Whitney Young, one of the top five high school basketball teams in the nation, showcased its enormous talent on the national stage over the holidays. And 6-foot-11 junior Jahlil Okafor and 6-foot-9 junior Paul White demonstrated why they are two of the headliners in the class of 2014.
The venues were the City of Palms tournament in Fort Myers, Florida, and the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Veteran recruiting analysts Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports and Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops had front row seats for all of the jousting.
In Florida, recruiting analyst Eric Bossi of Rivals.com said Okafor and 6-foot-7 senior Andrew Wiggins of Huntington, West Virginia, clearly demonstrated why they are the top-rated players in their classes.
"In Okafor, we are witnessing the type of player who for the most part has been going the way of the dinosaurs," Bossi said. "He is a true back-to-the-basket center who has serious game and skill when it comes to scoring in the low post.
"He has tremendous feet, strong hands, passes well out of double teams and is comfortable making strong moves to either his right or left shoulder. Additionally, he is a good one-on-one post defender against other big men."
Whitney Young lost to the nation's top-ranked team, Montverde (Florida) Academy, in overtime, then crushed Omaha, Neb., Central as Okafor shot 11-of-14 and had 23 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
In South Carolina, Okafor, White, L.J. Peak, Miles Reynolds and Ausar Madison led coach Tyrone Slaughter's team to the championship with an impressive 58-37 victory over previously unbeaten Bishop O'Connell of Arlington, Virg.
Okafor, White and St. Rita's Charles Matthews were named to the 10-man all-tournament team, White was tournament MVP and Peak was singled out as the leading defensive player.
Last Saturday, Whitney Young (11-1) crushed Neumann-Goretti of Philadelphia 78-49 in the Cancer Research Classic in Wheeling, West Virginia. Okafor scored 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting and also had six rebounds and three blocks. White had 19 points and seven rebounds. Peak had 10 points and six rebounds.
The Dolphins' road show will resume in Memphis, Tenn. and Springfield, Mass. during the next two weekends. They have a season-defining duel with three-time defending Class 4A champion Simeon on Jan. 26. The two city powers could meet again in the sectional tournament at Argo.
"Young is the best team I have seen this year," Gibbons said. "They have talent at every position and they are well-coached. (Slaughter) gets his kids pumped up to play hard and play good defense."
Coleman agrees. "Whitney Young has a starting five that can compete with Simeon for the Class 4A championship. They are without a doubt a real threat to stop Simeon in its drive for four straight titles," he said.
"Unlike former Whitney Young teams, this group plays as a team and if they can develop some depth, look out. Their only loss was to Montverde (Florida) Academy, the No. 1 team in the nation, in overtime. They are capable of playing with any of the nationally rated teams."
Gibbons and Coleman have been impressed with Slaughter's ability to make adjustments on offense and defense to control tempo, manage the clock and keep in check the egos of a squad filled with Division I players.
"He has always taken on a national schedule and sometimes in the past his players weren't ready for that kind of competition," Coleman said. "But he has learned from those challenging schedules and currently has a team that allows him to use that knowledge to win against other nationally ranked teams. When you beat nationally ranked teams, your coaching abilities become more noticeable."
While Gibbons and Coleman agree that Okafor is the No. 1 player in the class of 2014, they differ on how they perceive his approach to each and every game. In fact, Gibbons said if Curie's 6-foot-9 junior Cliff Alexander continues to develop, he could be better than Okafor because he competes harder and is more athletic.
"Okafor could be like Kevin Garnett and Alonzo Mourning," Gibbons said. "But one thing I have noticed in all the times I have watched him is he doesn't consistently play to the maximum. Maybe that will change with maturity.
"When he gets after it, he can dominate when he wants to. Against Bishop Gorman's 7-foot sophomore, he controlled him and physically dominated him and blocked shots. But he played with a laid-back attitude in other games. He didn't play with a maximum effort.
"Maybe he isn't challenged all the time. When he is challenged, he plays with more intensity. But when opponents aren't within four inches of him, he doesn't feel he has to play hard all the time. He has all the size and skills to dominate when he wants to. If he played hard all the time, he could rank with the Garnetts and Mournings of the past."
Coleman has another view. "Okafor uses his basketball IQ and knowledge of positioning more to accomplish what he wants and to get results. Maybe that was the case a year ago before he streamlined his body and improved his bounce. But on numerous occasions in Myrtle Beach and Fort Myers, he was the first big man down the court in transition, many times running with the guards," he said.
"Make no mistake about it. Okafor is the best low post talent in high school basketball at this point. He dominates offensively with a variety of moves on the blocks that he finishes with a dunk or jump hook. He has developed the ability to pop and either knock down a 15-17 footer of attack the hoop off the dribble against bigs, then finish with highlights at the rim."
If that isn't praise enough, Howard Garfinkel of Five-Star, one of the pioneers of evaluating high school talent, said of Okafor's 12-point, 6-rebound performance in the final at the Beach Ball Classic: "That was the most dominant 12-point performance in the history of high school hoops."
Gibbons was most impressed with White. "He does play hard all the time. He is Whitney Young's glue guy. He can score in a variety of ways. He is versatile and handles the ball well. Over the summer, he gave a maximum effort all the time," he said.
"White has been one of the major surprises in the junior class with the development of his perimeter shot and tough to stop face-up game," Coleman said. "He gets after it on defense, too. He is a main reason why Whitney Young won the Beach Ball title and is a serious threat to Simeon's run for four straight state titles."
Gibbons said Peak, a 6-foot-4 junior transfer from South Carolina, could emerge as a McDonald's All-American. "He is very athletic, a top perimeter guy," he said.
"When Peak made the move to Chicago last summer, it was kept on the low key. But that is no longer the case after his December performances," Coleman said. "We knew from a year ago that he can make shots but it is the improved overall structure of his game that makes him special. He has handle to create a shot or drive, he has become a solid passer and is a playmaker on defense."
If that isn't enough, Gibbons and Coleman also were impressed with Whitney Young's underrated but solid backcourt of Madison and Reynolds. "They seem to be happy to play their roles," Coleman said.
Finally, Coleman also was impressed with Matthews, St. Rita's 6-foot-5 sophomore.
"This long and athletic wing man showed he can get to the rim off the dribble and finish with bounce at the rim," Coleman said. "He is an excellent passer who runs the break with confidence. He is developing a solid perimeter jumper and once his three-point jumper becomes a strength to go with his dribble drive, look for him to rate among the best players in the class of 2015."