Despite scary injuries for Duke commit Frank Jackson and UConn's next floor general to be Alterique Gilbert, it was still another fine Jordan Brand Classic for the basketball mecca that is Brooklyn, New York. With a crowd more hyped than at most Brooklyn Nets' games these days, Barclays provided once more a fine atmosphere for the last of the three major high-school All-Star games.
The usual suspects of Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo shined the most as future NBA lottery picks for 2017 in the same building they will likely be drafted in come 14 months from now. However, there were other notable talents who gave more evidence in the final prep basketball game of their lives why they will garner future stardom at the collegiate and maybe NBA level as well.
MVP of the entire 3-week All-Star period
Jayson Tatum- Although it’s tough to take away the best player in the Class of 2016 mantle away from Harry Giles due to his latest ACL injury convalescence (at least he was able to experience the weeks in Brooklyn and Portland unlike his exclusion from the McDonald's game), his future Duke teammate and elite high school rankings rival has indeed taken that No. 1 crown away.
With Giles unavailable and Josh Jackson’s absence from the Jordan game due to his commendable focus on studies, and Frank Jackson’s alarmingly hard fall on his back that took him out of the game in the first half, Tatum was the best player of the entire high-school all-star trifecta of games. With the size of a traditional power forward and the mobility of a swingman, Tatum checks off every skill set off the list: Shoots with range, has touch on his shots and free throws, is active on the boards, handles the ball for a big man in the open court with ease, has a decent feel as a passer and is athletic enough at the rim to not be challenged by mediocre attempts to block him.
“Really just kind of stay consistent," said Tatum. "A lot of great talent out here and just continue to be at the top after each week and be one of the top performers. That really stood out for myself.”
The St. Louis native showed a Brandon Ingram-Jabari Parker hybrid skill set and physique that will make him an All-American candidate next season for Coach K.
Raised Their NBA Lottery Stocks
Markell Fultz – Although there isn’t a Luke Kennard level shooter in this class, there are still players who offered up some encouraging touch from beyond the arc in the last three weeks. One of those players is the Washington bound Fultz, who continues to rise in scouts’ eyes with his legit outside-inside top prospect ability. Smooth explosion is definitely an apt description for Fultz’s abilities at the rim. What’s been more impressive, however, is how Fultz is also relaxed from the perimeter, has a fluid ability to create his own shot and deliver a quality stroke that has made the Brandon Roy comparisons continue around him for a reason.
Fultz, who was one of the few receiving the honor of being selected for all three games, was humbled fully by these invitations.
“It’s truly a blessing, to come where I came from where I came, to be able to work hard, shows how hard work is truly a blessing,” he said.
Fultz still has work to do on his passing and decision making skills at running an offense, but there's no question the DeMatha High School star has shown true 2017 NBA Draft lottery ability over the past three weeks.
“Sometimes I can be a little unselfish but I think I play the game right,” Fultz added to me.
De’Aaron Fox – The newest point guard superstar recruit for John Calipari showed at all three all-star games that he, along with Miles Bridges, are the best defenders on the perimeter in this class. For another contest, the Texas native showed his innate ability to pick anyone’s pocket, whether it being a mid-level high school player or someone on his level like future Kentucky teammate Malik Monk.
But what was refreshingly impressive for Fox this time around was the fact that he showed a true shooter’s touch. A rough performance at the McDonald’s game (1 for 8, 0-2 for 3 and 0-1 at FT line) was replaced by a near total opposite display by him at the Jordan game. He showed scouts an ability to hit the three (2 for 6) and stability at the charity stripe (5 for 5 on FTs) to combine with his top left athleticism and secured co-MVP honors with a game high 23 points.
Fox still has to improve his shooting to make this consistent production for next season. And it is yet to be seen if he will be able to run an offensive successfully at Kentucky after having to be the whole offense at his high school. He’s not a dominant passer or playmaker, but Fox’s big game at Barclays showed why some John Wall similarities have been given to him.
Miles Bridges – In terms of pure “wow” factor, no one in that department at the Jordan Classic topped the shooting guard half of Tom Izzo’s two dynamic backcourt recruits. Bridges offered the crowd a glimpse of why there have been some comparisons to Russell Westbrook for him, as I asked him after his highlight reel exhibition.
“People say that I look like him and even sound like him,” Bridges said and laughed when asked about that humbling label.
Indeed, Bridges did justify those analogies with another impressive display of athleticism and competitiveness at the elite high school level. Tremendous, acrobatic finishing at the rim on one end of the court, while active all around defense to deny scores was his production on the other. But what added to Bridges’ performance being so impressive, and why scouts really need to take notice of it, was his knack for making the right basketball plays. Knowing when to pass to make a smart assist or telling big men like Omari Spellman where to position themselves on the block for space are some in-game things that you can’t teach.
When asked which of the two games he liked better to play in, Bridges picked the openness of the Jordan game from the unusual “regular game” display that took hold at the McDonald's game from this class.
“I like the Jordan game better, because we didn’t really play no defense and all the McDonald's game, we were playing a lot of defense,” he said. “I love our class and how competitive we are. I really love our class.”
Bridges, who said he modeled his game again after Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and even Scottie Pippen, reveled in not taking a break on either side of the court.
“I like to play both sides of the court, do everything for my coach,” he said. “I love playing defense and locking up guys.”
The only hole in Bridges game thus far is not being a near elite shooter. But the Huntington, West Virginia native does have legit range from the perimeter and will have Izzo’s influence on that part of his game to make him a complete talent.
Bruce Brown – Snubbed by the McDonald's game and not in the USA Basketball fold to get to Portland for the Nike Summit, the future Miami star had a chip on his shoulder and proved his value with NBA two-guard explosion and skillset. In practices, Brown showcased to those who hadn’t seen him before a true desire to go to the rim and finish strong with his layup touch and authoritative slams. Although he was 0 from 3 from outside the arc in the game, Brown repped his state of Virginia so well in practice with scoring from outside effectively and be an effective scorer at all three levels.
He isn’t much of a passer or off the ball player at the highest level yet, but Brown gave some scouts evidence he could be a solid NBA performer down the road after maybe two or three years at Miami.
V.J. King – After a quality McDonald's game where he just couldn’t get much action, the future Louisville standout showed a Paul George meets Khris Middleton type controlled scoring ability that legitimizes his all-star high school status. King was never rushed into taking bad shots and was his best at the Jordan game from the mid-range. Solid with his handle on both sides and featuring good athleticism, King could see himself as a future Top 20 player in two years time if he adds a consistent ability to make teammates around him better. The Fairfax, Virginia product will at least be a solid scorer for Rick Pitino.
Despite getting co-MVP honors at the Jordan Classic with 22 points and showing how he arguably has the best handle of the entire class to combine with his elite hops, Malik Monk showed that he does have to work more on his shot to truly be a lottery pick come next year’s draft. Too many threes (just 2 for 10) will make Calipari likely get on him if he settles too much next season. It will be interesting if he and Fox will gel in the backcourt together considering how both right now aren’t the most adept at playing without the ball.
Florida State’s second top recruit in as many years, Jonathan Isaac, just couldn’t get into the flow of the game. In some people’s eyes, Isaac is a Top 10 pick in the 2017 Draft. He did back up those projections well this week in the two practices with his long physique, bringing along with it some quality touch from outside and top class handle for his 6’10 size. But with Isaac more effective from the exterior, he will have to find a way to be active inside and not always be the “stretch 4 or 5” who doesn’t want to bang down low consistently.
Bam Adebayo is an improved jumper away from being a lock Top 10 pick in next year’s draft. There's no question the future Kentucky power forward is the strongest rim finisher in the class. And he did display the diligence he has put on his “pick and pop” midrange shot with one quality swish to add to his very good 7 for 8 night from the field.
But as the practices this week showed, more work throughout the course of the year will be needed from the High Point Christian stud on his shooting and free throw production. A national title and early selection into the 2017 Draft might depend on how much he improves his shot. With his power and underrated dribbling ability in transition, Adebayo certainly has the other keys to be a dynamic force in college and the NBA.
Udoka Azubuike and Tony Bradley are two more examples of how big men can be contrasts of themselves and would make an ideal 4-5 combination in the pre-three point revolution era. After concerns over his injury possibly keeping him out, Azubuike did play and had his best game of the three all-star contests. His positioning for rebounding the ball was solid as many pointed out how he had to improve on the fundamental aspects of boxing out his man. He also gave scouts a glimpse of having skill on the block with good spin moves and dribbling leverage to get the angle he needs to throw the ball up. Although there’s still more steps to be taken, as well as the concern with how Kansas did not served as the best development at all for its last two big men top recruits of Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo, Azubuike showed plenty of upside to justify his lottery pick potential.
While the Nigerian is a true banger down low, Bradley is definitely the pick and pop long athletic type of power-forward/center. That’s not to say that Bradley hasn’t displayed at both the McDonald's and Jordan games a willingness to still be active on the glass and provide expected rim protection with his wide wingspain and 6’10 height. But the future North Carolina Tar Heel will have Roy Williams urging him to follow the steps of Brice Johnson and find a proper balance of when to stay inside and when to showcase your jumper. Still, he too is a lottery pick contender in a good number of scouts eyes.
Omari Spellman showed scouts and Villanova fans more of an ability to play above the rim than some have expected. If he remains on the right course with Jay Wright as a low post dominant force, first round pick status for him in the future is very feasible. Like Spellman, Marques Bolden (who is still undeclared) stayed true to his “traditional post man ethos” by showing solid fundamentals down low to justify his Top 30 pick potential.
With the guards dominating most of this game, Wenyen Gabriel couldn’t get involved as he would have liked. But the future Kentucky product showed why, with Calipari’s tutelage, he could become a defensive force with his shot blocking and assertive rebounding presence.
Finally, for hometown kid Shamorie Ponds, Michigan State bound Cassius Winston and Minnesota recruit Amir Coffey, it was a nice experience for them in their only appearance at the three major all-star games. But along with Texas incoming swingman Andrew Jones, barring major, significant improvements, all of them will probably need 3 or 4 years in college to maximize their chances at playing in the NBA.