By Aggrey Sam
No, I’m not from Chicago and/or on the OakHill payroll. It just so happened that the then-No. 1 team in the nation played SimeonCareerAcademy of Chicago, featuring the nation’s top point guard in Memphis-bound DerrickRose, last week. If Rose doesn’t look forward to seeing anyone from SLAM at his games for the rest of his career, I can’t blame him. When I saw him play in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, his Simeon squad fell to city rival Farragut. While Rose clearly has tremendous ability, he didn’t do much to back up his rep as one of the nation’s best. When Ben Osborne saw him play at the Garden last weekend, Simeon lost again, this time to NYC power Rice. Rose didn’t have his best outing in that game, either and simply put, neither one of us thought he quite lived up to the hype. But against a far superior opponent (not that Farragut and Rice are any slouches), Rose made us look like liars, blind men or a combination of both.
• Simeon, then USA Today’s 22nd-ranked high school team after their two setbacks, was taking on the juggernaut that is called OakHill. I watched Oak Hill’s early-season squeaker over Norcross and I saw Simeon live a few weeks ago, so I figured that unless Rose dominated the game from start to finish, Simeon might be able to keep it close, but would ultimately lose. Simeon won last year’s state chip in Illinois, has three D1 signees and is seen as one of the best teams in a long time in talent-laden Chicago, but on paper, they are no match for Oak Hill. While Rose’s court vision, hops and ability to get to the rack were all impressive, he hadn’t shown a consistent outside J or the aggressiveness needed to take over a game when I saw him play. On top of that, he’d have to deal with lefty whirlwind and USC commit Brandon Jennings, the top point guard in the 2008 class. While I liked Simeon’s forwards Kevin Johnson and Tim Flowers, I didn’t think the future Wisconsin-Milwaukee duo could hang with FSU signee Julian Vaughn and top junior Howard“Trey”Thompkins (both 6-9) on the inside for an entire game. Wings Brandon Hall (6-2 shooter) and BryantOrange (6-3 power swingman) were nice players, but I couldn’t see them holding Nolan Smith and AlexLegion (headed for Duke and Michigan, respectively) in check. Still, with Simeon playing in their backyard at the University of Illinois-Chicago and Rose eager to bounce back from his last two lackluster performances, anything could happen. Here are some notes:
My focus here is high school ball, but on Saturday I took a trip down to South Philly to see Villanova host Texas at the Wachovia Center. By now, you’ve probably seen or heard that vaunted freshman KevinDurant had a supbar effort in the Longhorns loss to ‘Nova. Here are some game notes I took:
• Arriving a little before tipoff, the place is packed. I’ve been to the Wachovia for a few college games in the past and they’ve all had a very college-like atmosphere, despite being in a much larger arena than ‘Nova (and Temple, when my alma mater was still relevant enough in college hoops to warrant having a game at the Sixers’ home gym) plays in on their campus. Furthermore, this isn’t a game against a Big East or Big 5 rival and Texas isn’t a top-five team—the fans (and a bunch of scouts and NBA personnel types) are here to see Durant.
• The lineups are announced and star Villanova senior CurtisSumpter isn’t in the Wildcats’ starting five, even though he warmed up. It’s suspected that his twice-torn ACL is the reason behind that, but I later find out he got kicked in the leg in the team’s last game, against Notre Dame, and it was a game-time decision. I’m glad Curt’s knees are cool, but I did want to see him and Durant go at it.
• Before I get to the actual game, let me speak my piece on what I think of Durant so far. I saw him a few times in high school and was blown away by his potential. Obviously his 37 and 12 performance in the Texas-Oklahoma State triple OT epic has boosted his status in the eyes of many, but anyone who’s seen him play for more than five minutes already knew he was the real deal. While a lot of people compare him to T-Mac or KG (or a hybrid of both), I think he’s more of a Rashard Lewis-type, but more skilled. Coming out of high school, Lewis was rail-thin, already a very good shooter, pretty athletic and billed as being able to play several positions. Now, Lewis didn’t go to college, so he didn’t have the benefit of getting the development, confidence or hype that KD’s getting, but he’s become a more than solid NBA player. This year in college should speed up Durant’s learning curve and with 10-20 more pounds on his frame, I have no doubt he’ll be a consistent 20+ ppg guy at the next level. His offensive efficiency, versatility (with work on the handle, I think he can play the 2; with added strength, he could play the 4 against certain players) and youth (the kid just turned 18 in the fall) could one day make his game exceed any and every expectation I or anyone else have for him. I’m not old enough to have seen him play during his career, but am I wrong to see some Iceman as far as Durant’s smoothness and natural scoring ability? Of course, he could just be the next Jonathan Bender. Time will tell.
• I’ve also got my eye on the battle between the teams’ freshman point guards: ‘Nova’s ScottieReynolds and UT’s D.J.Augustin. Both were highly-touted McDonald’s All-Americans and both can get buckets. Reynolds is probably more of a scorer, but Augustin isn’t too shabby in that area himself. Reynolds is a little bigger and is more of a combo guard, while Augustin seems a little quicker and is more of a true 1. Augustin’s been getting some love as one of the more of the more underrated freshmen nationally, as well as Durant’s sidekick. I wrote about him for SLAM last year and I’m glad he’s doing well. Being in Philly, I’ve seen Reynolds play about a dozen times (including in summer leagues) since he’s come to the city and he’s been shaky at times, but he’s coming off a breakout 27-point game. Should be interesting.
• Game time. ‘Nova opens up with sophomore forward DanteCunningham on Durant. Not a bad matchup, since Cunningham, a Maryland native is probably very familiar with Durant from AAU ball (I’m pretty sure they both played for the DC Blue Devils) and at an athletic and strong 6-7, he can be pretty physical with the skinny frosh.
• Off a layup by senior guard MikeNardi, ‘Nova doubles Augustin, forcing 2-guard A.J.Abrams to bring up the ball. Not a bad strategy, as Augustin is the ‘Horns’ primary playmaker, although Abrams has no trouble bringing it up. Abrams intrigues me. At 5-10 (if that), he plays off the ball and while he’s extremely quick and a lights-out shooter, I haven’t seen him demonstrate any true point guard skills. He’s part of what I call “The A.I. Influence,” where we no longer blink an eye at someone his size playing the 2 in college and a Ben Gordon isn’t forced into playing the 1 in the pros. For folks old enough to remember him, would Anderson Hunt be in the league today if he was coming out of college now? He was my favorite LJ-era UNLV player and since I was so young, I never knew if he got blackballed behind that Tark/gambling mess, he wasn’t good enough or he was too small to play the 2 and couldn’t play the 1.
• Early on, Durant shows off his multitude of skills. On one possession, he drives from the top of the key, draws the help D and finds Augustin in the corner for a trey. Due to his lack of strength, Cunningham denies him the ball in the post on another possession, but he still works hard on D and effortlessly (or so it seems; everything looks easy to him) blocks a Reynolds layup. The next time down, ‘Nova assigns ShaneClark, another 6-7 soph, but with a similar body type to Durant, to the star UT freshman. After Reynolds hits a 3 for Villanova, Durant comes right back with a NBA-range 3 of his own. He steps it up later in the half, sandwiching a nimble step-through move for a shot off the glass and a left-right crossover for a pull-up from 15 feet between a surprisingly powerful one-hand flush over Wildcats’ senior Will “Bump”Sheridan after catching a lob entry pass in the lane. He’s playing well, but letting the game come to him and not forcing shots. Some people say that reflects a lack of assertiveness, but everyone that knows him and I’ve talked to about him say it’s more about his unassuming nature and genuine unselfishness on the floor.
• The first-half action isn’t as fast-paced as one might expect from these two squads. Texas might be tired from their aforementioned 3OT thriller, while ‘Nova just isn’t as much of a run-and-gun team as they were last year, when they featured a four-guard (three of whom are in the League now) attack. Some of the game’s choppiness can be attributed to the number of travels called, most due to players slipping on the Big East sticker in the paint on both ends. After two successive UT slip-and-falls, the refs put the game on pause to remove the stickers. Never seen that before.
• Besides Durant’s 11 points, the ‘Horns get two treys from Augustin and not much from anyone else. Reynolds, playing as aggressive as I’ve seen him, leads the ‘Cats with seven and three dimes, Cunningham adds six and Clark contributes four and six boards to their well-balanced offense. ‘Nova takes a 26-23 lead into halftime.
• Augustin starts the second half with a trey on the opening possession for Texas. Reynolds, his freshman point guard counterpart, is fouled on the floor on the next possession, but hits one of the best circus shots I’ve seen in college basketball (college hoops needs continuation!), a no-look lefty reverse layup that almost hits the shot clock before dropping in clean. Then he hits a trey of his own that counts. This is a pattern for the remainder of the game, as the two first-year floor generals display the offensive arsenals that made them such highly-regarded recruits. Reynolds is a little trigger-happy, but with leading scorer Sumpter out and backcourt mate Nardi ( a quiet 13 points and six dimes) somewhat off, the youngster picks up the slack nicely. In Augustin’s case, he and mighty-mite two-guard Abrams have to carry the ‘Horns because of the job ‘Nova does on Durant (more on that later).
• UT coach RickBarnes goes with a bigger lineup, alternating centers ConnorAtchley and MattHill to counter Villanova’s more traditional frontcourt of the husky Sheridan and Cunningham in the post, with the lanky Clark on the wing. The two teams trade a flurry of treys for a while, then Cunningham brings down the house with a filthy two-hand bang over Durant on the baseline that is replayed on the Jumbo Tron repeatedly. The ‘Horns look young and rattled out there and ‘Nova stretches their lead to 10.
• Texas goes small again and presses for the first time, at least until power forward DamionJames, another heralded frosh starter, picks up his third foul. (Off-topic: Villanova’s dance team and cheerleaders are awful in every way.) Right now, Augustin (25 points, four dimes, five treys) and Abrams (19 points, five treys) are carrying their team. Augustin is penetrating, finding Abrams for jumpers, smartly drawing fouls and getting to the rim. Abrams is an Eddie House-style gunner, but you have to respect his heart, especially when he shoots floaters over players almost a foot taller than him.
• I haven’t mention Durant for a while, and for good reason. He takes two shots in the second half until the final minute of the game and just looks out of it. In his defense, plays were drawn up for him out of a few timeouts and you could tell he was supposed to get the ball on a few trips, but he either couldn’t get open, his teammates didn’t let the plays develop or he was doubled when he got the rock. ‘Nova coach JayWright did an excellent job throwing looks at him (doubled him in the paint or when he caught the ball, played a little zone, rotated Cunningham, Clark and Sheridan on him) and I can imagine fatigue was an issue, but a player people are calling the best in the college game has to force some shots. I think he’s very conscious of playing the right way and perhaps dropping 37 in his previous game made him feel selfish or like he was a bad teammate. Maybe I’m reaching, but watch his demeanor. He just turned 18 and not everyone’s grown like ‘Bron at that age. Outside of scoring, he isn’t exactly a monster on the boards against the ‘Cats, but does a decent job for someone who’s really a swingman and makes some good passes to teammates. In short, he wasn’t a bad decoy—but that’s not what he’s there to do.
• Sparked by the inspired play of Reynolds (26 points, six dimes, five boards, three steals), Clark (11 points, 12 boards) and Cunningham (16 points, six boards), ‘Nova further extends their lead to 13, but Abrams, Augustin and underrated freshman JustinMason, a strong 6-2 combo guard masquerading as a small forward, cut it to a two-point game with under three minutes to play. After Cunningham is fouled and makes two free throws, Durant takes a baseline J, but cold as ice from few attempts in the half, he bricks it. The teams trade missed treys, and eventually Reynolds hits two foul shots to push Villanova’s lead to six. Texas goes with four guards and Durant (12 points, eight boards, two blocks), and Clark fouls little-used sub J.D.Lewis (I swear half the squad goes by initials) on a trey attempt. Of course, he hits all three free throws. Reynolds is fouled on the inbounds and hits one of two. The scene is set for Durant to be a hero, right? Unfortunately, he misses a 25-footer (cold as ice) and it’s basically a wrap—but not until Durant suffers two final indignities: getting a dunk blocked from behind by Sheridan and airballing another trey. 76-69, Villanova.
• On the Oak Hill end, nobody could really get a rhythm. Vaughn and Thompkins can’t establish the low-post game and are actually getting beat on the boards. Jennings is pretty much nonexistent, save for a bullet of a no-look dime to Nolan Smith for an early dunk. Smith competed extremely hard, but like the rest of the Warriors, he was a little out of sync. Legion, an athletic 6-5 wing with a nice stroke, was the only Oak Hill player who was on. Sophomore stud TerranceBoyd was impressive in spurts.
• Rose’s supporting cast wasn’t too shabby, either, as bookends Kevin Johnson and Tim Flowers more than held their own against Oak Hill’s bigger frontline. The 6-7 Johnson got out on the break for some athletic finishes, as well as some midrange jumpers in Simeon’s halfcourt set. Flowers, a 6-5 widebody and rebounding machine, wasn’t as flashy, but his physical presence discouraged Oak Hill from using their size advantage down low. Starters Hall and Orange and reserves DanielGreen and KenyonSmith were all solid, from knocking down treys and timely dimes to rugged D and hustle plays. Simeon went into the half with a 40-30 advantage, led by Johnson’s 12 points and Rose’s 11.
• Rose opened the scoring in the second half, which soon appeared to be more of the same: Simeon getting transition buckets and winning the battle of the boards, while Oak Hill wasn’t getting back on D and just looked sloppy overall, despite their size and talent advantage. If it wasn’t for future Wolverine Legion, Oak Hill wouldn’t have even been in the game at this point. Reserve guards Kenyon Smith and Daniel Green, nonexistent in my trip to the Chi, made their mark with their sticky D on Jennings and Smith and timely deadeye shooting, courtesy of Rose’s spoon-fed dimes. Not to put too much on the youngster, but Rose’s presence, ability to elevate his teammates’ games, speed and court vision was a little reminiscent of a young Jason Kidd. The only mistake Rose, wearing Simeon’s hallowed No. 25 jersey (R.I.P. Ben Wilson—if you don’t know, look him up), made early in the half was somehow missing a wide-open dunk by a mile.
• ESPN’s Gottlieb made a big deal about Oak Hill’s lack of effort on the evening and while I won’t make excuses for the prep powerhouse’s performance, Simeon came into this season seen as one of the best teams in a long while out of talent-laden Chicago. With a top-ranked player like Rose and an excellent supporting cast, it wasn’t inconceivable that Simeon would make it a close one even if Oak Hill had really come to play. With that said, Oak Hill, led by the steady play of Legion (team-high 23 points), cut their double-figure deficit to a seven-point game before Rose hit a high-arcing 15-footer to end the quarter. At the end of three, Simeon was up, 52-43.
• Jennings, who had a donut through the first three quarters, finally got on the “booooard” (shout-out to the local PA announcer, who also called the Board of Ed tourney; who says New York has the announcing game on lock?) with a trey. Unfortunately for Oak Hill, Rose decided to start taking over. On three consecutive possessions, Rose: hit a 3, hit off Johnson for an and-one dunk, hit a shot in the lane with the foul and rebounded his own ensuing free throw, which led to a Flowers and-one putback.
• Oak Hill finally began playing with a sense of urgency, with their press forcing a few Simeon turnovers and their highly-touted stars making some shots. Jennings, in particular, seemed to know what was at stake. While he was a little wild at times, he got into Rose on D, finding open teammates for layups and hitting treys from all over the arc to finish with 19 points. Oak Hill continued to slice into Simeon’s lead, making it a five-point game with under two minutes to go. Then, an open dunk by Johnson (18 and 10) in transition, followed by a mesmerizing in-and-out, split two defenders, double-pump layup from Rose (28, nine dimes, eight boards) made all things academic. Simeon ended up winning 78-75, but it wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
• Early on, the game seemed like it would turn into another inevitable Oak Hill win. Neither team started particularly well, but I was paying close attention to Rose. Some early turnovers and missed shots, combined with Oak Hill getting buckets from a variety of sources, didn’t bode well for the hometown kids. But after ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb talked about how John Calipari told him Rose didn’t take over in Simeon’s loss to Chi rival Farragut in the tourney I attended, the kid they call “Pooh” started to assert himself. Rose got his first bucket on a gorgeous double-pump move off the glass. He continued being aggressive with the ball in his hands, pushing the ball in transition or breaking down the D in the halfcourt to find teammates for open jumpers or layups. As Ben texted me during the game, “D. Rose is playing twice as good as he did Sunday.”