On Friday night, the first annual Josh Level Classic took place at Dudley High School with many of the top players in the state all under one roof. Headlined by UNC signee Theo Pinson, and the NC State-bound Martin twins, the Josh Level Classic was the perfect blend of emotion, and excitement, as it eloquently and effectively honored the memory of Josh, and served as the last major event many of the seniors will play in before heading off to college this summer.
The all-star game was put on by Kanayo Obi-Rapu, Level's best friend and former teammate at New Garden Friends School. With only a couple months to prepare, Obi-Rapu did an excellent job of using his pull to bring in high-profile talent to fill out the roster along with Denver Nuggets wing Quincy Miller, Florida State sophomore Montay Brandon, and Mercer sophomore Ike Nwamu as the coaches.
The night was kicked off by skill competitions, with a three-point contest featuring a final round composed of Ty Graves, JaQuan Richmond, and Keyshawn Woods. Graves showcased his easy, compact stroke, and went 13-20 overall to take home the trophy.
The dunk contest took place directly after, and was judged by a group of college players from the surrounding area. College of Charleston signee Donovan Gilmore had some emphatic jams, but it ultimately came down to Pinson and sophomore forward Dionte Overton. After Overton couldn't put one down on his second attempt, Pinson finished it off with a reverse dunk off a pass from Jalen Gavin, who was stationed in the upper deck.
There was an incredible atmosphere before tip-off, which was punctuated by a moment of silence for Josh. It continued into the early moments of the game, as Obi-Rapu drained a pair of deep threes to get the crowd on its feet. I asked Kanayo about what the experience meant to him after the game.
"Man, it's incredible. I'm thankful, I'm just trying to turn a catastrophe into an opportunity to bring the community together," said Obi-Rapu. "That's what the biggest thing is to me, just everybody can enjoy and embrace something as a community and come together under the circumstances."
Theo Pinson built on his performance in the dunk contest by putting on a show all night long, consistently knifing through traffic and finishing with some downright violent throwdowns. Like most showcase games, the JL Classic had an AND-1 feel, with the ball handler isolating his defender on the perimeter and a ton of transition opportunities with players clearing the lane for an oncoming dunker.
It was great to see the hard fought matchups between some of the premier players in attendance, including Pinson and Rutgers commit Ryan Johnson going at it, as well as recently uncommitted point guard JaQuel Richmond squaring off against Obi-Rapu. It was my first chance to see Johnson, who impressed me with his shot-making ability and effortless jumper.
The Martin twins went to work all game long, and in typical fashion, it was impossible to tell Caleb and Cody apart. They'll bring their versatility and playmaking ability to NC State next year, where they can make an immediate impact on a depleted Wolfpack roster.
Coming off his release from Wake Forest, Shelton Mitchell was the difference maker for Team Green. He's never the quickest, or the most athletic player on the floor, but his impeccable handle and stoic demeanor seems to always get the job done. His squad went into the fourth quarter trailing by 10, but they were able to force OT, where they pulled away for the 117-112 win.
Future Buffalo big man Ikenna Smart came away with the MVP trophy after dropping 20 points and imposing his will on the defensive end. He's added muscle over the past several months, and has the mobility and shot-blocking prowess to be a key cog in the Bulls' rotation as a freshman.
Below is a breakdown of the unsigned seniors, and underclassmen that stood out:
PG Shelton Mitchell: A phenomenal ball-handler, Mitchell is deceptive off the bounce, using an array of head fakes and hesitation moves to get to his spots on the floor. His composure is the most impressive aspect of his game. He controls the pace of play, never forcing the issue and consistently making the right decision with the rock. He still needs to improve his floater in order to finish over traffic at the next level, and he has to get into better shape after coming off a knee injury that limited him all year.
PG JaQuel Richmond: An efficient scorer at the rack with a lethal first-step and a tight handle. Richmond keeps defenders honest with his ability to knockdown shots out to 22-feet. He's always been more of a scorer than a facilitator, but he's improved as a passer, especially in the half-court set. His motor never wavers, and he's a more than willing defender on the perimeter. He's got to add muscle and continue to progress as a lead guard.
SF Malik Wright: I hadn't heard much about Wright coming into the event, but his physicality and aggressiveness made an impression. He's quick off the bounce, seeks out contact on his way to the rim, and can finish through traffic. He needs to sharpen his all-around game, which includes honing his shot from the perimeter and doing a better job of protecting the ball on drives to the rim.
PG Ty Graves: In recent months, Dennis Smith Jr. has been earning a lot of headlines, and while Graves doesn't have the flash of Smith, he'll put up a fight for the title of top point guard in the state for the class of 2016. The staple of Graves' game is his pure scoring ability. He has a fluid jumper and a quick release, and does an excellent job of setting his feet, squaring his hips, and stepping into his shot. He's as effective attacking to his left as he is going right, and he has a stutter-step hesitation move that allows him to blow right by his man on drives to the rim. He is more of a scorer than a true point guard, and he'll need to continue to add muscle going forward, but Graves has the makings of an elite point guard prospect.
SF Diondre Overton: Overton is an under-the-radar prospect who is poised to make a major jump this summer. An explosive athlete with major hops, Overton has the size and length to be a dynamic scorer and an impact defender at the next level. He has the framework of a high-major recruit, but he'll need to add to his game in order to earn some big-time offers. His perimeter game is sloppy and he had a tough time handling the rock in transition. He also needs to fine-tune his shot mechanics and extend his range out to the perimeter. Just a sophomore, Overton needs to get in the gym and fill the gaps in his game.
The best part about the JL Classic was how smooth the game went with only a couple of months to prepare. In the future, Obi-Rapu wants to get a main sponsor to help cover expenses, and with the level of talent among the top players in the state of North Carolina, the Josh Level Classic has a pipeline of high-profile recruits to occupy the roster.
"Hopefully, I can get an even bigger venue with a couple months in advance to really set this thing up. I'm trying to blow it out of the water next year. I'm gonna try and do it as big as I possibly can next year," said Obi-Rapu. "This means a lot to me, not just because of the players, or the basketball game, but because of Josh since he was my best friend. There's not enough I can do to make it special for him, but I'm going to try my best though."
As for Kanayo, he'll be headed to Longwood University this summer where his size, and shooting ability will allow him to transition between guard positions, and earn playing time from day one.
"I'm leaving for Longwood June 16th, we start summer school and I get to play for incredible coaches. Coach Gee, it's his first year here at Longwood, and Coach Luhn did an incredible job of recruiting me. He's one of the best recruiters I've interacted with and they're even better people. They have all my trust and all my respect, and I'm really ready to go there."