The holiday season is one of the most entertaining portions of the high school basketball season, as teams travel to various parts of the country to participate in events that feature some great non-league match-ups and individual player performances. I spent the first part of the Christman break at the 22nd Annual Mission Prep Christmas Classic, hosted by Mission College Preparatory High School in San Luis Obispo, CA. The Christmas Classic started on Saturday, December 18th, and concluded on Wednesday, December 22nd. Throughout the years, the Christmas Classic has featured some of the nation’s top teams, as well as numerous players that have gone on to major 4-year college programs and eventually the NBA. This year’s slate of teams and highly regarded prospects made for some great games and individual performances, which ended with the Bishop Montgomery Knights (Torrance/CA) defeating the Heritage Christian Warriors (Northridge, CA) 68-49 in the championship game behind the play of the tournament’s Most Valuable Player junior Will Smith. I was in attendance for Day 2 and Day 3 of the four-day tournament and was able to see all but one team play at least once (I did not see the Cardinal Newman Cardinals of Santa Rosa, CA).
Day 2 of the Christmas Classic featured some great match-ups, which were headlined by the nightcap between Central Section opponents the St. Joseph Knights of Santa Maria and the Clovis North Broncos. In my updated Section rankings, I had the Knights tied for the top seed with Clovis West, and the Broncos at the 3rd seed going into this tournament, so this match-up would have major implications for my next rankings, CalHi rankings, and all other relevant ranking systems that will determine playoff seedings. The Knights were getting big contributions early from their big three in freshman Tounde Yessoufou, senior Dre Roman, and junior Luis Marin, but the Broncos relentless energy, ball movement, and hot shooting from beyond the arc from senior Niko Jones (going 3 of 4 from three) kept Clovis North close, as the score was 40-36 at halftime. The Broncos kept it close all game long but the Knights, led by Yessoufou’s 30 points, proved to be too much winning 79-69 and advancing to the semifinals. Sagemont (FL) defeated Saugus (CA) 83-62 despite a monster showing from senior Nate Perez and his 8 threes; Bishop Montgomery (CA) won big over Capital Christian of Sacramento 76-41; and Heritage Christian of Northridge edged out a tough Mission Hills of San Dego team behind senior Malik Moore’s 23 points, which rounded out the games to set the semifinals (Heritage Christian v. St. Joseph and Bishop Montgomery v. Sagemont). The consolation side of the bracket on Day 2 featured the following outcomes: Independence of Bakersfield defeating San Marcos of Santa Maria 51-39 behind senior Cameron Brown’s 19 points, and Seattle Prep taking down the home team Mission Prep 55-40 led by senior Tyler Mrus’ 27 points.
Day 3 of the Christmas Classic was headlined by the two semifinal games, as well as a Central Section match-up between Independence and Mission Prep and a dominant showing by Mission Hills over Saugus. The first semifinal game of the Classic was a chippy one between the Bishop Montgomery Knights and Sagemont of Florida. Both teams started the game relatively slowly, as each tried to get a feel for each other out and the 1st quarter ended in a 12-12 tie. The Knights scored 23 points in the 2nd quarter and went into halftime up 35-25, led by junior Will Smith’s 14 points. The 3rd quarter looked to be more of the same, as the Knights added to their lead and would enter the 4th quarter with a 13 point lead, at 49-36. The guard play for Sagemont got going in the 4th quarter, as senior Adrian Cruz, and juniors Ashton Smith and Cameron Gibson accounted for 23 of the teams 2nd half points and closed the gap to within 5 points with less than 2 minutes left in the game. Nevertheless, senior guards Jalen Vazquez and Kristopher Krause hit some big threes and knocked down clutch free throws down the stretch to help the Knights hold onto their lead and defeat Sagemont 67-61, earning a trip to the Championship Game.
As entertaining as the first semifinal game was down the stretch, the second semifinal game between the St. Joseph Knights and the Heritage Christian Warriors was an instant classic that was close wire to wire. The Knights came out and looked to be the aggressor, attacking the bigs for the Warriors and hitting shots from beyond the arc, as they held a 20-9 lead after one quarter. The Warriors made better use of their size in the second quarter, as junior forward 6’11” Pierre Geneste had three monster dunks off the lob and was dominant on the glass. The Warriors closed the gap a bit, but the Knights went into the half up 29-21, as freshman Tounde Yessoufou led the way with 16 points. The tables turned in favor of the Warriors in the second half, as senior guard Barrington Hargress took over, scoring 19 of his team-high 26 points in the half. Hargress hit 3 threes, some tough mid-range shots, and kept pressure on the Knights guards. Despite a valiant effort from the Knights and Yessoufou, who finished with a game-high 27 points, the size and length of the Warriors proved to be a key factor in disrupting their ability to score in the paint. The Warriors earned a spot in the Championship game, as they edged out a tough win over the Knights 54-52. Although I was not in attendance for the final day of the Christmas Classic, the following games determined the final outcomes of the tournament: Bishop Montgomery defeated Heritage Christian in the Championship Game, 68-49; Sagemont defeated St. Joseph in the 3rd Place Game, 68-57; and Seattle Prep won the Consolation Game over the Independence, 54-50.
The remainder of this article takes a look at the top performers from the Christmas Classic, with player information and a brief assessment of their strengths provided. There is no ranked order to this list of players, and it is based on my own observations of each player over the two days I was in attendance at the tournament. Although there is no ranked order, and the tournament did select Will Smith from Bishop Montgomery as MVP, who was deserving of the award, I have selected a different player as the Most Outstanding Player of the event overall based on my evaluations.
* 2025 6’5 Tounde Yessoufou (St. Joseph/Santa Maria): Most Outstanding Player
There has been a lot of hype around the freshman phenom early in the season, and he has been putting up the numbers to justify the attention he has warranted thus far. However, the Knights had not played the most rigorous schedule leading up to the Christmas Classic, so this would serve as a good measuring stick for the freshman wing/forward. Yessoufou showed that he is more than just hype and is capable of putting up the same numbers against high-level talent from California and beyond this past week. The name that had the gym buzzing for 4 straight days was Tounde, as he averaged 29 points and 10 rebounds over the four-game stretch. Yessoufou scored at least 30 points in 2 of the 4 games, and displayed his ability to impact the floor on both ends of the court. Yessoufou is physically gifted with a strong frame, has elite bounce to control the glass on both ends, is able to absorb and finish through contact at the cup, and has amazing body control to finish through taller players around the basket. He is effective shooting the ball from the three-point line, has enough handle to create off the perimeter, he attacks downhill with a purpose, and is looking to take flight as soon as he gets into the paint. Definitely, Yessoufou has a massive wingspan that allows him to disrupt passing lanes and block shots, which gets the team out in transition where they are looking to throw lobs to the freshman phenom for crowd-pleasing dunks. Tounde plays with a lot of confidence and did not back down from any challenge he faced on the court. One of the top freshmen in California and I would consider him in the conversation for top 100 nationally.
* 2022 6’6 Tyler Mrus (Seattle Prep/WA):
Mrus is a wing/guard that can score the ball from multiple spots on the floor with accuracy. Mrus had some impressive scoring performances, going for 27 against Mission Prep and 23 in the Consolation Game in a win over Independence. Mrus is a true 3-level scorer, has a smooth stroke from beyond the arc, is very efficient with the one dribble pull-up jump shot, has the handle to create off the perimeter, and the size and length to finish through contact at the rim. He does a great job of moving off the ball and off screens to get to his shot spots and is fundamentally sound on his catch and shoot form, where he was nearly automatic at the Christmas Classic. Mrus rebounds the ball very well and, with his handle, can push the ball in the open court and initiate the transition offense.
* 2023 6’3 Will Smith (Bishop Montgomery/Torrance):
Smith has a strong build and understands how to maximize his skill set on the court. Smith earned tournament MVP for the Christmas Classic Champs, as he led the Knights in scoring and had some big-time baskets in the semifinals to propel his team to the championship game. Smith has a strong handle on the ball, is poised with the ball in his hands while probing the defense, does not waste dribbles and attacks downhill with a head of steam yet under control, and is capable of finishing through or around taller players at the rim. Smith is a solid rebounder for his size, is effective with the mid-range jumper, and can space the floor from deep, which opens up driving lanes for him to attack. Smith’s 19 points in the Knights’ semifinal win over Sagemont were hard-earned baskets, as he relentlessly attacked the paint and earned numerous trips to the free-throw line. Love to see players not settle for tough shots when they are capable of getting easier looks, and Smith did this all tournament long.
* 2022 6’3 Adrian Cruz (Sagemont/FL):
Cruz is a poised lead guard that makes plays to get others involved and is capable of creating his own offense. Cruz was the leading scorer for Sagemont of Florida, who won the 3rd Place Game over St Joseph, and made big plays and hit timely shots throughout the Christmas Classic. Cruz connected on 3 threes and had a team-high 21 points in Sagemont’s win over Saugus to get to the semifinals. He was critical in keeping his team close in the semifinal game against Bishop Montgomery, as he finished with 18 points, 10 of those coming in the 1st half when the rest of the team struggled to find the bottom of the basket. Cruz has tight handles, is able to survey the floor while keeping his dribble alive under pressure, has shifty moves to elude his defender when attacking off the perimeter, and is a creative finisher around the basket. Cruz is efficient from the 3 point line, has a nice mid-range pull-up shot, good touch on his floater, and good court vision to make plays off the dribble drive. He is a tough player that keeps pressure on the defense throughout the game, and thrives on taking shots in key moments.
* 2023 6’6 Jamar “JJ” Howard (Mission Prep/San Luis Obispo):
Howard is an athletic and lengthy wing/guard that plays with relentless energy on both ends and is a volume scorer. Despite the home team having a tough go at their Christmas Classic, the glaring bright spot for the Royals is 6’6” JJ Howard, who averaged 22.5 points over the four games and finished the week with a high of 28 points in a loss to Cardinal Newman. Howard is effective from the 3 point line, does a nice job of attacking downhill to get into the paint, has nice touch on his floater, and is a creative finisher around the rim. Howard is active on the glass, has the handle to push the ball off the glass to initiate the transition game, and has the ability to take it coast to coast or find the open teammate for transition threes. Howard has enough handle to create off the wing, and when he is hitting from beyond the acr this opens up driving lanes to the basket. Defensively, Howard has the foot speed and agility to defend multiple positions and does a nice job of using his length to disrupt passing lanes and create turnovers.
* 2022 6’5 Cameron Brown (Independence Falcons/Bakersfield):
Brown is a lengthy lead guard that has solid court vision and the height to make reads smaller guards are not capable of seeing, as well as being able to create scoring opportunities for himself. Brown had a productive week for the Falcons, as they fell short in the Consolation Game to a tough Seattle Prep squad. Brown led the Falcons in scoring at the Christmas Classic, with his strongest showing coming against the home team in Mission Prep on Day 3. Brown knocked down a couple of threes, controlled the glass and earned himself multiple second-chance buckets, turned it up on defense and generated multiple turnovers that led to transition dunks. Brown had a team-high 20 points in that game and 19 points in the Falcons Day 2 win over San Marcos. Brown has the handle and poise to operate the offense, has range from deep, is effective with the side-step 3 ball, but is at his best when he attacks the defense off the wing and gets into the paint, where he draws fouls and gets to the free-throw line. Brown is a good rim protector and weak-side shot-blocker, has quick and active hands to create turnovers, and impacts the game in various ways.
* 2022 6’1 Barrington Hargress (Heritage Christian/Northridge):
Hargress is a physical lead guard that has elite handles and is capable of hitting shots with a high degree of difficulty with consistency. Hargress was one of the top scorers for the Warriors, as they finished 2nd Place at the Christmas Classic, losing to fellow Southern California opponent Bishop Montgomery. Hargress had 11 points against Mission Hills, with 8 coming in the second half when the Warriors created the separation needed to get the win. However, it was the Semifinal Game against St. Joseph where Hargress left his impression on the Event. Down 8 entering the 2nd half, Hargress took matters into his own hands and went off for 19 of his team-high 26 points and scored it from all 3 levels, as he hit some difficult shots that led the team to victory and the Championship Game. Hargress has a strong handle on the ball, keeps it on a string as he weaves through the defense and surveys the floor to find openings in the defense. Hargress uses his physicality and handles to attack the defense and get his man off balance, strength to finish through contact, he has nice touch on shots around the rim, and can space the floor from three. He has good footwork and great body control when on the attack, which makes it hard for the defense to knock him off balance.
* 2022 6’6 Justin White (Mission Hills/San Diego):
White has a physical build and makes sure his presence is felt in the post on both ends of the court. White had a solid showing at the Christmas Classic, as he led the Grizzlies in scoring and was a force on the glass. White led the Grizzlies with 16 points in a tough Day 2 loss to Heritage Christian, where his 9 point 1st half gave Mission Hills the lead going into the half. White displayed much of the same on Day 3 in a big win over Saugus, as he had a game-high 25 points, going for 19 in the 1st half and putting the game out of reach early in the 2nd half. White has good touch around the basket, is dominant on the glass on both ends of the court, creates second-chance points for himself and teammates, alters shots around the cup, and does a great job of sticking to his strengths on the court.
* 2022 6’4 Nathan Perez (Saugus):
Perez is a true shooting guard that has the ability to score in volume when he heats up from deep. Perez went unconscious from the 3 point line in his team’s Day 2 match-up against Sagemont of Florida, as he connected on 8 threes and finished with a game-high 26 points. Perez finished the tournament with a game-high 29 points, as the Centurions defeated Capital Christian of Sacramento to end the tournament on a high note. Perez has solid handles, the moves to create separation from his defender on the perimeter, a quick release to get his shot off, and is a knockdown shooter from deep, either off the dribble or on the catch and shoot spot up shot. Once he starts heating up from beyond the arc, driving lanes open up and he looks to get to the mid-range or finish at the basket.
* 2024 5’10 Connor Amundsen (Clovis North):
Amundsen is a lead guard that has the poise and ball control to orchestrate the offense under pressure and is a knockdown shooter from deep. Amundsen was the driving force and leading scorer for the Broncos, who had a solid showing at the Christmas Classic going 3-1. Amundsen led the Broncos with 15 points in their only tournament loss to St. Joseph, where Connor showed the ability to find ways to get points on the board when being run off the 3 point line all game long. Amundsen did a solid job adjusting to a physical backcourt for the Knights that made a conscious effort to prevent him from any open perimeter looks, as he went at the defense and drew numerous fouls and got to the free-throw line. Amundsen had a Day 3 scoring high for the Tournament, as he put up 29 points en route to a win over Capital Christian. Amundsen keeps the ball on a string, is constantly probing the defense looking to attack openings, has great court vision to make plays and find open teammates when on the attack, and is capable of scoring the ball from all 3 levels. Amundsen is a creative finisher around the rim, has a nice touch on his floater, and is a knockdown 3 point shooter. He handles pressure very well and has a solid understanding of the game.
* 2023 6’5 Luis Marin (St. Joseph/Santa Maria):
Marin is a lengthy lead guard with good size and skill to break down the defense and find open teammates or look to get his own offense. Marin has a good handle on the ball, is poised when under pressure, an efficient shooter from the 3 point line, has the moves to get by his initial defender with long strides to get his opponent on his hip, and is a crafty finisher around the basket. Marin has a calm demeanor on the court and does not get rattled when the game gets physical or speeds up. He does a nice job of adjusting and controlling the pace of play. Marin had 18 points connecting on 3 threes in the Knights win over Clovis North, and Marin was the only other player that had a positive offensive impact in the semifinal loss against Heritage Christian, as he scored 8 of his 13 points in the 2nd half.
* 2022 6’ Braeden Smith (Seattle Prep/WA):
The Colgate commit is a true lead guard that sees the court very well and makes high-level plays when on the attack. Smith, who was the Christmas Classic MVP his sophomore year, controlled the pace of play for Seattle Prep throughout the event and is a true extension of the coach on the court. Smith averaged close to double-digit points for the week, but where he showed his true value was orchestrating the offense and setting up teammates for quality looks and open threes. Smith has elite handles, makes nice use of the hesitation move to keep his defender off-balance, has shifty moves to penetrate the defense off the dribble, gets great lift on his jump shot to shoot over taller defenders, and uses his physical frame to finish through contact at the basket. He sees the court well and fits passes in tight windows with supreme confidence.
* 2022 6’5 Malik Moore (Heritage Christian/Northridge):
Moore is a lengthy shooting guard that is money with the mid-range jump shot. Moore moves well off the ball and off-ball screens to get to his shot spots for catch and shoot opportunities, he has the handle to attack the defense, has a deadly stop on a dime pull-up jump shot, and is efficient from the 3 point line. Moore is a good rebounder, has the handle to push the tempo in the open court, and hit some big shots for the Warriors throughout the Christmas Classic. Moore had his spotlight moment at the Classic in the Warriors Day 2 win over Mission Hills. Moore scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the 2nd half and was crucial in the team’s comeback win after trailing in the 1st half. Impressive shooting from fifteen to twenty feet.
* 2023 6’1 Ashton Smith (Sagemont/FL):
Smith is a shifty point guard that has a smooth stroke from beyond the arc. Smith has shifty moves, crafty handles to evade defenders, moves well off the ball to get to his shot spots, and can create his own scoring opportunities off the dribble. Smith had two big second-half showings that made big impressions on both games. Smith had 11 of his 16 points in the 2nd half of Sagemont’s win over Saugus, as this was key to pushing the lead to a double-digit win. Despite the team’s loss in the semifinals to eventual tournament champs Bishop Montgomery, Smith’s 8 points in the 2nd half were pivotal as Sagemont was able to claw back within 5 points. Smith hit timely threes and had some critical defensive plays throughout the tournament.
* 2023 6’2 Kelcy Phipps (Bishop Montgomery/Torrance):
Phipps is a physical guard that keeps relentless pressure on the defense with the ball in his hands and locks in on the defensive end. Phipps provided the Knights with quality scoring outputs in the team’s first two wins of the tournament, putting up 17 points in both games. Phipps has a strong handle on the ball, is able to play on and off the ball effectively, has the moves to create off the dribble, and has the strength to finish through contact at the basket. Phipps can space the floor from beyond the arc, which opens up lanes that he looks to attack, and he does a solid job of drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. Phipps rebounds the ball well for his height, and locks in on defense with the foot speed and agility to guard the 1-3 positions effectively.
Other Notable Players:
2022 6’7 Jayden White (Mission Hills)
2022 5’11 Niko Jones (Clovis North)
2022 6’3 Dre Roman (St. Joseph)
2022 5’11 Michael Pineda (Independence)
2022 6’2 Brandon Perez (Saugus)
2022 6’3 Krisopher Krause (Bishop Montgomery)
2023 6’8 Xavier Edmonds (Bishop Montgomery)
2023 6’3 Keean Lloyd (Cherokee Trail/CO)
2023 6’11 Pierre Geneste (Heritage Christian)
2024 6’2 Jordan Espinoza (Clovis North)
2023 6’7 Tynan Becker (Sagemont/FL)
2023 6’7 Christian King (Seattle Prep/WA)