Vegas Elite is one of six programs set to make their program debut in the 17U NIKE Elite Youth Basketball League, and they’ll be bringing in a group that is a certified Peach Jam contender. Juniors Josh Christopher (247 No. 7) and Julian Strawther (247 No. 39) and sophomore Jaden Hardy (247 No. 5) ran together last season on the 17U circuit with the Las Vegas Prospects, and the trio of friends decided to stick together in 2019 as Vegas takes over the Nevada EYBL representation from the Las Vegas Prospects. Provided the chemistry remains on point, Vegas Elite will be a dangerous team this spring and summer. Their guard-heavy lineup will benefit greatly from the 24-second shot clock, and they will almost certainly be in contention for highest scoring team on the circuit. Hardy is ready, and he thinks they can do something special.
“I’m very excited,” Hardy said of starting the season with Vegas Elite. “We all have really good team chemistry, so it’s going to be very exciting. We’re looking to make a big run.”
(247 2020 No. 7)
Vegas Elite is one of the few teams that have three bonafide stars in their lineup. As far as guard prospects go, Christopher is as close to the total package as it gets. Aside from his skillset and freakish athleticism, the first thing that stands out about Christopher is his on-court demeanor and competitiveness level. The 6-foot-5 combo guard doesn’t take a play off, and it’s ultimately his constant ‘attack mode’ mentality that sets him apart. Christopher can get you a bucket whenever you need one, scores it at all three levels, and is a highly-underrated passer. Christopher has shown off his passing prowess in camps, and he’s excited about continuing to show off that aspect of his game.
“Everywhere I’ve gone as far as basketball, since I started high school, it’s all about being versatile and being able to stand out,” said Christopher. “I think being able to make others better, rather than just myself, is really big for me. If I can be able to mix it up to be able to be on the wing and be on the ball at the same time, that will really help me going forward.”
Christopher excelled individually in last year’s EYBL, averaging 19.9 points. 4.8 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 20 games split between The Truth (CA) and the Prospects. He kept up the production during the 2018-19 high school season, putting up averages of 25 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 3.2 steals in 32 games. Expect the budding star to improve on his numbers from 2018, and it’s a good bet that he ends the season as one of the top passers on the circuit.
Hardy turned in one of the best freshman seasons in the EYBL history last spring and summer, averaging 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.7 steals across 15 games. Hardy is a flame-thrower from deep, and is just as skilled at getting past his man and finishing in traffic. At 6-foot-4, he’s a long, athletic guard capable of guarding multiple positions. Hardy plays well beyond his years, and he feels like he has a leg up on the competition after gaining experience as a freshman.
“By me playing last year, I learned a lot of new things,” Hardy explained. “For me coming into this year, I feel like I have a big advantage. I did really well last year with the speed of the game, and I feel like I’m going to do even better this year.”
Last but definitely not least is Strawther, a smooth, sharp-shooting swingman with an old-school playing style. Strawther has a refined offensive game in the half-court, and he should find himself open frequently on the perimeter as the opposition will need to be concerned about Christopher and Hardy’s ability to attack and create. Strawther averaged 12.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game in 2018, and there’s no reason to think he won’t improve on those numbers across the board.
Vegas Elite sophomore Jaden Hardy (247 2021 No. 5)
Christopher, Hardy and Strawther will all be better players after experiencing the EYBL as underclassmen, and they join a core of guards that has excelled against national competition. Junior point guard Noah Taitz has a great feel for the game and should be a great table-setter for the numerous weapons at his disposal. Taitz (247 No. 126) is the floor general of a Bishop Gorman (NV) team that nearly took down powerhouse La Lumiere (IN) at GEICO Nationals earlier this month. He is a capable scorer and defender, and his ability to produce while avoiding turnovers will be of high value as Vegas Elite navigates through their schedule. He has a great feel for the game and should only get better surrounded by elite talent.
Taitz is joined by his teammate at Bishop Gorman, sophomore guard Zion Collins. The 6-foot-1 lead guard is the only underclassman on the roster, but he is more than worthy of a rotational spot at the nation’s highest level of grassroots basketball. Nicknamed ‘Sauce’, Collins plays with infectious energy and seems to always be in the right spot. Collins was terrific in the state championship game, especially on the defensive end. He is an absolute pest defense, and the spark he’ll provide in the backcourt will not go unnoticed.
Strawther will spend ample time at the three and four positions, and he’ll be joined in the frontcourt by three players. 6-foot-10, 230-pound big man Mady Sissoko entered the fold last week, filling a huge ‘size’ void for Vegas Elite. Sissoko is a true difference-maker at the rim and on the boards, and his presence down low will allow his teammates to take more risks and jump more passing lanes on the defensive end. In 30 games for prep power Wasatch Academy (UT) during the 2018-19 season, Sissoko averaged 12.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 61% from the floor. There are only a handful of big men that can compete with Sissoko’s combination size, strength, and athleticism, so expect him to put up some impressive numbers.
Leonardo Colimerio, also a junior at Wasatch Academy, will operate as a valuable swingman for Vegas. Colimerio (247 Composite No. 148) is a threat to score and distribute and is best when attacking the basket. His defensive versatility will be key, as he will likely be asked to guard out of his position. Colimerio averaged a modest 5.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG and 3.6 APG for Wasatch, but don’t be fooled. Colimerio wasn’t asked to be a scorer, and his 2018-19 campaign allowed him to develop different aspects of his game. The Brazilian-native will be a major role player for Vegas Elite and has a great chance to turn himself into a top-100 player. Mwani Wilkinson rounds out the rotation, and the 6-foot-6 junior might be the most athletic player on the roster. Wilkinson, a productive role-player for Bishop Gorman alongside Taitz and Collins, has an opportunity to blow up this spring and summer. He is a nightmare in transition and can jump out of the gym, two skills that should come in handy when Vegas Elite gets off and running.
Vegas Elite junior Julian Strawther (247 2020 No. 39)
The trio of Christopher, Strawther, and Hardy is as formidable as it gets. Throw in the immensely talented supporting cast, and you have yourself a contender for the EYBL crown. Vegas will play an uptempo style and will let their scorers do their thing in the open court. Ultimately, only one thing can slow them down: their defense. The Prospects were bottom-five in defensive efficiency a year ago, which is a problem if they want to be mentioned amongst the league’s best. Team WhyNot’s championship runner-up campaign in 2018 proved that it is possible to have Peach Jam success as a first-year program, and there’s no reason to think Vegas Elite can’t do the same. They should do a lot of winning this spring and summer, and after missing Peach Jam 2018, Christopher is coming in hungry after a strong finish to the season.
“We didn’t make Peach, but we won the PIT (Peach Invitational Tournament),” Christopher said. “We played some big games there, had some injuries. We dealt with a whole lot. I even got hurt in Atlanta, so that kind of messed up our chances of getting to Peach. So I think we just have something to go after again. I think we have one of the better teams with this being my and JuJu’s last year. And then Hardy is on the come up of course, and he can compete with anyone on the court. I think we have a great chance of winning Peach.”
Hardy doubled down on Christopher’s aspirations, and he didn’t mince words.
“Win Peach Jam,” Hardy said. “That’s the goal. That’s what me, Josh and Julian always talk about. We know that’s our goal so that’s what we’re going to try to do.”