To all of the younger athletes out there, this statement should sound familiar: “Stay patient…your time is coming.”
Yes, I’m aware it’s a cliché assertion that typically brings some eye-rolling with it. Sometimes words of that nature go in one ear and out of the other, especially when detecting all of the youthful talent making up high school hoops nowadays. Honestly, though, can we truly blame the youngsters for letting this advice breeze by? Most fierce competitors contain a belief of being able to hold his or her own against anybody, regardless of age. I’ve acknowledged before that a relatively strong quantity of underclassmen fill in spots on varsity rosters nowadays and don’t see that norm changing anytime soon.
Players who have proven themselves as good enough to step in and contribute immediately often don’t want to endure the process of ‘patiently waiting.’ It’s relatable in some ways but also a recurring issue we’ve seen taken over the sport. The steadily high transfer rate at the NCAA level rests as a big enough explanation. Today’s athletes need to realize that there’s no need to rush everything all of the time. Sometimes learning under mentors and older teammates/peers early on brings the best results…even if one perceives his or herself as ready to jump into the fire from the start. Sophomore Alphonzo Billups ’22 out of Varina High School (Henrico Co., VA) will concur. Last year, he could’ve easily played right away for many other surrounding teams but gained much understanding of the game and now looks ready to step into a league of his own.
Whenever an individual shows bits of promise in the beginning stages, I, along with other scouts, usually hear from folks to keep a watchful eye over those same prospects. In Billups’s situation, his name popped up in conversations tracing back to fall 2018; no more than two months after I joined the Phenom Hoops team. Familiarity with the name has persisted ever since but this past spring/summer, from April to now, gave me greater opportunities to dissect the underclassman’s game. Following several showings up to date, I’ve become convinced that he’s in the conversation of the region’s top class of 2022 hoopers.
Billups takes the floor as a lengthy guy with a 6’5” slim frame. Physically, he doesn’t show a ton of muscle yet but indeed uses his body control well to play strong and absorb contact. In terms of how he performs on the court, smoothness and finesse describes his game best. There’s already not much that he can’t do when controlling the ball offensively. Billups plays up to four (sometimes five) different positions in certain scenarios, shoots it from all three levels, posts up smaller defenders, can stretch out to the basket on drives, and won’t hesitate to throw one down if the opportunity’s there. His size advantage and fluidity makes him a handful when pushing the ball in transition. One could argue the sophomore shines even brighter on the defensive end, as he has quick feet, instincts, and shot-rejection skills. Playing for the highly-talented VA Havoc 15u squad for yet another travel season, Billups had all of the aforementioned expertise on full display throughout his team’s remarkable success. Other familiar Richmond, VA ’22 names, including Jaden Daughtry, Wendall Tomlin III, Andre Greene, Jr., and Anthony Fisher also played for VA Havoc.
“I’ve been with those guys (in the VA Havoc program) since fourth grade,” Billups explained. “It was another great summer being with them and I hope we all stay together. We played decent but I think we can still get better. Going to Nationals on the Under Armour circuit was a lot of fun…probably our best moment.”
Reflecting on the 2018-19 school season, it became evident from those same preseason talks that Billups had many of the locals on notice of his potential. Still, audiences only could grasp a small feel for his capabilities due to Varina’s main six-man core last year of returners. Ranked as the area’s top public school team, the Blue Devils blasted through competition for an overall record of 24-2 and a second consecutive Region 5B title.
Fast forward to the present, however, and that same gifted core has departed in one way or another. Current college first-years Tyrese Jenkins ’19 (Norfolk State University), Jordan Hernandez ’19 (Virginia State University), and Charles Tart ’19 (Virginia Union University) all have recently begun official practices for their respective teams. A 2021 trio of Jason Nelson ’21 (John Marshall High School), AJ Williams ’21 (Trinity Episcopal School), and Kenard Richardson ’21 (Life Christian Academy) each made his own transfer move prior to this fall semester. The six veterans took Billups under their wing last season and consistently described him as ‘the next one.’ Richardson even made that same statement again when I came across the 6’4” junior last month. Billups credits each member of the crew for helping him make strides in his first varsity experience.
“I’d say my freshmen season was fun and a year of learning. Mainly just a lot of learning that happened every day. The older guys last year helped me a lot by really teaching me how to play the game the right way. They pushed me in practice too but it was more than just that.”
Any inkling of Billups’ status as the next big name in Richmond’s younger grouping of players has continued ever since his summer of travel ball finished. Likewise to his AAU and high school peers, he’s a gym rat who frequently arrives for various showcases, camps, and practically anything else that involves the orange ball bouncing. I grinned with satisfaction upon learning he would attend our 2019 Virginia Phenom 150 camp a few weekends ago (9/28). The lanky wing, as expected, stood out to show his wide range of skills and averaged 9 points per game once 5v5 action tipped off. Phenom’s primary camp evaluator and Director of Player Analysis, Jeff Bendel, had some warm approval after scouting Billups for the first time:
“Looking at a player that arguably possessed as much long-term upside as any camper in attendance: Alzhonzo Billups. He’s a long, wiry, athletic wing prospect with efficient three-level scoring and the ability to consistently affect all facets of the game. Billups can pass, handle, and shoot while operating as a primary creator or useful off-ball threat. He knows how to disrupt the opposition with his length, both as a finisher and overall defender, and absolutely thrives in transition. Billups also knows how to position himself and rebound very well on both ends of the floor. Next in his development process is working on his transition defense, as it would make him a more complete player. Billups was undeniably impressive throughout camp and will be a prospect for Division I coaches to watch over the coming years.”
Billups himself enjoyed the Saturday session and seems like he’d consider signing up for another Phenom camp at some point in the future.
“I liked that camp a lot. I had a lot of fun and enjoyed learning from the camp coaches. It helped me be able to play with other people you don’t know.”
Being one of seven possible returners in the Varina bunch this upcoming winter, an opportunity for Billups to assume an important role now grows stronger than it has ever been. I swung by the Blue Devils’ team workout the other week for continuation of my yearly ‘preseason open gym tour’ and again felt their young prodigy just keeps getting better with each new passing day. He arguably holds the most versatility on the roster and may very well be needed to contribute in a number of ways. Old Dominion University already has him in their sights; Billups performed very well in Varina’s appearance down at the Monarchs’ annual team camp back in August. Talking with him after the ‘open gym,’ he already knows this year’s group will need to stay as a unit if they want to continue their in-state status.
“The most important thing for us (at Varina) is just to play together as a team this year. We’ll make each other better that way. I want us to go undefeated, personally.”
There’s other surrounding key pieces of the team’s veteran core and a new leadership under first-year head coach Kenneth Randolph (former two-year team assistant) can fuse to push Varina towards their desired expectations. With now greater development in his IQ and skill package, I expect nothing less of Billups to build off of his ‘patience-filled’ freshmen campaign and erupt for a big sophomore outing. He has all of the tools to emerge as a lethal two-way threat in the region and provide the ‘it factor’ for the Blue Devils.
You know I didn’t forget it: where does Alphonzo Billups see himself in ten years?
“I see myself playing in the NBA.”
Keep pushing, young fella…that goes for all of the state’s other underclassmen too!