Thanks to the vagaries of Fox regional scheduling, i.e. college baseball, I am watching this game on tape delay.
Quick pre-game update: Top North Carolina recruit Marcus Paige has broken his foot and will not be participating in the game. What has Roy Williams done to anger the basketball gods? First Leslie McDonald went down, then Dexter Strickland was injured, then John Henson hurt his wrist, then Kendall Marshall broke his wrist, and now even the top high school commitment gets hit with the injury curse.
Boom and Bust
Heading into this weekend, the two top players in ESPN’s rankings were Nerlens Noel, a 6’11” shot-blocker with great leaping ability, and Shabazz Muhammad, a 6’6” combo-guard who is fantastic at taking the ball to the basket. Both are expected to announce their college decisions within the next 48 hours, but if this was our last glimpse of them as uncommitted recruits, this game did not treat both players equally.
Muhammad scored a Nike Hoops Summit record 35 points (eclipsing such greats as Dirk Nowitzki who had 33 points in the game), and was simply everywhere on the court. He tried to pass early, but when his teammates were hesitant to attack, Muhammad took over with multiple drives to the basket. Then once his teammates started to play more aggressively, he kept scoring points by grabbing offensive rebounds. And finally, just to show he is the total package, Muhammad knocked down a few threes.
Meanwhile Noel looked horrible. A year ago Anthony Davis played in this game and I thought it was amazing how big an impact Davis could have without even scoring. Noel tried to have the same impact, but it backfired. The world team recognized that Noel wanted to block every shot and they took advantage in two areas. First the world team abused the US on the boards. Every time Noel went for a block, the world team was there for an offensive rebound. Second, the world team abused Noel with shot fakes. They constantly got Noel up in the air and then passed or stepped around him for lay-ups.
But I need to give the post players on the world team more credit. In particular, Zhelin Wang deserves a lot of praise. I honestly can’t believe that Zhelin is 7 feet tall, because he moves with incredible grace on the basketball floor. If that type of mobility can make Illinois’ Meyers Leonard a potential mid-first round pick in the NBA draft, I would be shocked if Zhelin isn’t being evaluated in the same area. And in terms of the NBA draft, this game is much more important for international players. During the game they showed interview clips of both Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker and both players gave the Nike Hoops Summit a ton of credit for exposing their game to NBA scouts. Last year Charlotte’s Bismack Biymobo also made a big impression in this game and it certainly helped propel him into the first round of the NBA draft. This may have been a bit of a fluke performance from Zhelin, and he still might not pass the first round test. But he is in the discussion now, and for an international player, that is all you can ask for at this point.
Also, give a lot of credit to Andrew Wiggins who technically played for Canada, but plays basketball in the US at Huntington Prep. Wiggins isn’t scheduled to play college ball until 2014, but I will be shocked if he doesn’t re-classify because he is already the top rated player in his class. And as he showed in this game, the 6’6” small forward is not afraid to attack players like Noel around the basket.
On the US side, besides Muhammad and Noel, the player that probably stood out the most was UCLA recruit Kyle Anderson. During the game the announcers asked whether Anderson could play point-guard at UCLA. I think that would be awkward given his size, but it doesn’t matter. Great basketball players defy conventional position descriptions. Anderson is made to distribute from the free throw line and he will be the ultimate zone-buster. He would be the perfect high-low passer in Bill Self’s offense, or the ideal pivot for Georgetown. UCLA won’t use him as a pure point guard, but with his passing skills, Ben Howland will find a way to get him involved. Realistically, I hope Josh Smith watched some game tape of Anderson before making his draft decision, because Anderson is a player with the ability to balance the paint and get Smith the ball in scoring position.
Speaking of Anderson recruiting Smith to stay in college, there was almost certainly some real recruitment going on in this game. At one point Duke recruit Rasheed Sulaimon stole the ball and had an open fast-break for a lay-up, but he delayed and waited for Shabazz Muhammad to get into the picture. Certainly it was an unselfish play, but to me it screamed like one last pitch. “Come to Duke! We will get you the ball!”
I Went to an All-star Showcase and a Game Broke Out
Of course the outcome of a game like this is a little irrelevant. You watch to evaluate the players, not to see the final score. But unlike the East/West or North/South of other high school showcases, the US vs World set-up tends to bring out more realistic game situations for players. The US absolutely wanted to win this game and even applied full-court pressure to take advantage of the World team’s shaky guard play. At first the full-court pressure backfired. The US fell behind 10-0 to open the game as the World team shredded the US for lay-ups. And at one point in the game, the US trailed by 18 points. But the US team eventually came back to take the lead and the ball pressure eventually wore down the international team. You may wonder why Michigan St. recruit Gary Harris got so many minutes in the game given how poorly he shot the ball, but Harris, Muhammad, and Sulaimon were terrific at disrupting the international team, and their hustle defensively got the US back in the game. You don’t always get a chance to evaluate defense in an all-star game setting, and that is what makes the Nike Hoops Summit special.
Speaking of defense, as bad as Duke’s defense was this season, having Sulaimon on the roster is really going to help next year. Austin Rivers has declared for the draft, but the truth is that he was not a great at keeping opposing guards out of the lane. By playing Sulaimon and giving Tyler Thornton more minutes, Mike Krzyzewski’s team should be much better at defending quick perimeter players next year.
But as impressive as the 18 point comeback was for the US team, a few awkward possessions gave the World team the lead back. And with the shot clock winding down in the final minute, Canadian forward Anthony Bennett drilled a miracle three pointer that effectively sealed the game. Bennett will also be playing college ball in the US and plans to announce his destination in May. Whoever gets him will get a player who has already made at least one big shot in his career.