Since last week, I’ve been out in Colorado Springs, catching the tail end of the USA Basketball under-18 team training camp, in advance of the FIBA Americas under-18 tournament, which started Friday at the Olympic Training Center and can be seen via fibaamericas.com.
Team USA features a mix of some of the more highly regarded incoming college freshmen and top rising high school seniors in the country, so seeing them go at it every day and scrimmage opponents has been a different experience for me than the usual summer circuit of AAU tournaments and camps, where the goals are usually more about individual players raising their respective stocks.
There have been NBA scouts present, but with national pride at stake and a coaching staff featuring Florida’s Billy Donovan and assistants Sean Miller of Arizona and Providence’s Ed Cooley, top-notch coaches in their own right, the squad has been pretty cohesive in practice and focused on winning a Gold medal.
It’s obvious that some of the players aren’t used to not being the focal point on a team, but to their credit, they’ve all made adjustments, with FIBA veterans Stanley Johnson, Myles Turner and the Duke-bound duo of Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow leading the way. If you’re so inclined to watch the tournament and get a jump on some likely future pros (or even if you’re just experiencing some basketball withdrawal since the Finals ended), check out the tournament for yourself, but for the time being, here’s my take on the participants:
Isaiah Briscoe, 6-3 rising senior combo guard, Roselle Catholic (NJ)
Known as a scorer, Briscoe is attempting to make the transition from a shoot-first lead guard to more of a traditional floor general, at least in this setting. While that’s still a work in progress, he’s played unselfishly and has been locked in on defense, showing a willingness to make hustle plays most scorers don’t usually exhibit. Putting points on the board remain his nature, but the stocky Briscoe is demonstrating that he understands that it can’t be his only asset on the floor. Not an elite athlete or overly quick, he compensates with his strength, tenacity and clever moves, not to mention being an automatic bucket or trip to the foul line in transition or a one-on-one situation.
Jaylen Brown, 6-7 rising senior wing, Wheeler (GA)
Brown’s stock was extremely high coming into this event, based on a strong spring on the AAU circuit and an impressive trip to Italy, where he and a handful of other Americans played in the adidas Eurocamp against top European draft prospects. His upside is immediately evident, as the Atlanta-area product has tremendous explosiveness, deep range and a solid frame that appears capable of adding more bulk in time. But although reports indicated that Brown excelled early on in the team’s training camp, he’s been up and down since I’ve been in town. His jumper, an easy, high-elevation, rainbow stroke hasn’t been falling consistently, intense ball pressure has affected him when he’s handling the rock and on the defensive end of the floor, while he shows the ability to make plays and shut down his man, he only does so on occasion. That said, when the light goes on, Brown can be spectacular and it should be taken into account that he’s frequently had to match up with the aforementioned Johnson and Winslow, a year ahead of him, stronger and not necessarily happy to lay out the red carpet for him in head-to-head competition.
Jalen Brunson, 6-2 rising senior point guard, Stevenson (IL)
Full disclosure: I’ve seen Brunson, who resides in Chicago’s north suburbs, play since his freshman year and I know his father, Rick, a fellow Temple alum. But if he played poorly here, I probably would choose not to mention it at all, if anything. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case, as Brunson, known in Illinois for his scoring ability, including a state-record 56 points in a championship-game loss to Jahlil Okafor’s Whitney Young team, has been the consummate pass-first point guard. Perhaps too unselfish at times, the lefty has been content to set up his teammates, keep the ball moving and only when open, knock down perimeter jumpers, though he’s also been aggressive in trying to get to the rim in transition. Brunson competes on the defensive end, too, but due to his size and lack of explosiveness, he’ll have to rely on his high basketball IQ and ability to anticipate to augment that aspect of his game.
Chase Jeter, 7-0 rising senior post, Bishop Gorman (NV)
After making the initial cut from 24 players to 15, Jeter didn’t make the final roster and headed to the ongoing NBPA Top 100 Camp in Virginia. But due to Baltimore native Dwayne Morgan’s family emergency, Jeter was brought back. The team’s youngest player will have to play catch-up, remembering what he learned and getting up to speed on what he missed, but his length, athleticism, size and versatility are a benefit to the team. A very mobile big man with a soft touch on his mid-range jumper and burgeoning back-to-the-basket moves, Jeter is still putting it all together, but it’s clear that he has a high ceiling. Speaking of Morgan, the incoming UNLV freshman forward probably would have been the team’s high-energy player, with his ability to guard multiple positions, mix it up inside, get out in transition and make plays above the rim.
Stanley Johnson, 6-7 incoming freshman wing, Arizona
A product of the famed Mater Dei program, Johnson might be the most NBA-ready non-big man (Okafor’s polish and Turner’s potential, combined with their size, puts them ahead of the pack) in the class, for my money. Johnson’s a lead-by-example type and his impressive all-around game, as well as his ability to score from anywhere on the court, make him a threat to dominate games for stretches at a time. The big-bodied swingman, who played point guard his senior year, can handle the ball, make plays for others and even stay in front of some smaller guards, while still being able to make his presence felt on the glass, finish with power and explosiveness, affect the game as a post-up scorer and generally hold his own on the interior. Johnson plays with a bit of an edge, not shying away from contact, colorful banter with opponents and even arguing calls, but none of it is a bad thing, as long as he continues to focus it as part of his competitive nature.
Tyus Jones, 6-1 incoming freshman point guard, Duke
The Minneapolis-area native was regarded as the nation’s best pure point guard (Emmanuel Mudiay, another potential top-five 2015 NBA draft pick, is more of a scoring point guard) and hasn’t done anything to diminish his reputation as a pass-first floor general here. A vocal, yet calm leader, Jones has excellent court vision, doesn’t play in a rush, can score when necessary and seems to see plays far in advance of them developing. He’s not a jet as far as quickness or an amazing athlete, but Jones’ change of pace and tight handle, coupled with his burst in the open court, make up for any perceived deficiencies when it comes to his physical tools. Like Johnson and his current and future teammate Winslow, it shows that he’s a veteran of national-team and FIBA competition, as the playmaker is clearly the straw that stirs the drink.
Luke Kennard, 6-5 rising senior shooting guard, Franklin (OH)
A Duke commitment, Kennard is a big-time scorer who has figured out how to fit in on this talented squad. Regarded as one of the nation’s better pure shooters, Kennard’s shot hasn’t been falling consistently as of late, but he’s continued to plug away, making the extra pass, making hustle plays on defense and functioning as a secondary ballhandler. One of the team’s designated sharpshooters, Kennard has good size for his position and puts in the work defensively, attempting not to be a liability if he’s not making shots. The lefty, who was also a top quarterback recruit, has a quiet toughness and determined demeanor that, as he gets stronger physically, will pay off.
Tyler Lydon, 6-9 rising senior combo forward, New Hampton (NH)
Playing against international competition, Lydon is a bit of an X-factor, as he’s the Americans’ lone stretch 4 and will be called upon to bring opposing big men out to the perimeter. The Syracuse commit has some quickness, athleticism and ball skills to his game, too, showing the ability to put the ball on the floor, make plays via the pass, keep up in transition and be generally active on both ends of the floor. When he’s playing with energy, Lydon can make an impact on the game, even aside from knocking down open jumpers. He’ll need to add bulk to his slender frame, but his perimeter-oriented game and high skill level could cause mismatches, both in the present and future.
Allonzo Trier, 6-5 rising senior shooting guard, Findlay (NV)
The well-traveled Trier might be the best pure scorer on the squad, which is no small feat, making it more admirable that he’s made such an overt effort to blend in as a role player. Possessing excellent ability to create his own shot, knock down contested jumpers and slither to the basket for high-degree-of-difficulty finishes, whether in transition or against a set defense, Trier has clearly toned down his scoring instincts a bit. Demonstrating that he’s willing to make the extra pass, stay patient when the ball in his hands and not take rushed shots, his understanding of the greater goal is commendable. Trier still has a ways to go defensively and must get stronger to become a more effective finisher, but with his automatic open jumper, smooth handle and this display of a team-first mentality, his future looks even brighter than it did when he was just known for scoring a lot of points.
Myles Turner, 7-0 incoming freshman post, Texas
As previously stated, Turner has the most upside of any player in his class and not that the other players here aren’t, but when his talent is combined with simply being a nice, hard-working kid, it’s hard not to envision him being successful. Extremely bouncy and agile for his size, Turner’s length, timing and ability to cover ground makes him a major shot-blocking presence, often contesting multiple shots on the same possession, whether on or off the ball. Offensively, his soft touch and comfortable range out just before the three-point line is an added dimension, though he needs to get stronger and more instinctive with his back to the basket. His lack of bulk affects him as a rebounder and finisher as well, but Turner’s explosiveness allows him to throw down quick flushes in both half-court situations and in transition, where his ability to run the floor shines.
Justise Winslow, 6-6 incoming freshman wing, Duke
The Houston native and son of former Phi Slama Jama member Ricky Winslow, along with Turner and Brunson, might be the hardest worker at the camp, getting up extra shots after practice daily, even after two-a-day sessions. Given his physical tools, that bodes well, as Winslow is built like an NFL strong safety, can not only guard, but shut down multiple positions and with his frame, finishes through contact with ease, assuming defenders don’t just get out of his way. Capable of defending anybody from a quick point guard to a big power forward, Winslow is also a remarkable rebounder for a perimeter player, on both ends of the floor. A much-improved ballhandler and shooter, the southpaw has had stretches where he’s knocked down open jumpers and others where he’s been off the mark, but he doesn’t let that affect other areas of his game. He recognizes when he’s not hitting and shifts his focus to doing something else, though his progress as a shooter and individual scorer could dictate exactly how high his ceiling is.
Stephen Zimmerman, 6-11 rising senior post, Bishop Gorman (NV)
Another player making the adjustment from being a featured option to more of a complementary piece, Zimmerman has simplified his game in order to make positive contributions. A talented offensive threat in AAU and high school, the big man has put an emphasis on running the floor in transition, making his presence felt on the offensive glass, making quick post moves and finishing with power. He’s not the shot-blocking force Turner is, but Zimmerman is active defensively, works hard on the boards, plays with a high motor and is willing to bang in the paint. As he continues to add strength, seeing him find his groove here, even though he isn’t the star of the team, is an encouraging sign for his mindset and development as a whole.
–This group of players seems to really like each other and appears focused on winning a Gold medal, a testament to the work of Donovan, Miller and Cooley, the least well-known of the three coaches, but certainly an up-and-comer, based on not only turning around his hometown Friars, but his track record at Fairfield.
–Being that this is FIBA play, not only are the actual basketballs a bit different, but the American team is learning how to play with a shot clock for the first time in most of their careers, not to mention adjusting to rules changes, like being able to knock the ball off the rim.
–Team USA has had some intra-squad scrimmages, as well as teams comprised of local college players—Colorado State-Pueblo and the Air Force, the latter being the only team to win even one quarter against them—and another team in the FIBA Americas tournament, Canada.
–Canada has a few college prospects of various renown: 6-8 Harvard incoming freshman big man Chris Egi of Florida’s Monteverde Academy; 6-5 nationally ranked rising senior swingman Montaque “Teki” Gill-Caesar of Huntington Prep; 6-7 rising senior wing Dillon Brooks of Findlay Prep; and 6-5 shooting guard Corey Johnson, who is expected to do a post-graduate year of prep school in the US.
–Egi was physical and active, but while he struggled to score inside against the Americans’ length, he should be considered yet another steal for Harvard and a player who could be a solid role player at a high-major program.
–Gill-Caesar showed flashes of his ability, particularly as a long-range shooter, but had trouble creating off the dribble and blended in more than he stood out, though his frame, athleticism and fundamentally sound skill set certainly look the part of the highly touted prospect he’s billed to be.
–Brooks was a role player at powerhouse Findlay last season, but if his performance against his elite counterparts was any indication, that should be changing, as the versatile, lanky jack-of-all-trades knocked down deep jumpers, scored off the dribble, finished with explosiveness, functioned as a secondary and primary ballhandler, scored in the post and remained competitive even when the rest of his team was floundering.
–Johnson, who plays AAU for the Northern Kings, coached by former St. Bonaventure player Vidal Massiah, showed off his range and accuracy, and while he could get stronger and tighten up his handle, wasn’t bad off the dribble either, displaying an effective herky-jerky game.