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Portsmouth Invitational - '62 Years Running - The Best of the PIT'

The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (PIT) is a major NBA event that showcases some of the top senior talent across college basketball. It is noted for featuring many of the great players of NBA's past. And, over the course of its 62-year history, the PIT has become a staple for NBA scouts, agents, and media members alike, who all flock to the four-day event to see some of the top senior talent square off in organized scrimmages.

In the current agent-dominated landscape, where players are too often concerned with harming their draft stock and are focused more on how they will conduct themselves in team interviews, the PIT is a breath of fresh air for those who subscribe to the mantra: 'actions speak louder than words.'

At the PIT, a player's game does the talking, so to speak, which provides a glimmer of hope for those out there who still clamor to the notion that head to head matchups can still tell a lot about a prospect. While no scout in their right mind would substitute a player's body of work in the regular season for one's performance at the PIT, the event does allow scouts to glean some aspects of a player's adaptability, toughness, and willingness to buy into a team construct, especially given the fact that most of these guys are playing alongside each other for the first time.

While many players stood out in certain contests but failed to live up to their promise in others, several individuals were consistent throughout, standing out from the pack and really helping their draft stocks. Five players in particular really impressed from an NBA prospect perspective: Markel Starks, Travis Bader, Akil Mitchell, Javon McCrea, and Andre Dawkins all really helped themselves at this event.

Markel Starks, Georgetown - While Davante Gardner took home the MVP trophy for his spectacular performance in the final game, looking pretty dominant on the glass and in the post, Markel Starks was far and away more deserving of the MVP award. Although he played alongside pure point David Stockton, who had a tremendous camp in his own right, Starks looked every bit the part of the best point guard at the event. In terms of his ability to break down the defense, Starks employs an adequate first step and regularly turned to his arsenal of hesitation moves to break his man down off the bounce and either take the ball all the way to the rim, or pull up for an often uncontested jumper. He did this with impunity at the PIT,  and demonstrated excellent body control when confronted with a bigger help defender. Not only was Starks hyper aggressive attacking the basket, but he was incredibly crafty at the rim, evincing tremendous body control and the concentration and strength to finish through contact. He also possesses an array of floaters and scoop shots. With that said, Starks' bread and butter at the next level will be his ability to keep defenses honest with his pullup jumper, which is somewhat of a lost art in today's game. Starks has the balance and poise to score off the bounce, elevating and creating enough separation on his shot to likely receive clean looks at the next level. While Starks displayed good range on his outside shot, he was not particularly consistent in this respect throughout the season.

Starks is more than just a scorer though. At the PIT, Starks demonstrated that he can serve as a floor general, seeing the floor and creating plays for his teammates. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to read the defense, hitting open cutters and making winning basketball plays. On the defensive end, Starks is a savvy defender who committed only 2.55 fouls per 40 minutes (good for 11th best in the Big East). Starks does a nice job getting in a stance and possesses the lateral quickness to defend at the next level. While Markel Starks was not given the MVP nod, he more than impressed with his performance at the PIT, capped off by his game winning three pointer as time expired to earn his team the championship trophy.

Travis Bader, Oakland - While I did not have the pleasure of witnessing Bader's most impressive three point shooting barrage in his first game at the PIT, the 6'5 wing clearly stood out as the best shooter at this event. Travis Bader sports textbook mechanics, nice elevation, and a quick release on his jumper shot.   And even though he did try to display a more diversified game at times, Bader's potential at the next level rests in his ability to nail the long ball. While he is not as effective shooting off the bounce, Bader was remarkably accurate connecting off the catch in transition or hitting shots off a curl. He also did not get rattled by the physicality of the game, drawing several three point fouls. This came as no surprise to me given his performances during the year, where teams absolutely did everything they could to clamp down on him from beyond the arc. Bader is a master at properly utilizing screens and reading defenses in order to get off his shot. Oakland regularly ran set plays and he was able to dial in from distance with only a little bit of daylight.

In terms of the other facets of his game, Bader did employ a shot fake at times and got to the rim on a few occasions, but this was few and far between. Defensively, Bader shows good effort and a solid intensity level, working hard to stay with his man, but will likely be average to below average at the next level given his limited physical profile, which will hurt his ability to fight over the top of screens. All in all, Bader has good size for a wing and a defined role at the next level, making him an obvious candidate to be drafted.

Akil Mitchell, Virginia - Akil Mitchell was one of the most highly touted names coming into the PIT, and he did not disappoint with his performances here. Mitchell was dominant defensively and controlled the glass throughout the tournament, two areas he will likely have to specialize in next season if he is able to earn an NBA roster spot. The lengthy Mitchell has a fairly raw offensive game at this point, but was physical attacking the basket. His explosiveness off the bounce was evident, and he likely has not reached his full potential on this end of the floor. For instance, he made several explosive maneuvers to the basket, spinning off of his man and finishing at the rim before the defender could even react. Mitchell is not particularly shy in this regard, and will ferociously throw the ball down if a defender allows him to get deep enough post position. While Mitchell certainly has the strength to back his man down, he does not yet boast the advanced footwork to truly create for himself off the initial post entry feed in any meaningful way. He instead relies heavily on his athleticism and strength to finish at the rim on both back to the basket and faceup moves. In terms of his other capabilities on this end of the floor, Mitchell does not yet have the range to stretch defenses and keep them honest at the next level. This likely could be a big area of improvement for him in the coming seasons.

In terms of his promise on the glass, Mitchell did a nice job securing rebounds and this will likely be a strength at the next level. He did a nice job of blocking out more physically imposing players and utilizing his superior athleticism to corral loose balls. On other trips, he was able to tip it out to his teammates and keep possessions alive. Defensively, Akil is a great help defender who can come over from the weakside and contest at the rim. He works hard in the post to maintain position on the block and utilizes his length to deflect post entry feeds. He is active in passing lanes and regularly deflected the ball on several occasions due to his great timing and quickness (he led the PIT with 2.3 steals per contest according to realgm.com statistics). Ultimately, Mitchell is a consummate role player at the next level who possesses the requisite athleticism to make an NBA roster next season.

Two Additional Players Deserving Mention:

Andre Dawkins, Duke - Dawkins was a revelation at this event due to his tremendous shooting display. Dawkins gets good elevation on his shots and was able to pull up from virtually anywhere on the floor. He also demonstrated a lot more aggression attacking the rim than most were accustomed to seeing during his time at Duke. He was able to get past his man on several occasions and possesses the strength to finish through contact. All in all, Dawkins projects as a jump shooter who can spot up off the dribble or off the catch.

Javon McCrea, Buffalo - McCrea was arguably the most consistent big man at this event and was able to physically dominate his opponents at times. He likely is the strongest player at the event, and regularly attacked his man's body and finished through contact. McCrea possesses the necessary girth (body type wise) to create separation in the post and finish against bigger opponents. At the PIT, McCrea was a dominant physical presence facing up and scored on several up and under moves and scoop shots which were heavily contested. He was also aggressive on the offensive glass, creating extra possessions for his team and looking every bit the part of an undersized power forward. Defensively, McCrea was physical enough to move his man out of the post area, but struggled a little bit when lengthy players were able to get the ball super close to the hoop. With that said, he was active defensively and readily poked the ball away on numerous occasions. McCrea also demonstrated his midrange jump shot, and connected with some consistency. His form is still rather awkward looking though, and a larger sample size is needed before it can be said that he has improved in this area. Overall, McCrea will likely be limited initially by his size, but can eventually make a roster down the road if he can show some consistency on his jump shot and extend his range.

MCW & Giannis: Why The Eye Test Still Matters

A year later, if the NBA could do a redraft of 2013, two guys would go a lot higher - Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Carter-Williams, after leading Syracuse to the Final Four as a sophomore, slipped to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 11, due to concerns about his jumper and his offensive efficiency in college. Giannis was the mystery man of the draft, a Greek teenager with no real experience or statistics who the Milwaukee Bucks took at No. 15.

It didn’t take long for MCW to make a splash. In his NBA debut, he led the 76ers to an upset of the two-time defending champions with a preposterous stat-line of 22 points, 7 rebounds, 12 assists and 9 steals. Philadelphia became the feel good story of the league, although injuries and a fire sale at the deadline soon put a damper on that. MCW, one of the only rookies in position to rack up statistics, took a commanding lead in the ROY race and never looked back.

Giannis came on a bit more slowly, but he soon became the only reason to watch Milwaukee Bucks games. At 6’9 210 with a 7’3 wingspan, his length and quickness jump off the screen. Like MCW, a 6’6 PG with a 6’7 wingspan, Giannis came into the NBA a one of the longest and most athletic players at his position. That’s why they were both successful as rookies and they have such promising futures - they are really long and really fast. It’s not more complicated than that.

If they were more athletes than basketball players, their physical tools wouldn’t be so remarkable. However, since they do have the skills necessary to play their respective positions, they have a huge advantage over everyone they face. The best players in the NBA tend to be the ones with above-average height and speed for their position. All things being equal, the taller player has a huge advantage in a sport where the nets are raised 10 feet in the air.

At 6’6, MCW is the tallest PG in the league, so he has a much easier time racking up assists, steals, rebounds and blocks than his peers. Even though he can’t shoot, you don’t see many PG’s who can impact the game in as many ways as he can. He isn’t doing anything different in the NBA than he was doing in college - he averaged 12 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists a game at Syracuse. You just don’t see a player with his combination of skills, size and athleticism very often.

Once the draft came around, though, people focused more on what he couldn’t do than what he could. With the rise of advanced metrics, efficiency became the most prized asset in a prospect and MCW shot only 39 percent from the field in college. The real problem was his college offense - Syracuse played a 2-3 zone, which slowed down the tempo of the game, and they didn’t have a lot of shooters on the perimeter, which allowed defenses to crowd him on the drive.

MCW was an “eye test” guy all the way. When he faced Indiana in the Sweet 16, he tore up Victor Oladipo, another future lottery pick. MCW was too tall, too fast and too quick - he could go wherever he wanted on the court and create easy shots for all of his teammates. The scouting report is the same then as it is now - if he ever consistently made 3’s, he would be one of the best players in the NBA. Even if he didn’t, his size and speed would make him a productive player.

Philadelphia was an excellent landing spot for him in terms of racking up statistics, but he would have made an immediate impact on almost every team in the lottery. If Marcus Smart had stayed in the draft, the domino effect would likely have pushed MCW down to No. 13, where the Dallas Mavericks were set to pick him up. MCW on the pick-and-roll with Dirk Nowitzki would have been unfair - his skill-set would have made a lot of teams better this season.

The same principles apply to Giannis. There are a few NBA players who are as long and as fast as him, but there is no one who is longer and faster. That’s what the “eye test” really means - are you able to see that Giannis is really tall, really fast and really long? Congratulations, your eyes still function. When judging Giannis, there was nothing else for teams to go on. Before the draft, he was playing for the U19 team on a lower division club in Greece.

Unlike most international prospects, Giannis had not been in international competitions or played at the Hoop Summit. The son of Nigerians who had illegally immigrated to Greece, he didn’t have a passport for most of his childhood. His story is like something out of a Disney movie - a coach riding his bike spotted him and one of his brothers in a park. Even after he declared, most people assumed he would go to Spain for 1-2 years before even thinking about the NBA.

Before the draft, the only film you could watch on Giannis was a few of his youth-league playoff games that DraftExpress posted on YouTube. There were no statistics and the level of competition wasn’t great, probably not better than a high-school state tournament in the US. The film was grainy, but Giannis was running point, making ridiculous passes and handling the ball at a very high level. It didn’t matter who he was playing - the physical tools translated.

When you see a 6’9 player with elite length, skill and athleticism, you have to figure he is a pretty good at basketball. The same goes for an athletic 6’6 PG with MCW’s skill-set. When you are evaluating young players, the statistics can only tell you so much. In Giannis’ case, there were no statistics to go on at all. Nevertheless, there are still ways to find steals in the draft - look for the tallest, longest and most athletic guys at each position. It’s really that simple.

Draft Report: Dante Exum Of Australian Institute Of Sport

From an NBA draft perspective, the Nike Hoop Summit, which pits the best under-19 international players against the best US high school players, is the most intriguing of the high-school all-star games. It’s one of the only times the best teenagers from overseas play in North America before the draft - Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki and Enes Kanter were all “discovered” at the game. Every year, there’s at least 1-2 future lottery picks on the international squad.

Given the one-and-done rule, though, much of the intrigue comes a year in advance - the standout players at the 2014 Hoop Summit won’t be drafted until 2015. If you want to talk about the 2014 draft, you have to look at 2013 Hoop Summit. The film from last year’s game gives us a few clues about what should be one of the biggest storylines in this year’s draft - Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum, the two World Team guards expected to go in the Top 5.

Neither fits the stereotype of the unathletic international player. Like Tony Parker, Wiggins and Exum are sons of Americans who played in the NBA before finishing their careers overseas. Mitchell Wiggins wound up in Canada and his son played high school ball in the US. Cecil Exum played in Australia and his son spent most of his teenage years at the Australian Institute of Sport, the academy that produced Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova.

Exum was not in a situation in Australia where he could get much publicity in NBA circles. Coming into the Hoop Summit, he was more of an unknown commodity than Wiggins, who was being hyped as the best prospect since LeBron. Exum was expected to play college basketball and not declare for the draft until 2015. That began to change after a strong performance in Portland, where he was every bit as good as his more celebrated teammate.

The game itself, a 112-98 victory for the World Team, wasn’t all that competitive. They got out to a big early lead by playing zone, which forced Team USA to beat them with a half-court offense instead of going 1-on-1. The Americans were able to get back in the game by speeding up the tempo with a full-court trap, but the international players eventually figured out the press, pulling away in the fourth quarter with a string of open dunks in transition.

As the NBA teams that drafted Saer Sene and Bismack Biyombo in the lottery found out, there’s only so much you can take away from an exhibition game between two groups of teenagers who practiced together for less than a week. Team USA, which had more slashers than shooters, didn’t have enough time to prepare for the zone and neither team was all that smooth in the half-court. The internationals had 24 assists on 19 turnovers; the Americans had 15 on 14.

Nevertheless, just from that game, you could see why people are so excited about the two guards. Wiggins (6’8 200 with a 7’0 wingspan) and Exum (6’6 190 with a 6’9 wingspan) both have an elite combination of size, speed and length. Exum may not be quite as explosive in the air, but he’s every bit as quick laterally. His first step is absurd - the American guards couldn’t stay in front of him. The difference in quickness between Exum and the Harrison Twins was glaring.

When you look at his production in the game, what jumps out is how efficient he was. Exum needed only eight shots to get 16 points. He didn’t get the ball that often, but when he did, he knew what to do with it. When the Americans eventually began playing off him, he knocked down the open jumper. He could take whatever the defense gave him without having to force the action. The best players can beat a defense in multiple ways - they make the game look easy.

Wiggins got 17 points at the Hoop Summit, but he needed 16 shots to do it. That was the big difference between the two - Exum played under more control and had a lot of finesse in his game. For the most part, Wiggins was putting his head down, running at the rim and throwing up shots. He was mostly scoring off being longer and more athletic than the guys he was facing - in the NBA, he will be playing guys who are just as long and just as athletic as he is.

Aggressiveness was one of the knocks on Wiggins in college, but that was more about his role in the offense than his mentality. Kansas runs a lot offense through the post - Wiggins didn’t get to play in transition nearly as much as he did in AAU ball. He’s an inconsistent shooter without great ball-handling ability, so it was hard for him to be as “aggressive” without open lanes to the rim. He got most of his points in the Hoop Summit in transition and the offensive glass.

A perimeter player with that skill-set is valuable, but they have a hard time making their teammates better. That’s where Exum has an edge on Wiggins - he’s a much better passer. A few months after the Hoop Summit, he carried a relatively untalented Australian team to the semis of the U19 world championships. Exum averaged four assists per game in Prague while Wiggins had only 1.5 a game at Kansas. That’s a big deal when evaluating wing players.

While Exum isn’t quite as long and athletic, he’s far more skilled. He’s an elite athlete in his own right and he plays with more poise than Wiggins, despite being six months younger. You have to play Trading Places with these guys - what would have happened if Exum was on the AAU circuit every summer and Wiggins was in the AIS? Forget which one has the better highlight tape and who is getting more publicity - passing up Exum to take Wiggins could be a mistake.

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