SAXTONS RIVER, Vt. – When you pull up to Vermont Academy’s gym, a look off to the left of the main entrance strikes you. A ski jump is setup there, a reminder that over 20 years ago the school won championships in that sport. It’s also a reminder that the state of Vermont, known for its skiing, isn’t exactly a place where basketball would come to mind very quickly, even with the success of the University of Vermont a ways north during the past decade.
It hasn’t taken long for Jesse Bopp to get Vermont Academy competitive in the new-look Class AA of NEPSAC. Entering his third season at the helm, Bopp put together a competitive group in his first season and a talented group last year that lost to powerhouse Tilton in the quarterfinals of the NEPSAC Tournament. This time he has good talent again and should have his team in the mix in a Class AA where there is a lot more evenness among the teams from a talent and experience standpoint.
The team will first and foremost revolve around floor leader Daquien McNeil (6’3″ Sr. PG, Baltimore (MD)), who returns for his third season at the school. Having been there since Bopp got started, he knows by now what the coach wants and expects from him, and looked on Sunday like he has plenty of confidence. Athletic and with a good body, he hit a few shots from long range while driving to score less, but most of all he looked like a floor leader.
The best player on the floor was Richard Williams (6’5″ Sr. SG-SF, Brooklyn (NY)), who has a live body. Athletic and with a body that’s not there yet, he can knife to the basket with some long strides, got out in transition often and has some ball skills that could use upgrading. The biggest knock on him during the workout is that he could have done a better job guarding his man, a shooter, by getting up on him and forcing him to drive, but he instead gave him space too often.
That player is Marcel White (6’5″ Sr. SF, Lake Wales (FL)), who will impress you instantly when you see his sculpted body. Unfortunately, that goes away once game play starts, because he settles far too often for jumpers, including contested ones, and seems to lack the ball skills to drive effectively and very rarely tried to do that. He wasn’t bashful when he got the ball, either, so all in all his feel for the game needs a good deal of upgrading.
Hassan Hussein (6’8″ Jr. SF-PF, Washington (DC)) might be the most intriguing prospect on the team. Long and with a slight frame, he, too, is not bashful and at times forced up some bad shots, and his lack of strength showed at times. On the bright side, he’s athletic and hit a few mid-range shots, but he also doesn’t seem to have a defined game right now.
For most of the workout, Hussein was matched up on George Funtarov (6’7″ Sr. PF, Sofia (Bulgaria)), who was similar to some other players when he got the ball. He was an outright black hole at times, forcing up some shots that weren’t good to take. But he also has a relatively mature body and showed the tools to play a little of both forward spots, though he’ll most likely be a stretch power forward at the next level as he has some scoring tools but is just okay shooting the ball.
Steffen Ghantous (5’10” Sr. PG-SG, Los Angeles (CA)) hit several three-point shots on the day, a good sign because that’s one key thing he will be counted on for. Sebastian Lopez (5’10” Sr. PG, Indianapolis (IN)), Billy Petzold (6’1″ Sr. SG, Detroit (MI)) and Miles Hearon (6’0″ Sr. PG, Saxtons River (VT)) will also be in the mix on the perimeter. All four will get minutes and blend in with the bigger names on the roster.
With Class AA looking like it might be more for the taking than in a long time, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Vermont Academy is one of the teams in the mix. If McNeil leads as he appears capable of and others play to their potential, they may have the formula to make a deeper run in the NEPSAC Tournament – all while many others in the area, including out-of-towners, think about skiing first.