of pride of urgency. 

ZS: What's the basketball presence like in Reno and how serious is the sport? 

KG: In Reno, basketball is one of the main sports. There's a big culture for basketball as high school basketball is really big. Gyms are packed at every game. I miss that. Ramon Sessions came out of UNR, Javale McGee went to UNR as well. So, those guys being there put the school on the map. 

ZS: Where do you see yourself next year and which type of situation would suit you the best? 

KG: Whether it's low Division-1 or high Division-II, I will just be grateful too keep playing. I see myself as a one or a two at the next level, a stocky guard who can make plays on both sides of the floor. I think the conditioning aspect here as prepared me so that when I do get to college, it won't be a quantum leap or anything like that. I just love to play ball, that's what I do.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

TCA Holds On In Thriller

Heavy anticipation, hype, and hearsay regarding the vaunted matchup between The Conrad Academy's LuGuentz Dort and Oldsmar Christian's Elijah Weaver enveloped Saturday's featured matchup. Both players are top Class of 2018 guards.

Each is an unbridled catalyst and go-to option for their respective teams, capable of wearing multiple jerseys and leading by action during pressure-spiked moments.

Dort has offers from Louisville to Florida to Baylor. Weaver is sifting through offers, front-lined by Louisville and reigning NCAA champions Villanova. Jay Wright recently stopped at Oldsmar to take in a practice.

Yet in the most star-spangled game of season-opening SIAA Veteran's Day shootout, both Dort and Weaver ceded the spotlight to role players.

Key amongst those role players was TCA junior Malcolm Farrington, who drained 5-of-7 from beyond the arc en route to the first-year program's dizzying 70-62 victory at The Rock School Saturday night.

Conrad (1-0) nearly frittered away a 16-point lead in the second half, when Oldsmar pieced together an energized rally. Alex O'Guinn got free for a layin that sliced the lead to 47-37 with 9:59 remaining in the second half.

 Moments later, Akiel Shakoor drove into the teeth of Conrad's defense and finished a traditional 3-point play, whittling the lead to 47-40.

With the pressure mounting, TCA coach Shaun Wiseman called a timeout and ran a set play.

Farrington emerged from the corner, came off a screen and drilled a deep corner trey. In that quick-hit fashion, Conrad gained a 50-40 lead. The shot wasn't a stake through Oldsmar's collective heart, albeit it was as loud as much as it was necessary.

"Coach always instills confidence in me and always tells me to be ready at all times so it just sticks in my head," said Farrington, a West Palm Beach native who played an integral role for the Virgin Islands national team this summer.

"An open shot is a good shot for any shooter. I was feeling it so I had no hesitation at all. As soon as the ball touched my hands I just looked at the rim. I had enough space so I just pulled it."

Conrad sustained its poise as David Sloan bagged a pull-up jumper and then a corner 3-pointer for a 55-40 lead. As they did all evening, Oldsmar sliced into the deficit with an 8-0 run. A Weaver 3-pointer, followed by a D.J. Mitchell stickback culminated the run.

The teams continued to trade jabs. Mitchell attacked the rim for another 3-point play. Conrad answered as Mel Esso buried a long 3-pointer.

"We were down 17 at one point and the kids were able to cut it to five, it shows a lot of heart from the group that they never gave up," Oldsmar head coach John Bianchi said.

"Our group battled and fought hard. A lot of respect to Conrad as they're a very special group as well. We're certainly looking forward to playing them again."

Bianchi is pleased with the position to position depth he has, though a finer tuned defense seems to be a major point of emphasis.

"We need to tighten up defensively. It's only November, so we knew we were going to struggle a bit. That's where film comes into play. Oldsmar is usually known for defense. We don't want to be the group to get away from that reputation."

Dort led all scorers with 21 points, including a pulsating double fisted dunk off a 20 foot lob pass from Sloan with four minutes remaining.

Farrington and Auburn-commit Austin Wiley added 15 and 10, respectively. Dort, who shot 13-for-23 from downtown in vegas this summer, showcased the improved stroke and range.

Yet in a game underscored by star power, it was the most unheralded recruit who authored the biggest performance.

"(Farrington) has been taking pro level shots from well beyond the college and NBA 3-point line and many difficult looks," said Brad Traina, TCA's director of player development.

"Pin down screen shots from 25 to 30 feet away, step backs from the same distance, as well as a mixture of NBA fade away shots and mid range jumpers. As he continues to grow in height, skill level, and vertical explosiveness, he will go from a mid-major Division-I level player to a potentially high-major D-1 player."

Saturday was a step in the right direction.

Uno En Uno With: Zach Brown, St. John's Commit

In this day and age, high school off-season periods rapidly morph into a recruiting carousel. High-profile recruits transfer at alarming and unprecedented rates.

 This is, without debate, the era in which kids stuff their bags and transfer at the 11th hour, without a tinge of trepidation.

 They fend off any thoughts of checking the blind spot. They rarely bother to even glance through the rearview mirror.

Calusa Prep's Zach Brown is without a doubt one of the most well-traveled recruits, in a current game rife with well-traveled recruits.

 Brown played at Miami Beach High, where he averaged 18.4 points, 17 boards as a sophomore.

Those numbers catapulted the 7-foot-1 Center to ESPN's top-5 of national prospects, as he was widely regarded as one of the country's most menacing shot blocker and premier defensive presence.

Brown also spent time at Miami High and half of a semester at Putnam Science (CT), where the one-time UCONN-commit cited a need to get out of Miami.

Brown also attended Elevation Academy in Sarasota, where he worked diligently under Matt Hiller.

Brown enjoyed his stay at Sarasota, but he had to relocate to the Miami area to handle his probation sentencing. Brown was booked on charges of armed robbery, robbery by sudden snatching and credit card fraud back in May.

So, attending Calusa Prep in the Kendall area of Miami (about 45 minutes from the hardscrabble, unforgiving, and crime-laced Miami Beach streets where he was raised) was the most logical way to culminate his commendable but troubled high school career.

Brown grew up in poverty and unfortunate surroundings, moving from household-to-household and even living with several families along the way.

At Calusa, the enigmatic and humble big may have finally found the stability that's been so lacking.

Now Brown, who entertained thoughts of converting to Judaism last year, is at a small Christian school.

 He's developed immediate rapport with head coach Derrick De La Grana, the former Florida Christian High Star and overseas professional.

De La Grana, who is the son of Miami Heat assistant coach Octavio De La Grana, has made Brown's conditioning and skill development a commitment of highest order.

Brown on his new surroundings

I just got here. Everybody's been real cool. Since I've been here, they've been teaching me things. Even if it's on the board or on the floor, they've been teaching me things to add on to my game. It's just great I got a new team, new people that I can start a new life with and a new basketball world for me. I'm starting to work on my right hand. Also, my role is to get my teammates better and for my teammates to get me better. Because we have kids from all across the country and stuff like that. So, we're a family. Stay together, pray together, we're here together.

On His Relationship With Chris Mullin

You know, I've been to jail. I've been on drugs. I've been on alcohol, everything like that. So, basically we had a sit down for the first time. We talked about it. He opened up to me, I opened up to him. So we was kind of quick on that understanding aspect.

He knows what I been through. I can't just go with anyone that's just like "Oh yeah, OK, you've been through this, you've been through that.

He actually talked to me, he told me everything about what he's been through. It was kind of similar to me. Ever since then it's been great. 

He been dealt with me. Even if I need help with anything, I'll just call him up and he'll talk to me and calm me down and everything like that. We're really close.

On His Support System

I'm really, really close with coach Matt from St. John's the assistant coach. 

We're really close. He touches based with me everyday, because you know coach Mullin have a lot to do. He's kind of like coach Mullin's back up man, the same way (coach) Derrick (De La Grana) is to me. Once I get there, things are going to get really close and from there we will be even better.

Nathaneal Jacks Up Calusa In ACD Victory, Brown Says His Troubles Are Over

Calusa Prep's Nathanael Jack has a tremendous green light with head coach Derrick De La Grana. During Saturday's thorough 72-45 thrashing of Arlington Country Day at The Rock, it didn't take a Rhodes Scholar to see why.

Jack's deadeye shooting was the engine that propelled Calusa's wild 16-0 first half surge. Jack, a Canada native who grew up watching shooters such as Brady Heslip, ignited the spurt with a nifty up-and-under move in traffic.

He absorbed the contact for the foul, and completed the traditional 3-point play. On the ensuing possession, Jack drained a deep 3-pointer.

 Just like that, Calusa Prep fended off all first game jitters. With Calusa holding a significant second half edge, Jack buried a face-guarded three-pointer, took a hit, and completed a four-point play.

He wound up with a game-best 20 points, energizing Calusa during the most crucial of bucket-demanding moments.

"Nate shoots like that all the time in practice," said teammate Nathan Mpendy, who has a wealth of Division-I interest and recently visited West Virginia.

"Our team has a lot of trust and we know that someone gets the hot hand, we're going to keep feeding him the ball."

ACD, which is currently in rebuilding mode, struggled following an impressive early start.

The team had its entire roster thoroughly cleansed from last season, as former coach Shaun Wiseman elected to take his basketball program to The Conrad Academy.

 The growing pains surfaced, particularly after the fresh-faced squad buckled and crumbled under the early surge.

They certainly have the balance and international flavor, but ACD might take some time to find its identity. First-year coach Charles Cunningham, he of the well-traveled and impressive Division-I coaching resume, will look to revitalize a once powerhouse under the late Rex Morgan.

"We've got some guys who come in from different parts of the world and international teams," he said.

"We've got some guys who have talent but talent doesn't necessarily translate into production...I'd be better able to assess us after about 6-7 games."

Jack's early fireworks were a necessity.

Both this potent run, both teams looked lackadaisical. There was a sudden gap in their interior, as 7-foot-1 Center Zach Brown caught an inadvertent shot to the eye. This relegating him to the bench, where he was patched up by a trainer before returning.

"We start off featuring Zach and we try to get him the ball early," said De La Grana, once the gritty little guard who starred at Florida Christian High in Miami and later played professionally and Santiago, Chile.

"The rest of the guys have to be ready to play. He's going to attract a lot of double teams, triple teams. Everybody's going to have to be ready on the catch-and shoot or to be ready to make a play and that's what we did today and it helped us out a lot."

The mercurial Brown, who is committed to St. John's, did not re-enter the game until the second half. When he returned, his presence and feathery left-handed hand garnered notice.

Brown, who has been working to establish his right hand more, has also been working on keeping a straight, distraction-free path in front of him.

The oft-troubled recruit was arrested on robbery charges in May.

 A Miami Beach native, Brown recently transferred from Elevation (Sarasota, FL) Prep so he could complete his probation sentence.

On Saturday, Brown's performance was free of any fits of anger or anti-referee outbursts.

"You are looking at a new Zach Brown," he said with a smile.

"I know I needed to make adjustments and make changes in my life. I'm a changed man. It's a new team and I'm with new people and I could start a whole new life here (at Calusa)."

In Brown's previous life, which took place on the rough-and-tumble, crime-laced sections of Liberty City, adversity surfaced.

One of the reasons Brown chose St. John's is because he established a deep connection with head coach Chris Mullin. Mullin is a classic example of someone who has emerged from adversity unscathed, having overcome alcoholism during his lengthy NBA career.

"I've been to jail, I've been on drugs, alcohol and everything like that so basically we had a sit down for the first time and we talked about bouncing back from that lifestyle and leaving it for good," Brown said.

"He opened up to me and I opened up to him. knows what I've been through. I can't just go with anyone who can say, 'Ok you've been through this, you've been through that.' He talked to me about what his situation was and I felt it was similar to me. Ever since we've had a great relationship."
Brown cited SJU assistant Matt Abdelmassih as another major figure in his support system. Both he and De La Grana have been instrumental in helping him keep his focus and continue on as the reformed Zach Brown.

The senior has made conditioning a major focus.

"On both sides of the floor he attracts a lot of attention," De La Grana explained. "We're trying to teach him the game a little more, get his IQ up so he knows what plays to make. We've got to make sure everyone around him is ready and get him better everyday. He's been doing that so far, he's been great for us."