DUBLIN, Ohio -- Elevate Basketball Academy was the host to the 270 Hoops Proving Grounds for the sixth-straight week on Sunday. The theme for Sunday's event was another "Top 24 Challenge" as we had some of the area's top players in multiple classes doing battle for an hour and a half.
Playing in his third Proving Grounds event, Beechcroft junior forward Amani Lyles came away with his third championship and third MVP award, as the 6-foot-8 forward led a talented Team 3 unit that played with great energy, toughness and intensity on both ends of the floor.
Outside of Lyles, Team 3 received great contribution from Dublin Coffman junior guard Ajay Sheldon, Dublin Jerome sophomore guard Ryan Nutter, Columbus East senior wing Mekhi Bloodworth, Big Walnut senior forward Caleb Conard and Pickerington Central senior guard Zakai Alexander. Going 6-1 on the day, Team 3 made the plays necessary to come home with more victories than the other three teams combined.
Let's take a look at the top performers.
Amani Lyles (6'8 PF / Beechcroft / 2022): The unanimous Proving Grounds MVP this fall. Playing in three of the six weeks, Lyles has come home with the championship and MVP in all three events, going 19-6 in 25 games. The 6-foot-8 forward affects winning in every single way, as the physically imposing Lyles is a dominant forward matchup that knows how to take advantage of mismatches. On the offensive end, Lyles showed his improved ability to hit perimeter shots, knocking down threes off the catch, off movement and in transition. On top of that, Lyles was once again one of the event's top finishers, scoring through contact and using both hands. Defensively Lyles can guard multiple positions while being the best rim protector that Columbus has to offer. We'll say it again. If you're an Ohio mid-major and you haven't offered Lyles yet, you're late to the party.
Ajay Sheldon (6'1 PG / Dublin Coffman / 2022): Absolute bulldog. Absolute workhorse. Also extremely talented. Sheldon shook off the rust from a slow start and started to dominate Sunday's event in the backcourt, as his energy, IQ, playmaking ability and finishing at the rim helped Team 3 win a title. The Dublin Coffman junior has put in a ton of work this offseason and the results have shown, as he has become a bonafide top floor general in the area. Sheldon has a natural knack for scoring but can impact a game in many more ways than that, as he's always in the right place at the right time on defense, getting deflections, steals, blocks, poke outs and more. Offensively, Sheldon is a gifted scorer under the rim who knows how to put the ball in the bucket. If you're looking for a winner at the PG spot, Sheldon is a player to put high on your list in 2022.
Ryan Nutter (6'3 PG / Dublin Jerome / 2023): Much like Sheldon, Nutter is another bulldog who refuses to lose. In his second Proving Grounds showcase after winning MVP honors and a title at the 2023 Challenge in Week 2, Nutter came back as one of only five sophomores among 24 players. That did not matter for Nutter, as he entered the gym confident and looking to make an impact, which he did at a high level. Nutter can play both on and off the ball, as his IQ and elite feel always put him in a position where he is making plays for himself and others. Nutter showed a strong ability to get to his spots, scoring in in the mid-range and around the basket where he's a heady finisher that knows how to score over length. There isn't a better passer in the 2023 class, as Nutter consistently makes the right reads and has anticipation ability that is hard to come by. Defensively, Nutter paired very well with Sheldon, as the Dublin duo caused havoc on the perimeter and helped Team 3 get into transition. While there are only three 2023 prospects with Division I offers in the area, Nutter is a player with real D1 potential that college coaches will love once they watch his film.
Zakai Alexander (6'3 WG / Pickerington Central / 2021): Finally back healthy after missing a large chunk of the last high school season and the AAU season with an injury, Alexander looked like his old, bouncy self on Sunday. His arrival meant big impact on winning, as Alexander provided a vital role off the bench for Team 3. Communicating at an elite level, Alexander was the ideal teammate for his squad, as he played his role perfectly. Playing excellent defense with his long wingspan, Alexander shut off driving lanes and challenged opposing guards and wings into difficult shots. The rising senior just recently turned 17, as he is very young for his grade and will be a vital piece for a deep and talented Pickerington Central team this winter. Alexander is a capable shooter from the perimeter, has the strength, athleticism and quickness to finish at the rim and is a willing defender who will do exactly what his team needs to win each time out. The 6-foot-3 wing guard would be an absolute steal for small colleges looking for a winner with great toughness, discipline and unselfishness.
Caleb Conard (6'7 PF / Big Walnut / 2021): Much like Lyles, Conard was playing in his fourth Proving Grounds event and once again, the Big Walnut senior came away a champion. While Week 1 was Conard's breakout showing, scoring it at will and hitting the tough shots his team needed, the 6-foot-7 forward did what was needed from his team to come away with the title. Running the floor hard, moving off the ball, rebounding and finishing opportunities on the interior, Conard also stretched the floor and hit a pair of catch and shoot triples. With a great ability to put the ball on the floor and finish at his intriguing size, Conard is one of the best sleeper seniors in Central Ohio. With a single offer from Rio Grande, the 6-foot-7 Conard is receiving strong interest from some of the best Division III programs in the state, while several D1s and D2s have also reached out in the last few weeks after his coming out party on Sept. 6.
Mekhi Bloodworth (6'6 WF / Columbus East / 2021): A recent move-in from Kalamazoo, Mich., it was nice to get eyeballs on Bloodworth again. The long and rangy 6-foot-6 forward offers unique length and was a standout and versatile defender on Sunday. Showing the ability to protect the paint and block shots around the rim, Bloodworth also did a great job defending wings on the perimeter. We really like how hard Bloodworth plays, as he gives elite effort and is often rewarded because of it. At his size, Bloodworth can handle the ball and has shown a smooth jump shooting stroke that can definitely be improved upon at the next level. Look for Bloodworth to be one of the top performers in the City League North this winter, as East will greatly rely upon his length and playmaking ability to compliment a group of promising young players
Andre Irvin Jr. (5'9 PG / Olentangy Orange / 2021): Pound for pound. That's Irvin's mantra, as he doesn't let his smaller size stop him from competing at an extremely high level. The 5-foot-9 senior guard got active on Sunday, showing to be one of the event's elite lead guards. While he was dialed in on offense, playing with great pace and tempo, it was Irvin's physical defense on the ball that was most impressive to us. In Team 1's win over Team 2 later in the day, Irvin completely took over, scoring 10 of his team's 14 points and forcing his matchup into a handful of difficult shots due to his activity and physicality on the ball. Irvin has worked extremely hard this summer and the results are showing, as he is a true two way lead guard who is as talented as they come at the PG spot. Irvin took good shots on Sunday, got teammates involved and made every pass needed to create advantages for his team. Keep an eye on Irvin this winter, as Olentangy Orange will need everything that he can provide them.
Josh Whiteside (6'7 PF / St. Charles / 2022): Sunday was a breakout showing for Whiteside, as he put it all together and showed off some of the intriguing upside that he has. The 6-foot-6 forward looked to be in better shape, as he ran the floor hard, was rewarded with a handful of explosive dunks and even caught a lob off the backboard. Whiteside was able to stretch the floor and knock down a three, but was most effective on the interior where the physical post uses his size and strength to finish through contact. With two MAC offers from Ohio and Miami (OH), Whiteside is still one of the most intriguing prospects in his class, as he can really impact a game when his motor is running high, which was the case on Sunday. We hope to see this version of Whiteside going forward, as he has unique size, athleticism and ability in his 6-foot-7 frame.
Maceo Williams (6'6 PF / Gahanna / 2021): It's still a bit of a mystery to us why Williams doesn't have every Division II offer in Ohio, as the 6-foot-6 post is as good as they come in the area. Williams is extremely solid in nearly every single way. Need a rebound? Williams will get it. Need a block? Williams has it. Need your big to pop out and hit a mid-range or three point shot? Williams can do that. Need a jump hook over either shoulder? Yup, he has that too. Need your big to be able to grab and go in transition? The thick but nimble Williams also has that in his bag. There's not many weaknesses in Williams' skill set, if any really, and the rising senior has worked hard to become a better, more explosive athlete, shedding weight and transforming his body this offseason. With offers from Ashland, Walsh and Union (TN), Williams still feels a bit under recruited due to his vast skill set and productivity.
Javan Simmons (6'6 PF / Gahanna / 2022): Most teams are lucky to have just one post presence like Simmons, but fortunately for Gahanna, the Lions have two with the 6-foot-6 Simmons and his teammate in the front court Williams. Teaming up on the interior on Sunday, Simmons and Williams showed that they can certainly co-exist, taking turns in the high post and low post, making the biggest impact of anyone on their team. Simmons in particular was very impressive, playing with an elite motor and making an impact all over. Simmons showed continued improvement with his three-point shot. hitting a handful of them, but did not settle for too many of those shots, running hard in transition for buckets at the rim while showing good hands and soft touch as a roller in the ball screen game. For most young bigs, strength and physicality is a long process, however for Simmons, that's not the case as he's had a motor made in a Lamborghini factory since the minute he appeared in a varsity game as a freshman at Bishop Hartley. Look for Simmons to be one of the top priority recruits among front court prospects in the 2022 class over the next year and a half.
Tyler Kindberg (6'3 WG / Worthington Christian / 2021): One thing we try to emphasize in our events is that the game goes well beyond scoring. Kindberg is a fine example of that, as his defensive efforts and overall hustle lands him on this article. The explosive Kindberg rose above the rim for an impressive put back slam, had a big-time block in transition and proved to be a capable shooter from three. Kindberg is an exceptional defender who plays with a great motor, as you can always find him making plays on the defensive end. While he may not have finished at a very high level, Kindberg showed the ability to get to the rim off the bounce against a very long and athletic group of players, a skill that will serve him well at the next level as he adds strength and even more explosion to his game.
Kade Bafford (6'0 PG / Newark / 2021): We love guards who flat out get after it on defense and Bafford is one of those guys, if not the best one that we have in the area. One of the strongest pound for pound players in the area, Bafford is an exceptional defender, both on and off the ball, as he had to have been made in a Newark basketball factory with the way he always seems to be in position to take charges. On the ball, Bafford keeps a low center of gravity which allows him to stay under his man and dictate where he wants him to go. Shutting down a handful of talented guards and wings this past summer, Bafford was back to his lockdown ways on Sunday. Offensively, Bafford is an underrated scorer who can shoot the leather off the ball and score it at the rim when needed due to his physicality and strength. Going off for 27 points in the district finals last year against Hilliard Bradley, Bafford could be a breakout scorer who puts up strong numbers for a Newark program that is usually score by committee.
Devin Royal (6'6 WF / Pickerington Central / 2023): While it was rough for really any team outside of Team 3 on Sunday, Royal was a bright spot for Team 4. As one of only five sophomores in the event, Royal was second most productive behind Nutter. A physical forward who is no stranger to playing through contact, Royal was able to get involved offensively with his effort and toughness around the basket. Royal is one of the most talented players in his class, as he dominated every 270 Hoops event last fall when he established himself among the elite in 2023. The 6-foot-6 forward has continued to add to his game, while growing two inches since last year, things that helped him pick up his first offer from Ohio last week. Royal can fill any role needed of him, but make no mistake, he has what it takes to be a No. 1 option that can take a game over. Royal is a very good passer at his position, can defend guards, wings and bigs and has shown to be a capable perimeter shooter on top of being a physical finisher on the interior. This is a young player you'll definitely want to keep your eye on for the next few years.