November 13, 2006

City Search: Atlanta

It is a scene that gets played out a lot at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. A coach is sitting in the terminal, waiting to hop back on a plane to return to their respective school after scouting a high school player.

Then they see another college coach who was in town doing the same thing. Then another. Then another. One Atlantic 10 assistant said that happened to him this fall.

"I couldn't believe it. I'm sitting there waiting to fly back and I see four coaches in a matter of 20 minutes. You would have thought the Final Four was in September," he said. "I thought they were connecting because Atlanta is such a big airport but they all said they were recruiting. The funny thing is, none of us were there to see the same guys."

That seems to be the case these days around Atlanta. The city is full of talent for college recruiters and the prospect pool doesn't appear as if it is drying up any time soon.

Seventeen players are ranked nationally from Atlanta in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 classes. Three teams are nationally ranked in the top 25 by Student Sports. Needless to say, coaches are coming, seeing, liking and signing these days in the ATL.

"During the high school season we are there at least once a week," a SEC coach said. "Sometimes we'll have all three of us there on the same night if we can."

"We've got to recruit our own state first and then we do everything we can to find a kid in Atlanta every year," another SEC coach said. "In fact, we probably recruit as many players from Atlanta then we do our own home state. There are just so many good programs there."

The Now

Atlanta's class of 2007 is loaded. Just check the numbers. Nearly 25 players will signed with Division I schools this month. You can stack that up with any major city in the country. The numbers prove it.

Apparently size does matter. It does in Atlanta high school hoops. The landscape of the city is built around size. Four of the best players in the city are post players.

"This is one of the best years that I've seen for players," Wheeler High School head coach Doug Lipscomb said. "There is so much talent here, especially the big guys."

Wheeler's J.J. Hickson (NC State) and Norcross's Gani Lawal (Georgia Tech) are strong McDonald's All-American candidates. Georgia signees Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes are prototypical SEC big men - strong, good hands and tough around the cup.

Guard play is solid at the top with Chris Allen of Meadowcreek. The Michigan State signee could potentially lead the city in scoring this year. Norcross will put the ball in the hands of Tony Neysmith, an Oklahoma signee, with hopes of winning another 5A state championship.

The wings are just as deep as the big men. Ole Miss commitment Zach Graham, Terrell Bell, a Virginia Tech signee, Jordan DeMercy, Florida State signee, and Lance Storrs, a Georgia Tech signee, lead the charge.

"It's crazy," says one SEC coach that constantly recruits the state. "And the best part about it, they always play against each other. It makes it easy to evaluate them and I'm sure the kids love it because they can play for bragging rights."

To the players, bragging rights is defiantly at the front of their minds.

"Trust me," says Lawal, "Atlanta is one of the top five cities in the country. No doubt. We make each other better. I can't speak for everybody but the competition makes me better. I think it makes everyone else better. It's great."

Top 15 players in Atlanta

Chris Allen, Meadowcreek (2007 - Michigan State signee)
Al-Farouq Aminu, Norcross (2008)
Chris Barnes, Riverdale (2007 - Georgia signee)
Lorenzo Brown, Centennial (2009)
Derrick Favors, South Atlanta (2009)
Zach Graham, Peachtree Ridge (2007 - Ole Miss commit)
J.J. Hickson, Wheeler (2007 - NC State signee)
Richard Howell, Central Gwinnett (2009)
Noel Johnson, Fayette County (2009)
Gani Lawal, Norcross (2007 - Georgia Tech signee)
Tony Neysmith, Norcross (2007 - Oklahoma signee)
Jeremy Price, Columbia (2007 - Georgia signee)
Chris Singleton, Cherokee (2008)
Teondre Williams, Meadowcreek (2008)
Tony Woods, Rome (2008)

The Past

To fully appreciate a city's talent level, you have to look at where the bar is set. And around Atlanta, everyone knows about the big three. Two thirds of the trio is in the NBA. One is a starter for one of the most storied basketball programs in the country. And everyone is looking for the next 1-2-3 punch to take the reigns from the Atlanta Celtic trio of Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Randolph Morris.

The Atlanta natives joined forces for one of the most memorable AAU teams in grassroots history. Howard won two state championships at Southwest Atlanta Christian. Smith played at McEachern High School alongside Rice star Morris Almond before bolting for Oak Hill Academy and winning the mythical high school national championship. Morris starred at Landmark Christian before going to the SEC. All three were named McDonald's All-Americans.

Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, didn't take long to find his place in the pros as one of the elite big men in the league. Smith was selected by the hometown Hawks and is the most recognizable face for the struggling NBA franchise. Morris is now a junior for Kentucky and is considered one of the top pro prospects in the college game.

In the following years, big men came along but few had the impact quite like they did. Guards, however, knew how to draw a crowd. Louis Williams received more publicity than any of the big three during his storied prep career at South Gwinnett. He captured one state title before bolting for the NBA Draft instead of playing for the Georgia Bulldogs.

A year later, Javaris Crittenton took the town under his wing and won a pair of state championships at Southwest Atlanta Christian. Now the former McDonald's All-American is leading the way at Georgia Tech.

The Next

As the 2007 class prepares for their last go round in the high school ranks, the class of 2008 is shaping up to be very strong at the top.

"They aren't getting any worse," a SEC coach said with a laugh. "Seriously, they might be even better at the top. You look at Howard Thompkins, (Al-Farouq) Aminu, (Chris) Singleton, Tanner Smith, Dustin Ware, Tony Woods. That's a strong group."

Thompkins, Aminu and Woods all rank amongst the top 20 players in the class of 2008. Singleton could very well end up as high, or higher, when it is all said and done. With Thompkins off to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and with Woods tucked away in the north Georgia mountains, the great debate with Atlanta hoop heads is - who is better: Aminu or Singleton?

Aminu was outstanding in the spring and was the top player in his age division at the Tournament of Champions in May. But since then, he played well but never like he did in North Carolina.

Singleton, admittedly, was down right disappointing. But when the high school season began, he turned his game around, matured, hit the weight room and played like the best player in his class at the loaded Georgia Hoops Fall Showcase.

Aminu, an athletic and versatile 6-foot-9 forward, will play a big role for Norcross this season, lining up with Lawal down low. With three division I seniors on the roster, the pressure is off of the five-star prospect for the time being. A year young for his class, Aminu isn't in a hurry either.

Singleton, a 6-foot-9 forward with true wing skills, has been called the next Josh Smith.

"I can see it," says one ACC coach. "Josh is a much better athlete, more freakish athlete. But Josh couldn't shoot the ball like (Singleton) can. He's better with the ball, too. They are both great shot-blockers. I think Singleton might be stronger at this point."

Singleton is the featured player for Cherokee and has Roger Kvam, one of the best coaches in the state working with him constantly. Will the dedication in the off-season pay off during the regular season? That is a question that will soon be played out.

As far as who is the better prospect, that debate may never end. But most coaches agree, the talent at the top of the class of 2008 is eerily similar to a class that isn't too far removed from the memories of those that follow the city's hoop landscape closely.

"The 2008 kids might be just as good as the 2004 kids with Dwight (Howard), Josh (Smith) and Randolph (Morris)," says one ACC coach.

Atlanta basketball is in good hands with the loaded Class of 2009. The class is loaded with high-major talent, going 15 players deep already. High-major coaches will have Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport memorized with this crew.

"We've made sure we've done a better job of targeting the younger players much earlier so we can focus on them and send the message to them earlier," one ACC coach said.

Translation: we are trying to beat the rush. There will certainly be a large influx of coaches in Southern capitol. 2009 is stocked deeper than Costco.

Leading the way is Derrick Favors, who many believe to be the next great Atlanta big man cut from the Dwight Howard mold. Favors averaged nearly 15 rebounds a game as a freshman at South Atlanta in a region that isn't kind to upperclassmen, let alone baby faced freshman.

Johnson, Brown, Howell, Mfon Udofia, Ari Stewart, Brandon Reed, Rico Spear, Colin Reddick, Manny Atkins, Brian Cole, Jeremy Olsen and Robert Chubb are all high-major prospects. Johnson, Brown and Howell are all top 25 players in their class nationally.

And there are still three years ahead of this class. Scary.

Sleeper report

With so much attention paid to the high-majors in the deep 2007 senior class, there are still plenty of players that have not signed that are worth a look this season.

The best uncommitted senior college prospect is Jeremy Simmons of Tucker High School. Gone is Cameron Tatum, a 2006 grad now at Patterson School. Simmons, a 6-foot-7 forward, is back again for a team that consistently goes deep into the playoff bracket. A host of mid-majors have been on Simmons all year long but don't be surprised to see a couple of high-majors sniff around. He's a steady interior player with great athleticism and a desire to be a four man and nothing else.

Big men are always a hot priority in the late signing period so it comes as no surprise that Jon Pack, a 6-foot-10 center from East Paulding High School, is shaping up to be a hot commodity with the mid-major programs. The big man has a good touch but lacks athleticism. He controls what level he signs with at the end of the day.

Wheeler is always a stopping place for recruiters and senior forward Trey Lang is a good reason to make a trip. The 6-foot-8 big man is one of the top unsigned players still in the state and a key player for Lipscomb's team this year.

"He's got to be a guy that we can rely on this year. No question about it," says Lipscomb. "I don't think people give him enough credit for what he can do. This really is his time to shine."

Lying very low under the radar is Musa Abdul-Aleem, a powerfully built 6-foot-4 wing from W.D. Mohammed. Abdul-Aleem was a standout at the Georgia Hoops Fall Showcase, showing off a great nose for scoring, good handles, good range and a college ready body.

Top 5 teams

Norcross (ranked No. 4 nationally by Student Sports) - Considered by some as one of the top three teams in the country. Eddie Martin is looking to Gani Lawal, Tony Neysmith and Jordan DeMercy, three high-major commitments, and underclassmen Al-Farouq Aminu, Taariq Muhammad and Denzail Jones to lead the charge this season for a repeat 5A state title.

Columbia (ranked No. 15 nationally by Student Sports) - When the state schools rush in to the Decatur school to land its top players, you know there is something special there. Georgia went in and locked up Jeremy Price. Georgia Tech snatched up Lance Storrs. Toledo has a steal in 6-6 forward Dante Harvey. Travis Leslie, a high-flying junior, is one of the top sleepers in the Southeast. The 4A state champs have a deep field to fight through this season.

Wheeler (ranked No. 24 nationally by Student Sports) - Always a name on the national prep scene, the Wildcats are looking to return to the Final Four, but this time finish as the champions. Led by NC State pledge J.J. Hickson, the boys from Marietta have good balance. Joining the five-star big man is Trey Lang, who will be a hot commodity this season for teams looking for big men. Also in the line up include transfer Dequan Jones, an athletic junior wing, and Corey Towers, a jet quick point guard.

Dunwoody - Scott Bracco's club is the closest thing to a dynasty in the Peach State. Gone is Anjuan Wilderness, a four-year starter. Back is Georgia commitment Zac Swansey and seniors Justin Thurman and Taylor Brown, both solid Division I prospects. Juniors Delwan Graham and Pierre Jordan will be asked to play bigger roles this year. The Wildcats are looking strong en route to a potential third straight state title.

Whitefield Academy - The single A power is loaded once again and balanced with experience and youthful prospects. Tyrone Johnson has the steady play from seniors Kelvin McConnell, one of the best shooters in the state, and Junard Hartley, a good all-around combo, in the backcourt. Sophomore Brandon Reed has a chance to be special while Collin Redick, a shot-blocking phenom, and Cameron Baskerville pair up for a dynamic 1-2 punch down low.

Top games

Whitefield Academy vs. Meadowcreek, Nov. 25 (at Georgia Tech)
Wheeler vs. Columbia, Dec. 7 (at Georgia Tech)
Norcross vs. Oak Hill Academy (Va.), Dec. 7 (at Georgia Tech)
Savannah Beach at Meadowcreek, Jan. 13
Whitefield Academy vs. Wilkinson County, Jan. 15 (at Ben Hill Rec)
Dunwoody vs. Pinecrest (Fla.), Jan. 20 (at Georgia Tech)
Columbia vs. LeFlore (Ala.), Jan. 20 (at Georgia Tech)
Wheeler vs. American Christian (Pa.), Jan. 20 (at Georgia Tech)
Norcross vs. Arlington Country Day (Fla.), Jan. 20 (at Georgia Tech)

Next stop: Orlando

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