It has been said that you can tell a lot more about a young players future prospects by observing how he practices than by simply watching him play. While that may be an oversimplification, it was telling to watch the early session of this years Jordan Classic Thursday practice. If early returns are any indication, Syracuse got a steal in Paul Harris and future UCONN Husky Curtis Kelly may be in for a rude awakening come Midnight Madness.
In a decked out Basketball City, on New Yorks Chelsea Piers, an entire stable of the prep ranks best hoopsters ran drills and generally tried to one-up each other. Whether it was the unimaginably long Kevin Durant throwing one down on Harris mug or Harris returning the favor with a three in Durants face, it was clear the competitive spirits of these players are always on, practice or no.
While Kelly and Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) hammed it up during water breaks, diminutive Louisiana native Demond Carter, who posted an eye-popping 7,000 points in his prep career, took extra jump shots. Future Dukie Jon Scheyer did his best J.J. Redick impression. All in all, the atmosphere was laid back, but efficient, despite the whole thing going off an hour late.
Superscout Tom Konchalski, who practically invented modern scouting with Howard Garfinkel of 5-Star Basketball in the mid-1960s, said it was among the best groups, talentwise, that hes seen in years. With the rules for NBA draft eligibility in place for the first time (high schoolers can no longer go straight to the pros), the atmosphere was slightly different than in recent years. There were no Lebron Jameses or Dwight Howards in this crew, and with kids only able to attend two All-Star events with the primary one being the prestigious and high profile McDonalds All-American game -- the competition among the shoe-company sponsored events is greater than ever. This years Jordan Classic pulled a coup in getting three Adidas kids (in other words, players who have traditionally attended Adidas-run Sonny Vaccaro Roundball Classic and the ABCD camp) to break ranks and commit to the Nike Jordan event. Though the consensus top high school player Greg Oden was selected but will not participate, nearly all the rest of the assorted top 20 kids were here.
Durant looks poised to follow up his breakout McDonalds and Hoop Summit performances, leading the break on Thursday with surprising ease. At a lean 611, Durant is probably the most easily pegged NBA prospect. His talents are evident in just a few minutes, as he backs down his man and tosses jump hooks down at the rim with either hand or dribbles behind his back mid-stride on a fast break. No less an expert than George Raveling the former Southern Cal coach and current prep hoops Godfather for Nike quickly tabbed Durant as the one to watch, telling me, He will play in the league for a long time to come.
But Durant wasnt the only impressive player in the morning practice. One of Konchalskis favorites, Seattles Spencer Hawes, is headed to the University of Washington. An ever-improving center who is light on his feet drew quick mini-Bill Walton comparisons from Konchalski, and he looked likely to give the West Coast Huskies a real force immediately in the middle. He finished strong with either hand, and ran drills diligently.
Engaging and politely answering media questions, Hawes said he was eager to reach campus. He admitted doing a sell job on recent UW commit Isaiah Thomas, a waterbug scoring point in the '07 class also from the Seattle area. Hawes will pair with former AAU teammate Jon Brockman to form a potentially lethal inside combination.
Hawes didn't think the NBA draft rule changes were a huge deal for him, though he admitted it would have been a possibility to see him test the waters were the old rules in place.
I think definitely [it would have], but I was lucky because when the rule was put in, I wasnt really considered on all the mock drafts, so I wasnt really a big name. If I would have been one of those guys right when they put [the rule] in, I probably would have been a little bit more angered about it, but I wasnt, and thats the case, so it goes.
"Everyones got to go [to college] now, whether its one, two, three years, however long it takes, you know, Im going to live it up and try to take as much out of it as I can.
Interestingly, Brockmans name was also raised in regards to the one surprising development of the morning session, when Duke-bound Brian Zoubek - another fundamentally sound, but less-than-mobile seven-footer emerged from a rebound scrum with blood pouring down his head. He left with several trainers and did not return. The incident happened, coincidentally, on the exact same court where Brockman had his nose broken in a Jordan practice a year ago.
Breaking ankles instead of noses seemed to be the job of UNC recruit Tywon Lawson, who struggled at times against his much taller Red team mates. Carter, who is headed to try and build a program at Baylor, was a closer matchup for Lawson size-wise, and the two had a nice one-on-one battle for a while.
A few players this reporter hoped would make a mark did not, as both DaJuan Summers and Vernon Macklin were hard to pick out of the pack. One big man many do not know as well was working his butt off in the Blue team practice -- Florida State signee Jonathan Kreft. Kreft told me hed only been playing organized hoops for three years and that he struggled with the game at first, which means hes gone from admittedly lousy to All-American in a very short amount of time. If he continues such rapid development in the ACC, he wont be unknown for long. One can already anticipate his head-to-head with current Tar Heel sensation Tyler Hansbrough, a future teammate of Brandan Wright.
Wright has proved to be somewhat of an enigma in these events recently. Hes uniformly considered among the most talented players in the country, but has yet to really put it together on the All-Star circuit. Long and extremely lean, Wright has a myriad of gifts athletically, including a ridiculous wingspan. But even in this practice it was easy to forget Wright was there, odd given his hype and clear abilities. Perhaps if some of Hansbroughs toughness rubs off on his frontcourt mate, North Carolina and the NBA will reap the rewards.
Its hard for the big guys to get touches in these type of games," Wright said. "Theyre really guard-oriented because they handle the ball more, but I just got to go out there and play hard, make plays."
Another wiry, athletic frontcourt man, Thaddeus Young, doesnt appear to have such problems standing out. Despite what seemed to be a lackadaisical approach to the day, Young was probably the best player on his team. He claimed a 7-foot wingspan (on a 69 frame), and wants to eventually play shooting guard or small forward. Young admitted North Carolina was his original first choice, but once Wright committed, Young turned elsewhere, spurning Arkansas and hometown Memphis for Georgia Tech. Tech isnt likely to have him long, however, as Young admitted with a laugh to reporters his reason for going to college was because I have to. While that may or may not be completely true, one thing Wright said that anyone watching him would readily agree with is that he has the ability to take over a game.
But the one player who seemed most prepared for the next level wasnt Young, Hawes or even Durant. It was the aforementioned Paul Harris, who will take his high-flying, vocal-on-the-court act to Syracuse.
First things first: Harris is absolutely jacked. Hes got a mans body, and unlike all his skinny teammates, hes built to take a pounding. Harris took what could politely be termed several ill-advised three-pointers in the practice session, but admitted later that he takes a while to get warmed up, and shoots to try and do so. Shooting is the only visible hole in Harris game, and if he can develop a consistent jumper, he will be very tough to stop. If Harris physique and seeming zeal for practice are any indication, betting against him fixing his shot wouldnt be wise.
A prep school kid, Harris quelled speculation that hed try to make the jump to the next level at this time.
Honestly, to yourself, you have to be true to yourself and I know Im not ready. Im ready to go to college.
Such development is exactly what Raveling said would prove to be one of the primary benefits of the new rules. The former head coach admitted that recruiting would change for college coaches who previously, out of fear of wasting time and limited visits, might have backed off a kid who was contemplating the NBA leap. Now coaches can get more aggressive, knowing they have a player for a minimum of one year. As Jim Boeheim learned with Carmelo Anthony, sometimes one year is all you need.
But Raveling saw the age limit as having more than just advantages for college coaches. Ultimately, taking the pro option off the table would provide for less mental distraction for the young men, and even a year of college would provide them with more structure and put the emphasis back on education.
As far as player development goes, he added that for such magnificent players as Durant and Young, who might have gone straight into the draft in prior years, NCAA hoops and its bright spotlight would help them learn to play with four other great players and improve defensively.
While there wasnt much in the way of defense on display Thursday (and there never is much in All-Star games of any stripe), there was a lot of potential. And anymore, thats what the NBA draft is all about. While these kids will have to wait at least one year to get there, fans hope its worth the wait.
For now, they can watch Saturdays Jordan Classic and think about the future. We know the players sure are.