The Best from the L.A. Invitational

In its inaugural year, the L.A. Invitational showed some promise this Memorial Day Weekend, showcasing some elite players like Mario Chalmers, Amir Johnson, Darren Collison, and D'Andre Bell...

For its first year, the L.A. Invitational at UCLA was a solid tournament, bringing in some of the top AAU teams from Southern California and a couple of out-of-staters. It looks like this tourney has some strong backing and, as it builds steam over the next couple of years, should be able to keep some of the other best west coast teams home for Memorial Day and become a major tournament during the annual holiday weekend.

Appropriately, the L.A. Stars won the first L.A. Invitational, beating the L.A. Rockfish. The stars were led by Amir Johnson, Jamal Boykin (on Sunday), and Jonathan Gibson.

Three prospects particularly stood out during the weekend -- Mario Chalmers, the 6-1 point guard from Alaska who is committed to Kansas; D'Andre Bell, the 6-5 small forward who is emerging as one of the best wings in the west and a top-100 caliber player, and Darren Collison, the 6-0 true point guard who cemented his status as the second-best point guard in the west behind Chalmers and a top-100 caliber type in his own right.

Chalmers, from Anchorage (Alaska) Bartlett, dominated play, with his ability to create, set up his teammates and score. Chalmers still isn't a pure point guard, looking to score first most of the time, but it's obvious he's trying to be more of a pure point, and he has the passing ability and court awareness to do it.

Darren Collison, from Etiwanda (Calif.) High, was the best pure point prospect over the weekend. Collison runs a team well, understanding how to run an offense and particularly get his teammates easy baskets. He is also quite quick, and his handle continues to improve, which is making him more dangerous off the dribble. Despite a bit of a strange stroke, Collison's outside jumper goes in consistently, which makes him a great triple threat.

D'Andre Bell, from Pacific Palisades (Calif.) Palisades, proved this weekend that he's easily among the few best wings in the west for 2005. Playing with tendinitis in his foot (which made him sit out completely Sunday), Bell still showed his many scoring dimensions. Besides Martell Webster, Bell could have the most scoring ability in the west. He has a great, lefty outside jumper, with a very quick and compact release. He already has a very healthy mid-range game, which he exploits well. He is a very good ball-handler, which enables him to get space for the mid-range or drive to the basket. He's good at not over-penetrating, using various moves, like hesitations, to create a lane. And while he's a shooter and a scorer, he's not a ball hog by any means, getting his points by letting the game come to him, while also being a very good passer and setting up his teammates. He's athletic, but not incredibly explosive, but the tendinitis might have affected his athleticism this weekend. We expect Bell to be among the players in the west that gets quite a bit more attention nationally as the summer progresses.

Ricky Sanchez, the 6-11 small forward from Puerto Rico who is now listed at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, played with the Pump #2 team, teaming up with Mario Chalmers. Sanchez continues to be intriguing, combining his 6-11 frame with very good perimeter skills. He does settle for outside jumpers too often, but he also makes them quite often, able to pull up quickly from behind the arc off the dribble, which is exceptional for a player his size. He's also intriguing because he is big and strong enough to guard a power forward, which makes him versatile.

We spoke with Sanchez briefly and he said he intends to go to college. But from what we hear there is a pretty large entourage attached to Sanchez that is said to be grooming him for a straight-to-the-NBA jump. It's unlikely, though, that Sanchez would be prepared a year from now to make that jump. It will be interesting to see if, even if he isn't ready, whether he would still be pushed to put his name in the draft. There is just so much attached to Sanchez that it makes you skeptical that he'll play college, or for how long, even if a jump to the NBA wouldn't be warranted.

Others that participated:

Amir Johnson, 6-9 junior center, Los Angeles (Calif.) Westchester. Once he got warmed up, and seemingly in the flow, Johnson played well. His offense hasn't come very far in the year he had to sit out from Westchester, but he's still the most athletic post in the west, which makes him a good rebounder and great shot blocker. He's gotten a bit bigger physically, with bigger shoulders and arms. He still, though, hasn't played at the caliber he did at last summer's Nike Camp, when he dominated national talent for three days, both offensively and defensively.

Jamal Boykin, 6-7 junior power forward, Los Angeles (Calif.) Fairfax. Boykin showed up for the last day of the tournament and played alongside Johnson for the L.A. Stars. Boykin usually plays for Belmont Shore, which traveled to North Carolina for the Bob Gibbons tournament, but Boykin decided to stay home since he had a drama production at his school. It's quite commendable of Boykin, not only that he'd choose to stay home for a school-related event, but the activity also emphasizes how well-rounded the kid is. On Sunday he played his usual game, playing hard on both ends of the floor. He has become very sly in recognizing and exploiting his strengths in high school and AAU ball, playing on offense mostly 7-15 feet from the basket and facing up. He can catch the ball from that distance and, if he has enough time, hit his set shot, or take it to the basket from there and be able to get enough space with his wide body to score. He doesn't play with his back-to-the-basket much, seemingly recognizing that he wouldn't be as effective against more athletic defenders. He's also effective passing the ball when he catches it in his 7-15 foot zone.

Jeff Pendergraph, 6-8 junior center, Etiwanda (Calif.) High. Pendergraph still is a long ways away offensively, but he's increasingly asserting himself with athleticism as a rebounder and a shot blocker, which enables him to impact games on both ends of the court. He had perhaps the athletic play of the tournament when, on a long putback, he caught it with one hand, hung in the air for what seemed like quite a while, and slammed it back with some considerably ferocity. He made some very athletic rebounds, too, in a game played against Amir Johnson. He's a prospect with some considerable upside, but it'd be good to see a back-to-the-basket offensive game develop soon.

Brian McTear, 5-10 junior point guard, Los Angeles (Calif.) Crenshaw. His L.A. Rockfish team made it to the semi-finals of the tourney, and McTear led the way. He's still pretty slight and narrow physically, having not gotten any bigger seemingly in the last couple of years. He does, though, have a very good point guard feel, plays under control, doesn't make mistakes and understands how to run a team. His scoring skills have continued to improve, and he's taking shots more readily when he has open looks. Without many good point guards in the west coast class of 2005, the steady McTear will have to get some looks from mid- to high-major programs.

Joseph Malone, 6-2 junior shooting guard, Los Angeles (Calif.) Verbum Dei. Malone is fairly unknown since he apparently sat out a great deal of his junior season for an unknown reason. But on the court he's definitely a prospect. He's a great athlete, not only with eye-popping hops but with great quickness and a great lean, muscular body. He had a couple of very athletic plays during the weekend where he flew over defenders for putbacks and dunks. He also showed a very pretty outside jumper, knocking down threes, while also showing an ability to drive well, too. He's someone to definitely watch.

There was actually more underclass talent on display during the weekend at Pauley Pavilion than juniors. The standouts were:

Brook Lopez, 6-10 sophomore center, Fresno (Calif.) San Joaquin Memorial. Robin Lopez, 6-10 sophomore power forward, Fresno (Calif.) San Joaquin Memorial. Brook has emerged as the better of the twins. He's more of the true post, playing more comfortably with his back the basket and banging. He also looks to have a slight edge in athleticism, and is a bit more aggressive. Brook has continued to get bigger (he and his brother played against Amir Johnson and not only had about an inch on Johnson but had wider frames), and progressively better. The twins are still very raw and seemingly getting control of their bodies, but the Lopezes are now easily high-majors and have the potential to develop into elite high majors. With more aggressiveness, they've started to really impact the game on both ends, blocking shots, rebounding, and being a defensive disruption in the middle. Offensively, they're still learning, but developing some post moves as well as clean-looking jumpers. Every time we see them they develop more, not only with their bodies filling out, but with their athleticism improving, along with their skills and knowledge of the game. They played Amir Johnson at least even in their matchup, able to stay with Johnson athletically, but also being able to push him around, probably each outweighing Johnson by 20 pounds.

Tre'Von Willis, 6-2 sophomore shooting guard, Fresno (Calif.) Washington Union. Willis is one of the best scorers in the west regardless of class. He combines one of the best shooting strokes, with an ability to hit mid-rangers and drive to the basket well with some good athleticism. He's become more dangerous as his handle has continued to improve, making him more dimensional than just a catch-and-shoot guy. But man, can he shoot, seemingly never missing a shot if he has a good look. He has an okay body – physically looking more like a point guard – but his scoring ability will make him one of the best in the class of 2006.

Alex Stepheson, 6-8 sophomore power forward, Studio City (Calif.) Harvard-Westlake. It's always disappointing when a prospect doesn't show up for a game, but it's then almost better when you find out that it was an academic-related issue. Stepheson was late Friday, but it was because he was still taking finals at Harvard-Westlake. The one big issue about Stepheson recently is how much bigger physically he's become in the last month. Apparently there is a new, and very effective, strength coach at Harvard-Westlake, and it's definitely apparent with Stepheson. His upper body has not only become more muscled but broadened in his chest and shoulders. And it's making a difference in his game. Stepheson, being athletic, still has an issue with playing small and not using his size and athleticism to play about the rim. He's doing it more now with his improved strength, giving him the confidence and power to player higher. Now, hopefully he can gain some strength and width in his still slender lower body.

Tyrone Shelley, 6-6 freshman small forward, El Cajon (Calif.) Christian. Shelley also has gotten bigger physically, with stronger arms and shoulders. It makes for one of the best freshman bodies around, a perfect small forward's body. Shelley's game has continued to develop also, with a much improved jumper and better ball-handling skills, which enables him to get to the basket better. He's also looking to pass, and he moves well without the ball. He's easily one of the elite players in the 2006 class in the west.

Other good underclassmen: Dane Suttle, 6-2 freshmen shooting guard, Los Angeles (Calif.) Westchester; Blake Wallace, 6-6 sophomore small forward, Anaheim (Calif.) Servite; Quincy Pondexter, 6-3 sophomore shooting guard, Fresno (Calif.) San Joaquin Memorial; Drew Viney, 6-3 freshman shooting guard, Villa Park (Calif.) High; Josh Miller, 6-7 sophomore power forward, Ayala (Calif.) High; and Taylor Harrison, 6-8 sophomore center, San Clemente (Calif.) High.

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