It finally happened!
After an excruciatingly long two-year hiatus, the James “Jabbo” Kenner League returned on July 2, 2022 with a bang. Though no Hoyas ended up hoisting a trophy at the end of summer, most of the players showed up healthy and ready to compete. Up until the 2009 NBA lockout (when professional players started to gravitate toward the Drew League in LA), the DC-based Nike Pro City league was drawing some of the best talent in the world. In addition to great Hoya talents such as Jeff Green, Greg Monroe, Roy Hibbert, Chris Wright, Jason Clark, Greg Whittington, making a return to put on a show in recent years, I have also been privileged to witness players like Kevin Durant, Demarcus Cousins, Michael Beasley, Victor Oladipo, DerMarr Johnson, and Roger Mason, in addition to a slew of local legends and others, grace the McDonough court in a meaningful way.
Though some Hoya fans may still cling to the outdated and misguided notion that the Kenner League is not all that competitive or a useful predictor of play, it remains, without question, one of the more competitive pro-am leagues in the country. I have only seen a few others up close, but I would rank it right behind the Drew League as the best summer bump. Kenner player performances are not necessarily a harbinger of things to come once the season rolls around, but if you know what to look for there are some very real takeaways to be had. Ironically, the key is to not try to squint too hard.
Typically, if a Hoya does not perform well during the summer they will likely not magically make a jump during the season. Conversely, if a player is tearing it up more than their (past) teammates and/or counterparts you can get a decent sense of where they might fit into the eventual pecking order. Big men have historically had inflated performances during Kenner, but noticeable mismatches in the post are typical of most non-professional leagues. Overall, the teams are generally talented, well-organized, well-coached and the defense is not as lacking as one might expect. In fact, as far as pro-am leagues go, Kenner has historically been one of the – if not the most – competitive summer leagues in the nation and the overall defensive effort across the board has always been a core part of that equation. At the end of the day, no summer league will closely mimic the structure that the Hoyas will face in the fall, but then again that is not the point either.
The league last operated during the summer of 2019. A lot has happened since our beloved Hoyas last had the chance to suit up and hone their skills against some of the best talent the DMV (and country) has to offer. The last time Hoya fans filled the stands of McDonough they witnessed the likes of a freshman Qudus Wahab flash promise and a junior Omer Yurtseven display the potential to be an anchor in the paint as one of the top transfers on the market. Sophomore Mackinjo famously paced the league and continued to show off the talent that has them both now floating around the Association. Juniors Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair were still adding to their games and slowly developing into eventual Big East Tournament champions.
The Kenner league is not only a good environment for new Hoyas to get their feet wet and returning Hoyas to measure up against other experienced talents, but it also gives players an opportunity to try out new skills and get into a rhythm before the season starts. In the past, such momentum has given many players an edge that has carried on into the season and beyond. Over the past few years, our favorite Hoyas have experienced a consistent amount of turnover and the absence of summer play has left many newcomers at a relative disadvantage compared to prior Hoya players, which has contributed to some slow starts out of the gate for the team. This time around fans had the pleasure of watching eight new Hoya faces take the court to showcase the skills that landed them on the Hilltop.
After a historically tough season last year (we all know what happened), the GU administration renewed their commitment to head coach Patrick Ewing and finally took off some of the training wheels that had limited his operational flexibility and creativity previously. The rest of the coaching staff was shaken up and Ewing brought in a couple of heavy hitters to hit the recruiting trail. The result: a nationally elite transfer class that is poised to help turn this slowly-sinking ship around.
Though Baltimore native and LSU-transfer Brandon Murray - a player Ewing was originally very interested in coming out high school – and the return of Maryland-transfer Qudus Wahab headline the incoming class, the new staff was also able to bring in several more transfers that should help to tip the scales in a meaningful way. Sprinkle in two promising freshmen, and you end up with a new team that is upgraded at every position and has depth that Ewing has not had since the in-season disaster of 2019 that set this program back a few years.
Without further ado, I will just jump right into it and give an assessment of what each player showed this summer and what you might then expect to see on the court in the fall:
(Transfer - UConn)
Akok only played a few minutes in one game before getting hurt and I was not in attendance. If he is fully heathy, then the intraconference transfer likely starts at the 4 to begin the season. He is a huge potential X-factor, as many observers have not yet been able to factor in his potential impact given his injury-riddled last few years. The last time we saw him suit up for UConn he was still regaining form after tearing his Achilles tendon in February 2020. He combines elite shot blocking skills with a proven ability to stretch the floor beyond the arc. Those two skills are the main reason Ewing wanted him coming out of Putnam Science Academy. Combine that with elite timing and a great motor, Akok has a very solid foundation to work with. Kudos to the staff for getting their man the second time around.
Honorable Mention All-Kenner League
Denver was a pleasant surprise this summer. It is not always easy to live up to the expectations you set in high school, but he did that and more during Kenner. Denver showed that he can play both PG and SG, and he was an effective scorer on all three levels. He is a true combo guard that displayed a deft jump shot (good balance, mechanics and skill), sneaky explosive athleticism (reportedly has the highest vertical on the team) and a cerebral ability to lead his troops on both ends of the court. Oftentimes when he would go to the bench the other team would immediately go on a noticeable run. He may be slightly shorter than advertised coming out of Gill St. Bernards, but he makes up for it with above average strength, good burst and solid fundamentals. He is a smart and mature player with the game, attitude and ability to compete for minutes from day 1. At the very least, he will ensure that Dante Harris and Primo Spears keep pace developing. If not, he will gradually begin to eat into their minutes sooner rather than later. He missed the latter half of the summer session for what seemed like precautionary reasons after getting tangled up with Jordan Riley and hurting his ankle going for a steal on July 17. He will definitely have to work on his 1-on-1 defense at this level, because at his size he will be prone to bigger guards and players trying to take advantage of his average length on D inside the arc. Either way, he should get ample PT this year and projects to a core part of the rotation for years to come.
He is a tricky player to give an assessment of without sounding too excited. The uber-athletic freshman was, in some ways, a revelation this summer. His unexpected commitment and relatively low-profile recruitment left most Hoya fans with the sense that he was borderline project. We had very little intel on what we could realistically expect from the 6’7” wing from Savannah, Georgia. Most of us knew he was athletic, but when you watch him play in person it quickly becomes apparent that he is an elite athlete even by NBA standards. He is quick off the floor (16+ rebounds in his Kenner debut) and is a menace in the open floor. This summer D’Ante was consistently filling up the stat sheet and played well within the team concept. Though he is still very left hand dominant, he plays the type of balanced game that helps him play to his strengths. The thing that stood out to me the most was his college-ready body and his basketball IQ. He spaces well on both offense and defense, and once he receives the ball he immediately looks to shoot, drive or pass the ball (usually the sign of an efficient, team player). He is a ball mover. Though his perimeter shot did not fall all that often (okay, pretty infrequently), he showed an ability to stay ready and get shots up within the flow of the offense. He has solid mechanics and with more reps and conditioning he can turn into a lethal 3-and-D threat. He has good defensive instincts and is a sneaky good passer as well. He is the definition of a diamond in the rough and his smart play gives him one of the highest ceilings on the team. Not necessarily projected to play many minutes in the first year, I believe that he at least showed that you can put him in for spot minutes here and there and there should not be much of a drop off, if any. It will be interesting to see how the staff chooses to utilize him.
Wayne Bristol Jr.
(Transfer – Howard)
The 2020 MEAC freshman of the year saw his first live game action in over a year, apparently having sat out the 2020-2021 season with a labrum issue (as well as Covid-19 precautions). He was definitely working through some rust, but he slowly got more and more loose as the summer went on. His high point came during the opening round of the playoffs when he had an 8-10 minute stretch where he was flying around the court pushing for a win. Unfortunately, the rest of his summer was squarely up and down and he never seemed to get into a rhythm. Despite that, he did flash ability on both sides of the ball, displaying an all-around, fundamental game that you can plug into almost any team. He may not be great at any one thing (his jump shot looked good but did not fall often this summer), but he is good at many facets of the game. He can shoot, pass and finish (with deceptive bounce at times). Wayne is a smooth operator and competes and moves his feet well laterally on defense. He is probably the most well-rounded player on the team, but he will have to ramp up his play to carve out a role this fall. Currently, he is a bit of a tweener on the wing. He is smart and skilled, which allowed him to slide between the 1-3 at times, but for the Hoyas he is strictly a 2/3. He is a legit 6’6” and has some wiggle, despite being more of a north-south player, but he will have to improve his handle a bit to avoid costly turnovers when playing the 2. I have a hunch that the more wide-open college setting may very well help free up some spacing for him on offense though.
(Transfer – LSU)
First Team All-Kenner League
Talk about another surprise. Brad make a HUGE splash this summer, going from a relatively unknown talent to being very well-known in McDonough by making First Team All-Kenner League in his debut season. He comes from a great basketball pedigree (Oak Hill Academy and IMG), so he has played with and against many talented players and has learned from some of the best coaches in the country. That much became obvious during the summer session. At the beginning of summer Brad was focused on practicing and showcasing his shooting ability from the perimeter, and boy was it working. As the summer progressed (and Naji Marshall joined the team), Brad focused more on his pick and roll duties and found himself in good position often around the basket and feasted around the rim. Whether through defenders or around defenders, it did not make much along a difference as he way able to finish consistently inside. He pretty much dunked everything. Once he gets going to the rim there are really no players strong enough to keep him from following through at the rim. He has elite athleticism and strength (he is basically built like LeBron but with slightly wider hips) and will be a welcome surprise to many Hoya fans this fall. All things considered, he is pretty active (on offense) and does a good job of staying engaged throughout the game. To me, his game will translate well in an organized setting because he has a good grasp of spacing and timing. When playing with a smart NBA player like Naji Marshall (Xavier/Pelicans), he showed very good timing and spacing. Marshall consistently found him in the pick-and-roll; Brad was a safety net of sorts for Marshall. The challenge for him will be to show consistency on defense and make sure he is doing enough of his work early to maintain an advantage on both sides in the paint. Depending on what Ewing values for this team (and Akok’s health), Ezewiro will push for starter-level minutes between the 4/5. As a backup at the 5, Ezewiro appears much more capable than Ryan Mutombo, unfortunately, but these are problems many Hoya teams over the past few years would have paid good money to have.
Although he suited up for a handful of games or so, Dante pretty much earned an incomplete alongside his new buddy from UConn. I was able to catch a couple of his games, but for the most part he never played more than half a game and played even less most of the time. He seemed to prioritize giving his body rest and he was nursing some injuries. Despite that, the put up one of the better Hoya performances in his penultimate appearance, dropping 21 points on 8-10 shooting (4-5 from 3) in about 16-18 minutes of play. In limited minutes this summer he flashed a slightly improved outside jumper, and in that aforementioned game he was blowing by his primary defender at will. The 2021 BET MOP is a known commodity at this point and had nothing to prove in Kenner. His level of involvement generally reflected that. The big question that is at the top of most Hoya fans’ list is who will start at PG this fall. Based on what I saw (I attended about 80% of Kenner overall; yes I have no life) the competition will be extremely close. Dante has the edge in (Big East) experience and a familiarity with the team, but the shiny new toy (Spears) also brings a lot to the table. My guess is it will be a true open competition and they will both start off playing an important role. The key will be for him to take care of his body and stay healthy. Apparently, he has been dealing with some intermittent back spasms. Fortunately, Ewing has more depth at the PG position than he has ever had and it bodes well for this team. Every player capable of playing productive minutes at PG brings a little something different to the table. The staff did a good job of avoiding redundancy, even if the backcourt feels more crowded than in years past.
(Transfer – Arizona State)
Second Team All-Kenner League
Hoya fans everywhere are praying that he receives a waiver to play this season. If you are not, well, you probably should be. Like right now. I made this prediction on Twitter about midway through the season, but Jay displayed the type of mature and effective game that will surely make him one of the Hoyas most impactful players this upcoming season> He has a very real chance to be the most important player on the team, if not the best, in part because of his experience level and the type of savvy, relentlessly competitive style he plays. He is a known commodity as a shooter and has scored in double digits all three years he has been in college. This summer he was all over the court making plays from all three levels. He has good vision, he is a good athlete and he has a very good jumper (even though he probably missed a few more than he would have liked). One of the first things that jumps out about him is his competitiveness. In some respects, he wears his heart on his sleeve. On day one I was a little concerned that it was messing with his focus, but as the summer progressed it became clear that he draws strength from the emotion he has on the court. He plays a slightly Kyle Lowry-esque game and stays at a low angle when dribbling all around the court. He is a force in transition, always putting pressure on the defense, and he can get hot and get buckets in droves when he is on. He moves his feet well on defense and is a very smart and mature player. He is always steady and never too far away from flipping a switch. His conditioning always seemed good and he can play both PG and SG at a high level, though his handle might need to be slightly tighter to play extended minutes at PG in the Big East. Still, his low dribble mitigates a lot of that. He projects to be a starter if the NCAA can find it in their hearts to clear him. The hometown hero out of Woodrow Wilson HS is poised to put on a show. Luckily for us, he has two more years of eligibility either way. If Dante and Primo were not on the team, Heath would very likely be capable of starting at PG. he is premium insurance in the backcourt, as well as a leader. His commitment was a slight surprise to many Hoya faithful, but I expect him to help stabilize and elevate the play of this team. I have him sharpied in as a starter at the 2.
(Transfer – USC Upstate)
Honorable Mention All-Kenner League
Bryson was a late addition to the summer session, but he hit the ground running when he stepped into McDonough. I probably only caught about half of his games, but in those minutes I saw a player who played with poise and confidence. He is a college basketball veteran and plays like it. His shooting percentages were nothing to write home about, but for the most part he took and missed a lot of good shots that usually probably fall for him. From the second he stepped on the court he already seemed like a crowd (and announcer) favorite in McDonough. I guess being the elder statesman comes with its perks. Bryson did not dominate in his play, but he did drop around 30 a few times and displayed an all-around game that should allow him to fill the cracks between the 2-4 where as needed. His 3-point jumper was not on display this summer (that I saw), but his reputation and pedigree in that area are real. Some Hoya fans wondered whether he could play the 4, and despite being 6’6” and pretty lean, he played some pretty solid post defense at times. He shut down Naji Marshall on a few extended post-up attempts in his second game by using his wide shoulders and sound defensive positioning to avoid being a liability in that area. He is also a good rebounder when he is playing inside the arc. Though not as bulky as Chudier Bile, he projects to be at least as good. He probably will not play major minutes at the 4, but he can easily slide to that position for stints at a time, especially in small ball lineups. Of note, if Brandon Murray starts at the 3, he allows a player of Mozone’s stature to steal a few extra minutes at the 4 without giving up much size. While Mozone has some real overlap with some other players on the roster, he has some real potential to be a leader and play a key role on this team. In a world where Brandon or Akok were not on this team, he would definitely be starting. Keep an eye on him.
(Transfer – LSU)
Third Team All-Kenner League
Well, what can I say that has not already been said? The first commit and crown jewel of this summer’s transfer class was as advertised. He was the domino that got things rolling and his transfer marks the second time in four years that Ewing has landed a Top 3 transfer player. It has not been the ideal way to fill holes in a roster, but it sure beats the alternative. Especially as frequent and sudden player movement becomes more and more widespread throughout the NCAA. Though I am not yet ready to pencil him in as a sure-fire NBA player quite yet, as many Hoya faithful already have, am a big believer in his game and if he plays like he did this summer he should be our best overall player. The young man from Baltimore can score from all three levels, he can shoot, he can pass, he can rebound, he can block shots, he can play the passing lanes and he is a multi-position defender. He is also a bit of a terror in transition. Once he gets going to the basket, he is hard to stop. He moves well, has good wiggle and sports an array of moves that help him to get free from defenders. He is unexpectedly quick off of the floor at times and has enough skill and strength to cause problems and mismatches for whoever is guarding him. Quite simply, the former All-SEC Freshman is a game changer for this squad. He appears to have added about 10-12lbs to his frame, which should help him hold up physically in the Big East. He took a few tough shots and falls this summer, but showed an ability and toughness to bounce right back. The Baltimore Polytechnic Institute product is all but sharpied in as a starter at the 3 and he adds a lot of versatility to this team. His chemistry with Primo Spears in the backcourt was on full display this summer, which makes sense as the two have also reportedly been extremely close friends off the court for a while now. The two know exactly how to put each other in position to succeed on the court. The only reason he did not make one of higher All-Kenner League teams was likely due to missing a couple of games. Regardless, he can do it all and I expect him to compete for an All-Big East selection.
It was definitely an up-and-down summer for Ryan. It took a little while for him to get into a playing rhythm. I had very high hopes that he would be able to compete for significant minutes at the 5 this year (pre-Qudus), but I did not see much growth in his game from a physical (or skill) standpoint. Some Hoya fans contend that he added some size and strength, but that is not what I observed. The unstructured Kenner setting did him no favors, considering he is more of a back-to-the-basket center who is most effective in the paint, but I definitely expected to see more from him. He just seemed a bit disengaged outside of a couple of games and he floated through too many contests. He still has okay touch from the outside – perhaps he can maximize his skills in that department to help mitigate what he gives up in the athleticism department. He was able to rebound and block shots a little this summer, but he was often the tallest player on the court by a good margin. His best performance reportedly came in a matchup against Wahab, but unfortunately, I was not in attendance for that. He projects to play backup minutes this year and depending on the matchup I would not be surprised to see a few DNPs. In my opinion (not worth much), he just lacks the strength and quickness to make an impact this year. He was consistently pushed off of his spot, but to be fair he has already shown the ability to get good paint position during the real season when he’s able to do his work early. On the positive side; he is still young, has a good foundation and the competition in practice this year should definitely push him to improve. My hope is that he sticks with is and displays growth as the year wears on.
Jordan also had a bit of an up-and-down summer, but that was more due to factors outside of his control. His coach was playing with is minutes (he did not start him) and heavily favored a Terp duo (Noah Batchelor and Ian Martinez) in backcourt for On Point. Despite that, Jordan still had a few games where he was able to get loose and make some plays. Most Hoya fans already know that he can jump out of the gym, but he made sure that the McDonough crowd was aware as well as he had a few spectacular dunks here and there. In addition, he flashed his patented ability to pin opponents’ shots on the backboard on a few occasions (Brandon was also good at this). His jump shot was inconsistent this summer, but he appeared to be focusing on getting his arms and legs underneath him after getting injured last summer (shoulder) and missing the vast majority of the season. He used the games to practice jumpers he might not necessarily use during the season, which is prudent in this type of setting and I expect them to fall eventually. He has beautiful balance, elevation and form on his jumper. Unfortunately, On Point did not win many games and they were consistently playing from behind. He is not yet much of a passer, but he has the tools to become one. He is, without question, the most physically gifted guard on the roster and has a solid set of accompanying tools. The challenge for him will likely be putting things into order between the ears. He will need to play a smart brand of basketball and make the most of his opportunities in order to carve out a significant role this year. He still needs to distance his game from the NYC-heavy style that many players from that area develop. The former Gatorade Ney York Player of the Year is still young and coming off an injury; he should strive to remain patient in a crowded backcourt this year. Despite not making much of an on-court impact so far, by all accounts he seems like a great teammate and many Hoya fans would likely be devastated if he moves on before he is able to find a way to showcase his impact as a player. He will likely get opportunities this fall, so if he hits his open jumpers and uses his defensive tools to hound opposing guards up and down the court he should carve out some type of role at some point.
Amir “Primo” Spears
(Transfer – Duquesne)
Second Team All-Kenner League
Primo is definitely the shiny new toy on the block. In part because some Hoya fans anointed Dante as the resident whipping-boy last season, but also because his game brings an exciting dimension to the table. He is a true PG and was presumably brought in to compete with Dante for the starting PG spot. The Hoyas now have two good, young lead guards, but they each bring something different to the table. Though Primo is just a sophomore, the Duquesne product has already proven himself at the college level, albeit for a struggling team in the A-10. He led the Dukes in scoring as a freshman last team and any inefficiencies were likely due to roster suboptimal balance that had him shouldering an outsized load. This summer Primo hit the ground running. He has pretty good handle and displayed an ability to dribble his teammates open in the lane. He plays somewhat like James Akinjo in that respect, but Primo is a little bigger, stronger and faster he seems to have a better ability to see the court from all angles. Similar to Akinjo, he is a scoring point guard and the challenge for him will be determining when to score and when to distribute, though he is a little more fluid than Akinjo in that regard. In addition to being a good lead guard with good vision, Primo can also fill it up from all three levels in a variety of ways. He shot a good percentage from the perimeter, using a variety of spacing and step-backs to get himself free. He also consistently got to his spot in the midrange and dropped in a number of jumpers. He can shoot equally well off of the spot-up and off of the dribble it seems. He also has a variety of crafty moves at the rim, as he was able to finish with both strength and finesse depending on what the situation called for. In one game, he even received a pass from Brandon at midcourt and in two dribbles exploded to the rim for a super clean and emphatic windmill dunk. He has great quickness and he tends to use it well. Though I watched him play more than a handful of times it was hard for me to get a read on how effective a defender he is. He played the passing lanes pretty well all summer (not exceptionally), but I did not notice him stand out in terms of defensive positioning or team principles. In that department, I would still give Dante the edge (if he is able to regain his freshman form). Primo’s Second Team performance was well-deserved and he, along with Ezewiro, probably had the most consistent and productive summer of any Hoya (Brandon missed too many contests). Though I would not be surprised to see Primo start at PG to begin the season, my gut tells me that the incumbent (if healthy) will be given the first stab at it and I do not think he will relinquish that role easily (Dante alluded to welcoming the competition on social media this summer). Regardless, they both probably end up playing a fairly even number of minutes and sharing the court at times. This is a good problem to have.
(Transfer – Maryland)
First Team All-Kenner League
Qudus, a known commodity at this point, also earned an All-Kenner League First Team selection. Hoya fans are very familiar with his path at this point, so I will not belabor that story. I did not watch many of his games last season, but on paper his role was definitely diminished and his numbers were down. Despite that, in his return to McDonough I saw a player who had significantly developed his tools since the last time he was officially on the Hilltop. In a vacuum, Q showed much improved quickness, coordination and athleticism. What was once a bit of a weakness for him may now be a strength. In addition, his jump shot was much more fluid and he has definitely extended his range. He flashed a new turn-around jup shot and the ability to hit a couple of set threes. Whether those things lead to better in-game performance on the court remains to be seen, but he is much more well-equipped now to handle an up-and-down pace. The Lagos native and Flint Hill product believes that the Big East plays a much faster brand of basketball than the Big 10 and he will have ample opportunity to showcase the skills he picked up in his year off. He is still a good rebounder, and possibly an even better shot-blocker, but he still appears to struggle with seeing out of the post. It is hard to say for sure if he is still the same passing black hole he was as a sophomore, considering the setting, but he did not show anything to say that he is not. He is obviously penciled in as a starter at the 5 and should be a consistent force on both sides of the ball for the Hoyas. His talents were surely and sorely missed last year and I expect to see a hungry and motivated Q on the court this fall. There are a few talented centers in the league, but if he does not make an All-Big East selection that will probably mean that this team fell way short of expectations (yes, we’re still allowed to have those). Hopefully Q will be able to play around 28-30 minutes for this team.
My prediction based on the schedule? 19-12 (10-10 in BE). That would obviously be quite the turnaround, but I believe we are improved 2-deep.
I will leave it at that. Discuss!