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by Eldon Khorshidi / portrait by Jeff Sciortino

The week of the 37th annual McDonald’s All-American Game is already underway here in Chicago. The first of three practice sessions began yesterday, and continue daily until tip-off Wednesday evening at the United Center. 

This year’s rosters are stacked for both the East and West team, with elite talent at all five positions, making for intriguing matchups and heated competition. Windy City natives Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander headline the event; they are not only the two best big men in the State, but in the entire country. Okafor, a 6-10 PF/C with incredible footwork, is committed to Duke and headlines the West; while the Kansas-bound Alexander, a 6-9 PF with bruising physicality, headlines the East.

The two stars have a well-documented history—they were teammates on the AAU circuit for several years with the Mac Irvin Fire, and conversely, they recently dueled in a wild 4-overtime thriller to decide the Chicago state championship. Even in a transition-heavy, TV-friendly setting, you can bank on Okafor and Alexander going at each other down low. It should be special.

While Okafor and Alexander will get the hometown love, the rosters are much deeper than two players. At point guard, SLAM Diary writer Tyus Jones (East)—a cerebral and savvy floor general—will go head-to-head with Emmanuel Mudiay (West), a 6-5 point guard with an NBA-ready scoring arsenal. We’ll have the freakishly explosive wings of the West team (Stanley Johnson and Kelly Oubre) battling the silky-smooth touch of the East (Justin Jackson and D’Angelo Russell).

But again, that’s only the start of it. This game has intrigue through all three basketball lenses—high school, college and NBA.

Let’s take a look at five key matchups, followed by five observations. Be sure to catch the game Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. EST, live on ESPN.

Five Matchups to Keep an Eye on

Tyus Jones (East) vs. Emmanuel Mudiay (West)

Two players who can dominate a game, but do so with contrasting skill sets. Jones, a 6-1 point guard committed to Duke, is best in the country at running his team. Poised handling the ball under pressure, dictates tempo, and can thread the needle from anywhere on the court. He’ll get the offense into its sets and then execute with perfection. On the other hand, Mudiay is 6-5 with NBA-level handle and shot making ability. He’s more of a freestyle player who uses his natural scoring instincts to create. Mudiay got the better of Jones at the Elite 24 game this past summer; it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out this time around.

Cliff Alexander (East) vs. Jahlil Okafor (West)

AAU teammates during the summer, rivals during the winter. Alexander and Okafor are two of the most promising prospects in the country, regardless of position (word to my man Franklyn). Okafor has the greatest footwork in the country—he’s a ballerina on the court. His combination of polished footwork, 6-10 size and 245-pound frame make him the most dominant low post scorer in the country.

Alexander’s punishing strength and bouncy athleticism are reminiscent of a young Amar’e Stoudemire. He’s quick in transition, operates from the mid to low post in the half court, and rebounding the basketball.

These two hometown stars will have the spotlight on them, and for good reason.

Justise Winslow (East) vs. Kelly Oubre (West)

Another set of AAU teammates, this time with the Houston Hoops, Kelly Oubre and Justise Winslow will match up on the wing. Oubre is a bouncy swingman with freakish athleticism and a smooth lefty jump shot, while Winslow likes to play physical and make his opponents work for every dribble. Their contrasting skill sets combined with their familiarity for each other’s game makes for an intriguing matchup. 

Grayson Allen (West) vs. D’Angelo Russell (East)

Another set of AAU teammates, this time with Each 1 Teach 1 Elite, Russell and Allen will trade blows from the perimeter. Both shoot it from NBA range with an effortless stroke, and both will shoot it early in possessions. Russell is a better shot-creator off the dribble, but Allen is better at running off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Two prolific shooters who get their buckets in different ways.

Theo Pinson (East) vs. Stanley Johnson (West)

NBA-ready physique and explosion (Stanley Johnson) vs. NBA length (Theo Pinson). Johnson is the most powerful driver in the country, with a devastating second bounce through the lane. His 6-6, 220-pound makeup is simply too much for opposing high school wing players.

However, if someone can contain Johnson’s penetration, it’s Pinson. At 6-6 with very long arms and a desire to defend, Pinson will try to move his feet and wall off Johnson’s drives, while Johnson will try to overpower him and get to the rim.

Five Observations / Musings

Kansas Re-Loading 

Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid may be departing for the NBA, but two of this year’s McDonald’s participants—Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander—are capable of replacing their production next year. They are two potential one-and-done candidates themselves who will play a big role in what direction the Jayhawks go next season.

The Rise Of Isaiah Whitehead

With an innate scoring ability and a palpable chip on his shoulder, Whitehead had a meteoric rise on the AAU circuit last summer, culminating in co-MVP honors at the Elite 24 and ultimately a roster spot in Chicago. The Seton Hall commit is here to prove he can be a full-time point guard, but also to continue going at—and besting—anybody who stands in his way.

This game features really good passing big men

Between Karl Towns, Okafor and Alexander, big men will score a lot of points this week. But equally impressive is the collective passing ability of the group. All three players can pass facing the basket or out of a double team in the post. Alexander and Okafor ran a give-and-go down low all summer long, while the 7-foot Towns has Pau Gasol-like vision from the high post.  

Deadeye Shooters

We’ll see a number of great shooters this year, probably more so than previous years. Between D’Angelo Russell, Grayson Allen, Romelo Trimble, James Blackmon and Rashad Vaughn, don’t be surprised to see NBA-range shots taken early and often.

Kentucky is the only Final Four school represented 

Kentucky would’ve been well-represented regardless of its current success. But now that they’re playing in the Final Four, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis have even more bragging rights.