Who’s Got Next?

by April 15, 2014


by Aggrey Sam

Over the weekend, I took a quick detour away from my regular gig, covering the Bulls, and headed out to Portland for the Nike Hoop Summit. The annual matchup of some the top prospects in the country against their international counterparts—some of whom play for American high schools, but have foreign backgrounds—was won by the US Team, 84-73, Saturday at the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers’ home court.

Unlike the numerous NBA scouts and executives in attendance, I didn’t get to see the practices leading up to the game itself, but it was still very valuable for me to get a first look at some of the World Team’s prospects (including a few who could enter June’s NBA Draft) and see some of the players I was already familiar with in a more structured environment than a typical all-star game or simply function on a team full of similar talents. Eddie Maisonet III will have a story recapping the contest in an upcoming issue of the actual magazine, so here are some brief player evaluations of the prospects in attendance:

Cliff Alexander, 6-8 power forward, Kansas (USA)

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing “Big Cliff” develop over the past four years in Chicago, going from a raw kid still very new to the game of basketball to, while not a fully-formed player just yet, a force of nature on the court. One thing that’s always been there is powerful explosiveness, resulting in the ability to impact the game in the paint above the rim, which he showed off in Portland on a handful of plays after struggling in the first half. He might not ever be a go-to offensive threat in the low-post—I have hope for him as a face-up mid-range shooter, particularly given how surprisingly well he shoots from the line—but as a high-energy rim protector, rebounder on both ends of the court and finisher in both the half-court and transition, Alexander already has a niche that could translate to being a very valuable role player at the highest level of the game.

Joel Berry, 6-0 point guard, North Carolina (USA)

Berry, from what I’ve seen and heard, is much more well-suited to running the show as a floor general on a team where he’s the designated floor general, so it’s not especially surprising that he didn’t have an amazing performance. He must continue to work on the consistency of his outside jumper to make himself more of a scoring threat, but he should be fine as a role player in college. While he has a high basketball IQ, he isn’t a flashy playmaker, but as a steady hand managing games, he projects well as a solid four-year player.

James Birsen, 6-10 power forward, Fenerbahce Ulker (Turkey-World)

The Turkish prospect presented himself as a stretch-4 with passable ball skills, showing the ability to spot up from deep and handle the ball against more traditional big men. As he didn’t appear to be the quickest or most explosive athlete, taking on more of a physical approach would likely behoove him, as he has the size to be at least a factor on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor. Supposedly regarded as a potentially elite-level prospect in his younger days, when his future seemed to be solely on the wing, adding some strength and repositioning himself as a big man with the skills to stretch opposing defenses could now be his best bet.

James Blackmon, 6-3 shooting guard, Indiana (USA)

Regarded as one of the best outside shooters in the senior class, Blackmon played limited minutes in this game, scoring his lone points on a trey. Not especially big for his position or an elite athlete, the son of a former Kentucky player is expected to see major minutes next season and produce offensively. Down the line, if he can develop into more of a playmaker, transitioning into a combo guard isn’t out of the question, which, combined with his already fundamentally sound game, could raise his long-term ceiling.

Clint Capela, 6-11 power forward, Chalon-Sur-Saone (Switzerland-World)

Regarded as one of the top international prospects potentially entering this year’s Draft, the Swiss representative, who plays professionally in France, didn’t have the type of outing that did much for his stock. The wiry big man certainly looked the part of the long athlete he’s billed to be, but struggled with foul trouble and perhaps would have benefited from more a traditionally unstructured all-star game format, giving him an opportunity to get up and down in the open floor to show his explosiveness. That said, if and when he decides to enter the Draft, while it should be noted that he’s a project that could take years to reach his potential—especially on offense; he has an awkward, behind-the-head shooting stroke that could use some tweaking, though he looked surprisingly fluid on free throws—his motor and the quickness he has for his size could one day translate into a defensive-minded role player with the ability to make plays on both ends of the floor, in transition and above the rim.

Brandone Francis, 6-4 shooting guard, Florida (Dominican Republic-World)

A typically hard-nosed Billy Donovan recruit, Francis didn’t have a flashy showing, but impressed more with his toughness, willingness to defend and intangibles. As someone who witnessed the likes of outgoing Gators senior leader Scottie Wilbekin (not to mention Will Yeguete and the more heralded Patric Young and Casey Prather) when he was an under-the-radar prep prospect, Francis, who has more fanfare as a fringe top-100 prospect and state champion from a marquee program—he attends Arlington Country Day in Florida—is cut out of the same cloth. That isn’t to say he’ll develop into a future SEC Player of the Year, but he should become a solid role player with the ability to defend on the perimeter and as his offensive game grows, evolve into a well-rounded backcourt contributor.

Gao Shang, 6-7 small forward, Guandong Southern Tigers (China-World)

Unfortunately, the Chinese prospect simply didn’t get enough playing time in the contest (just over three minutes) to make any type of evaluation of his game.

Damien Inglis, 6-8 small forward, ES Chorale de Roanne Basket (France-World)

If you watched this game at home, Inglis probably didn’t stand out much, due to relatively limited minutes, but due to his chiseled physique, remarkable wingspan and versatile skill set, he has quietly created a buzz for himself with some of the right people. Possessing the ability to snatch defensive rebounds, push the ball on the break and either find his teammates with smart passes or finish the play himself, he showed glimpses of his potential, even some point-forward skills. Talking to him briefly after the game, the affable, multi-lingual youngster also proved to be a student of the game, saying that although he’s a fan of superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul George, he also studies the likes of PJ Tucker and Gordon Hayward, for example.

Stanley Johnson, 6-7 small forward, Arizona (USA)

Despite his outside shot not falling, Johnson, a good, if not great athlete, still made a positive impact in the game, getting to the rim as a physical driver, pushing the ball in transition, functioning as a secondary ballhandler and defending multiple positions. The versatile, powerfully-built wing is a four-time state champion, and while it isn’t his natural position, the fact that he played point guard as a senior should help him in the future. From his ability to rebound and muscle smaller defenders on the interior to playing on the perimeter and displaying the willingness to chase quicker players on the other end of the floor, he did nothing to take away from his reputation as one of the most hard-playing, polished and complete players in the class, though knocking down deep jumpers on a more consistent basis will certainly be an area of scrutiny moving forward.

Nikola Jokic, 6-11 power forward, KK Mega Vizura (Serbia-World)

Jokic was another international prospect who had created some intrigue heading into the contest, combining great size and a solid frame with the ability to step outside and make smart passes. He also appeared willing to bang on the interior and while he isn’t an explosive athlete, he held his own on the glass. Interesting note: Jokic, until a little more than a year ago, wasn’t completely focused on basketball, splitting his time riding horses (in a carriage, no less), which is apparently pretty popular in his hometown.

Tyus Jones, 6-1 point guard, Duke (USA)

Jones made his presence felt late in the game as both a scorer and playmaker down the stretch, living up to his billing as a true, pass-first floor general with the ability to keep defenses honest. Possessing excellent court vision, he makes his teammates better and doesn’t need to dominate the ball to be effective, but uses hesitation moves and change of speed to create his own shot. Not having great size or upper-echelon quickness, he doesn’t fit the profile of the big and/or explosive point guards that tend to dominate today’s game, but he showed good awareness as an off-the-ball defender, which should ensure he’s not a liability on that end of the court.

Trey Lyles, 6-10 power forward, Kentucky (Canada-World)

Lyles never truly got into a rhythm in this setting, though it was a good sign that while he struggled offensively, he was made contributions by utilizing his frame on the glass. The Indiana native is known as a skilled, versatile post player, but not necessarily an explosive athlete, so his lack of lift and ability to finish over players with length, size and athleticism is certainly something to scrutinize at the next level. Assuming he isn’t planning to be a one-and-done, simply practicing with the deep, presumably competitive big-man rotation Coach Cal should have next season will benefit his future development.

Emmanuel Mudiay, 6-5 point guard, SMU (Congo-World)

Mudiay was the international squad’s dominant player, which had both its positives and negatives. The Dallas native forced the action at times, leading to turnovers when trying to break full-court pressure, make home-run passes and take quick-trigger outside jumpers, instead of the strength of his game, attacking the basket. But he was also clearly his team’s most talented player, his errors were made in an attempt to make good things happen and when he focuses on getting to the rack, the qualities that made him such a highly coveted recruit—powerful driver with fluid athleticism, finishing ability, excellent size for a point guard and overall fearlessness, similar to many of the great players at the position today—were apparent, meaning that being coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown should only enhance his still-raw skill set.

Jamal Murray, 6-4 shooting guard, Athlete Institute (Canada-World)

More of a spot-up shooter at this stage of his career, Murray is viewed as one of the next up in Canada’s seemingly endless line of highly touted prospects. He’ll need to continue to diversify his game and improve on the defensive end of the floor, but he showed signs of  the ability to be a secondary playmaker and complementary rebounder in time. If anything, the fact that he seems to have a solid understanding of shot selection and played within himself bodes well.

Sviatoslav Myhailiuk, 6-6 shooting guard, SK Cherkasy Monkeys (Ukraine-World)

The youngest player in the game at only 16 years old, he’s a smooth wing with a nice-looking outside stroke and a high basketball IQ. A clever passer who can knock down mid-range jumpers, he moves well without the ball and has decent size for a shooting guard, though he will need to add strength to his slender frame. Supposedly he will attend college in the US, so keep your eyes peeled for him and if he finds the right fit, it’s conceivable to see him one day making an impact as a versatile shooter.

Jahlil Okafor, 6-10 center, Duke (USA)

Like with Alexander, I’ve had the chance to watch Okafor develop throughout the past four years and even given the considerable hype he had entering high school, it’s fair to say that he’s lived up to his billing. His massive frame, soft touch, nimble feet and an array of post moves make him an unstoppable one-on-one scorer against his peers, but he’s also capable of beating the inevitable double teams with intelligent passing out of the block. He’s also worked hard at his conditioning, something he’ll have to maintain in the future and while bigger concerns include how effectively he’ll be able to score against stronger, longer defenders, keep up in transition function as an out-of-area rebounder and provide more of a presence defensively, his track record thus far, as well as his solid performance Saturday, indicates that he’ll still manage to make a noticeable impact at any level.

Kelly Oubre, 6-7 small forward, Kansas (USA)

Oubre’s upside is among the highest in his class and although he’s still just scratching the surface of his talent, outings like the one he had in Portland are why it’s a smart bet that he’ll reach his ceiling someday. A smooth lefty with range, if not yet quite a knockdown shooter, the swingman’s strength is his slashing ability, finishing above the rim and getting out in transition. Still in need of honing his ballhandling ability, he’s also versatile enough to make plays for others, contribute on the glass and on the defensive end, guard both wing positions using his length, though he could use some added bulk.

Theo Pinson, 6-6 small forward, North Carolina (USA)

A high-energy wing who has continued to add to his skill level, Pinson is a high-flying athlete who doesn’t need touches to make an impact on a game. He appeared to be trying to do too much offensively at times Saturday, but still made plays as an unselfish passer and active defender. He will still need to refine his perimeter game, particularly as a shooter and ballhandler, but as a slasher, transition scorer, willing rebounder and versatile defender, he has a high ceiling as long-term, jack-of-all-trades role player.

Karl Towns, 7-0 center, Kentucky (Dominican Republic-World)

Towns has plenty of experience in international basketball—most notably playing on the Dominican national team, guided by his future coach, John Calipari, when he was just 16 a few summers ago, including an exhibition game against Team USA—and while he showed flashes of his talent in this contest, he was severely hampered by foul trouble. Still, the New Jersey native’s great size, better-than-advertised athleticism and much-improved physical nature in the paint were on display. What he didn’t get a chance to show was the touted range that could make him a dangerous pick-and-pop weapon at the highest level, but with his ball skills, surprising agility and a lack of aversion to contact, his long-term stock continues to rise.

Reid Travis, 6-8 power forward, Stanford (USA)

A workmanlike, hard-nosed interior player, Travis’ value is probably best viewed in a different environment, where his boxing out for rebounds, setting of screens and post defense could be better appreciated. A top-tier student and upper-echelon football recruit, the undersized power forward is more skilled than he showed in the contest, but it’s high activity level and physical nature that will always be hallmarks of his game. As a college player, those traits should help him see early playing time and carve out a niche for himself, with the chance to expand his game as time goes on.

Myles Turner, 6-11 center, undecided (USA)

Even before he was felled by an ankle injury—already, injuries are a concern of many observers when it comes to the late-bloomer—Turner didn’t have his best showing, though that certainly doesn’t take away from his potential. Physical strength is definitely an issue, however, and as tantalizing as his ability to knock down shots from range is, his tendency to float outside to the perimeter suggests to some that he isn’t enamored with physical play. On the other hand, the plays that he can make with his length and athleticism, from being an intimidating shot-blocking presence to finishing above the rim, not to mention score inside with his soft touch, agility and still-developing footwork, are an indication of the player he could turn into with time and patience.

Justise Winslow, 6-6 small forward, Duke (USA)

Winslow, who, along with future teammates Okafor and Jones, has the most experience playing with USA Basketball, was his team’s high scorer, which isn’t necessarily his calling card. A raw, explosive athlete with a mature frame, the son of a former Phi Slamma Jamma member mostly excels at scoring off broken plays, in transition and on the offensive boards. But while he still needs to add offensive polish, the wing is already an active, tough defender and solid rebounder from the perimeter, products of his competitive motor.

Aggrey Sam covers the Bulls for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.