Some things come later rather than sooner. For most top-10 recruits coming out of high school, it’s the exact opposite. Expectations are high for McDonald’s All-Americans—some, though, have the raw talent yet are lacking the refinement to carry a college program on their back right away. Rakeem Christmas was one of those guys.
Running with Dion Waiters and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the AAU circuit with Team Final, there were often times when Christmas was the star of the team. He was 6-9, long as a giraffe, and would often send shots into the stands. You could see that his offensive game was behind his defensive acumen, but it looked like things would come along. They did, eventually. But it took three years. It all came together for Rak (pronounced “rock”) during his final campaign, when he was named All-ACC as part of a Syracuse squad that was banned from the postseason. That didn’t come overnight, though.
The Philly native spent the past two summers working with Joe Abunassar, Drew Moore, Tyler Shaw, and Co. at Impact Basketball in Vegas. Abunassar and Moore unlocked some of the hidden talent in him, while Shaw helped sculpt his 240-pound frame. Going up against guys like Serge Ibaka and Timofey Mozgov on the regular made him believe that he could not only hold his own, but dominate guys at the collegiate level.
“A lot of it was getting his confidence back to where it was in HS. He was physically capable of doing a lot more than even he realized,” explained Moore. “He got here March 15th and had two solid months with us before the Combine, where he was arguably the best player.
Along with 150-plus NBA executives, we had the chance to check him out at the ASM Sports Pro Day at Impact. Working alongside Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, and Jarrell Martin, he was the least-hyped guy of the group, but you definitely wouldn’t know that based off of the workout. He flew up and down the floor, showed off his agility, and impressed onlookers with his ridiculous attacks on the rim. While he’s not the type of guy who is going to hit you with a flurry of counter moves on the blocks, he showed off a jump hook with either hand. To top it off, he was was thrilled to show off the latest weapon in his game: His jumper.
“His mid-range shot,” responded Moore on the primary focal point of his pre-draft work. “He used it little senior year, but it wasn’t his bread and butter. He has a nice first step and good footwork, so he’s skilled enough to attack.”
One thing that the workout didn’t show was Christmas’ defense, which is arguably his biggest strength. He has freakish length, solid timing, and good explosiveness as a shot-blocker. Tough and well put together, he is a good positional defender who is not going to give up space easily on the block. And while he didn’t face a ton of pick-and-roll, he showed the mobility to get out on the floor and hedge ball screens. Simply put, he is exactly what you are looking for from the defensive standpoint of a backup big man.
Many NBA teams frown upon Christmas’ age when evaluating him. He’ll be 24 years old early in his rookie campaign, but as he has shown over the last yea and a half, is just scratching the surface on how good he can become. Some feel that he is nearly a finished product, but if you ask the guys who work with him daily, they will tell you that there’s a lot of talent still hidden in his now 6-10 physique.
“His age is a benefit. He is mature, composed, focused,” Moore confidently said. “Rakeem will be able to step in right away and contribute. Look at the level of improvement he made before his senior year of college at 23, so he can still add things to his game.”
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