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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.

Why I Love The Nike Hoop Summit

After seeing the confetti rain down on UConn on Monday, I wasn’t quite tired of that championship spirit.

On Friday, I watched a few minutes of the NCAA Men’s Team Gymnastic Final on the Big Ten Network. Michigan Senior Sam Mikulak, who you may remember from the 2012 London Olympics, had the title clinching floor routine for the Wolverines. And then his teammates tackled each other in jubilation.

Then on Saturday night, I snuck up to Philadelphia and saw the Frozen Four title game in person. Union College plastered Minnesota with 20 shots and four goals in the first period en route to a 7-4 Victory. And as I watched the post-game from the upper deck, I saw the contrast in emotion. One of the Gopher players knelt down with his elbow on his knee, knowing that his dream had come up just short. Meanwhile on the other end of the ice, the Union College players had thrown their gloves and sticks aside and had formed a huge dogpile. Whether you follow these teams from the opening practice, or only start watching in March and April, the scene when a team wins a championship never gets old.

And the spirit of competition never gets old. This is why the Nike Hoop Summit is the best of the high school All-Star games. OK, so it isn’t quite like seeing two teams battle for a national title. But something happens when those players put on the Team USA uniform. This isn’t just an all-star dunk contest. You get to see a little bit more of the player’s character. For example:

-In the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were star scorers, but we also learned that they had defensive intensity. Twelve months later Davis and MKG were national champions.

-In the 2012 Nike Hoop Summit, a very young Andrew Wiggins (playing for the World Team) loved the 24 second shot clock and dominated an up-and-down game. We learned that Wiggins was willing to take over when his team needed his scoring. At Kansas, Wiggins had his best games when Kansas was playing full-court basketball. And while Wiggins liked to defer to his teammates, when the Jayhawks were struggling, he tended to take over and have his best games.

- In the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit, the US gave up an embarrassing number of points in a blowout loss. We learned that as good as Jabari Parker and Julius Randle might be, last year’s freshmen class was not filled with elite defensive players. Perhaps not surprisingly, Duke was a bad defensive team all year, and Kentucky narrowly made the national title game, despite a string of poor defensive games leading up to it.

So what did the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit offer up as lessons?

Of course there are lots of small observations whenever you watch an all-star game.

- Seeing North Carolina recruit Theo Pinson attack in transition, and draw a foul, you couldn’t help but wonder whether Roy Williams is assembling the perfect group of players to take advantage of college basketball’s tighter whistles. I still wonder whether the Tar Heels have enough outside shooting, but with three true point guards on the perimeter, and a player like Pinson that can get to the rim, teams are going to find that if they have a slow-footed guard on the floor, they have nowhere to hide him against the Tar Heels.

- Seeing Florida recruit Brandone Francis wearing a Dominican Republic jersey, you could not help but remember that Florida’s 2006 and 2007 title teams had a certain international flavor with Joakim Noah’s French heritage, and Walter Hodge’s Puerto Rican lineage.

But I thought there were three real lessons in the game:

1)     Duke might have a championship caliber defense next season.

Duke has so many elite offensive players, they shouldn’t have a problem scoring next year. The big question for is whether the freshmen can elevate the defense to a national championship level. Saturday wasn’t necessarily Jahlil Okafor’s best game, but his defense still stuck out. He had an early block on Kentucky recruit Karl Towns. Then later in the quarter, he switched on a screen, and was able to move his feet, and force SMU recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to commit a turnover.

Meanwhile, Paul Biancardi was raving about Justice Winslow. He not only said Winslow was the best defensive player in the country, but he pointed out multiple times when Winslow’s quick hands caused the key tip that led to a Team USA steal. And the beneficiary was usually fellow Duke recruit Tyus Jones. Jones somehow got his hands on five steals in the game.

2)     SMU recruit and World Team PG Emmanuel Mudiay, can learn from future head coach Larry Brown.

Emmanuel Mudiay might be one of the most intriguing players in college basketball next year given his next-level size, and overall athleticism. Scouts are going to be picking his game apart to see whether he can truly become an NBA PG.

And while Mudiay may have rung up a lot of great assists on dunks in the McDonald’s All-American game, whenever the game between the US and the World Team got close, his natural instinct wasn’t to create shots for his teammates. Mudiay’s natural instinct was to call his own number. This is a little unfair, given how the US Team basically threw its best defenders at him constantly, making it very hard to drive and create for teammates. But Mudiay’s natural instinct wasn’t to share the ball.

On one possession in the second half, Fran Fraschilla also perfectly called Mudiay out for ruining a 2-on-1 fastbreak. Instead of spacing the floor and making the pass, Mudiay drove into his teammate, ruined the spacing, and was lucky to get fouled.

3)     USA basketball remains in great shape.

But most importantly, and I don’t want to lose this given the introduction I wrote at the start, the US Olympic pipeline remains strong. This was a real game with real strategy. Canada thought the US didn’t have enough shooters, and played zone from the opening minute. 10 years ago, the US international pipeline might not have been ready for that. Saturday, the US counter-attacked by using full court pressure for long-periods of game time. Basketball 101 says that if you don’t have the shooters to attack a zone in the halfcourt, attack before the zone it gets set, and the US was prepared to do just that.

But this is also about Team USA valuing the diverse skill set. LeBron James has been the perfect face of USA Basketball. He was willing to play center in the Olympics, showing that he would do anything to help his team win. And that continues to rub off at all levels.

Stanley Johnson, an Arizona recruit, played some PG by necessity in high school, but he told Paul Biancardi and Fran Fraschilla that this was not his preference. But when the full-court pressure didn’t work in the first half, I thought Johnson’s ability to attack the zone by driving from the wing was absolutely crippling to the World Team’s defense.

Overall, by valuing versatile players, and building a strategy that takes advantage of the US athleticism, the US developmental system is in great shape. And while there weren’t any gold medals on the line, for the young men putting on a Team USA uniform, winning this game meant something.

One And Done Model Works For Everyone

While Kentucky came up just short against UConn on Monday, their run to the national championship game completed a remarkable five-year stretch for John Calipari. Since coming to Lexington, Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. It’s a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire “one and done” model.

The NBA didn’t institute the rule for altruistic reasons. They are a remarkably cheap organization that doesn’t want to pay for the development of their talent base, preferring to pawn as much of it on the colleges as they can. Just as important, forcing players to spend one season in college allows them to make a better evaluation of their pro ability. For all of Kentucky’s success, this season revealed holes in the games of its players that high school and AAU ball couldn’t.

Nevertheless, the rule has been a win-win for everyone. While some of the traditionalists of the sport might disagree, one-and-done has clearly been a boon for college basketball. Interest in the NCAA Tournament is as high as it’s ever been and the five classic games Kentucky played is one of the biggest reasons why. Just compare the level of intrigue surrounding UConn’s victory over Kentucky in 2014 as opposed to their victory over Butler in 2011.

Under Calipari, the Wildcats have embraced an us against the world mentality that makes them a natural villain and a compelling antagonist. They are the Oakland Raiders of the 21rst century - hate them or love them, everyone has an opinion. When you play against Kentucky, the basketball world is watching. Cleanthony Early went from a fringe second-round pick to a fringe first-rounder based off scoring 31 points against the Wildcats frontline.

Upsets are always the big story of the first weekend of the Tourney, but as you get deeper into March, you want the natural order to reestablish itself. What would David be if not for Goliath? Kentucky is the measuring stick that every other program in the country can compare itself to - beat Calipari and you put yourself on the map. Two of his three losses in the NCAA Tournament have come against teams that went on to win the national title.

And while the popular perception is a guy who just rolls the basketball out on the floor every year, this season should have put those notions to bed. Calipari just went toe-to-toe with Gregg Marshall, Rick Pitino, John Beilein, Bo Ryan and Kevin Ollie - you don’t beat coaches like that if you don’t know what you are doing. He knows the right buttons to push, in terms of instilling team play and making the correct adjustments over the course of a game.

As long as Calipari stays in Lexington, Kentucky isn’t going anywhere. For all the hype this year’s recruiting class got, I think next year’s class is even better. Julius Randle and James Young are gone, but as long as one of the Harrison twins comes back to school, the Wildcats will start a McDonald’s All-American and NBA prospect at every position. Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Bookert, Tyler Ulis - NBA fans will be hearing those names soon enough.

Of course, there’s no question that Calipari’s players are being exploited on some level. Towns is only 18 years old and he could play in the NBA right now. A skilled and athletic 7’0 250 big man, he could have been a professional at the age of 15 or 16. That’s how they do it in Europe - Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter and Jonas Valanciunas were all cashing checks when they were still going through puberty. All of those guys seem to have turned out alright.

If you aren’t going to let young basketball players operate in a completely free market, where professional teams are forced to bid for their services, forcing them to spend a year in college doesn’t seem like that much more of an imposition. What’s really the dividing line between 18 and 19 years old? Well-meaning reformers who want the NBA to eliminate the one-and-done rule are missing the forest through the trees  - the rot starts way deeper than that.

The league has its own financial reasons for setting up the draft the way they do and they aren’t going to change them because it makes Mark Emmert feel like a hypocrite. Every coach in the country would happily take Calipari’s players if they could. It’s not like he’s doing them a disservice - he puts them in a position to rack up statistics, win games and become high draft picks. For the most part, his players do well in school and start on the road to degrees.

They aren’t risking all that much in college - Nerlens Noel tore his ACL and he was still taken with the sixth overall pick. Medical science has made tremendous advancements over the last generation. If an injured guy has the talent to succeed at the next level, an NBA team will have no problem paying him a few million dollars while he recovers. Was Anthony Davis better off losing 60 wins on a team like the New Orleans Pelicans or winning a national title at Kentucky?

When Randle, Young and the Harrisons are old men looking back on their careers, they will remember these last six weeks as fondly as anything that happens to them in the NBA. Looking back, is it that big a deal that Kevin Durant has spent eight years with the Oklahoma City Thunder instead of 9? Carmelo Anthony gave $3 million to Syracuse for a practice facility - the players are getting something out of the experience that lasts with them in the NBA.

One way or the other, the best players will eventually make it to the NBA. In an ideal world, the current structure of youth basketball would not exist, but that is far from the world we live in. If being forced to wait an extra year in college before they become multi-millionaires is the worst thing that ever happens to Julius Randle or James Young, they had a pretty good life. Playing college basketball for a year isn’t so bad - if you don’t believe me, just ask them.

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