by Leigh Klein

We are settled in to Chicago getting ready for the 37th Annual McDonald’s All American Classic. An impressive array of 48 stars have converged on to the Windy City to make their mark in the game’s impressive history.

The game is special, but what’s really special and should not be lost with all the fanfare is the more than $10 million raised for the Ronald McDonald charities. The players light up when talking about the impact of that experience. “Seeing those kids at the Ronald McDonald house on Sunday that is what motivates me, that inspires me. We all were so moved,” said A’ja Wilson from Hopkins, SC.

Wilson participated in Monday’s dunk contest, but was unable to send one home. She has had three attempts and has not yet dunked in the game. She has dunked in practice and who knows if given the opportunity, tonight may just be her night. She is one of the East’s big guns along with skills competition winner and three-point champion, Alexa Middleton from Murfreesboro, TN, and Kelsey Mitchell from Cincinnati, OH. Mitchell is widely considered the top guard in the class, and she has chosen to stay home and attend the Ohio State University. “The rankings are not important to me. I’m here to play my game, bond with the other players, to completely enjoy the experience.” Mitchell said.

The show stopper for the East may very well be, Bianca Cuevas, Harlem’s own, who will play next fall at University of South Carolina. Renowned girl’s talent scout, Mike Flynn of Blue Star, compares Cuevas ball skills with Allen Iverson.

The West team is stacked as well, led by the Wootten award winner, Ariel Adkins from Duncanville, TX. Adkins will be attending the University of Texas in the fall. “I’m just so blessed. It’s been the support of my family, my teammates and coaches that have delivered me here. If you are here—you can play!”

Another to watch from the West is Brianna Turner from Pearland, TX, headed to Notre Dame in the fall. Jaime Nared of Portland, OR, is also looking to contribute for the West. “This is a life-long dream, and it’s something that will stay with me forever. It’s great camaraderie out here and I’m looking to showcase my skills and what I can do.” Nared will play next season at University of Tennessee.

On the guy’s side, the “logo” was well represented on the sidelines. Every NBA team had a scout at practice and the scrimmage to see the next in line. The feedback from the scouting community on this year’s McDonald’s squad has been a positive one. “The depth of the class is impressive. It may not have the Wiggins and Parker that last year’s class had, but top to bottom this one may very well be better,” said an NBA executive, whose name we withheld to be in accordance with League rules.

The West dominated today’s scrimmage, and for two days, has received much of the chatter.

Duke-bound Jahlil Okafor has been relentless on the glass and continues to impress. In reference to Okafor’s massive hands, one scout proclaimed that “he handles the basketball like a grapefruit.” In the scrimmage, the West team did a great job sharing the basketball and getting Okafor touches.

Many have Okafor as the top player in the class. If that is the case, Stanley Johnson, his West teammate, isn’t far off. The Mater Dei product who is headed to Arizona in the fall, is built like a fullback yet glides effortlessly to the basket. He has brought to the West a competitive fury that has spilled over to his teammates. “This is a childhood dream of mine. I remember watching Blake Griffin play in the game and turning to my mom and commented that one day I hope that could be me. This is a blessing, and I’m here having fun with a great group of guys. I love these guys but when it’s time to lace them up, I’m the biggest competitor in the gym. I’m driven to be my personal best,” Johnson said.

A trio of Kentucky commits have all shown well for the West. The engine is Tyler Ulis from Matteson, IL, who displayed ball skills, vision and passing unequaled. Trey Lyles has done a little bit of everything showcasing his abilities. “I’m a team player, first and foremost. I’m unselfish and looking forward to making plays and getting the win,” said the Arsenal Tech forward.

Of all the players here, no player has done more to help himself than Devin Booker from Moss Point, MS. Booker has a great feel for the game. He has handles, an outstanding jump shot and a silky smoothness that makes it all look so effortless. “Here, there is no hiding. I’m driven to show that I can compete with the best. My dad (former Missouri star, Lionel Booker), has really prepared me both on and off the court for my journey.”

The East missed the hometown hero today, Cliff Alexander, who sat out the scrimmage with a minor wrist injury. Alexander plays like a man among boys, snatching rebounds like gum balls from a machine. The Kansas commit looks to play and make an impact tomorrow. Even without Alexander, there is no shortage of post presence for the East.

Karl-Anthony Towns, who last week helped St. Joseph’s capture the New Jersey state title, continued his inspired play by wowing the crowd with an incredible motor, length and a solid offensive arsenal. There is definitely a buzz about him stirring throughout the gym. “Karl really loved baseball and wanted to play it, but eventually basketball won out. He has well surpassed how I was as a player. He’s got this. It’s a nonstop ride, McDonald’s then the Jordan Classic, then the Hoop Summit and as soon as that’s finished back preparing for the Dominican Republic National Team,” said former Monmouth star and Piscattaway coach, Karl Towns Sr.

Myles Turner is arguably the top talent in the class. Shedding the injury demons of past, Turner has shown everything you could ask out of a post and then some. An intense rebounder and shot alterer who brings it every possession also revealed a deadly perimeter shot that put him in the finals of the three-point contest. D’Angelo Russell has shown a steady perimeter game. The guard who has stood so far for the East has been Duke commit, Tyus Jones. A steady hand who can knock down jumpers with ease, has impressed with great decision making.

Tomorrow night’s contest promises to be a classic as the Class of 2014 looks to cement itself as one of the best in the game’s illustrious history. It’s a perfect dish to sample before this weekend’s Final Four.

Photos via USA Today