- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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What started as whispers turned to conversation inside the gymnasium in Fort Myers, Fla.
The topic was simple: Who is the strapping blond kid from Montverde (Fla.) Academy with the nonstop motor?
Haukur Palsson was a relative unknown entering the City of Palms Classic last month, prompting reporters and analysts to buzz Montverde's bench to inquire about him.
"He really made a name for himself [at the City of Palms]," Montverde coach Kevin Sutton said.
After that showcase of his ever-expanding game, the presence of the 6-foot-6 senior and native of Iceland was duly noted.
In the COP semifinals, he posted 11 points and eight rebounds in a gut-wrenching 63-51 overtime loss to Paterson (N.J.) Catholic. Palsson came off the bench to knock down a pair of free throws with less than a second left, giving the Eagles a 47-46 lead, but PC forced overtime when the Montverde bench was hit with a technical foul en route to a bizarre win.
Simply put, Palsson arrived that night.
Palsson might be Iceland's most delightful export since Bjork, the pixie-like singer of the Sugarcubes, which stormed American shores about two decades ago.
But there's nothing cute about his game. He plays with the passion of Iceland's most identifiable athlete, Eidur Gudjohnsen, an attacking soccer midfielder for AS Monaco (France). Palsson is about hard work and dispels the notion that Iceland does not produce basketball talent.
He grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant because "he is a complete player who can do it all," Palsson said. "That's the kind of player I'm trying to be."
And that's what has occurred since Palsson arrived in central Florida in late August. Palsson feels his game rounding out, especially his perimeter jump shot.
"I've improved all aspects of my game," he said. "But I've really improved my mental toughness."
Living away from home, speaking English (his second language) and learning the nuances of the American game will do that.
Palsson, a member of the Iceland junior national team, is the sixth man for the Montverde Eagles. He contributes about 10 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while connecting on a team-best 41 percent on 3-pointers and 53 percent from inside the arc.
"He provides a spark for us," Sutton said. "Haukur has a high skill level and has played with consistency. He defends well, passes and creates his own shot off the dribble.
"Unlike most [international] players, he understands defenses and how to play team defense. He's a solid basketball player."
Palsson originally was ticketed for powerhouse DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.), but when David Adkins accepted an assistant's position on the Maryland women's team, Sutton received a call. He quickly OK'd Palsson's move to the international school, which is located less than an hour from Orlando, Fla.
Sutton said Maryland coach Gary Williams stopped by practice Wednesday afternoon, and there have been other offers from Central Florida, South Florida, Vanderbilt and Harvard. Palsson, an honors student, is considering top-flight academic schools but says his long-term goal is to play professionally.
"That would be the ultimate, playing professionally, but right now I want to attend college," said Palsson, whose brother Magnus plays pro ball in Iceland and attended high school in Kentucky as a foreign exchange student.
Is there a leader for his services? Palsson tipped his hand.
"Send hand-written letters; that's personable. I'm also looking for schools that are like a family. I need to feel comfortable with teammates on and off the court. That's the way we do things here at Montverde," he said.
Palsson isn't the only undecided in the Class of 2010.
Here's a spot check of nine other undecided seniors, with their latest recruiting notes.
Justin Coleman and Gorgui Sy Dieng, Huntington (W.Va.) Prep: Coleman has several options, while Dieng is a newcomer to the American scene. The 6-5 Coleman, a resident of Richmond, Va., has yet to take the SAT but that hasn't stopped Louisville, Arkansas, Marshall and Marquette from offering, and Kentucky is on hold. Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford says, "Justin is a freakish athlete who can attack the glass at will." He's averaging 16.7 points and 5.6 rebounds in 11 games.
Dieng, a 6-10, 210-pound native of Senegal, enrolled at school in the fall. "He's highly skilled with a high basketball IQ. Gorgui protects the lane as a prolific shot-blocker," Fulford says. This season, he is putting up about 13 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks per game, with three triple-doubles. Louisville, Virginia Tech and Marshall have offered.
Jonathan Graham, Calvert Hall College, Baltimore: Graham has great bloodline; his father, Ernest, played at Maryland. But only Seton Hall (he visited there last weekend) has offered. Saint Joseph's, Temple and VCU could pull the trigger soon, while Maryland and South Florida are waiting. "Schools are concerned with his lateral movement, but they love his demeanor and attitude," coach John Bauersfeld says of the 6-8, 225-pound forward.
Graham, a late bloomer, could push out an additional 2 inches, Bauersfeld says. Graham also is fundamentally sound, can put the ball on the floor, can defend the post and shoots a hook shot with both hands. Last month, he was named the MVP of the Benedictine Tournament in Richmond, Va., and was on the all-tournament team at the Gonzaga D.C. Classic. He averages a double-double, 22 points and 12 rebounds, playing in the ultra-competitive Baltimore Catholic League against the likes of Mount St. Joseph and St. Frances Academy.
Jelani Hewitt, Northeast, Oakland Park, Fla.: Hewitt, 6-2, is a scorer who doesn't mind sharing the basketball. He's averaging 16.4 points, 5.6 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals while connecting on nearly 48 percent of his shots.
Last month, Hewitt (the nation's No. 37 shooting guard) turned in an MVP performance at the Hawk Kreul Classic in Coral Springs, Fla., totaling 25 points, six rebounds and five assists as Northeast tipped The Rock (Gainesville, Fla.) 51-39 in the final. He scored 24 points, making four 3-pointers, and dropped eight dimes in a lopsided semifinal victory. That's why schools such as Tulsa, James Madison, St. Bonaventure, Charlotte, Nebraska, Auburn, Alabama-Birmingham and UCLA are interested.
Jay Harris, Oswego East, Oswego, Ill.: Harris is considered the fifth-best senior prospect from Illinois and No. 21 point guard in the Class of 2010. North Dakota State and Ball State have offered; Wichita State and Valparaiso are close. Majors such as Providence, Miami and Indiana have called. "Most schools are waiting to see; some are scared off by his size," coach Jason Buckley says of the 6-1, 160-pound combo guard.
In December, Harris was named all-tournament at the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, but the Wolves fell to Peoria Central 76-69 in the championship. Harris became the leading scorer in the five-year history of the school's varsity program, pouring in 36 points against Willowbrook. Harris sizzled that day, dropping in eight of 11 shots, including six 3-pointers, and made 14 of 15 free throws.
Harris' most recent heroics occurred Tuesday, when he drained a fadeaway 35-footer at the buzzer in a 57-54 win over Streamwood. Harris grabbed a defensive rebound with seven seconds left, dribbled the length of the floor and nailed the winner over two defenders. He also scored a career-high 47 points, rallying Oswego East from a 23-point deficit against Plainfield North. Harris' average over the past six games is 35 points.
He needs three points to hit 1,000 career points. Expect Harris to become the school's first player to accomplish the feat Friday versus Oswego.
Kadeem Jack, Rice, New York: He undoubtedly is a sleeper in the senior class, rated as the nation's No. 45 power forward. He's considering a year of prep school to prepare him for college. Jack, a 6-8 leaper from Trinidad and Tobago, did not pick up basketball until he was 13 years old. Four year later, he's attracting attention from several Big East and SEC schools as one of the New York City Catholic League's forces.
Two weeks ago, Jack dropped 24 points, snared 20 boards and blocked six shots in a 71-56 win over rival Bishop Loughlin (New York). This week, he visited Arizona, where New York products Lamont "MoMo" Jones and Kevin Parrom greeted him. In December, he was named the MVP of the GSK Invitational's Shavlik Randolph bracket in Raleigh, N.C., beating out notables Reggie Bullock, Melvin Tabb and teammate Shane Southwell for the coveted award.
Dominykas Milka, Christ the King, Middle Village, N.Y.: The hulking 6-7 native of Mazeikiai, Lithuania, made it clear he's looking to play at an academic-oriented school. And why not? He sports a near-perfect 99 percent scholastic average. Several Ivy and Patriot league schools are looking. University of Rochester, a Division III power with a renowned business school, is drooling, but Manhattan has expressed the most interest. His numbers are solid -- eight points and 10 rebounds per game -- and his intangibles like heart and determination are immeasurable. "He's our engine, does all the unsung things," CTK coach Joe Arbitello says.
Michael Poole, St. Benedict's, Newark, N.J.: Poole, the nation's No. 45 small forward, is standing out on a squad that features Aaron Brown (Temple), Gil Biruta (Rutgers), junior Myck Kabongo (Texas verbal) and junior Sidiki Johnson (Arizona verbal). Along with teammates C J.P. Kambola and G Xavier Mumford, the 6-6 Poole will sign late.
Now that his perimeter game has kicked in, recruiters realize his athleticism, quickness and defense are complemented. "He's an intriguing guy for most schools; once scholarships open in the spring, Mike will have a place," St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley says. Right now, several Atlantic 10 schools have offered, but this week, Providence and Virginia inquired. "He's holding out for the ACC or Big East," Hurley says.
Maurice Walker, Brewster Academy, Wolfeboro, N.H.: At 6-10, 270 pounds, Walker is a presence in the paint and part of a strong contingent from Canada making waves at U.S. high schools. Multiple schools from all BSC conferences are involved. Early in the process, Pittsburgh was the leader but ran out of scholarships. "We'll see which coaches leave and where the scholarships open after the season in the spring," Brewster coach Jason Smith says.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon was in the house two weeks ago when Walker had 23 points and 14 rebounds versus South Kent (Conn.) School. This season, Walker is averaging 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on a squad with eight Division I players. Additionally, he's worked on his conditioning. "Maurice understands to be successful at the next level he'll have to lose 25 to 30 pounds; he's getting there," Smith says.
The schedule is chock full of appetizing events this weekend, headlined by the Montverde (Fla.) Academy Invitational Tournament, featuring four of the nation's top high schools, and the Great Southern Showcase for post-graduates in Jackson, Miss.
Here's a look at this weekend's top events from coast to coast:
Montverde (Fla.) Academy Invitational Tournament: As true high school invitational tournaments go, this one is a late-season winner. The MAIT has it all: elite players, coaches and teams.
Here's a sampling of talent:
Coaches: ACD's Rex Morgan and Oak Ridge's Reggie Cohen have won multiple Florida state championships. Stu Vetter of Montrose Christian, Michael Peck of Findlay and Sutton coached teams to national championships, according to various ratings services. All are masters of the X's and O's. All nine teams appear in either national or Florida state rankings.
Players: Tristan Thompson (headed to Texas) and Cory Joseph, Findlay Prep; James Bell (Villanova), Ugo Ukam (Harvard), Papa Samba Ndao (Boston College), Jamail Jones (Marquette), Montverde; Justin Jackson (Cincinnati) and Kelvin Gaines (Cincinnati), ACD; Terrence Ross, Josh Hairston (Duke) and sophomore Justin Anderson, Montrose Christian; Orlando Parker and juniors Terral Merritt and Adonis Burbage, Orlando Christian Prep; junior Darius Perkins, C-M; Cady Lalanne (Georgia), Oak Ridge; and Harold Doby (Georgia State) and Quentin Bastian, Oldsmar Christian.
"They'll be at least 60 Division I-bound players here this weekend," Sutton said.
Thursday's quarterfinals are: Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.)-Oldsmar Christian (Tampa, Fla.), 3 p.m. ET; Oak Ridge (Orlando, Fla.)-Arlington Country Day (Jacksonville, Fla.), 4:40; Orlando Christian Prep-Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.), 6:20; and Woods Haven Prep (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)-Montverde Academy, 8.
Because of a scheduling snafu – Eustis (Fla.) dropped out of the MAIT earlier this month -- Findlay or Chaminade-Madonna (Hollywood, Fla.) would play in one semifinal on Friday. If Findlay wins Thursday, they advance, if not, C-M gets the nod. The final round consolations and title game is Saturday.
Heading into the MAIT, Findlay is the favorite. In three seasons, Peck has guided the Pilots (23-1) to an 88-2 overall record, including 56-2 on the road. The Pilots can score, averaging nearly 88 points a game, and defend, allowing 61. Findlay shoots 52 percent, including 43.6 percent from 3-point land. The roster is bolstered by unsigned seniors 6-8 Godwin Okonji, 6-3 Marko Petrovic and 6-4 Thomas Laerke.
Adds Montverde's Palsson, "To be the best, you must play the best. This will be a great test for our team."
Great Southern Showcase, Jackson, Miss.: Think wall to wall basketball with some of the nation's premier post-graduate players performing at New Horizon Christian Academy, sponsored by National Post Graduate Athletic Association.
The sixth version event has 24 games, spread over three days, starting Thursday morning. There are 10 games on Friday, tipping off at 9 a.m. CT.
Teams from six states, centered mainly in the Southeast, will participate. Among the teams playing are IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), Covenant Christian (Marietta, Ga.), Rise Academy (Philadelphia), Southwest Academy (Lansing, Mich.), Southern Sports Academy (Jackson, Miss.) and Queen City Prep (Charlotte, N.C.).
Prime Time Shootout, Villanova, Pa.: The nation's top high school event franchise is at it again for three days at the Villanova University Pavilion. The 10-game slate on the Main Line tips Friday with four games: Pennington (N.J.) School-Pennsbury, 5:30 p.m.; Plymouth-Whitemarsh (Plymouth Meeting, Pa.)-Imhotep Prep (Philadelphia), 7; Strawberry Mansion (Philadelphia)-Coatesville, 8:30; Chester (Pa.)-Trenton (N.J.) Catholic, 10.
Saturday: Camden Catholic (Cherry Hill, N.J.), 7 p.m.; Academy of New Church (Bryn Athyn, Pa.)-Hotchkiss School (Conn.), 8:30; Mount Lebanon (Pittsburgh)-Archbishop Carroll (Radnor, Pa.), 10. The top matchup features Georgia Tech-bound Jason Morris (No. 14 small forward) of Hotchkiss against 6-9 Rakeem Christmas, an ESPNU Super 60 center, of ANC.
Sunday: Roman Catholic (Philadelphia)-Bartram (Philadelphia), 12 p.m.; Westtown School (West Chester, Pa.)-Shabazz (Newark, N.J.), 1:30; South Philadelphia-Penn Wood (Lansdowne, Pa.), 3. Going head to head in the opener are ranked point guards Tyrone Garland (Virginia Tech signee) of Bartram and Rakeem Brookins (Tulane) of Roman Catholic. Garland is the No. 30 at the point and Brookins is No. 38.
Bo Ellis Foundation Classic, Milwaukee: Wisconsin's finest players and teams congregate Saturday at Milwaukee South High for a tripleheader. Top games are Milwaukee South, featuring Derrick Cook, plays Cedarburg with Northern Iowa-bound forward Chip Rank. Also Milwaukee rivals Rufus King and Pius XI tangle.
Newark National Invitational, Newark, N.J.: The second annual event tips 11 a.m. at the Prudential Center, with six games supporting the Brian C. Doherty Scholarship Fund at St. Benedict's Prep.
"We've put together some outstanding matchups; we're expecting a good crowd," said St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley of the event drew nearly 6,000 in 2009.
The meat of the schedule starts at 2:30 with Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.) against St. Peter's Prep (Jersey City); followed by host St. Benedict's-De La Salle (Chicago); St. Anthony (Jersey City)-DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.); and St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.)-White Station (Memphis). The best individual matchup is between guards Kyrie Irving (No. 4 in ESPNU 100) and Memphis-bound Joe Jackson of White Station in the nightcap at 7:45 p.m.
Fairfax State Preview Classic, Los Angeles: Six games, including one girls' contest, are on tap Saturday at Fairfax High. The final two, involving Southern California teams, are worth the price of admission. Price (Los Angeles) plays Crenshaw (Los Angeles) at 6:30 p.m. PT; followed by Taft (Woodland Hills) vs. Gardena Serra at 8.
Keep an eye on a pair of ESPNU 100 players, 6-6 guard Allen Crabbe (California recruit) of Price and 6-5 Bryce Jones (UCLA) of Taft. At 6-9, Price's forward Richard Solomon will be a handful in the post for Crenshaw.
Brandon Knight of Pine Crest (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), No. 3 in the ESPNU 100, is making another push for national player of the year honors. His campaign theme is simple: Score more.
In his last five games, he's averaging 36 points, including season-best 49 vs. Grandview Prep (Boca Raton) on Wednesday. That bodes well for Knight, the nation's top undecided senior and 2009 Gatorade Boys' Basketball National Player of the Year, who recently surpassed 3,000 career points.
Fueling his recent scoring binge are games of 40, 36, 39, 33 and 32 points. Knight needs 202 points to eclipse Kenny Boynton's Broward County career mark for points. Boynton, a freshman guard at Florida netted 3,392 points, third all-time in Florida.
You can catch Knight on ESPN2 as Pine Crest visits Winter Park, featuring the No. 2 junior Austin Rivers, on Feb. 5 (7 p.m. ET).
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY.