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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.

Final Non-National NBA Games Of The Week & NNGW Season Awards

The non-national season ends with a strong flurry of games with meaningful ramifications. While the landscape will change dramatically before Wednesday, we should see some fun and important matchups this week.

Monday

Heat @ Wizards: The combination of Miami’s loss at Atlanta, and Indiana beating OKC totally changed the dynamics of this game. Now, the Wizards need to win to avoid facing the Heat in the first round while Miami’s only shot at getting the top seed seed is a combination of wins and good fortune since the Pacers would have to lose to the magic.

Celtics @ Sixers: One of the last games featuring two teams heavily in the lottery mix. A Boston win likely pushes them “behind” the Lakers into sixth while the Sixers are one win or Bucks loss away from being locked into the second-most ping pong balls.

Bobcats @ Hawks: The Hawks have the East’s final playoff spot locked up, but would like to carry momentum from the win over the Heat into a likely series against the Pacers. At the same time, beating the Hawks plays a pivotal part in any chance Charlotte has of jumping into the six seed.

Lakers @ Jazz: The other Monday game with huge lottery implications, this time with both teams having something to lose by winning. Right now, Utah has fourth by themselves but a win would push them into some sort of tie (depending on what Boston does earlier in the day). The Lakers have the same incentives as the Celtics but with the added bonus of knowing that a loss pulls another team into their win total.

Grizzlies @ Suns (Game of the Week): Just a gigantic game for the last two contenders for the final spot in the playoffs. Memphis could even push ahead to the sixth seed if they win here and against Dallas. Look for Goran Dragic to play a major role while Mike Conley has the chance to cement his defensive reputation with a strong performance.

Wednesday

Bulls @ Bobcats: Another game with changed incentives after the Miami loss. While the three seed provides a better first round matchup for Chicago, a second round series against the Pacers would give them a significantly greater chance of making the conference finals. At the same time, Charlotte may still have an opportunity to avoid the top two seeds in the first round with a win here.

Jazz @ Timberwolves: The last game of the 2013-14 season with a meaningful effect on the top five picks.  The Wolves have been feisty throughout April and this carries the added weight of likely being Rick Adelman’s last game as their head coach as well as the chance to clinch a .500 season. 

Raptors @ Knicks: Since the Bulls game starts an hour earlier, we should have a clear view of the importance of this one by halftime. Even though they have been eliminated, the Knicks could view their final home game of the year as a chance to make a statement, especially since they have no structural incentive to lose because their draft pick will be going to Denver.

Warriors @ Nuggets: We do not know how important this one will be but ending the season with a rematch of their electric playoff series could be fun. Stephen Curry gets one last shot to try and secure a spot on the All-NBA First Team while the Nuggets can play spoiler against the team that shocked them a year ago.

Non-National Games of the Week Awards

The NNGW Awards center on non-national games- they are not my choices for the full league, though there absolutely will be some overlap.

NNGW Most Valuable Player- Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: His remarkable stretch without Russell Westbrook combined with the heavy dose of the Heat on national TV makes Kevin Durant the runaway winner of the NNGW MVP. He made even games against lowly opponents watchable and helped elevate the entertainment level of even the heavily injured Thunder squads.

NNGW Defensive Player of the Year- Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers: More than just the key defensive cog on the best defensive team,  Roy Hibbert deserves NNGW  DPOY because opponents shot just 41.5 percent at the rim against him this season. That stands out as the best for any big man who played substantial minutes this season.

NNGW Rookie of the Year- Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets: As much as I wanted to give this award to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the middle Plumlee had a strong season and brought it from the entertainment standpoint as well.

NNGW Coach of the Year- Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns: The Suns went from a potential bottom feeder to a team fighting for a playoff berth in the stacked Western Conference while playing some of the most fun basketball in the entire league. Hornacek deserves plenty of credit for these developments and the team’s performance while missing key pieces speaks volumes of his impact.

NNGW Sixth Man of the Year- Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs: While other non-starters may have played more minutes, Manu wins NNGW Sixth Man of the Year because of the excellence he showed while on the court. His quality play this year also struck me because of the depressing way he ended last season in the Finals. He also deserves credit for being a key piece on a Spurs team with the best record in the league despite so little consistency in personnel.

NNGW Most Improved Player- Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns: At 27 years old with five NBA seasons under his belt, Goran Dragic’s best NBA year was 2011-12 when he averaged 23 and five for a Rockets team that narrowly missed the playoffs in the post-lockout season. He became a star this year by being the focal point on the most surprising team. Heck, Phoenix has a top-10 offense despite carrying one of the weakest swingman units in the league and Dragic is the biggest reason why.

NNGW Most Entertaining Player- Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: While there are numerous legitimate candidates for this award, Stephen Curry takes it because he enhanced his must-see status from the 2013 playoffs. In many games this season, Curry was the Warriors offense either as a scorer or distributor. He also had huge game-winners against Boston and Dallas while providing some of the most memorable scoring explosions of the year, including 47 Sunday in a loss to Portland.  Honorable mentions go to Kevin Durant, Goran Dragic, and LeBron James. 

All-NNGW Team

G- Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

G- Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns

F- Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

F- LeBron James, Miami Heat

C- Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

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.

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John Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. Itís a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire ďone and doneĒ model.

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