Florida and Georgia are separated by the 126-mile Saint Mary’s River that rides along the border and into the Atlantic Ocean. Sports have always had a huge role in both states, creating a track record of elite athletes at all levels across many different sports. However, recently, the plethora of sports talent it produces year in and year out － especially on the hardwood － has become noticeable.
That talent is especially evident at the 2023 Spalding Hoophall Classic.
Florida and Georgia combined have six teams competing. Representing the Sunshine State are Gulliver Prep (FL), IMG Academy (FL) and Christopher Columbus High School (FL), Montverde Academy (FL), while Newton High School (GA), and Wheeler High School (GA) are representing the Peach State.
The individual talent is off the charts. Wheeler High School’s Isaiah Collier (No. 6, Class of 2023), Montverde Academy’s Sean Stewart (No. 7, Class of 2023) and Asa Nowell (No. 23, Class of 2024), Newton High School’s Stephon Castle (No. 23, Class of 2023), IMG Academy’s Bryson Tucker (No. 2, Class of 2024), Jameir Jones (No. 10, Class of ‘25) and Amier Ali (No. 13, Class of 2024) are just a few of the stars from the two southern states.
The fact that this batch of talent is happening concurrently may come as a surprise to some, but many who have a front-row seat have seen this coming.
Newton High School head coach Charlemagne Gibbons has coached for over 20 years, both at the high school level in Georgia and at the Division I college level in Florida, so he knows first-hand how both the hoops talent and the coaching have progressed.
“I think you’re seeing a lot of (successful) basketball players because basketball in the south is taking more steps to the forefront,” Gibbons said. “I’ve really seen an uptick in the level of coaching in AAU and high school.”
IMG coach Sean McAloon echoed those sentiments.
“First off, the coaching has gotten considerably better,” McAloon said. “Secondly, you got people invested in the gym year-round. The talent and athleticism has always been there. You could see it in football and now it’s being honed in for basketball.”
With the recent influx of basketball talent, comes the opportunity to play professionally.
Current NBA players like Anthony Edwards (GA), Jaylen Brown (GA), Scottie Barnes (FL), and Anfernee Simons (FL) all made their mark on the southeastern part of the country over the past decade, and even made their presence known at Hoophall.
This type of success has shown players what is possible if they put in the work.
“We have a wall with everyone that plays in the league,” said IMG sophomore Jamier Jones. “Every time you walk in the gym you see it and it makes you believe ‘I could be there one day.’”
Newton does something similar. Players there walk past a board with all the Division I athletes on it to show that it can be done.
“When those guys come down the hallway they see guys that they tangibly know, or maybe are even related to, and so it really makes the dream more real,” Gibbons said. “Sometimes about dreams, you have to have some type of conformation at certain points and so having that conformation that it can happen, you start to see that with that conformation, comes the influx in basketball (talent).
Because Georgia and Florida abutt each other, the talent bleeds over the border, creating some healthy competition between the two neighboring states.
“It’s so transient now,” Gibbons said. “Now with the internet, and AAU programs, you know who these kids are and so it creates a natural rivalry between the athletes.”
That rivalry showed on the hardwood, as Jones and Ali led IMG (FL) to a 61-52 victory over Castle and Newton (GA) on day three of the 2023 Spalding Hoophall Classic.
Photo: Nick Storlazzi/Springfield Student