Hayes, Azubuike make NTF title contender

TAVARES – When he compares his biceps to those of 15-year-old Udoka Azubuike (6-11, 250, Lagos, Nigeria/Jacksonville, FL Potters House Christian) all Kevarrius Hayes (6-9, 200, Live Oak, FL Suwannee County) can do is shake his head in wonder.

“Look at those arms,” Hayes said Sunday after Nike Team Florida finished a rigorous 3-hour workout at the impressive Big House training facility for basketball and volleyball. “He doesn’t lift weights and says he never has.”

Hayes took a second and flexed biceps that are starting to grow, then once again shook his head.

“This is four times a week in the gym,” Hayes said. “I could go another four times and I don’t know how long it would take to have arms like him.”

The way he puts it, you would think Kevarrius Hayes is a twig. Oh, he’s still got a way to go before his frame fills out, but he’s added nearly 20 pounds of muscle since he committed to the Florida Gators last summer. He’s a legitimate 6-9 now and he just hit the 200-pound mark for the first time in his life.

The added strength was clearly visible Sunday when Hayes was able to muscle the ball up and come away with rebounds that last year would have wound up in the hands of an opponent. The added muscle allows him to jump higher and go for longer stretches without needing a break.

“I’ve still got a way to go, but I’m getting there,” Hayes said. “If I’m not in class or doing homework, I’m either in the gym or in the weight room.”

Hayes is one of the reasons Nike Team Florida is expected to be a dominant force on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit this spring and summer. The core of the team is made up of veterans of Nike Team Florida’s run to the championship game of the 16-and-under division at the AAU Nationals last summer. He is a versatile power forward who has good range on his jumper out to about 18 feet and is a volume shot blocker on the defensive end.

Playing alongside Azubuike helps give Hayes the confidence that Nike Team Florida could go a long way in the EYBL, which will hold its championship at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina in July.

“He’s incredibly strong and he’s still figuring things out,” Hayes said. “You watch him and he’s learning every day. There’s no telling how good he’s going to be.”

Right now, Azubuike, who just turned 15 and will be a junior next year at Potters House Christian, is a raw talent who excels at two things – blocking shots and dunking. After a year of high school competition in Florida, he’s figured out how to go straight up to block shots so he avoids a lot of fouls. As for his dunks, the rim just rocks and pops every time he slams the ball through making you think he’s going to rip the rim off the backboard one of these days.

Azubuike says he’s really not into recruiting all that much at this point in time.

“I’m just learning about schools and coaches now,” Azubuike said. “I let my coaches talk to college coaches.”

Azubuike does have a core following of coaches who make sure they sit where they are easily visible whenever he plays.

“Florida Gators, FSU, UCF … I see their coaches a lot,” Azubuike said.

Azubuike and Hayes give Nike Team Florida volume shot blockers and the kind of inside presence to open things up on the perimeter where head coach Tom Topping has an athletic perimeter filled with shooters and slashers. Azubuike has also allowed Topping to keep Florida commitment Johnny Mooney (6-10, 235, Altamonte Springs, FL Lake Brantley) on the 16-and-under roster where he will team with Gracin Bukamanya (7-0, 225, Brazzaville, Congo/Gainesville, FL The Rock) and Christian Carlyle (6-3, 180, Jacksonville, FL Bishop Kenney) to make a run at the national championship that barely eluded NTF last year.

Here is a rundown of some of the prospects on the Nike Team Florida 17-and-under and16-and-under rosters.

KEVARRIUS HAYES (6-9, 200, Live Oak, FL Suwannee County): He is solidly committed to Florida. Says he’s working on strengthening his hands so that he’s a better rebounder and receiver when the ball comes his way. He’s grown an inch and has added 20 pounds since last summer.

HAANIF CHEATHAM (6-5-1/2, 185, Fort Lauderdale, FL Pembroke Pines Charter): Florida has shown interest – he was at the Kentucky game – but won’t offer until watching him perform on the AAU circuit this spring and summer. He will play the point at the next level. Alabama, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Wake Forest, Purdue, Tennessee and VCU have all offered.

CHANCE MCSPADDEN (6-4, 180, Winter Haven, FL): His offer list includes Florida, UCF, USF, Tennessee, Alabama and Clemson. His GPA and SAT scores are so high that he’s also hearing from all the Ivy League schools. He can play the point, but it’s obvious that he’s far more comfortable on the wing. He needs some upper body strength but he gets serious elevation.

JONATHAN JEAN (5-11, 175, Gibsonton, FL East Bay): He’s waterbug quick and an exceptional press defender. He’s a pass first point whose jump shot is a bit on the streaky side. He has offers from West Virginia, USF, UCF, Tulane, Florida Gulf Coast and Nebraska. Nebraska has really come on strong lately.

RODNEY HUNTER (6-5, 180, Cape Coral, FL Mariner): Averaged 19.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He’s got offers from Miami, Mercer, a ton of mid-majors and from Yale and most of the Ivy League schools due to a high GPA and test scores. He’s just starting to get a lot of interest from SEC schools. He’s a slasher with exceptional elevation. He will have to show some consistency with his jumper before he starts getting a lot of high major offers.

WYATT WALKER (6-9, 245, Jacksonville, FL Providence): Walker averaged 12.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game , solid numers when you consider the bulk of the offense was handled by Grayson Allen and Christian Terrell. Allen and Terrell are gone so he will be the primary offensive option next year. He’s a space eater with good hands and an excellent position defender. He’s got offers from Davidson, Richmond, West Virginia and Mercer and he’s starting to hear from the Ivy League schools and some from the SEC. He has a 3.8 in the classroom and a 1610 on the expanded version of the SAT.


JOHNNY MOONEY (6-10, 235, Altamonte Springs, FL Lake Brantley): Even though he won’t play college basketball until 2016, he’s solidly committed to Florida, where his older sister was the homecoming queen a couple of years ago. He will play with the 16-and-under team where Nike Team Florida is considered one of the real favorites to win that age group national championship. He had a 41-point, 16-rebound game against Father Lopez and was named the Seminole Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

GRACIN BAKUMANYA (7-0, 225, Brazzaville, Congo/Gainesville, FL The Rock): Transferred from Montverde Academy to The Rock in Gainesville. A native of Congo, Bakumanya is quite familiar with another Congo native, Ted Kapita (6-9, 225, Brazzaville, Congo/Melbourne, FL Florida Air Academy). “He is my best friend in the world,” Bakumanya said. Bakumanya has an incredible wingspan that makes him a volume shot blocker and intimidator. His offensive game is pretty much dunks at this point, but he is quick to the rim and knows how to finish. Due to his size and ability to run the floor, Bakumanya is already hearing from every major college in the country.

CHRISTIAN CARLYLE (6-3, 180, Jacksonville, FL Bishop Kenny): He’s almost a clone of Grayson Allen. He can drain the 3-ball and has shocking elevation that makes him a threat to dunk any time he gets near the basket. Carlyle averaged 19 points a game as a sophomore at Bishop Kenny and is a two-year starter. Carlyle’s recruiting is about to go through the roof. All the Florida schools are already all over him.


Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.