Kentucky’s three early top candidates for Mr. Basketball honors in 2015 — Trinity’s Raymond Spalding, Knott County Central’s Camron Justice and Holmes’ James Bolden — are the epitome of friendly rivals.
Already committed to major colleges and already with at least one trip each to the Sweet 16 under their belt, Spalding, Justice and Bolden will take aim at the state’s top individual honor as seniors next season, but each player will support the pursuit by the other two as well.
“All three of us want to compete, and all three of us want to do the same thing and win a state championship,” Justice said after a game last week in the AAU Super Showcase at the Kentucky Exposition Center. “We give it everything we’ve got, and I love both of them. I love both of them to death. We’re competing for an award, and that’s just fun.”
The sprawling AAU tournaments at the Expo Center, which wrap up Monday with the semifinals and finals of the AAU National Championships, gave fans a special chance to see basically all of the state’s top rising seniors — and most of the best juniors and sophomores, too — playing for one travel club or another under the same roof.
Asked whether he thinks the eventual 2015 Mr. Basketball was playing somewhere in Louisville this week, Justice said with a laugh, “Yeah, I’m pretty positive.”
Justice, the high-scoring shooting guard who committed to Vanderbilt in April, and “Beetle” Bolden, the lightning-quick point guard who pledged to West Virginia in May, finished their AAU careers as teammates for the Kentucky Travelers, who were eliminated from the Super Showcase on Friday.
Spalding, an athletic big man who committed to the University of Louisville on July 20, is a friend of Justice and Bolden and their former teammate on the Travelers. He’s helped The Ville club go deep into the tournament of the AAU Nationals.
Spalding, Justice and Bolden all said helping their high school teams win a state championship is their primary goal for next season — above winning Mr. Basketball — but each also has his sights set on the individual prize.
“It’s been a goal since I started basketball, but I just want to win a state championship, work hard, get the guys on my high school team better and get them to the next level, hopefully,” said Bolden, who averaged 20.8 points last season.
Spalding, who averaged 13.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks during a breakout season in 2013-14, said winning the state title, having a 3.6 grade-point average and winning Mr. Basketball are his goals for his senior year. He talks regularly with Justice and Bolden and said they “most definitely” are the two best players in the state other than himself.
“Cam and Beetle are my guys,” Spalding said. “I love those guys, and I love playing with them, too. For each of us to go off and play in college for free is an honor and a blessing. Those are great guys and great basketball players.”
Justice, Bolden and Spalding were the only three juniors to make this year’s Courier-Journal All-State first team, and Justice and Bolden were the only sophomores to make it in 2013.
Justice’s Knott squad, which also has top senior and NCAA Division I prospect Evan Hall (who’s Spalding’s teammate on The Ville), will be vying for its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 next season.
Justice has the Mr. Basketball advantage of being probably the state’s best scorer and shooter — coming off a season in which he averaged 24.8 points. He could finish in the top five on the state’s career scoring list.
Spalding and Bolden both said they think Justice is the favorite for Mr. Basketball.
“It’s a tossup really, but if I had to give it to somebody (now), I’d give it to my man Cam just because of how hard he works,” Bolden said. “He deserves it.”
But Spalding, an above-the-rim force at both ends of the floor, is considered the best college prospect in the state. He has surged to the No. 33 national ranking by 247Sports.com — by far the best of any Kentuckian. Justice, a former Tennessee pledge, is No. 164.
The 5-11 Bolden is No. 174.
“Beetle is a real smooth point guard,” said Spalding, who early in the process had discussed going to the same college with Bolden. “He handles the ball real good and shoots the ball. For how small he is, he gets into it with the big guys.”
The AAU Nationals and Super Showcases have featured several of the state’s other top rising seniors, including Owensboro’s Aric Holman (Hoop Dreams), Hopkinsville’s JaQualis Matlock (Hoop Dreams), Newport Central Catholic’s Drew McDonald (Travelers), Ballard’s Jalen Perry (Travelers) and Trinity’s Jax Levitch (The Ville).
Perry, who should be Ballard’s top option after the graduation of Mr. Basketball winner Quentin Snider, said he’s trying to work his way into the conversation for the state’s top player.
Perry said he considers Spalding the favorite to win Mr. Basketball, with Justice and Bolden right behind.
“It’s going to be a tight one this year,” he said.
Steve Jones can be reached at (502) 582-7176 and followed on Twitter at @SteveJones_CJ.