San Luis Obispo, CA – This past week Mission Prep High School hosted their 23rd Annual Christmas Classic starting Saturday, December 17th and running through Wednesday, December 21st. The tournament featured 16 teams, 14 of them coming from the Southern, Northern, and Central Sections of California, as well as one from Washington and one from the state of Alabama. Three of the teams in the tournament entered ranked in the Top 25 by CalHi Sports and three others were on the bubble teams; with Bishop Montgomery of Torrance the highest seed at #5, St. Joseph of Santa Maria #12, and Salesian Prep of Richmond #18. Clovis North of Fresno, Pacifica Christian of Newport Beach, and Rancho Verde of Moreno Valley are the three bubble teams outside the Top 25.
The Christmas Classic would feature some potential quality match-ups throughout the event, with all eyes on an anticipated championship game between defending champs and SoCal power Bishop Montgomery and the top team in the Central Section in St. Joseph; and that is exactly what the event would produce. The Knights of Bishop Montgomery jumped out to an early lead behind the play of seniors Xavier Edmonds and Kelcy Phipps and pitched a shut-out in the 1st quarter, with a score of 15-0. Sophomore sensation Tounde Yessoufou got going in the 2nd quarter and had 10 of his team-high 24 points before the break to help the Knights of St. Joseph get back into the game, 31-21.
Bishop Montgomery got in major foul trouble in the 3rd quarter, as Edmonds and seniors Will Smith and Will Brenner all had at least 3 fouls and saw limited time late in the 2nd quarter and throughout the 3rd. This allowed St. Joseph to capitalize and pull to within 7 points going into the 4th quarter, 45-38. Yessoufou and senior Caedin Hamilton asserted themselves in the interior and combined for 24 of the Knights’ 39 second-half points, along with a pair of threes from senior Will Kuykendall. Despite the 4th quarter push by St. Joseph, Kelcy Phipps simply could not be contained, as he would lead all scorers with 27 points and carried the load after halftime, along with 7 points from senior Christian Jones. After a missed three from Tounde to take the lead, the Knights of Bishop Montgomery would hold on to win their 2nd consecutive Christmas Classic Championship by a score of 62-60. This would be Bishop Montgomery’s 8th overall Christmas Classic Championship and I personally had Kelcy Phipps as the Most Outstanding Player of the event.
The Christmas Classic provided much more than a great championship match-up. The stellar scoring from home team Mission Prep’s senior Jamar Howard, as he scored 30 plus points in his first three games shows why he is one of the best scores in the state. Then there was the rematch between Clovis North and Salesian Prep that saw the Broncos avenge its loss to the Pride from a week earlier in the Gridley Invitational, with Clovis North winning 65-63. Senior Caedin Hamilton displayed his continued growth for St. Joseph, as the combination of him and Tounde Yessoufou will be a tough interior duo to stop as it makes a run at a Central Section title. The impressive offensive skill set of sophomore Gavin Sykes of Capital Christian, the sensational lead guard play of junior Aaron Claytor of Salesian, and the astonishing athletic capability and skill of nationally ranked sophomore Tounde are some of the highlights that took place at Mission Prep throughout the Christmas Classic.
Below is a list of my top 25 players from the Christmas Classic based on my own observations in person. I was in the gym for days 3 and 4 of the tournament, which was the semifinal and championship days of the event. With many schools in California still in session and taking finals, as a teacher, I was only able to miss 2 days of work. So I made sure to attend the two most important days of any event. Therefore, this list of 25 players is based on their play during the last two days of the event that I saw live and in person. I was able to see 14 of the 16 teams in attendance but was not able to view San Marcos and Bellarmine of Washington, as both were on the losers side of the bracket after Day 1 of the tournament. The article below contains the following information: all relevant player information, a brief recap of their performance at the Christmas Classic, and an evaluation of each player’s skill not including the five honorable mention players. The list of players is broken up into 3 groups: Top 10 Performers, Next 10 Performers, and Honorable Mention. I begin with a look at one of the top point guards at the Christmas Classic Aaron Claytor.
661 Hoops’ Top 10 Performers
2024 6’4 Aaron Claytor (Salesian Prep/Richmond CA)
Claytor is a lead guard with good length and size to see over the defense and the court vision to make plays in transition or the half-court setting. Claytor had 5 points and 6 assists in a solid bounce-back win for Salesian against Pacifica Christian after losing to the home team of Mission Prep on day 2 of the tournament. Claytor had an even more impressive showing on Championship Day in a rematch against Clovis North, who the Pride defeated a week earlier en route to winning the Gridley Invitational Championship by a score of 55-53. Although Clovis North got the better of Salesian at the Christmas Classic, 65-63, Claytor put on an impressive all-around performance finishing with 10 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and a block. Claytor has solid handles, keeps the ball on a string, has the perimeter moves to break down his defender, and the length and burst of speed to get by his opponent off the dribble, and displays elite court vision to find players in tight windows. Claytor does a solid job on the glass, looks to advance the ball up the court to initiate transition offense, uses his wingspan and lateral quickness to stay in front of his man on defense, and has active hands to generate turnovers and easy points in the open court. Claytor has nice touch on his floater, is a creative finisher around the basket, and is effective from the perimeter. Impressive two-way guard that impacts the game in countless ways and poised under pressure.
2023 6’8 Xavier Edmonds (Bishop Montgomery/Torrance CA)
Edmonds is a forward that can score in the paint or knock down shots from the perimeter, with the ability to spread the floor with the 3-ball. In the Knights’ semifinal win over Mission Prep, Edmonds was dominant in the second half and finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. He followed that up with a big first half in the championship game, as he scored all of his 12 points in the half but played limited minutes after intermission, as he was in foul trouble. Despite the lack of scoring in the second half, the impact of Edmonds’ play in the first half gave his team a lead they would never surrender, as Bishop Montgomery would defeat St. Joseph in a thriller, 62-60. Edmonds has great footwork in the post, has nice touch on finishes around the basket, the post moves to evade his defender, controls the boards on both ends, and can operate on the perimeter, making him a difficult match-up for smaller and bigger players. Edmonds has enough handle to push the ball off the glass and up the court, makes good reads from the post to open teammates, and can create his own shot off the dribble from fifteen feet to the 3-point line. Edmonds brings a level of toughness and skill that will be necessary for the Knights to make a run in the Southern Section Open Division.
2025 6’7 Adam Grissom (Taft/Woodland Hills CA)
Grissom is a skilled forward/wing that can create off the perimeter or go to work in the post with accuracy from beyond the arc. Grissom provided the Toreadors with a decisive mismatch against the Bullard Knights, as he was able to enforce his game in the post, as well as connect from the perimeter to finish with 18 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks en route to a 63-52 win. Grissom does a lot to impact the game on both ends in a variety of ways. Offensively, Grissom has nice touch on his shot, is accurate with the 3-ball, has enough handle to create off the dribble, and has good touch around the basket. Grissom controls the glass, uses his length and timing to alter shots, can push the ball up the court, and has the court vision to make plays up the court or to teammates when cutting off the ball in the half-court setting. Grissom has good footwork, nice post moves, and made good use of the drop step to score within fifteen feet. He presents a lot of problems for opposing defenses, as he has the size to bully smaller defenders and the moves to get by bigger defenders away from the basket.
2023 6’6 Jamar “JJ” Howard (Mission Prep/San Luis Obispo CA)
Howard is a wing/guard that has great length and athleticism to impact both ends of the court and can catch fire from beyond the arc. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley commit had two thirty-plus games leading into the semifinals against Bishop Montgomery, including a 33-point outburst to knock off state-ranked Salesian. After a slow start for the Royals, Howard would add another monster scoring outburst of 31 points in Mission Prep’s 63-52 loss to the Knights. Howard was in foul trouble throughout the entirety of the 3rd Place Game against Rancho Verde and finished with 12 points, as the Royals would fall 56-39 to the Mustangs. Howard is an elite leaper that allows him to dominate the glass and alter/block shots around the basket or on the perimeter, and he uses his length to disrupt his opponents’ dribble space and jumps passing lanes to create turnovers, which leads to easy transition points. Howard is a streaky shooter from the perimeter but once he heats up he nearly misses, as was evident by his 5 threes in the 4th quarter against Bishop Montgomery. Howard is a creative finisher around the basket, has a nice mid-range jumper, and looks to raise up on any defender meeting him at the rim. Although Howard will play Division 1 basketball next season, it is perplexing that no California schools felt he was worthy of a scholarship offer. Knowing JJ, this will only fuel him to continue to level up and develop his overall skill set.
2025 6’3 Loukas Jones (Clovis North/Fresno CA)
Jones is a true shooting guard that has developed a nice all-around skill set that allows him to play on or off the ball effectively as a scorer or playmaker. Jones had an impressive run at the Gridley Invitational earning All-Tournament Team honors for the Broncos, and he continued this level of play at the Christmas Classic. Jones closed out the tournament with a team-high 13 points and was named Player of the Game as the Broncos avenged its loss to Salesian a week earlier. Jones, along with all the Clovis North players, have had to step up their play, as the Broncos will be without its top player Connor Amundsen all season. That is exactly what Jones has done, as his versatility and expanding skill set allow him to impact the game in countless ways. Jones has a smooth stroke from the perimeter, can create off the dribble, gets into the teeth of the defense, has the court vision to make plays to open teammates when on the attack, and is a crafty finisher around the basket. Jones uses his length to be a viable rebounder, has really improved his lateral quickness to be an effective on-ball defender, and has active hands to create turnovers. Jones has the handle and the shifty moves to shake his opponent when attacking off the wing, is a knockdown shooter from the mid-range to the 3-point line, has limitless range on the 3-ball, and forces defenders to over pursue, which opens up driving lanes he can exploit. Jones will be a key piece of the Broncos’ success this season.
2023 6’2 Kelcy Phipps (Bishop Montgomery/Torrance CA)
Phipps is a physical and shifty combination guard that can bully his way to the basket and lock up on the defensive end. Phipps was my personal overall Most Outstanding Player of the event, as he had 12 points in the Knights’ semifinal win over home team Mission Prep with 6 of those coming in the fourth quarter to stave off Howard and the Royals’ comeback push. Phipps saved his best for the championship game, as he would lead all scorers with 27 points with 8 of those points coming in the fourth quarter again to prevent St. Joseph from ever taking a lead. Phipps has a strong handle on the ball, plays with good pace and poise, makes nice use of the hesitation move to keep his defender off balance, and has the strength to finish through contact when attacking the basket. Phipps has good footwork to stay in front of his opponent, has quick hands to generate turnovers, and can guard bigger players on switch-offs with his strength. Phipps has a good mid-range shot and is effective from the 3-point line, rebounds well for his height, and looks to push the tempo in the open court. When teammate Will Smith went out early with foul trouble, it was Phipps that took over on the perimeter for the Knights.
2023 6’2 Anthony Smith Jr. (Rancho Verde/Moreno Valley CA)
Smith is a shifty combination guard that has the moves and handles to break down his opponent with the ability to knock down the 3-ball. The Mustangs entered the semifinal game with high expectations after a big win over Clovis North in the quarterfinals but encountered some bad luck with its big man, and Houston commit, Jacob McFarland. McFarland picked up two quick fouls and was benched in the 1st quarter. Later in the 2nd quarter, McFarland took a shot to the head that took him out for the remainder of the tournament. Smith would finish with 9 points but the Mustangs never recovered from the loss of its big man and were dominated in the post by St. Joseph. The Mustangs regrouped for the 3rd Place Game against the home team Mission Prep, as Smith would have one of the best individual performances of the tournament. Smith finished with 32 points and put the Mustangs on his back in a big win to end the tournament, 56-39. Smith has shifty moves, the handles to create separation from his defender, a nice burst of speed when attacking off the dribble, and good body control to finish through contact around the basket. Smith has a nice perimeter shot, is effective from the 3-point line, and has a nice stop-and-pop mid-range jump shot. Defensively, Smith has good footwork and gets into his opponent’s dribbling space to force poor decision-making and turnovers. Smith, along with Jermaine Washington, provides the Mustangs with a nice backcourt duo to go with one of the best bigs in the West.
2023 6’4 Parker Strauss (Pacifica Christian/Newport Beach CA)
Strauss is a lengthy combination guard that can score from 3 levels with the vision to make plays for teammates and a smooth stroke from beyond the arc. The Northwestern commit had a solid showing against state-ranked Salesian Prep, and despite coming up short Strauss led the Tritons with 16 points and 5 rebounds. Strauss followed that up with 11 points, connecting on 3 threes, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, as Pacifica Christian squeaked out a win over Mission Hills. Strauss showed his ability to impact the game in various ways and his value to the success of the Tritons this season is unquestionable. Strauss has good handles, elusive moves to create off the dribble, plays with good pace with the ability to accelerate with quickness, and is a creative finisher around the basket. Strauss has good lift on his stop-and-pop jump shot, is accurate from the 3-point line, and is equally effective from beyond the arc off the bounce or moving off ball for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Defensively, Strauss uses his length to defend bigger perimeter players and has the foot speed to stay with smaller ball handlers. Strauss continues to improve as a playmaker, showing the court vision and quality decision-making when teams look to throw doubles at him.
2025 6’4 Gavin Sykes (Capital Christian/Sacramento CA)
Sykes is a wing/guard that is emerging as a dynamic scorer that can catch fire from beyond the arc. Personally, Sykes was one of my favorite players to watch at the Christmas Classic, along with Tounde, Howard, and Claytor, as he displayed a versatile skill set that led his team to victories and is a promising sophomore prospect. Sykes had a team-high 17 points in a win over Lee High of Louisiana, 51-49, with 7 of those points coming in the final frame. In the Consolation Game against Bullard of Fresno, Sykes proved to be too much to handle for the Knights, as he would score 26 points to lead all scorers and did it off the dribble, from beyond the arc, getting to the free throw line, and moving off the ball. Sykes has good handles, crafty moves when attacking off the perimeter, gets good lift on his mid-range jumper, has a smooth shooting form, and can light it up from the 3-point line off the bounce or the catch-and-shoot. Good defender with lateral quickness to stay in front of most guards and with his size can switch off on bigger players for stretches. Sykes plays with good pace and feel and has the court vision to be a high-level playmaker as his game continues to grow.
2025 6’6 Tounde Yessoufou (St. Joseph/Santa Maria Ca)
Yessoufou is a wing/guard that is a dynamic athlete with skill that enforces his style of play on any opponent he faces. I have been fortunate to watch the nationally-ranked super sophomore a lot since he started high school and each time I see something that is simply different. Yessoufou had 2 strong showings in the semifinals and the championship game, although St. Joseph came up short by two, 62-60. In the semifinals against Rancho Verde, Tounde got to the line early and often and then just asserted his presence around the basket with towering rebounds and quick leaping for easy putbacks. With no McFarland in the 2nd half to patrol the paint, Yessoufou was unstoppable with 17 of his 27 points coming after intermission. Tounde also had 18 rebounds and 4 blocks, with one sounding like he was spiking a volleyball coming from the weak side. Yessoufou had a great stat line of 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the championship but it took the team a while to settle in against the Knights of Bishop Montgomery and he did not get on the scoreboard until the 2nd quarter. Yessoufou has the strength to bully his way around the basket and the elite bounce to do it amongst taller players. Tounde has improved his perimeter shot making and his handle and moves to create off the perimeter make him one of the toughest players to defend an entire game in the country. I personally believe he is a top 5 player in the nation for the 2025 class and with his athleticism and skill he is one of the fastest-rising prospects in the country, with recent offers from Arkansas and Arizona.
661 Hoops’ Next 10 Performers
2024 6’2 Jacob Bishop (Mission Hills/San Marcos CA)
Bishop is a shooting guard that understands how to play off the basketball, makes good cuts off of screens to create space, and has a quick release on his shot. Bishop is accurate from the 3-point line and has good range from beyond the arc. In the two games, I was able to see Mission Hills, Bishop had 12 points connecting on 3 threes, which was followed up by a 17-point game in a tough loss to Pacifica Christian where he hit another 5 threes. Bishop did show he can create off the dribble and has good court vision to make plays, but his strength is moving off the ball and getting open for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
2026 5’11 Ja’Vance Coleman (Bullard/Fresno CA)
Coleman is a lead guard that can create his own offense or make plays to open teammates when on the attack. Coleman is quickly becoming the guy for the Knights, as Bullard is looking to replace the massive scoring gap left by Lejuan Watts and Tyric Herod (both graduated). Coleman had games of 9 points and 12 points against Taft of Woodland Hills and Capital Christian. Coleman has solid handles, keeps the ball on a string to survey the court, can create his own shot off the dribble from the mid-range to the 3-point line, and displays good court vision to make plays when the defense collapses on him. Coleman has active hands on defense and generates perimeter turnovers that lead to easy points. The Knights are in good hands with Coleman at the helm for the next four years.
2024 6’3 Jordan Espinoza (Clovis North/Fresno CA)
Espinoza is a tough-minded wing/guard that has the physicality to go at bigger players and the skill to create off the perimeter and attack downhill. Espinoza had 5 points and 7 rebounds in the Broncos’ win over Mission Hills, and followed that with 11 points and 4 rebounds in the big win over Salesian. Espinoza is a swiss army knife on the basketball court. He controls the boards, has the strength to defend bigger players and the footspeed to stay in front of smaller perimeter players, and is a creative finisher around height in the post. Espinoza has good handles, the moves to create off the dribble, is effective from fifteen feet to the 3-point line, and baits defenders into committing fouls and getting to the free throw line.
2023 6’9 Caedin Hamilton (St. Joseph/Santa Maria Ca)
Hamilton is a forward/center that controls the glass, has good touch around the basket, has become a bonafide rim protector, and will be the key piece to the success the Knights have this season pursuing a Section Title and more. Hamilton had a huge double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds in the St. Joseph’s win over Rancho Verde and he did a good job of getting Jacob McFarland in foul trouble before he left the game. Hamilton had a slow start in the championship game, as he had problems with Xavier Edmonds but was able to help get Edmonds in foul trouble, which allowed Hamilton to get going in the 2nd half. He would finish with 13 points and 7 rebounds in the tough two-point loss to Bishop Montgomery. Hamilton has gotten himself in the shape needed to dominate in the post, he controls the boards, makes good reads out of the post, and has great touch around the basket. Hamilton alters shots around the basket, is accurate shooting from the high post, and has become a desirable asset for programs at the next level.
2023 6’8 Keyon Kensie Jr. (Taft/Woodland HIlls CA)
Kensie is an athletic wing/forward that can space the floor with the 3-ball and is pure entertainment in the open court with electrifying dunks. Kensie had a big 21-point game against Bullard of Fresno, along with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Kensie is accurate from the 3-point line, has the handle and moves to create off the dribble, and can raise up on most defenders. He has the length and size to play around the basket but is more comfortable operating on the perimeter. Kensie is an intriguing prospect that is currently unsigned as a senior but does have interest from Division 1 programs.
2025 6’3 Alvin Loving (Salesian Prep/Richmond CA)
Loving is a strong and imposing wing/guard that can score in volume and opens up the court with accuracy beyond the arc. Loving had a huge fourth quarter against Pacifica Christian, scoring 11 of his game-high 17 points to give the Pride the cushion needed to come away with the 71-57 victory. Loving has the handle and moves to create off the bounce, is effective from the 3-point line off the dribble or the catch and shoot, has the length and agility to defend the 1 through 3 positions on the wing and does a nice job of attacking the basket and getting to the foul line. Loving is another impressive sophomore that is looking to boost his stock with one of Norcal’s top teams, as they make a run at the NorCal crown.
2025 6’3 E.J. Spillman (Pacifica Christian/Newport Beach CA)
Spillman is a physical combination guard that has top-notch handles and has nice touch on his perimeter shot. Spillman had 11 points in the loss to Salesian and 6 points and 7 rebounds in the Tritons’ win over Mission Hills. Spillman has tight handles, shifty moves to get his defender off balance, attacks with a purpose downhill, and has the frame to absorb and finish through contact at the basket. Spillman has a nice shot off the dribble and hits with accuracy from the mid-range to the 3-point line. Spillman has the agility to defend perimeter players and the physical build to guard bigger players on switches or facing taller teams. Spillman has good court vision and makes quality plays with the ball in his hands, as he finds open teammates frequently when on the attack. Versatile skill set and can impact the game in various ways.
2024 6’6 Alex Stewart (Pacifica Christian/Newport Beach CA)
Stewart is a wing/forward that can operate in the post or can space the floor from beyond the arc. Stewart has two solid showings for the Tritons, as he had 9 points and 6 rebounds against Salesian and led all scorers with 18 points against Mission Hills. Stewart controls the boards, has nice touch on finishes around the basket, moves well off the ball to get open, and is accurate with the 3-ball. Stewart makes good reads out of the high post, has solid handles and enough moves to create off the perimeter, and has a nice mid-range jumper. Defensively, Stewart can defend in the post and has enough agility to step out on perimeter players.
2024 6’1 Jermaine Washington Jr. (Rancho Verde/Moreno Valley CA)
Washington is a dynamic lead guard that can create and make tough shots with the court vision to make plays when attacking the defense. Washington had a solid showing in the semifinals against St. Joseph, and did his best to carry the Mustangs in the absence of McFarland for the majority of the game. Washington finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Washington has shifty handles, the moves to create off the dribble, makes nice use of misdirections and hesitations to get his opponent off balance, and can score the ball from 3 levels effectively. Washington sees the court well and displays the ability to make plays when attacking the defense. Washington has good body control and is capable of making difficult shots with regularity.
2023 5’10 Mark Williams (Bullard/Fresno CA)
Williams is a combination guard that impacts the game in countless ways and provides veteran leadership for the Knights. Williams had 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in the loss to Taft, then had a team high 15 points in the Knights’ loss to Capital Christian. Williams has a strong handle on the ball, gets downhill and into the defense, has nice touch on the floater, and is a creative finisher around the basketball. Williams is a good rebounder for his size, has good court vision to make plays when going at the defense, and is capable of scoring the ball from the mid-range to the 3-point line. Williams uses his solid frame to get into his defender and draws fouls frequently.
2023 5’7 Caleb Hofmeister (Mission Hills/San Marcos CA)
2023 6’4 Will Smith (Bishop Montgomery/Torrance CA)
2025 6’3 Jaylen Valdez (Capital Christian/Sacramento CA)
2024 6’4 Bentley Waller (Bakersfield Christian/CA)
2023 6’4 Deavious Woods (Lee High/Huntsville AL)