Our abbreviated tour of fall leagues kept us relatively close to home over the past few weekends, as Full-Time Hoops made stops in Westminster, San Ysidro and Canyon Crest Academy to check out a few teams that we hadn't seen to see if they lived up to some of the billing their records might indicate.
One team that definitely caught our eyes is La Jolla out of the ever-tough Western League. While the league appears again to be a three-team race between St. Augustine, Cathedral Catholic and Mission Bay, La Jolla has the pieces to give any of the teams a scare. 2017 Vikings W Reed Farley is undersized at 6-3, but a cerebral, athletic wing that can fill it up from distance in a hurry. The Vikings are a solid team on both ends, and have size (watch out for improved 6-6 senior F Alex Pitrokfsky and 6-5 sophomore F Charlie Gal) and team chemistry. Morgan Albers had a solid summer with the California Bearcats and is a nice complement to Farley on the wing. Pencil the Vikings in as your No. 4 team in the Western League.
Mission Vista is a team that also looks to be vastly improved under new coach Davion Famber. The Timberwolves haven't had much success in the program's first four years, but that looks to soon change. Spearheaded by the 6-7 Burke Twyman (who will be the first player in program history to play college ball), the Timberwolves play a feisty man defense that gave their opponent, Scripps Ranch, fits. Twyman is a versatile face-up four who can knock down shots from deep, but must become a better ball handler, especially going to his left. Another surprise was the play of junior guard Ben Cabrera, who seemed to get to the basket at will and scored off those drives and got to the foul line with regularity. The Timberwolves also have size in the form of 6-9 senior Chris Butler and 6-6 senior Tyler Jones (who has all of the physical tools to play at the next level with some work). In a Valley League where Orange Glen and Ramona appear to be the top teams, don't count Mission Vista out of at least putting a scare in the top teams, if not stealing a game when the teams have to travel to Oceanside to play.
Another intriguing team to watch comes out of the Palomar League in Poway. With only five players on hand, the Titans handed a very deep Rancho Bernardo team a 39-36 loss to finish Top Gun League play at 4-2. This, of course, is just fall league and the Broncos did not have star 2017 guard JJ Overton, but this game said much more about the Titans chances of rebuilding on the fly after the graduation of stud SG Dalton Soffer than an indictment on the Broncos. The five who were there for the Titans - rugged senior guards Gerritt Grissen and Joe Murray, junior sleeper combo guardTim Mills and sophomores Zach Reiter and Jordan Cooke Harper - each bring unique traits to the table. Add returning starting point guard Derek Sit and several other returners to the mix, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Poway will remain in the hunt for second place in the Palomar League behind Torrey Pines. Rancho Bernardo, though, will still be my pick for second in league due to its underrated back court and solid mix of returners and newcomers.
Of course, both Poway and Rancho Bernardo will be chasing the league's standard bearer, Torrey Pines, which shows no signs of relinquishing its crown any time soon. Every year, John Olive's team reloads with seniors who have been waiting in the wings as understudies to the previous year's senior class. This year, Jackson Strong and Jack Heller, a pair of 6-3 sharp shooters, will have their turn in the limelight. Both players have made dramatic improvements to their physiques over the years, shedding their doughy frames in exchange for a more athletic build. Strong appears to be coming into his own as a ball handler and appears to be much more engaged on the defensive end. Heller does too, for that matter. Another "big" issue that teams will have to deal with is the steady improvement of 6-10 junior center Jake Gilliam, who might be the best passing big man in San Diego and one of the best on the West Coast. Still somewhat ponderous, Gilliam does an excellent job reading double teams and finding open shooters on the perimeter. Add into the mix Canyon Crest transfer Hayden Helfrich and excellent complimentary pieces in steady senior guards Steven Hickman and Dylan Bona and juniors Cade Shackleford and Ethan Esposito, and it's easy to see why the beat goes on for the Falcons.
Down in San Ysidro, I got a chance to see Morse and Mission Hills, which will each compete for their respective league crowns, face off against Montgomery and Castle Park, respectively. It was the first time seeing Morse since big man Brandon McCoy bolted to Cathedral Catholic, and my first time seeing sophomore 6-1 guard Robert Young since his return from a knee injury. While not as imposing as last season, Morse has some solid pieces, none more solid than senior wing Justin Davis, who is headed to Cal State Bakersfield. He does an excellent job on the boards and scoring from three levels. Young looked very quick off the dribble and the lefty shot it with decent consistency, but was lazy at times on defense and picked up quick fouls in both halves. He's got the prototypical frame you like in young combo guards, and made some nice plays with the pass, especially in transition, but consistency on both ends is necessary. The Tigers have some intriguing youngsters on their team as well, none more so than 5-9 sophomore point guard Will Bailey and 6-3 sophomore wing Akil Parrish. Both have very frail and immature frames, but their length suggests they haven't come close to finishing growing. Bailey is a solid shooter with a quick release, and Parrish can knock down mid-range shots at a consistent clip, but needs to become quicker off the dribble in order to create around the rim.
Mission Hills had no problems against Castle Park, and the Grizzlies got solid performances from senior shooter Tristan Hixon, who might be the best long-range shooter in a Grizzlies uniform since Cody Hicks and Kibret Woldenmichael in 2013, and Cameron Wager, a 6-3 stocky wing who has a nose for scoring around the basket. This Mission Hills team won't wow you with size, athleticism or explosiveness, but in the tradition of many of Curtis Hofmeister's best teams, will play a physical brand of defense and disciplined on offense.
Here are some other takes from the weekend that was:
Two under-the-radar seniors to keep an eye on are Del Norte W Conner Nelson and San Ysidro W Karlton Perry. Both around 6-6 and excellent shooters, Perry looks like a natural out on the wing, where he sets up in triple threat and uses jab steps and ball fakes to set up assertive scoring drives, while Nelson has a quick release and some pretty nice athleticism in transition. Nelson, who has never played AAU basketball, is an unknown commodity, while Perry, who played this summer with the Arizona Aces, is a prospect who is coming into his own late in the game. Both have the look of players who could play at the very least Division 2 ball at some point in their careers if they continue to work on their weaknesses. For Perry, it's operating with his right hand, and for Nelson, it is adding weight to his very thin frame.
Santa Fe Christian has a very underrated point guard in junior Owen Aschieris. The 5-11 guard has great length, solid quickness and is crafty with the ball in his hands, and seems to find the open guy almost every time when he drives into the paint. His high IQ and deft shooting will be necessary for the Eagles to keep pace in the Coastal League, especially after getting word that sophomore standout Matt Stevenson will miss the season after injuring his shoulder earlier in fall league.
A shooter who should be entering Division 1 radars is Westview junior Ben Okhotin. Okhotin has had a major growth spurt over the past two years, sprouting from 5-11 to 6-5 1/2, and his frame has transformed during the same time as well. Always an excellent shooter, Okhotin now has the athleticism to get to the basket and can finish above the rim in the halfcourt set. He also has improved as an on-ball defender. He compares very favorably to former Poway shooting guard Dalton Soffer at the same stage.
Ramona should contend for the Valley League title, especially with the addition of 6-5 forward Greg Knight, who is the nephew of former Bulldogs great Travis Knight. The Utah transfer should couple with Julian transfer Skyler Marushige and 6-7 senior Calvin Harris, who returns from injury, to give Ramona one of the bigger front courts in North County. Add in program standout Marco Cobian, shooter Blake Seits and the rugged junior Logan Knudson, and the Bulldogs have a chance to knock off Orange Glen. Defense on the perimeter will be on the big question mark.