A past weekend full of frequent whistle-blowing, filled up standing sections, numerous recognizable faces, and long hours spent in the gym all served as indication that AAU basketball tournaments are now in full swing. It felt unique providing coverage of my first spring tournament in the U-Turn Sports Performance Academy (Richmond, VA); I remember playing games in that same building years ago during three years of travel ball. Zero Gravity Basketball hosted their annual ‘Southern Showdown’ tournament, one that I felt would be a great start to the spring. Teams from mainly Virginia and Maryland arrived for bracket play, ranging in age groups of youthful 10u teams to rising seniors in the 17u group. The Team Loaded AAU organization ultimately made the most noise during their two days, as four teams (Team Loaded VA 14u, 15u, 16u, and 17u) all won the championship in their respective divisions. Covering AAU is a bit different… there’s a lot going on so it’s pretty much up to one’s own decision in who/what teams to watch out for. Nevertheless, I garnered a good look at plenty of teams and made note of some players to keep an eye on as this spring continues into the summer.
Daniel Deaver ’19 – Team Loaded 434 Hawes 17u: The 6’7” unsigned senior became the topic of discussion in the gym following an outstanding 36-point, 12-rebound win over a talented Team Loaded DC 17u squad; punching his team’s ticket to the Blue Bracket championship game. Deaver’s a smooth operator who gets opponents in a pickle with his smart way of exploiting defenses. He showed excellent footwork, shot fakes, strength, a reliable short jumper, and rebounding effort during his two-day showing. He’s more of a throwback type-of-guy who plays hard at all times on both ends. Don’t miss out on this forward, who recently completed an excellent senior season at Marshall High School (Falls Church, VA) and earned the 2019 Class 6 Region D Player of the Year honor.
Zyrail Mitchell ’20 – Team Loaded 757 17u: The 6’3” Lake Taylor guard played as a blur all weekend long, looking like the best overall player in attacking the rim. Mitchell’s confidence always appears evident whenever he takes the floor. He controls the ball well and has that vintage Dwyane Wade type of approach; daring opponents to stop him. Once he gets a good look in transition, few can slow him down. He especially impressed in Loaded 757’s second game on Saturday, willing his team to a 72-69 victory over Team Loaded 434 Hawes. It felt like he scored every needed bucket during that game’s late stretch. Moving forward, the biggest focal point for Mitchell is fixing his shot mechanics. His slashing type of play looks great, but obviously can only take one so far when regarding the next level.
Kenard Richardson ’20 – Team Loaded DC 17u: It feels like Richardson keeps getting more and more athletic each time I see him play. The 6’4” wing showed this early on Sunday when he took off for an AND-1 two-handed poster slam that made his peers jump out of their seats. While his overall body continues to show good transformation, his mentality hasn’t changed a bit. Richardson’s a straight-up killer on the floor, who should play the most importance in getting his teammates back on track whenever they start to lose focus. He has a solid scoring game in how well he drives the ball and can shoot, but his other production in areas of rebounding, defense, and facilitating make him a valuable piece of the Loaded DC roster. A true competitor who shows no mercy; he’s bound for a big last outing of travel ball.
Gill Williamson ’20 – Court Authority 17u: The lanky 6’7” forward plays with some toughness and continues to show improvement in his perimeter skills. Williamson’s jumper looked smooth from different midrange spots and I saw him push the ball up the floor several times as well. His production in the post and defensive energy still remains as his best traits, but he should see his stock take a significant leap if able to show comfort on the wing also. At that height, he could easily finish and shoot over smaller defenders. Don’t let Williamson’ slim frame fool you, he’s anything but weak and will make it tough for anyone who steps between the lines.
Brayon Freeman ’21 – Team Loaded VA 17u: Loaded VA’s premier team has a great guard in the young Freeman, who played well last month in the state tournament with Bishop O’Connell High School (Arlington, VA). He’s a calm guard and can put the ball in the basket by a handful of ways, mainly off of slick finishes and shooting. His way of playing under control and handle makes him one of the team’s best shot creators, who can completely go off in spurts. If I had to describe him in one word, it’d have to be: crafty. You never know why type of trick he’ll pull out of his bag. Audiences should expect Freeman to soon blow up as a big-time recruit in the state; he already has a few offers, along with plenty of interest.
Jason Nelson ’21 – Team Loaded VA 16u: One of Richmond’s top floor generals for the #1-ranked public school team (Varina High School) in the area this past winter season, Nelson has an effortless knack for setting others up on offense. He threw some very impressive dimes, showing his usual court vision that goes beyond his years. The 5’7” guard’s defensive approach looked at its best; giving other ball-handlers trouble and ending up victorious on causing turnovers. While more of a pass-first type of guy, Nelson’s smooth three-point shot makes him a threat from pulling-up around that area of the floor also. His scoring played a big role in Loaded VA 16u’s bracket championship, leading the way with 18 points.
Tazir Smith ’21 – Higher Level 16u: He obviously still has room for growth, but Smith’s on the verge of becoming a highly productive point guard. His size at that position draws attention first, at about 6’2,” making him one who can initiate a fast break by rebounding the ball himself. Smith pushed the ball at a good pace when I watched him play, often taking it all the way for aggressive looks and drawn fouls. Shooting also looked comfortable in his game, as he continues to show a good mindset of moving to get open while off-ball (something I noted in my ‘open gym tour’ preview of Higher Level).
LaMonta Ellis, Jr. ’21 – Team Loaded VA 16u: After playing more as a ‘3&D’ guy during his recently completed sophomore campaign, Ellis, Jr. spent most of his weekend showing a capability to put up points as a slasher also. He has patience in handling the ball, using his 6’3” frame to shield from defenders and back down smaller ones. His wingspan helps out in various ways, mainly in extending layups toward the rim and defending. The scoring guard’s offensive arsenal just keeps adding more weapons to go along with an already solid height. Developing a deadly pull-up game should be his next aim.
Luke Smith ’22 – Team Richmond Garner Road 16u: Playing up as a 2022 prospect, Smith showed me and everyone else in the stands that he’s going to be good… like, really good. It satisfies even more when acknowledging that the 6’7” forward has recently returned back to the court after missing his entire freshmen season at Trinity Episcopal School (Richmond, VA) with an ACL injury. He played a reliable role this past weekend as a tough interior presence for Team Richmond Garner Road; rebounding better than any other freshman I watched. Offensively, Smith has good touch, shooting range, and a smart way of spotting small openings for short drives to the rim. I’m excited about his potential and definitely will keep an eye out to see if he reaches the same height (or taller) as his older brother, 6’11” Burke Smith ’20; an all-conference standout for Trinity.
Donald ‘DJ’ Hand, Jr. ’22 – Team Loaded VA 15u: Having started off his high school career with a bang at Landstown High School (Virginia Beach, VA) this 2019 winter season, ‘DJ’ became a widely-discussed young prospect and showed just why during Loaded VA’s tournament title run. His feel for the game as a 6’2” point guard makes everything else fall in line for his team, acting as the main playmaker. ‘DJ’ has excellent decision-making skills and plays with the most confidence in transition, which mainly starts from his activity on the defensive end. He has nice shot-making skills and never got rushed when defenders tried to play him more tightly. Definitely worth the ticket to go watch play, as he understands so much about the game already. Of course, it’s in his blood; being the son of former University of Virginia men’s basketball standout, Donald Hand.
Jaden Daughtry ’22 – VA Havoc 15u: Daughtry flat-out looked like a man amongst boys in his team’s Saturday win over Twins Hoops Elite. The 6’4” wing/forward plays with such a motor and edge that makes him a force who never seems to let up. He finishes excellently around the rim, goes hard after rebounds, defends, and showed a clutch mentality in making big plays down the late stretch. His approach to competition reminds me that of Richardson (above) in a way; one who puts their foot on an opponent’s neck permanently. With his inside and out type-of game, VA Havoc can use Daughtry in several different positions. You won’t want to miss out on him this summer, trust me. His team did great work this weekend, playing up in the 16u division.
Tyler Nickel ’22 – Team Loaded VA 15u: The 6’5” Nickel is another forward with that valuable inside and out game. He has a strong frame already and moves around the court well for his position, getting open for multiple dunks on Saturday. His shot and sneaky handle impressed me the most about the freshman’s game, as those two skills make him a big wing threat that can power his way to the rim or spot up for perimeter shooting. The pick-and-pop strategy would especially work with him; something that may become his bread-and-butter as he keeps progressing. Overall, Nickel’s ceiling remains as high as any other 2022 prospect on this list. He has a contagious toughness and joyful way of playing the game.
It’s shaping up to be an action-filled spring/summer!