Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Those players are all gone now — Ennis to Syracuse, Young to Pittsburgh and Briscoe to Roselle Catholic — and it’s a new era at St. Ben’s.
Coach Mark Taylor — who is allowed to recruit nationally and worldwide because St. Ben’s is not a member of the state athletic association — has assembled a roster that includes four young Puerto Rican players, three Lithuanians, a Canadian and several Americans, including VCU pledge Jon Williams.
“This team is working really, really hard,” Taylor, now in his third year at the school that featured J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Samardo Samuels, told SNY.tv Tuesday. “We work hard. It’s a totally different makeup than what we were last year, the last two years. We’re going to be a little different, but we’re pretty good. So I’m excited about it, we’ll see how good.
“As hard as they work it’s going to be fun to coach.”
Coaches from West Virginia, Miami, Texas Tech and Lehigh were in the gym Tuesday to check out some of the young talent.
Arnaldo Toro, a 6-foot-9 2016 forward from Puerto Rico, is already attracting a lot of interest, especially after he helped a depleted St. Ben’s team dismantle St. Anthony by about 20 points in a recent Fall Ball game at Paterson Kennedy. (College coaches are not permitted to watch those games.)
“Arnaldo has a lot of positives going for him,” said Taylor, who coached Andrew Bynum and Jay Williams in his other coaching tenures. “He’s big, he’s strong, He’s tall and he can shoot it. He can finish in the post. He rebounds well. He takes up space and if you leave him open he can knock down shots. His upside is going to be how athletic he gets. If he can improve some of his athleticism, he’s going to be a high-major.”
Toro, who said he models his game on Kevin Durant, is one of four Puerto Ricans who played for the Puerto Rico Playmakers AAU team on the St. Ben’s roster, along with 6-7 1/2 2016 forward Nick Washington, as well as 5-11 guards Josh Colon and Edwin Cancel,
“The four of us came here,” Toro told SNY.tv. “It’s better, feel like a family.”
He added: “It’s a better opportunity for me and try to get a scholarship when I’m going to be a senior.”
Todd Washington, Nick’s father and the head of the Playmakers, said: “Arnaldo is one of the top players in the class of 2016. He’s totally under the radar for now but that will change as more people get to see him. He had a great summer playing for the Puerto Rico 16U National Team that qualified for the 2014 17U World Championships.
“He’s only 15, 6-9 and can play three positions. He is a great kid, a, hard worker and his upside is totally off the charts. He has a chance to be a top 10 level player in the class of 2016. And he is not one of these 17 year old 10th graders either. He is a ‘true sophomore.'”
West Virginia, Miami, South Carolina, Texas Tech and Georgetown are some early teams to express interest.
“Now I’m a four or five, I’m trying to work on [becoming] a three,” Toro said. “Try to get in college as a three.”
Meantime, Taylor says his best player outside of the VCU-bound Williams is 6-10 2014 Lithuanian forward Norbertas Giga (pictured), who has yet to practice because of a sprained ankle.
Giga is one of three Lithuanians on the roster, along with 6-10 2015 Domantas Pavlovskis and 6-8 2016 Martynas Pacecieus.
“I can’t play till next week maybe,” Giga, 18, told SNY.tv, referring to the ankle.
Giga averaged 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds last year for the Lithuanian U17 team in the World Championship.
“I like him a lot,” Taylor said. “He can shoot it really well and he’s very physical so those are two good qualities in a big guy.”
So far, Florida State, Texas, Utah and Maine have shown interest, while several other schools have come to see him, only to find out that he’s hurt.
“As a big guy, I can shoot 3-pointers,” Giga said. “I have dribble, I can pass. I see court good.”
Along with the foreign players, St. Ben’s includes several young Americans, including 6-5 2015 guard Elijah Cain and 6-2 2017 guard Trevon Duval.
“Elijah Cain is going to be special,” Taylor said. “He’s just gotta get used to playing at the this level….Trevon Duval is going to be super.
“We got a lot of guys who are very good that aren’t as high-profile so I think we’re a lot deeper than we were the last two years.”
Aware that St. Ben’s reached the ESPN final last year, Toro and Giga are both anxious to get back there.
“I really hope so, we’re working on it,” Toro said.
“We win all tournaments when we participate,” Giga said emphatically, adding, “Yeah, I promise.”
As usual, St. Ben’s will play a national schedule with several games on ESPN, including a rematch with Montverde and games against Arlington (FL) Country Day and Chicago Simeon.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.