By Luke Elder
The 2022-2023 season is close to 9 months away, but the presence of AAU and off-season training makes high school basketball feel like a full time sport. Not a full week after Clemente’s disappointing loss to Holy Trinity in the first round of the Divisional, they are back in the gym for training and practices.
It’s never too early to look ahead, right?
Here are three predictions for Clemente’s 2023 season:
John Rivera will step up big
The young freshman began to prove his ability to lead throughout the season, slowly (but surely) assuming more on-court responsibility and playing with more efficiency. He could use a little interview practice, but his game is on the upswing. Clemente is in desperate need of a player-captain.
The lack of commitment shown by soon-to-be senior and leading scorer Jamarion Latzzis, who often misses practices and lifts, gives no reason for anyone to believe he’s suited to fill that role. Rivera, who played his first year of organized basketball this year, showed the maturity of a senior by the season’s end.
“He’s learned to control his temper, his emotions. He’s learning how to deal with adversity,” head coach Greg Fleming said of Rivera. “He’s mature, I think he’s a guy who’s committed, and I think he’s going to set the tone for my program for the years to come. No doubt.”
Rivera’s maturity is apparent, especially when compared to the frustrated, temperamental kid I met a few months ago. He was committing sloppy fouls, making freshman-type plays. Now, he leads his teammates in the weight room and is the first one in the gym for training. He talks a big game to his teammates, but has begun to back it up.
“The whole team just needs a better work ethic,” Rivera said. “They’ve got to devote themselves to basketball.”
new recruits will help fill the gaps
Fleming and company have spoken about “the recruits coming in” like the messiahs of Clemente basketball. Those that’ll carry them to the promised land. Maybe they’re right. While I sat in for a Sunday afternoon practice (when the recruits can join), it was evident that these kids were hungrier, and in some cases, more talented than many of Clemente’s young varsity players.
Julio Malone holding a JR Hoops trophy
Photo courtesy of Greg Fleming
A key among the mix is Fleming’s younger brother, Julio Malone. Malone was recently selected for the “Rookies Game”, where some of Chicago’s top eighth graders face off. Fleming expects Malone to make a serious varsity impact “from day one.” I got the chance to watch Malone in action during that Sunday practice, and it was evident, even in his young age, that his quickness and shooting ability is well-curated. He’s a head above the rest.
Just below .500
Hear me out, I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. A team, even with some young guns to boast, does not go from 4-22 to a conference championship in a year’s time. It may take even longer, but five of Clemente’s losses were decided by just eight points or less. A little bit of sharpened defensive effort and a few more buckets make those different games. There's no reason to believe, based on that evidence, that some adjustments could make Clemente an 11-15 team.
Though the loss of dominating paint presence Lawrence Roval hurts Clemente’s ability to intimidate down low, a year of varsity experience under the belts of freshman guards Levarus Grayerr and Derrick Carter should easily make up the difference. In Clemente’s heavily undersized blue conference, the two six-foot-two guards will command the elbows defensively in Fleming’s two-three zone defense, eliminating the need for Roval’s size. They’re both young enough that there is room to grow.
Clemente will miss the defensive prowess that came with Roval and fellow senior Jacob Perez, but the influx of talented, hungry recruits and older players buying in could make Clemente a dark horse in the blue conference. We’ll just have to wait and see.