LeBron James Skills Academy Wednesday Recap
Featuring: Mike Gilchrist, Jared Sullinger, Mitch McGary, DWade and more.
by Ben Axelrod / @benaxelrod
Watching the first 90 minutes of the LeBron James Skills Academy Wednesday session is enough to underwhelm even the most hardcore hoops head. After a half-hour of half-hearted stretching and jogging, those of us in attendance were treated to drills consisting of one-armed chest passes and layup lines.
As a group of 40 or so high school players gathered at center court of James A. Rhodes Arena on the campus of the University of Akron, I became resigned to the fact that my first article for SLAMonline would consist of me attempting to evaluate 16- and 17-year-old kids based on how they handle a slight push with a football pad from Jay Bilas (a coach at them camp) as they go up for an uncontested layup.
But then I noticed a few of the high schooler’s heads turn away from the coach shouting instructions, and toward the 6-8, 260-pound frame of the camp’s namesake, who was standing a few feet off court, chatting it up with some ball boys.
It’s not just James that the players (and myself) noticed; however, it’s the friend he brought with him, as black t-shirt and shorts-clad Dwyane Wade was just besides James, slapping hands with the ball boys, and then eventually the players as they broke from their huddle.
The attention paid toward DWade was short-lived though, as LeBron removed his fitted Miami Heat hat and grey Nike Soldier shirt and replaced them with a black Nike compression tank and a No. 6 version of the same jersey that the camp attendees were wearing. (The No. 6 and 23 jerseys were conspicuously not assigned to any camper this week.)
Not only were we about to witness some actual competition for the first time all day as 4-on-4 was announced as the next drill, but it was about to happen with a two-time NBA MVP on the floor, as LeBron joined a team consisting of juniors-to-be Troy Williams and Anthony Barber, and senior-to-be Amile Jefferson.
James may have had all of the eyes in the gym on him, but he was required little work, as his teammates got off to a hot start, with the 6-6 Williams flushing down a two-handed dunk to start the game, which he then followed with a contested jumper just inside the three-point line.
Moments after LeBron whispered something into his ear, Barber then took his defender off the dribble and right to the rim for a lay-in, and then took advantage of a James screen-and-roll when his defender followed LeBron too much on the role, leaving Barber wide-open for a made three-point shot.
Williams and Barber continued to impress throughout Tuesday’s morning session, as did class of 2012 big man Tony Parker, who impressed with a variety of power post moves, despite being caught on the wrong side of a LeBron turnaround jumper.
As the high schoolers departed for their afternoon break, so did James and Wade, although the star power didn’t go anywhere, as the 20 college standouts attending the camp took the floor.
Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger is known for his stellar post play, and while he certainly provided plenty of that, he also debuted two things he didn’t show much of in Columbus last season: a face-up game and a slimmer physique, as the 6-10 forward hit shots from as deep as the three-point line in both drills and scrimmages, while showing agility that not many knew he possessed. After the workout, Sullinger told reporters that he has lost between 10 and 15 pounds since the end of last season.
This time last year, Anthony Davis was playing with the high school kids, but as an incoming college freshman, the future Kentucky Wildcat was up with the big boys this year, making an immediate impact in the college group with a thunderous dunk over Duke forward Mason Plumlee, although Davis refused to acknowledge his highlight play ever occurred.
“I ain’t saying nothing,” Davis said. “I know he’s caught a lot of people and I don’t want to be the one he catches, you know, coming after me for revenge.”
Other players of note during the college workouts include Kansas forward Thomas Robinson, who dueled with Sullinger in a preview of this December’s OSU-KU match-up, and Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe, who cleaned up inside with some power dunks, cleaned the boards, and was one of the most physical defenders on Tuesday.
Surprisingly, incoming Kentucky freshman Michael Gilchrist seemed to disappear throughout the half-court scrimmages, although that may have changed when the players got out in the open court, which was closed to the media.
The high schoolers full court, however, was not closed to the media, and perhaps provided the best opportunity to evaluate the players on hand. As the players played 5-on-5, sometimes alongside LeBron as a teammate, I made the following observations:
- Class of 2013 forward Aaron Gordon can fly with the best of them, as he started off a game on LeBron’s team by catching an alley-oop dunk right off the tip, and then followed it up with another dunk on the very next possession. Playing in his second game, Gordon had a monster put-back dunk, only to one-up it with a 360-degree dunk moments later.
- I was very excited to watch 2012 prospect Mitch McGary in person, as by most accounts, he is the highest ranked player in his class attending the camp, but he looked rather ordinary in drills. That all changed in the full court scrimmages, as the 6-11 McGary showed excellent ability to pass, shoot and dunk with arguably the most developed body in the gym (aside from LeBron’s), setting himself aside as the must-watch player whenever he was on the court. That didn’t prevent McGary from any forgettable moments though, as one particular sequence saw him unsuccessfully scream for the ball from a teammate, gather an offensive of rebound only to have his put-back blocked, and then demand to take the ball up court on the next possession, only to airball a step-back jumper.
- Grant Jerrett may be the most offensively polished of the big men at the camp, and his 7-1 wingspan allowed him to convert on dunks that most others wouldn’t be able to make.
- If it’s not Grant who’s the most skilled big, it’s the aforementioned Tony Parker, who picked up where he left off from the morning session and even added an impressive chase down block to prevent Danrad Knowles from converting on a fast break dunk.
- At 263 pounds, Dakari Johnson doesn’t isn’t a very agile big, but it seemed like every time I looked up, No. 56 was either grabbing a rebound or cleaning up with a dunk on the block.
Despite the scrimmages being officiated and the scores being kept, the overall tone of Wednesday night was pretty informal, which should change on Thursday, when the high schoolers will compete against each other while participating on their assigned teams in the start of the camp’s tournament.