Whenever a gym opens up in the Northern Virginia (NOVA) area, one can typically expect players and trainees of the ‘Higher Level’ amateur basketball program to always find their way inside. Led by the organization’s CEO and head skills trainer, Darius Wilson, he and many other young NOVA ballers spend countless hours in the gym daily. That being said, it didn’t come with much surprise when I pulled up to Osbourn Park High School (Manassas, VA) last October for coverage of my first NOVA hoops event as a Phenom Hoops scout: the 2018 ‘Fall Mid-Atlantic Showcase’ (10/28/18). I chuckled to myself when Wilson pulled up right next to me in the parking lot, knowing the area guru would have a beneficial workout in store. Looking back on that Sunday afternoon, which took place about 10 months ago, several guards had good showings and went on to prove themselves as talents for their respective teams in the 2018-19 season. Amongst that group was Hayden James ’21, a gritty lead guard from Heritage Christian School (Woodbridge, VA). He took on a dynamic role as a young starter for the Patriots as a sophomore, extended his play into the Higher Level 16u group this recent travel season, and looks forward to proving himself at a great extent as an upperclassman.
A week prior to the ‘Mid-Atlantic Showcase,’ our Phenom Hoops team had the chance to scout James at Session I of the 2018 North Carolina Phenom 150. Personally, it provided my first viewing of the 5’9” floor general and I saw plenty to like…especially at that age. Jeff Bendel, Phenom’s Director of Player Analysis, broke it down best:
“Looking at a player who brought an excellent attitude and team-first approach to camp, Hayden James. He’s a guard prospect who knows how to coexist with any group of players and maintain steady production. James can knock down shots from midrange and three-point territory, but is at his best when getting downhill and attacking the rim. James utilizes his motor and toughness well on defense to bother opponents and force turnovers. Next in his development process is working to become quicker, as it would make him a more dynamic threat off the bounce. James proved to be a solid contributor throughout camp and should be worth monitoring over the next few years.”
Anybody who’s visited the NOVA region likely has noted the number of large surrounding public schools. Plenty of students in those such institutions make up counties in the area, which has persisted for some time now. However, if one takes a trip into the city of Woodbridge, VA, he or she will find James attending and playing for a private school program that’s relatively behind-the scenes. Opening back up in August 1984, Heritage has grown to around 380 members of their student body; ranging from grades 4th to 12th.
Basketball-wise, Heritage and other opposing teams compete in the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools (ODACS). Founded back in 1976, I’d refer to it as a different type of conference than most…considering nationwide programs form the historic league. Most of the time, high school athletic leagues hold local and/or in-state teams. In addition, I’m sure the fact of public school basketball being so prevalent in NOVA has primarily led to the underestimation of play in the ODACS. Regardless of the circumstances, James assures that one will discover there’s strong competition all throughout his conference if choosing to buy game tickets.
“There’s been a few college basketball players who recently came out of the ODACS,” James explained. “So, it’s definitely not a weak conference or anything. A lot of people may not realize that it’s not just a local thing either. It extends outside of Virginia and involves a couple of states to be more nationwide. I’d say it’s pretty big.”
Having arguably the most important role of point guard for Heritage last season, the young James enjoyed a stellar year in making all sorts of plays on the floor. He obviously listened to Jeff’s advice in improving his quickness; that now stands out as one of his best physical attributes. James also contains very good leaping ability for his size, which frequently leads to him sneakily winning on chase-down block attempts. With the ball in his hands, the guard keeps getting better as a shot creator and can spot open teammates for quick finds under the rim. On-ball defense is where he shines best, in my eyes.
James’ sophomore outing resulted in Heritage making a run to the ODACS Class AA tournament title game back on February 23rd. Ultimately, the Patriots would fall to Evangel Christian School (Dale City, VA) in a 47-37 finish to end off the season. Having continued his two-way performances, James was awarded the tournament’s MVP and made the all-tournament team.
“For me, I thought last season was a great experience to be able to lead as one of the younger guys. I played pretty much all of the minutes of every game and could practice my leadership skills.”
“We lost three seniors from our team last year and three starters. Two of them transferred, while the other one graduated. For all of us who are coming back, we’ll have a lot of motivation in trying to bounce back for another run at the tournament title; especially after being so close last winter. We want to get back out there and show what we can do. The other returning starter (a senior shooting guard) and I both know it’ll start with us to lead everyone else.”
This recent summer of travel ball allowed me to see much more of James with his Higher Level crew. Again acting as a constant starter, he had several talented players around him and the team, coached by Paul Pleas, performed well in every tournament I crossed paths with them. One could perceive Higher Level as a group of players who have spent much time together on the court. Out of other NOVA AAU programs, they had one of the most impressive 16u rosters.
“We went to a lot of great tournaments this summer and saw high competition in the live period ones. I think we played very well as a team, had excellent coaching, and everybody grew together. We could see ourselves get better as the season went on. I learned that, as you get older while playing basketball, players on other teams become bigger and stronger. So, at my size, I knew that I would need to use my speed to get past defenders and create space to play effectively. If you’re going against a 6’8” guy, you just need to find ways how to compete in that situation.”
Very true statement right there…it’s all about finding angles and using any type of personal advantage possible against different levels of competition. James seems to find a way more times than not. I again ran into him and other Higher Level players quite recently when I covered the 2019 ‘ASSIST DMV Top 100 High School Showcase’ (8/18). They all played well in the Sunday event and James plans to attend our Phenom Hoops’ ‘VA Phenom 150’ camp next month on September 28th. Personally, I can’t wait for that upcoming Saturday, which will give James and many prospects a chance for high exposure in front of our team.
“I loved the ‘ASSIST’ showcase and thought it functioned really well, especially since it was the first time they had it here (in NOVA). There’s a lot of talent in the area and many guys I can compete against to better myself. For the VA Phenom 150, my main goal is to approach it like I do any other camp: learn more about the game and put myself out there. I’m always trying to make a name for myself.”
“Right now, I think I just need to keep growing as a leader because I know I’ve struggled with that in the past. Sometimes I have to force myself to speak up. So, yes, the big first step for me is becoming the best leader I can on and off the court.”
It’s interesting to hear those words since I’ve always deemed James as a strong leader, more so one who goes by example. Regardless, I can relate to where he’s coming from and appreciate that he’s never satisfied. One can never become too consistent in their skills. College basketball stands firm in James’ goals and it’s clear he won’t stop working to maintain consistency in all facets of the game in order to reach that level.
“My college recruitment is going pretty good at the moment. I’m using an NCSA recruiting app and talk to a lot of coaches through that. I’ve received many elite camp invitations, phone calls, and some decent interest so far. I think my defense would stand out the most to coaches right now, if they were to see me play. Defense, passing the ball well, and my jumping ability are a few areas. I try to be a well-rounded player who can do whatever a coach needs from me.”
Striving to keep up his 4.0 GPA and improve as a player daily, I see a good head placed on James’ shoulders and feel he’s headed in the right direction for future success. There’s a mature vibe surrounding the young floor general, who also plays for Heritage’s varsity soccer team. Last year, he earned accolades for ‘Best Offensive Player’ in basketball and ‘Most Improved’ on the soccer squad. Coaches can get a good look at him next month on the 28th! We hope to bring a good crowd to the U-Turn Sports Performance Academy in Richmond, VA.
By the way, where does Hayden James see himself in ten years?
“I think maybe coaching or doing something that involves basketball. I really love the sport and anything I could do with it as a career would be great.”
It seems like most point guards aspire to be coaches in their future professions. That notion makes sense to me, as most have that strong IQ. Stay at it up there in NOVA, Hayden!
 Heritage Christian School. https://www.visitheritage.com.