On Friday evening, the East and West squads at the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic All-American Game, whose rosters were comprised of the country’s top-tier, elite high school prospects in the senior class, combined to put up 305 points in 40 minutes of play.
But truly, that isn’t saying much, considering that the nationally televised showcase predictably devolves into nothing more than a glorified pick-up game within the first few minutes and is typically played with, shall we say, little defensive intensity.
To me, the true beauty of the Jordan Brand Classic is not the actual game, but the closed-door practice sessions that are only accessible to NBA executives and selected media. In that setting, you can get a truer measure of a player’s skill set, especially as they compete against one another in more of an intense environment.
The actual game might be nothing more than full court slam dunk competition, but those practice sessions are where the true gold nuggets are unearthed.
Ten years ago, when Dwight Howard was the marquee star heading into the Jordan Game, I remember being intrigued by two players from Louisville and Mississippi respectively. Yeah, Dwight Howard was a physical and athletic specimen that hadn’t been seen on the high school level since a young Shaquille O’Neal, but my eyes were drawn to the less celebrated skills of Rajon Rondo and Al Jefferson.
I wasn’t convinced that they’d be stars in the NBA, but I knew that they had a hunger to go along with some serious skills.
In the case of LaMarcus Aldridge, his weaponry at that same event in 2004 was nowhere near what he displayed in last night’s monstrous 46-point, 18-rebound performance in the Trail Blazers Game 1 playoff victory against the Houston Rockets.
Back then, those guys were all far from polished prospects, but there was something about their mannerisms, demeanor and willingness to compete that stood out.
From the aforementioned Aldridge, Rondo, Howard and Jefferson, along with the likes of LeBron, Carmelo, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Amar’e Stoudemire, Derrick Rose, Demar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant, and this year’s stellar college freshman class of Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Tyler Ennis, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle as alums of the prestigious event, the Jordan Brand Classic is always a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of what the near future of the game will look like.
With that being said, here are some of my observations from this year’s event, where, as my folks at Jordan Brand like to say, the legends of tomorrow play today.
One of the least talked about aspects of the week is the International Game, where the world’s top 15- and 16-year-old players this year, from France, Bosnia, Serbia, Lithuania, Senegal, Argentina, Turkey, Brazil, Montenegro, Croatia, Canada, New Zealand, Mali, Dominican Republic, Nigeria and Puerto Rico, were selected to compete.
Among those 20 players, the following players stood out to me –
Kassoum Yakwe, 6’7” – Yakwe, who plays his high school ball at Our Savior of New American on Long Island in New York, is originally from Mali in West Africa. The current high school sophomore who is being recruited by Oregon, Pitt, St. John’s, UNLV and Villanova, among others, showed some strong, diverse skills on the offensive end. He shot the ball with a nice stroke from deep, showed excellent vision when he penetrated and displayed some surprising skills while handling the ball in the open floor. A very fluid athlete, his defensive willingness also stood out.
Jahvon Blair, 6’1” – Blair is a lefty point guard and 9th grader from St. Edmond Campion School in Canada who is very intelligent, steady and crafty. In practices, he didn’t overwhelm, but his value was very pronounced during the actual international game on Friday afternoon at the Barclays Center. He didn’t shoot the ball well, but his fingerprints were all over the game with his scoring, rebounding, passing and overall floor generalship.
Lucas Siewart, 6’9” – Siewart is a native of Brazil who plays his high school ball at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles. He has a very smooth shooting stroke and is very proficient with splashing the deep ball. He also showed some advanced abilities in terms of using an array of head and ball fakes to create space to get his shoot off on the baseline, along with some excellent use of the glass.
Maximo Hugo Fjellerup, 6’4” – Fjellerup, a native of Argentina who plays for the Baia Basquet club team, has a nice, well-rounded skill set. The ball looked good coming off his fingertips from beyond the three-point line, and he showed some strong passing and rebounding skills as well.
Ibrahima Fall Faye, 6’9” – Fall Faye, from Senegal, has a pterodactyl-like wingspan. He showed some explosive shot-blocking ability, along with being able to execute some nice spin-dribbles and attaching defenders to his hip while attacking the rim. His dunks were extremely violent, but he augmented that with some good footwork and up-and-under ball fakes in the paint.
Anthony McNish, 6’3” - McNish is a natural scorer with a strong body who can give you buckets in a variety of ways.
Udoka Azubuike, 6’11” – When you see Azubuike in person, it’s hard to fathom that he is only a high school sophomore. He is a massive human being. But for a very big guy, the center from Nigeria who plays his high school ball at Potters House Christian in Florida has excellent body control. He runs the floor with conviction and purpose and plays a grown man brand of basketball in the paint. He has some very good footwork both facing and with his back to the basket, and if he gets the ball close to the rim, his goal seems to be to rip it down. He showed an excellent motor with his work on the offensive boards as well.
Although 6’4” shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead, the Seton Hall recruit from the legendary Lincoln High School program in Coney Island was injured and unable to play in the National Game, it became very clear that the Pirates entire recruiting class was a major coup for head coach Kevin Willard. The future looks very bright at Seton Hall, and not only because of the arrival of the celebrated talents of Whitehead.
The following young men impressed me with their work in the Regional Game, which featured some of the top senior players from New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Massachusetts –
Marial Shayok, 6’7” – Shayok is another player from the pulsating Canadian pipeline that people need to be aware of. The Ottowa, Ontario native who played his prep ball at Blair Academy in New Jersey, and his AAU ball for CIA Bounce, is extremely versatile. He has excellent strength, size and quickness for a wing player. When he attacks the basket, he does so effectively in a straight line. Defensively, he’s skilled enough to guard multiple positions. He also has a competitive streak that should serve him well at the next level. Shayok, who recently de-committed from Marquette in the wake of coach Buzz Williams accepting the Virginia Tech job, is still considering offers from Indiana, LaSalle, Minnesota, Rutgers, Virginia and West Virginia.
Angel Delgado, 6’8” – Delgado is a Bronx native, via the Dominican Republic, who is headed to Seton Hall next year. He is among the best rebounders in the country. His work on the boards in the Regional Game was exceptional as he ripped down 17 rebounds. He is deceptively athletic and will get playing time next year, even as his offense remains a work-in-progress, due to his competitive desire to mix it up under the boards and his gift for rebounding the ball.
Desi Rodriguez, 6’6” – Whitehead’s high school teammate at Lincoln, the two will again team up at Seton Hall next year. Rodriguez looks big and rugged enough to play tight end in the NFL if basketball doesn’t work out. He can score in the post and on the wing and is an extreme matchup nightmare for opposing coaches. He can muscle little guys on the perimeter and use his speed and quickness to outmaneuver big guys in the paint. He is a maximum effort guy who plays an aggressive, tough and attacking brand of ball.
Khadeen Carrington, 6’3” – The lefty from Brooklyn is yet another talented player who’ll be playing at Seton Hall next season. For a guy who is such a natural scorer, Carrington plays under control and has excellent vision and passing abilities. He has an excellent first step and looks very composed playing at fast speeds. His offensive repertoire is impressive, with an ability to get buckets in bunches and in a variety of ways: shooting the 3-ball, pulling up in the mid-range and in transition. The backcourt of him and Whitehead should be one of the best and most exciting to watch in the college game next year.
Ja’Quan Newton, 6’2” – Like Carrington, Newton, a Philly native who will play for the University of Miami next year, is a combo guard who can score in flurries. He can finish at the rim very well and has an instinct for creating and attacking defensive gaps.
Abdul-Malik Abu, 6’8” – Abu is a Boston native who chose to attend North Carolina State over offers from Florida and UCONN. He is powerfully built and plays with aggression, but he is skilled beyond his years. He’ll crash the glass and bang down low, as evidenced by his 11 rebounds in the Regional Game. He can also step out, hit the mid-range shot and put in work with his back to the basket. For a young player so big and strong, he looks very quick and fluid.
Samson Usilo, 6’5” – The Brooklyn native was born in Nigeria and will play his college ball next year at Manhattan College. But don’t let the Mid-Major label fool you. This kid is dynamic and explosive. His leaping ability is tremendous and he practically lives above the rim. But jumping is only one element of his game. His lateral quickness allows him, along with his size and strength, to be a defensive menace. Along with his ability to attack the rim and finish through contact, Usilo has a very decent jump shot. But his work in transition is where he will butter his bread.
This year’s National Game was a showcase for the two excellent big men out of Chicago, Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, who shared co-MVP honors. But there was also a plethora of talent on the East and West squads who, though their names don’t reverberate right now like Okafor’s and Alexander’s, have futures that are pregnant with possibility. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the players who stood out during the practice sessions –
Tyus Jones, 6’1” – The pure point guard from Minnesota will team up with Okafor at Duke next year to form a devastating inside-out combination. His natural feel for the game cannot be taught and the strength of his game is his ability to see the floor and create scoring opportunities for others. He understands angles and can shift speeds easily. He only took five shots during the game, but he can score when needed. His 12 assists were a game high and two shy of the record that Brandon Jennings set in the 2008 Jordan game.
Stanley Johnson, 6’6” – Johnson is probably the best pure scorer in the senior class. He gets buckets with a smooth mid-range game and is also proficient shooting from deep. But his true strength can be seen in transition, where his strength, hunger and power give him a great advantage. The California native, who’ll play his college ball at Arizona, can also handle and pass the ball extremely well.
Tyler Ulis, 5’9” – He might have been the smallest man on the court, but like Jones, the little guy from Illinois is a pure point guard who thinks pass first. In practice sessions, he battled ferociously on the defensive end, creating numerous turnovers while diving on the floor for loose balls. Ulis also showed a very good jump shot, along with an ability to quickly slide into gaps and create space to get his shots off against players who dwarf him in size. Next year, fans of the Kentucky Wildcats will fall in love with him.
Devin Booker, 6’5” – The first thing that jumps out about Booker, who’ll play with Ulis next year at Kentucky, is how pretty his jump shot looks. His basketball IQ and feel for the game are very advanced.
Emmanuel Mudiay, 6’4” – Born in the Republic of Congo, Mudiay’s size and athleticism make him an intriguing point guard prospect. He seems to see the entire floor and can score with ease, but his ability to rebound and pass will separate him from most college point guards next year when he’s playing for coach Larry Brown at SMU. He can create his own shot, slash through traffic, wobble defenders with his dribbling skills and finish through contact. In addition to those embarrassment of skills, Mudiay will be a SportsCenter favorite next year due to his insane flight game.
Kelly Oubre, 6’7” – The wing from Texas who played at prep powerhouse Findlay Prep in Las Vegas is long and very athletic. With an absurd 7’2” wing span, he can slash and throw down crowd-pleasing dunks. But the lefty also has great range and a smooth stroke on his jump shot. He will be very difficult to defend playing with Alexander next year at Kansas.
Jahlil Okafor, 6’11” – The consensus top player in this recruiting class, Okafor is not merely a big guy that dominates simply because of his size and strength advantages. Offensively, he’s one of the most skilled and polished big men to come out of the high school ranks. In addition to his rim-rattling dunks, his footwork, soft touch, spin moves and mid-range game are delicious. Despite Jabari Parker’s decision to turn pro, Okafor’s interior presence with the Duke Blue Devils next year automatically make them a Final Four contender.
Cliff Alexander, 6’9” – Despite his size, Alexander is very mobile. He is a dominant presence as a scorer and a ferocious rebounder who attacks the glass with authority. He also shows the instincts to be an elite shot blocker and plays with a high-motor. His dunks are of the thunderous variety. Weep not for Kansas coach Bill Self, who lost freshman stud Joel Embiid to this year’s NBA Draft. Alexander will have an immediate impact for the Jayhawks next year.
James Blackmon, Jr., 6’3” – The combo guard from Marion, Indiana was the smoothest guy on the floor during practices and the actual game. He always seemed composed and under control and his jump shot is a thing of beauty. He seemed just as effective pulling up off the dribble and coming off of screens in catch-and-shoot situations. Blackmon also displayed a tight and funky handle that allowed him to get anywhere on the floor. He should be one of the country’s most effective perimeter scorers and electrifying freshmen next year when he’s playing for the Indiana Hoosiers.