North, Knox back on top in look ahead to 2022 basketball season


Les Nicholson

North Laurel’s Reed Sheppard and Knox Central’s, the 13th Region’s top rated players, squared off in this year’s regional finals.

By John Henson, From The Sidelines

Even though it started late due to the coronavirus pandemic and teams were unable to play at times due to outbreaks, the 2021 season was completed this week with the state tournament in Rupp Arena. That means it’s time for my annual look back at the best of the season that just ended and a look ahead to what you can expect next year.
This time a year ago, I had North Laurel ranked No. 1 and Knox Central No. 2 for 2021. Those two teams made it to the finals, but Knox came out on top for the third straight year after North had dominated the region during the regular season. I have those two at the top again next year, but I think seven teams have a legitimate chance to make a run at the 2022 regional title. All eight teams in this year’s regional tournament were listed in my top 10 this time last year.

All-Region Team
First team
G – Reed Sheppard, North Laurel
G – Jordan Akal, Harlan
G – Hayden Llewellyn, Corbin
G – Jevonte Turner, Knox Central
G – Trent Noah, Harlan County

Second team
G – Connor Robinson, Clay County
G – Tyler Cole, Harlan County
F – Jaeden Gist, Harlan
F – Ryan Davidson, North Laurel
F – Cameron Burnett, Bell County

Third team
G – Matthew Gray, Barbourville
G – Evan Steely, Williamsburg
G – Connor Farmer, Clay County
G – Micah Engle, Lynn Camp
F – Isaac Mills, Knox Central

Fourth team
G – Dawson Woolum, Bell County
G – Micah Anders, South Laurel
G – Parker Payne, South Laurel
G – Raven Abner, Clay County
C – Gavin Chadwell, Knox Central

Best juniors
Jordan Akal, Harlan
Jaeden Gist, Harlan
Cameron Burnett, Bell County
Isaac Mills, Knox Central
Micah Engle, Lynn Camp

Best sophomores
Reed Sheppard, North Laurel
Hayden Llewellyn, Corbin
Ryan Davidson, North Laurel
Parker Payne, South Laurel
Brody Brock, North Laurel

Best freshmen
Trent Noah, Harlan County
Gavin Chadwell, Knox Central
Carter Stewart, Corbin
Cayden Grigsby, Middlesboro
Daniel Thomas, Bell County

2021-2022 rankings
(Players are listed by their class for the 2022 season. Those who plan to repeat a grade due to rules passed this year due to covid delays aren’t figured into the rankings since those decisions are not official yet)

1. North Laurel (25-3) —Starting 19-0, the Jaguars looked unbeatable for much of the season before losing twice in Lexington in early March. North survived a close call against Clay County in the 49th District finals but couldn’t overcome a strong performance by Knox Central in the regional finals. With everyone returning, the Jaguars will be ranked among the state’s top teams again in 2022. Junior guard Reed Sheppard (30.1, 7.1) established himself as one of the state’s top players in his third year as a starter and will be a Mr. Basketball favorite in 2023. Also returning for North are 6-4 junior forward Ryan Davidson (20.2, 6.9), junior guard Brody Brock (11.8, 2.0), senior forward Caden Harris (2.8, 4.2) and senior guard Clay Sizemore (11.4).

2. Knox Central (18-5) — No program has won four straight 13th Region titles since Clay County in the early 1990s, but Knox Central will be in the chase for that next March, especially if standout guard Jevonte Turner (26.3, 8.1) returns for a second senior season as has been reported. Senior forward Isaac Mills (14.9, 7.2) and senior guard Abe Brock (7.4, 2.7) also return, along with 6-5 sophomore center Gavin Chadwell (8.5, 6.3), the most valuable player in this year’s regional tournament Senior guard Blake Ledford (2.6) provided a 3-point lift for the Panthers in the postseason and could round out another lethal Central lineup. Junior forward K.T. Turner (4.1, 3.0) and senior guard Logan King (3.2) will also be in the mix.

3. Harlan (17-6) — All five starters are back for the Dragons, including Jordan Akal (26.1, 6.7), one of the state’s top players in the Class of 2022 and a five-year starter. Forwards Jaedyn Gist (12.8, 11.0) and Will Austin (7.5, 7.4) and guards Kaleb McLendon (11.5, 4.7) and Kyler McLendon (7.7, 4.3) are also back for a Harlan team that will be favored to win a third straight 13th Region All “A” Classic and compete for the program’s first trip to the Sweet Sixteen since 1996. Johann Gist and John Mark Bryson, both seniors, are top reserves returning on a roster that lost only one player.

4. Corbin (14-8) — The Hounds got off to a slow start last season but were one of the region’s best teams by March and should continue to build on that momentum with three starters returning, led by standout junior Hayden Llewellyn (23.4, 2.3) and sophomore Carter Stewart (12.9, 2.5). Dakota Patterson (7.8, 6.4), a 6-3 junior, returns inside, with 6-2 junior Brody Wells (10.5, 6.1) moving into the lineup after serving as the region’s top sixth man in 2021. Senior guard Seth Mills (3.5, 3.6) and junior guard Marc Warren are among the candidates to round out the lineup.

5. Harlan County (19-6) — Led by 6-6 sophomore point guard Trent Noah (20.2, 9.8), the Bears remain in the chase for the regional title even though Harlan unseated them as 52nd District champions last season. Senior guard Jackson Huff (7.8, 3.8) and junior guard Daniel Carmical (7.8) are also returning starters. Several candidates are in the mix to fill the two open jobs, including freshman Maddox Huff (6.0), junior guard Jonah Swanner (2.6) and 6-2 junior forward Tristan Cooper.

5. South Laurel (18-6) — After being hit hard by graduation in 2020, the Cardinals were one of the region’s most pleasant surprises through much of last season and should be better next year with four starters returning, including junior guards Parker Payne (12.3, 4.2) and Eli Gover (8.5), 6-2 senior forward Caden Jones (6.8, 3.1) and 6-6 senior center Rhys England (7.8, 3.9). Senior guard Brayden Reed (7.8, 3.8) also returns, along with junior guards Ashton Garland (2.5) and Ayden Smith (2.9)

7. Bell County (16-11) — With a senior-dominated team returning, including four starters coming back, the Bobcats should be in position to make a run for their first 52nd District title since 2014, but it won’t be easy with Harlan and Harlan County again bringing back strong teams. Forward Cameron Burnett (17.1, 7.3) and guard Dawson Woolum (17.2, 2.9) will give Bell one of the region’s best inside-outside tandems. Senior guards Dalton Stepp (6.4, 2.4) and Hayden Callebs (5.1, 3.6) are also returning starters. Several seniors are in the chase for the final starting slot, including Carter McCune (2.4), Cole Hoskins (4.1, 2.1), Chance Belcher (3.5), Conner McGeorge and Brandon Baker.

8. Whitley County (4-16) — After undergoing quite a bit of upheaval last season with key players leaving, the Colonels should be in position for improvement next season with everyone expected to return, including 6-2 junior forward Jamie Fuson (13.0, 6.0), junior guards Ethan Keene (11.5, 4.0) and Brayden Mahan (9.9, 3.9), 6-3 senior forward Trevor Downs (7.1, 5.0) and 6-2 junior forward Lucas Queener (2.4, 2.7).

9. Lynn Camp (11-12) — Senior guard Micah Engle (23.2, 7.0) and 6-9 senior center Gavin Allen (9.9, 9.0) should make the Wildcats the top competition for Harlan in Class A. Sophomore guard Jace Boggs (7.5, 2.7) also returns, but the Wildcats lost four of their top seven to graduation, so the other starting spots appear to be up for grabs.

10. Clay County (15-9) — With their top six players graduating, the Tigers will have to undergo a rebuilding project in 2022. Brady Wolfe, a 6-4 junior, is the most experienced player returning after playing a key reserve role last season. Juniors Luke Nicholson and Jeremy Hibbard and sophomores Hayden Crockett and Tate Rice joined Wolfe in last year’s junior varsity lineup.

Best of the rest:

Barbourville (12-14) — The Tigers have a habit of exceeding expectations, but it won’t be easy in 2022 with three of their top four scorers graduating. Senior guards Matthew Warren (14.5, 3.0) and Travis Scott (4.5, 3.8) return, with 6-4 senior forward David Collett (4.5, 3.5) moving up after playing a key reserve role last season. Junior guards Ethan Smith (2.7) and Nick Sanders (2.4) could also play bigger roles.

Jackson County (5-13) — The Generals have struggled to compete against 49th District heavyweights North Laurel and Clay County the past couple of seasons but should make up some ground next year even with their top two scorers graduating. Junior guard Jude Lakes (11.8, 5.6) and senior guard Andrew Madden (8.8, 2.8) return to the starting lineup, along with 6-4 senior forward Colby Bales (4.4, 3.3), sophomore guard Carter Cunagin (4.5, 3.3) and freshman guard Tydus Summers (5.9, 2.3).

Pineville (10-11) — The Mountain Lions lose their top two players in Keann Fuson and Sean Phipps and will rebuild around senior guard Eli Thompson (5.9, 3.8), junior guard Ty Clark (5.8, 2.1) and 6-3 junior forward Evan Biliter (6.5, 3.0). Standout freshman Sawyer Thompson (7.0, 2.9) will be one of the region’s top young players. Senior guard Devon Morris (2.8, 2.1) and junior guard Ian Middleton (4.4, 2.6) should also play key roles.

Williamsburg (11-10) — The Jackets lose four starters and over 60 points due to graduation, including all-region player Evan Steely. Senior guard Connor Lay (4.4, 3.2) returns, along with junior guard Drew Damron (4.2) and 6-1 junior forward Clayton McFarland.

Middlesboro (5-15) — The Jackets were hit hard by graduation, with three starters leaving, but can rebuild around senior center Jay Tyler West (8.4, 7.3) and sophomore guard Cayden Grigsby (8.6, 2.8). Junior forward Trey Kyle (2.0, 2.9) and sophomore forward Trey King (2.2) should also play key roles, along with senior guard Blaine Woody (2.6) and 6-4 sophomore center Bryce Bowling.

Red Bird (0-21) — Returning starters for the Cardinals include senior forward Juan Bynum (7.4, 2.9), junior guard Austin Osborne and sophomore guard Felix Onosumba (3.8, 4.1). Seniors Victor Ilunga (2.4, 3.5), Jean-Claude Nyembo (2.4, 3.2) and Mark Ngulunga (2.3, 3.5) are also in the mix to round out the lineup.

Oneida Baptist (No record) — The Mountaineers will be returning after taking a year off due to covid regulations that reduced the student population at the school. It’s difficult to determine at this point who will be playing for OBI in 2022.