Word trickled out about Stanley Johnson.
When his name appeared on the list of college counselors attending the adidas Nations tournament in Southern California this week, Johnson was one of the guys who stood out. But on Day 1 of Nations, Johnson watched the college counselor pick up games on the sidelines, a basketball in his hands at all times, bright white adidas shelltoes on his feet.
During timeouts, Johnson would step on to the court to shoot jumpers or slowly practice layups and when he did so, NBA scouts swooned. The kid looks like a statue of David—rock solid and shredded, a baby-Artest pushing 240 pounds.
If this was an initial strategy from Johnson, it was thrown out by Day 2. He couldn’t take it anymore. The competitor in him simply could no longer sit while his peers showcased their talents in front of the 20-plus NBA scouting departments that were represented. So when Day 2 tipped, and Denver Nuggets guard and adidas family member Arron Afflalo put on a jersey to run in the college pickup games, Stanley rose. The results were intoxicating. Both players went at each other hard and it was quite entertaining.
Johnson immediately proved that he had the assertiveness and body to compete with an NBA player. He was able to gain separation from Afflalo when needed and in the paint, Afflalo had to work to match up against his strength. On the other end of the floor however, Afflalo put together a masterful session about the cerebral aspect of the game. He curled off screens and drifted into the corner for a wide-open triple. Buckets. Stanley was always a step late on these plays—Afflalo worked smarter, using his teammates and the angles of the court to set him free.
It was rewarding to watch as a spectator, and the best moment may have been when Afflalo was subbed out. As he reached the bench, Stanley, tired from chasing him all over the offensive end—came over and hunched down to talk while grabbing his shorts for air. He looked Afflalo in the eyes and said, “You need to teach me—I want to learn everything.”
It was one of my favorite moments of the tournament, and this year there were many. One of the things I really enjoyed was seeing the NBA players jump into the college counselor games. In addition to Afflalo, Kyle Lowry and Tracy McGrady jumped into some runs. The college runs were already intense, so when these guys stepped to the floor, the tempo and competitiveness peaked. Johnson took on the task of trying to cover T-Mac, another great sign of his competitiveness and desire to test himself against the best.
Nations has emerged as one of the best basketball tournaments in the world—the level of talent and competition has made it a must on the summer tournament. There was so much talent this year. Nations featured nine high school squads, including players from Canada, Africa, Europe, Australia/New Zealand and Latin America. Here are a few notes:
Thon Maker & The High School Kids
The 7-1 big man from Australia (via Sudan) was the show when it came to underclassmen, and NBA scouts and media members in attendance took note. Maker recently turned 17 years old and told many at the tournament that he has no intentions to reclassify into the Class of 2015 at this time. He plans to graduate from high school in 2016. Maker attended The Carlisle School in Virginia last season but has yet to announce the school he will attend for his junior year.
While he still remains thin at 210 pounds, Maker has added some good weight to his frame (he was about 190 pounds when he came on the scene) and his game is coming along great. Maker is still somewhat new to basketball, having grown up on the pitch dreaming about a soccer career. His coach and guardian Edward Smith has done a good job working with Maker to build his body and basketball skills. “We are slowly adding weight to his body to ensure that he does not put it on too fast and injure his back or another part of his body,” Smith says.
He has also spent a considerable amount of time making sure Maker does not pay any attention to some of the hype and criticism that has been leveled his way. Maker is a sweet kid who is easy to like. He has a friendly smile and warmth to him that is uncommon of a talented athlete of his age. Rarely will you see a player of his size as coordinated and athletic at 17. Maker runs the floor extremely well and has range that extends to the three-point line. Watching him defend a guard on the perimeter is quite amazing—his lateral movement and quickness is insanity.
He recently made college visits to Duke and Kansas among others—certainly he has scholarship offers from the top programs in the country. And he is growing more confident with the English language. “I’m learning every day,” he says.
Other notables included: Jaylen Brown (solidifying himself as the best player in the Class of 2016 if he hadn’t already), Chase Jeter (who announced he will be attending Duke at the conclusion of the tourney), Eron Gordon, Dennis Smith Jr and Rawle Alkins. Mohamed Thiam, Dillon Brooks (led all scorers with 23.5 ppg), Jalen Poyser and Bourama Sidibe were the international studs.
Having some of the top collegians in the country as counselors at Nations is one of the best aspects of the event. These are usually the best games of the tournament—they can get really intense at times. Two years ago and prior to his freshman year at Kentucky, Nerlens Noel tried to run with the older collegians and it was a disaster. He struggled on his first day against Mason Plumlee and ended up receiving some very sage advice, leading him to shut it down in order to avoid potentially being exposed in front of NBA scouts.
There were no tap-outs this year and some of the collegians put on quite the show. EC Matthews, a 6-5-sophomore point guard from Rhode Island, was one of the most impressive floor generals in attendance. Sneaky athletic and very cerebral, Matthews shined bright and may have left with the dunk of the tournament—a left hand smash on the break. As longtime SLAM writer Aggrey Sam mentioned on site, this young man could have an Elfrid Peyton trajectory.
Cal shooting guard Jabari Bird was superb with his jumper and some controlled takes to the cup. The 6-6 off-guard showed some nice ball handling skills a few times at the point. Memphis junk-yard-dog Austin Nichols found numerous ways to get buckets, usually by filling the lane for tipbacks or on hustle steals. The 6-8 soph can be unassuming at times, but his hustle truly stands out.
UCLA’s Norman Powell displayed some unbelievable athleticism each day of the tourney, most notably on a windmill dunk during a breakaway.
Louisville’s version of Kenneth Faried—Montrezl Harrell—had the craziest motor at the event, running non-stop and getting buckets through hustle. During one of the days, I noticed Harrell still at the gym an hour after the game, talking over what went wrong with his PG at high-volume levels. The buses were already gone and there were few people left in the gym, but Harrell wasn’t done altering any mistakes, which was cool to see.
Big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Tony Parker were solid in the paint as well—Parker had me laughing on numerous occasions with his off-the-cuff comments. Great dude.
I was also very impressed with Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre. The 6-8 Oubre has a nice smooth game and on Sunday, he matched up with Stanley Johnson in an intense battle. At one point, Oubre hit a three-pointer on Johnson and while coming back down the floor, he smiled and said, “You’re gonna have to come out on me.” He laughed about it afterward. “Stanley is my brother and every time we go out there against each other, we make each other better,” Oubre said. “A lot of people are watching and compare us, but we have different games. We pretty much equal each other out on the court, so we go at it and talk trash to each other at the same time.”
Memphis junior Shaq Goodwin did his thing as well. During one of the days of the tournament, Shaq noticed my t-shirt from streetwear brand Hall of Fame—featuring a photo of former NY Knicks forward Anthony Mason. “Is that an XL?” he asked. I confirmed and he smiled. “You think you can bring that for me tomorrow?” Sorry, Shaq. Couldn’t let it go, not even for you.
A handful of NBA players were on hand for the event and some former players handled coaching duties. Austin Rivers, Jerryd Bayless, Tony Snell, Afflalo and Lowry attended and spent a great deal of time with the youngins in attendance. Mark Madsen, Don MacLean and Ime Udoka served as coaches. Madsen was exactly what you’d expect: shirt tucked, hands behind his back as he spoke to the kids and endless energy. The kids went crazy for McGrady, who joined the college runs on the final day, matching up with Johnson.
Photos courtesy of adidas