2017-18 Daily News boys basketball preview

Is Oak Park ready for another Open Division run?
Oak Park has high expectations after reaching the CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs last season (the Eagles lost in the first round), but those expectations have been tested early this season in tough losses to Narbonne and St. Anthony. That said, the Eagles have the talent to compete with any team in Southern California, especially with an experienced starting five. Utah signee Riley Battin is the area’s best big man, and after slimming down, he will look to show more of his perimeter game along with being a double-double machine. Dartmouth signee Wes Slajchert remains a steady lead guard and sophomore Clark Slajchert is even more confident as a scorer. Senior Ezekiel Richards adds another solid post presence with Battin, so the key will be if the Eagles can develop consistent depth off the bench and match quicker teams. With games scheduled against Findlay Prep and Bishop Montgomery, the Eagles should be battle-tested and poised for more than an Open Division cameo.

How will Sierra Canyon’s new players jell under head coach Andre Chevalier?
The Trailblazers’ season-opening win over Camarillo was a sign of how good the new players can mesh, and that growing pains will come. Ohio State signee Duane Washington, senior Scottie Pippen Jr. and juniors Terren Frank and KJ Martin are all talented, and Washington, who arrived from Michigan, will be one of the state’s top scorers with his ability to shoot from anywhere. Pippen is a defensive pest in the mold of his Hall of Fame father. Martin and Frank, transfers from Chaminade and Harvard-Westlake, respectively, are great at knowing their roles, and Martin’s athleticism and rebounding make him a must-watch player. Chevalier, in his first full season as head coach, has remarked how fast this team has come together despite being a whole new roster, but time will tell how long the process will take. The team also will not be complete until junior Cassius Stanley is eligible in January following his transfer from Harvard-Westlake. Stanley’s highlight-worthy dunks, scoring ability and experience in winning a state and CIF Southern Section title be an extra boost for the team’s playoff push. However, expectations must be tempered because this team has big shoes to fill from the last four seasons and has not won a state regional playoff game since 2015.

Will Brandon Williams’ return help Crespi end Alemany’s Mission League reign?
Maybe. Williams missed his junior season with a knee injury, but the Arizona signee is already making up for lost time this year. He’s put up double figures in scoring in each game despite being on a minute restriction, which means he and Taj Regans are now one of the area’s best backcourts. Crespi’s X-factor will be junior Kyle Owens, who’s continuing to grow into a reliable scorer and well-rounded player. That said, Alemany will not be giving up the Mission League crown that easily after three years. UC Riverside signee and reigning league MVP DJ McDonald is one of the area’s best guards and top shooters. Senior Fred Odhiambo’s combination of size (7 feet), skill around the rim and athleticism make him a difficult matchup. Senior CJ Sears will be the team’s defensive stopper, and sophomore Brandon Whitney could be next promising Alemany guard to develop with his ability to get to the rim.Chigozie Achara, a 6-foot-8 junior, has the athleticism and speed to be a force on defense and rebounding. Keep an eye out when Crespi and Alemany meet on Jan. 5 and Jan. 24.

Taft and Birmingham will fight it out for City Section supremacy in the Valley, right?
Yes, and don’t expect Birmingham to go 4-0 against Taft like last season. Birmingham, the defending Open Division champion, lost quite a bit from last season, but senior Devonaire Doutrive is still around to light up the scoreboard. He’s already scored 54 points in a game this season. Tyjae Medley adds experience, and the Patriots will be stronger when junior transfers Christian Koloko and Tyrese Windham are eligible in January. But right now, Taft looks reloaded and experienced after taking its lumps last year. Virginia signee Kihei Clark is one of the area’s best point guards, and junior Makani Whiteside, a transfer from St. John Bosco, adds even more scoring to a team that is improved, with sophomore Demetrius Calip among the returners. For now, Taft appears to be the top dog in the West Valley League, but we will see come January when Birmingham is at full strength.

Key games/tournaments to see this season?
The SFV Invitational (Dec. 16-20) is always a great local showcase of talent, led by Heritage Christian, St. Francis and more. More events to watch include The Classic at Damien (Dec. 26-30 — Birmingham, Taft, Alemany, Oak Park), Oak Park vs. Bishop Montgomery at Westchester (Jan. 6), Sierra Canyon at Fairfax (Jan. 13) and Birmingham vs. Taft (Jan. 19, Feb. 7)

Sleeper teams to watch?
Santa Clarita Christian will be the big favorite to win the CIF-SS Division 5AAA crown, thanks to the arrival of several transfers. Brothers Jordan and Caden Starr arrived from Village Christian, as did sophomore Ty Penberthy. Another pair of brothers  – TJ and Kaleb Lowery – transferred in from Foothills Christian in San Diego. Jordan Starr, a senior, has already put up a triple-double this season, and TJ Lowery, a senior, was one of San Diego’s top players last season. Also, keep an eye on Paraclete, which will improve with the arrival of junior Elijah Scranton from Village Christian. Scranton, who is 6-foot-6, and senior Sean Larimore (6-foot-8) will be a tough 1-2 punch to add intrigue in the Gold Coast League, and if Heritage Christian transfer Jonathan Daniels becomes eligible, the Spirits will be even tougher come playoff time.

What’s up with the Marmonte and Foothill Leagues?
The Marmonte League will be another fun dance to watch, especially with Calabasas coach Jon Palarz returning after a year at Chaminade. Palarz has a talented trio in Ben Kaslow, Max Cheylov and Evan McKay to help the Coyotes defend their league title, but Oaks Christian and Westlake might have something to say about that. Oaks Christian is on its fifth coach in five seasons, but Jordan Wild promises to keep things moving with a senior-heavy lineup. Westlake could be a dark horse candidate with senior guard Deon Francois and 6-foot-9 center Albert Zhang. As for the Foothill League, the conversation starts with Hart and Valencia, which split the league crown last year. Whitten Dominguez leads a strong, balanced team with Hart coach Tom Kelly, and Valencia returns all but one starter with new coach Bill Bedgood, who arrived from Saugus.Dexter Akanno will be a player to watch, but all eyes will be on the CIF to see if West Ranch transfer Richard Kawakami will be deemed eligible. The league’s best player might be West Ranch senior Austin Galuppo, who can score with anybody.

Best players to watch?
Duane Washington, Riley Battin and Brandon Williams are the early candidates for Player of the Year. Washington is a pure, confident scorer who plays team-first basketball, and Battin is a walking double-double with great post moves and an improving mid-range game. Williams is an all-around talent, but his ability to make an impact the game on a minute restriction shows how efficient he’s becoming. DJ McDonald can get hot from beyond the arc, and the high-flying dunks that KJ Martin and Cassius Stanley produce will have folks grabbing their phones to capture them. Harvard-Westlake sophomore Johnny Juzang and big man Mason Hooks will lead a young team aiming to repeat as CIF-SS champion. Devonaire Doutrive will be a candidate for City Section Player of the Year, Van Nuys senior Tyree Winborn already has a 48-point game and West Ranch senior Austin Galuppo is the Foothill League’s toughest matchup. Jordan Starr and TJ Lowery are the 1-2 senior punch that’ll give Santa Clarita Christian leadership, and Notre Dame sophomore Ziaire Williams is one of the area’s most promising underclassmen. Moorpark junior Drake London will be fun to see after his breakout football season, and Valley Torah senior Ryan Turell can score, but his all-around game makes him a sleeper talent.

Note: The first Daily News boys basketball rankings will be on Monday, December 11

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