*Photo taken by ‘North Pole Hoops’
Well, with the Class of 2019 having picked up their diplomas and departed from the high school scene, I guess we can officially acknowledge 2020 students as the new ‘top dogs’ on school grounds. There’s a lot of talent in this Virginia high school basketball rising senior group; very likewise to the 2019 prospects. Typical of every season, players always want to show out in the greatest possible ways, so I’m excited to see what the 2020 players have in store for the next 12 months; starting with travel ball all the way down to postseason play in high school. Obviously, the majority of this class still remains uncommitted to college programs, as they’re still attempting to increase their stock and/or ponder all possible options. However, some decisions have already been made during previous months, earning notable feedback on social media per usual. Middleburg Academy (Middleburg, VA) standout, Ben Li ‘20, included himself in that category of early commits when he made the verbal pledge on May 17th to attend Lehigh University for his future playing career. Spectators around the state most likely have already seen or heard of the 6’6” wing/forward, who’s attracted more attention over the last year but decided on the Lehigh Mountain Hawks due to picturing benefits in multiple areas.
Like his other basketball peers, Li’s spring has been one of minimal rest, as he’s spent his final AAU season playing with Team Loaded VA 17u. After getting on board with the renowned program last month, I, along with other scouts and spectators, could immediately notice the valuable production Li brought to the floor. It’s been a great addition to an already talented Loaded roster, which will continue to aim in taking names once July tournaments soon arrive.
“This spring’s been really run, to say the least,” Li stated. “Traveling all over the country and playing basketball at arguably the highest level of competition in my age division has been great. I’m also grateful that Team Loaded welcomed me with open arms, especially mid-season. It’s amazing to be around a culture that’s focused on nothing but winning.”
On the eve of the annual ‘Hoop Group Southern Jam Fest,’ and around the same time when he joined Loaded, Li became a topic of discussion on social media once he announced that aforementioned college decision. Personally, I saw it as a good move and feel he could become a recognizable name in the NCAA Patriot League. I’ve had the privilege to watch him on the court about four times total; the last two occasions being alongside fellow Phenom Hoops co-worker, Jamie Shaw, when Li played in the ‘Southern Jam Fest’ tournament and 2019 Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) Division II state tournament. Jamie and I both acknowledged him as a powerful athlete who uses a blend of strength and skill to act as a productive inside-and-out presence. He’s valuable in many ways with a high motor, good court feel, competitive demeanor, strong rebounding, and IQ all working together. He really knows how to get the job done in a unique approach that’s both energetic and calm at the same time…if that makes sense. I’m sure the Lehigh coaches also saw that same type of promise during the stage of recruitment.
“Everything (prior to making a college decision) was about finding the perfect fit for me. Obviously, basketball will take me places but I also knew that my IQ and academics would help me. I wanted to go to a school that competes at a high level, has a winning culture, and is known for a strong academic foundation.”
Sounds like Lehigh worked out as the ideal fit then. The Mountain Hawks did well this past season in posting a 20-11 overall record; making it to the semifinal round of the Patriot League Tournament. The school also earned recent recognition by U.S. News & World Report, being ranked 53rd among national universities in the 2019 edition of “Best Colleges”. The dream opportunity of playing college ball will always mainly stand out for guys in Li’s position, of course, but he’s smartly held the value of placing academics at the top of his priorities before anything else. Like they say, “student’ first, athlete second.”
“I’ve had other schools that were more ‘high major’ talking to me but it ultimately came down to what was best for me and what each school could offer. All along, I knew that I wanted a strong degree from a good school that I could rely on after my basketball career. Lehigh has the perfect balance of extraordinary academics and great basketball, on top of a beautiful campus.”
In addition to his maturity, Li’s also ahead of the game by knowing exactly what he wants to study on campus, even before his final year of high school has begun. It’s evident that he did some deep thinking about how things could unfold in the classroom at Lehigh. That’s something I advise all 2020 potential prospects to start on now.
“Business. I want to get into the sports management field and hopefully become an agent one day. Lehigh would definitely help me out with this career choice because of its strong College of Business and Economics.”
Back to the hoops aspect of things. A key reason for my statement earlier regarding Li having the chance to make a name for himself in the Patriot League pertains to how he can be played as an interchangeable guy. It’s a trait that not every player holds and pretty much always proves as an advantage. His future Lehigh coaches seem to have noticed those same tools, based on player-to-coach talks.
“(Head) Coach Reed and (Assistant) Coach Hightower have expressed to me how I could affect the game in multiple areas and have a strong chance of making an immediate impact. Obviously, nothing is handed and I would have to compete to earn my way up the ranks.”
Those moments will arrive in due time but Li still has some things to accomplish for his last go-around of high school play. It might only be June currently but the winter season has a tendency to sneak up on us. The Middleburg Dragons (17-8 overall in 2018-19) saw their season come to an end in a state semifinal loss to Blue Ridge School (St. George, VA); the eventual champions. In the aftermath, satisfaction still rested in knowing a big portion will return back to the roster for 2019-20. Still, VISAA first team all-state standout and Stetson University signee, Joel Kabimba ‘19, will undoubtedly be missed. However, the program also has a new face coming in with Isaiah ‘Zay’ Folkes ‘21 entering the mix, whom I consider one of the most athletic guards I’ve seen in Northern Virginia. It all gives Li, who averaged 17 points and 10.2 rebounds as a junior, optimism that the Dragons can again make a run to the state crown if they use proper preparation.
“We didn’t reach our goals this year, in terms of getting the state championship, but since then we’ve learned a lot from it and the coaches have done what’s necessary in order for us to be successful next year. Joel (Kabimba) played a big role on our team this past season, so the other guys and I will have to step it up and fill that void. The addition of Zay (Folkes) will be huge for us because he can fill the shoes left by David Penney ’19 (a Simon Frazier University signee). Zay can turn into a huge piece, as he’s extremely talented and hard to contain. Even with two of the three captains having graduated for college, we are still very confident that next year we’ll be cutting down the nets.”
Those curious to get a VERY early look at the Dragons can do so for the next two weekends when the program participates in the ‘Virginia Live Period Shootout’ (6/21 – 6/23 and 6/28 – 6/30), hosted by Blue Ridge. Li knows it’ll serve as an important time for his team to prove why they’re worthy of attaining their already-listed future goals. He also acknowledges that it all starts with his veteran play on the floor.
“As we are getting new additions to our team, I would like to see us gel together smoothly and play as a unit. If we play together, we will all look better, which may translate into some of our guys getting scholarships. Furthermore, I hope that all of us will be able to show off the hard work we’ve been putting into the offseason. We expect nothing less than being undefeated throughout the live period. For me, I’ve been working on getting leaner, stronger, and faster, while also improving my ability to handle and shoot more consistently. Another major component that I’m working on is my leadership skills. I’m trying to become the best captain possible next year.”
I plan to cover that two-part event and look forward to see Li and the Dragons competing once again. Li has one less thing to worry about with the recruiting process now behind him, which should serve him well in prepping for a great remaining summer and upcoming senior campaign. Make sure to not miss out on what appears to be cooking up in Middleburg, VA.
You know I have to ask it, where does Ben Li see himself in ten years?
“I see myself either getting paid to play the sport I love at a professional level or being a sports agent thanks to my degree from Lehigh.”
Great get, Mountain Hawks!