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Notes On The 2014 Jordan Brand Classic

Relative to the Nike Hoop Summit, which features real defense and some hope of evaluating players thanks to the international format, the Jordan Brand Classic is mostly just another all-star dunk contest. The lack of defense was particularly apparent this year as both teams combined for over 300 points in 40 minutes.

Occasionally, the Jordan Brand Classic has been a chance to evaluate some player who we didn’t see much of previously. In 2011, Otto Porter was an elite prospect who had not played on the AAU circuit, so the JBC invited him to see him compete against the top players. In 2013, Cameroon born Joel Embiid truly had his coming out party, as we saw the first real signs that he might be a Top 5 pick in the NBA draft.

This year, there were few players we had not seen featured in the previous high school all-star games. Daniel Hamilton, a tall guard prospect for UConn, looked like a natural scorer, calmly scoring 10 points in 11 minutes (including 2 of 2 shooting from beyond the arc.) Rick Pitino would be happy to see that in a game with virtually no defense, Louisville recruit Shaqquan Aaron grabbed 3 steals, which allowed Aaron to have a nice 6-of-7 evening from the floor. (In one of those moments of strange bedfellows, the Louisville recruit Aaron seemed to have great chemistry with Kentucky recruit Tyler Ulis.) And Georgetown recruit LJ Peak had one of the games signature dunks in the final minute.

But none of those players really made us reconsider where they are ranked nationally. Perhaps the breakout moments belong to Indiana recruit and scoring guard James Blackmon. Blackmon has played in the other all-star games, but after spending much of the Nike Hoop Summit on the bench, Blackmon was aggressive on Friday night. The player known for his three-point shooting was empty from deep, but 10 of 11 inside the arc, including some nice intermediate jumpers.

Or perhaps, the breakout was really by the players we already knew were great. While Paul Biancardi noted that Duke’s Jahlil Okafor has not always had great conditioning, or a great full-court presence, we were dazzled by a number of plays where Okafor beat the defense in transition or hustled for a secondary-break put-back dunk. And as LaPhonso Ellis pointed out, if Okafor adds that to his game, it could be lethal. If Okafor can tire out an opposing starting center with Duke’s high octane attack, his high skill level on post moves will eat backup centers alive.

I thought the most impressive play of the whole game came at 16:44 of the first half, when Duke PG recruit Tyus Jones hit Okafor with a bounce-pass for a transition lay-up. The reason the play was so spectacular was that Jones released the bounce-pass from the half-court stripe and hit Okafor perfectly in stride at the free throw line. But then at 16:46 of the second half, Kentucky recruit Karl Towns one-upped him. Towns had a behind-the-back pass from the half-court stripe for a lay-up. Towns pass was probably a bit of a fluke, but it still went down as the more jaw-dropping play.

Regardless, the fact that Okafor and Jones are already building chemistry is a huge benefit for the Blue Devils. You can’t really tell in a game like this (because there really was no defense), but there’s a reason most people list Jones as the top PG prospect in America right now. Jones just has an uncanny ability to get into the lane and find teammates in position to score.

But we’ve been raving about Duke’s incoming players for weeks. I also think it is time to admit that Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre are going to be very good for Kansas next year. Sure, Alexander and Oubre do not have nearly the same potential as Embiid or Wiggins. But there is no reason those two players cannot be just as dominant at the college level. Alexander is already a high-motor, aggressive rebounder, and that’s exactly the Embiid skill that Kansas most needs to replace. (While we fell in love with Embiid’s surprising post moves, the reality was that Embiid wasn’t a huge scorer for Kansas last year. But Embiid was one of the nation’s top defensive rebounders.) And while Wiggins was a raw athlete with length, that’s exactly what Oubre brings to the table. He doesn’t have nearly the same upside as Wiggins, but if you are looking for a player with a 7’2” wingspan, and natural athleticism to slide into a wing role at the college level, Oubre is perfect. And in a game where just about every key prospect scored in double figures, the Duke and Kansas prospects shined the brightest.

The Myles Turner Question

Myles Turner did not play in the Jordan Brand Classic after twisting his ankle in the Nike Hoop Summit. But Turner did give a sideline interview, and Turner came across very well. He appeared polished, bright, and mature.

We sometimes think of these kids who make late decisions as indecisive, immature, or egotistical. But the reality is that the late-deciders are probably making the smartest decisions of anyone. They get to see what each team’s roster really looks like. Could Turner have committed to Kentucky or Arizona last fall? Perhaps, but by waiting he now gets to see that Kentucky and Arizona both have crowded frontcourts, with no room for major minutes for an elite center.

And the seven teams Turner has evaluated could all use him.  (Of course if he joins Kansas or Duke, those two teams will just have an embarrassment of riches across the lineup.)

But while I was flipping through some data this weekend, I thought of a related question. If I was an elite prospect, would I want to commit to a coach that tends to use a deep bench, or a coach that tends to use a short bench and give his starters major minutes to develop chemistry? I think if I was an elite prospect, I think I would prefer to play for a coach that traditionally plays a short bench. Here are how coaches in the elite conferences have allocated their playing time in the last eight years. The tables show the average bench minutes for these coaches in those eight years (minimum three seasons.)

Average Percentage of Minutes Given to Bench

(Coaches that utilize a Deep Bench)

Coach

Current Team

APM

Mike Anderson

Arkansas

38.2

Dana Altman

Oregon

36.1

Bruce Pearl

Auburn

34.8

Frank Martin

South Carolina

34.8

Tubby Smith

Texas Tech

34.8

Brian Gregory

Georgia Tech

34.5

Gregg Marshall

Wichita St.

34.0

Tad Boyle

Colorado

33.8

Billy Kennedy

Texas A&M

33.3

Kevin Willard

Seton Hall

33.2

 

Average Percentage of Minutes Given to Bench

(Coaches that utilize a Shallow Bench)

Coach

Team

APM

John Thompson

Georgetown

26.5

Pat Chambers

Penn St.

26.1

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

25.3

Herb Sendek

Arizona St.

25.3

Fran Dunphy

Temple

25.0

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

24.6

John Beilein

Michigan

24.4

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

24.3

Mike Brey

Notre Dame

23.3

Fred Hoiberg

Iowa St.

22.9

Quick Notes: You see more coaches that use full-court pressure on the upper list, but that doesn’t have to be the case. VCU’s Shaka Smart has a relatively tighter bench (APM of 31.0) and uses full court pressure. On the lower list, you see a lot of coaches that tend to get credit for developing less heralded players into stars. But the reason they are good at building strong offenses is that they tend to play short rotations that strongly feature their best players.

This list says a player like Myles Turner would be better off choosing Ohio St. relative to say, Texas A&M, because Thad Matta will build a tight rotation of quality players around Turner, and feature Turner in the middle. Obviously there are other huge factors, such as tempo, style of play, and the ability of the coach to develop previous top prospects. But I do wonder whether the fact that a coach like John Thompson tends to really ride his star players and turn them into draft prospects doesn’t help with Georgetown’s recruiting. Win or lose, star players want to play.

But the reality is that Turner doesn’t have to make guesses about these types of factors. He doesn’t have to guess how he will fit into a team’s lineup. He’s already spoken to the coaches and teams on his list and he knows how he will be used. By waiting until 4pm on April 30th, he is making the most informed decision of anyone.

Not every D1 player can wait to give a verbal commit or sign a letter of intent, but if you can, it sure seems to make a lot of sense.

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.

A Champion Is Crowned

#7 Connecticut defeated #8 Kentucky

Monday’s national title game ended with a pair of missed threes, and a rebound that careened across the court. Instead of the normal sequence of fouls and timeouts, we got an abrupt and surprisingly quick ending to a basketball game. Jim Nance barely found time to sneak in a quote about UConn winning the title for the postgame highlight reel.

And in some ways, that abrupt, quick finish was appropriate. This UConn title snuck up on us and caught us all by surprise. It is hard to call the UConn win a complete shocker. When a team had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons, it was not quite like Butler and VCU making the same Final Four.

Moreover, when a team had guards as quick and talented as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, out-executing a team down the stretch should not have been shocking. And yet Napier did not look like his normal comfortable self in this game. When he and Boatright dived out of bounds for a loose ball, and Napier had no one to throw it too, Napier was frustrated. When Kentucky got a bucket and foul moments later, Napier was angry with his teammates. This was not quite the normal calm and calculated late game execution you normally saw from UConn. And yet there it was, the final buzzer sounded, and the game was over. And it was hard not to play-up three storylines:

1) The downfall of youth

Connecticut was the veteran team that knew the importance of practice and making free throws. They were 10 of 10 relative to Kentucky’s 13 of 24.

Kentucky all season was like the young college student that loves to procrastinate. First, they didn’t focus enough during the season, and had to overcome an 8-seed to make the Final Four. Then they kept falling behind by double digits in every game. Metaphorically, they didn’t study for their exams until the final minute, and they bombed the final.

But that’s probably a gross simplification. What Kentucky really struggled with was adjusting to each opponent’s approach. They had the talent to compete with anyone, but it usually took them awhile to figure out where they had their strengths. On Monday, it took them awhile to figure out that the Harrison twins could not beat Napier and Boatright on penetration.

And even late in the game, they struggled to adjust. When UConn went very small and played zone with Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan in foul trouble, Kentucky didn’t have a clue how to attack that defense on the first possession. They wasted a chance to throw a simple lob to Julius Randle, and a veteran team would have seized that moment.

2) The downfall of philosophy

If Kentucky’s youth was costly on Monday, you can argue the one-and-done strategy is flawed. But I think there was another failure of the NBA development strategy too.

Anyone who watched Kentucky this year knew they struggled with pick-and-roll defense. John Calipari decided he was going to use a switching man-to-man defense this year, and it was never great. I thought from the beginning of the year that if Kentucky played zone, they would have the best chance. Passing over the top of a defense with 6’6” players up top would be virtually impossible. But playing zone doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of one-and-done players. Like the dribble-drive offense, Calipari was trying to get his team to learn how to play man-to-man defense, because that’s what the NBA wants to see. And Calipari values the NBA pipeline over everything else.

Busting out a zone defense helped a little on Monday, but according to Seth Davis, Kentucky only played zone five percent of the time this season. That simply wasn’t enough game preparation to be ready to play elite zone defense in the title game.

That said, this doesn’t prove Calipari’s philosophy of focusing on developing players for the next level is a bad one. Kentucky played for a national title. And if Julius Randle has a more typical day, or if the Wildcats made a few free throws, his strategy would have worked.

3) The downfall of arrogance and the redemption of years of practice

One of the things that amazed me heading into Monday’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut is how many people viewed Kentucky as a huge villain. Unlike Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky has never really captured the nation’s imagination. And that’s surprising because these kids have done nothing to earn our hatred.  This is not a team where the players have been arrested or suspended for off-court conduct. Julius Randle is a gregarious and charismatic player on the court, and I don’t know how anyone can watch him play and wish harm upon him.

What people hate about this team is not the players, but the concept of this team. Whatever you want to say about Michigan’s Fab Five, at least they stuck around in school a little while. This group has basically announced from the start of the season that college degrees are not their long term goal.

It also hurt that they were not even remotely humble. Just like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh announced that they were getting together to win multiple titles, John Calipari endorsed the idea that this team could go undefeated. That kind of confidence comes across as arrogance, and it turned people off from the beginning.

The good news about Final Four weekend, is that even if you get sick of all the future NBA stars, there is still an acknowledgement of something more. Saturday afternoon featured the NABC Senior Game. And if you missed it, spend a minute looking at the rosters, and you will see some of the players that symbolize college basketball. Personally, I was happy to see Indiana’s Will Sheehey, denied a post-season experience because “Indiana doesn’t play in the CBI”, play well in that game. Sheehey started the game with a three and moments later he had a brilliant drive for a basket and one. It was a more fitting end for the Hoosier senior than the first-round flame-out in the Big Ten tournament.

But in the second half of the NABC senior game, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas really hit the nail on the head with their commentary. First they talked about how Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna came from Nigeria to the US and saw snow for the first time. Then they talked about how Zanna enrolled at Pittsburgh because his dad knew a professor, not a basketball coach. They talked about how Zanna, despite being a less heralded recruit, was actually Pitt’s best post player over the last three years.

Then they talked about Rober Morris’ Karvel Anderson. Anderson went from being homeless to becoming a star college player, to becoming a man with a college degree. They talked about Weber St.’s Davion Berry becoming the first member of his family to get a college degree. Even if your stomach turns at seeing one-and-done players in the title game, Saturday was one last chance to salute the players who symbolize what college basketball is all about.

And Monday gave us that chance too. UConn senior Shabazz Napier went from apprentice to leader, and earned titles at the start and the end. He improved his efficiency and shot volume every year. He was a leader in every area of the court.

But probably the player who best exemplified college basketball was Niels Giffey. Giffey was never going to be the best player on the basketball court. He lacked the strength or quickness to be a truly dominant player. There were plenty of times during his career where I questioned why UConn kept playing him. But he honed his jump shot. After averaging just 10 threes per year as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, his coach finally saw his shot falling in practice and gave him the green light. And Giffey made 60 threes, shooting nearly 50%, as a senior. His two late threes in the national title game were daggers. In a game filled with fabulous freshmen, UConn would have never won without a hard-working senior.

And for many fans, the villain was slain.

Looking Ahead

In sports today, there is no offseason.

If you have not yet read my Way Too Early Top 25, click here.

Next week, we’ll have team coverage of the best high school all-star game of the year, the Nike Hoop Summit. And we’ll be back with coverage of the Jordan Brand Classic the week after that.

In May, I’ll be back with my Way Too Early Conference Previews. And I hope to have some other fun summer features as well. For example, I have some numbers and hope to show whether the change in the foul rules has made PGs more valuable than SGs.

And as always, RealGM will have wiretaps on all the key coaching changes, transfers, and NBA draft decisions. Even if they just cut down the nets, we’re not going anywhere.

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