Another division added for 2nd edition of LakePoint's Battle for Georgia


The inaugural Battle for Georgia basketball tournament was so successful in its debut last July that it has already expanded for just its second edition.

On top of the already loaded 17U and 16U eight-team brackets, the event with include a 15U tournament with the same number of teams Sunday at LakePoint's Champions Center.

"The success of last year's event was one of them," tournament director Dan McDonald said of the factors that went into expanding. "Also last year, the only thing I wanted to change was that with only two divisions, the teams would play a game, sit a game, play a game, sit a game. I just thought by the end of the day, in the championship games, the teams were tired, because they only had one game to rest and were playing their third game in the day. I'm hoping adding an extra time slot will improve the quality of play throughout the day and make for better championship games. ...

"There's just so many good 15-and-under teams in the state. The 2022 class in Georgia is really, really good. For a combination of those reasons, I thought it was a no-brainer for us to add an extra division."

The day of hoops designed to determine the best travel ball teams in the state debuted on the July Fourth weekend in 2018, and Round 2 has been something plenty of hoops enthusiasts across Georgia have been looking forward to since.

Last year, Game Elite Gold won a thriller in the 17U division title game with Louisville signee Josh Nickelberry playing the hero. In the 16U bracket, Atlanta Express came away with the crown.

"The games were really competitive and the guys took it seriously," McDonald said of the 2018 event. "Even more than that, the coaches were into it. They've done a good job of promoting it on social media.

"We invite teams, and now, I'm not begging teams to come. Teams are begging me to come, good teams. The excitement from last year and the environment last year was great."

All told, McDonald believes Sunday's showcase will provide spectators a glimpse at nearly all of the top Georgia travel ball teams with plenty of top-level players on display.

"I think we got all the best teams in the state, minus one or two," he said. "The good thing about this year is that all the top kids in Georgia are playing on Georgia-based teams, for the most part, more than normal.

"The state is as strong with players in the 2020, 2021 and 2022 classes as I've seen in a long time. All those factors kind of come together to where I think it's going to be a really, really good event."

In the 17U bracket, a lot of eyes will be on the Atlanta Celtics. The group played in the Champions Center this spring during the adidas Gauntlet and put on a show. The three-headed monster of top-five national point guard Deivon Smith, Xavier commit Dwon Odom and Caleb Murphy, who holds offers from Clemson and Georgia Tech, will be worth the price of admission.

Game Elite's K.D. Johnson will be back after starring in the event last year. His performance led directly to his first major offer from Seton Hall, and the Southwest DeKalb standout now has the likes of Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Tech interested.

Kennesaw State commit Chris Youngblood and the Georgia Knights, one of a handful of non-shoe company teams in the tournament, will look to pull a few upsets and make a run at the title.

One of the most talked about players at the 16U level will undoubtedly be Matthew Cleveland of Hype Hawks. Following a transfer to Pace Academy, the highly sought after shooting guard holds offers from 20 schools, including prestigious academic institutions like Stanford and Vanderbilt.

However, the rising junior most people from Bartow County should be looking forward to seeing is Jabari Smith. Those who follow Cartersville High basketball closely have likely watched him play for Sandy Creek.

A 6-foot-8 small forward, Smith spent part of his time with the Patriots in the shadow of stalwart T.J. Bickerstaff, but the five-star recruit has rocketed up the rankings in recent months.

"Since [last year's Battle for Georgia], he had a monster high school season and actually played for USA Basketball this spring," McDonald said of Smith. "Now, Rivals actually has him as the No. 5 player in the country. He's kind of gone from a very little known kid in the last year to coming in this year with the Atlanta Celtics 16U team as a marked man, because he's ranked so high."

Highlighting the crop of 15U players is another talent those in the area will already know or will come to know in the next few years. Kell rising sophomore Scoot Henderson, who shined for the Region 7-AAAAA Longhorns this past season, has been reeling in the offers recently, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss.

Henderson's Game Elite Big 5 teammate Joyful Hawkins holds an offer from Georgia, and in total, McDonald said 72 different players set to play Sunday currently hold a D-I offer. Based on what happened with Johnson last year, that number could rise by the time the clock strikes midnight.

With the addition of the 15U tournament, plenty of young, virtually unknown players will make names for themselves in the pursuit of bragging rights. If last year's success was any indication, those players can look forward to returning for the next few years to continue the budding tradition.

"It's pretty cool for a second-year event to have this much buzz in the basketball community and on social media," McDonald said. "I'm hoping we can continue to find ways to grow it and make it a bigger tournament, maybe expand it to 16 teams some day or add more divisions.

"We're always considering new ideas to make it bigger and better, but I'm definitely excited about where it's at. I think we got the right teams, and it's going to be a heck of a day."