Breaking down the top college players at the Nike Skills Academy
- Some of the nation's top college basketball players competed at the Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles this week. Who shined? Who looks ready for a breakout season in 2016-17?
HAWTHORNE, Calif. — In a private hangar at the one-runway Hawthorne Municipal Airport, on the same block of greater Los Angeles as the headquarters of the private space-exploration startup SpaceX, Nike held its annual Skills Academy this week. The sneaker giant custom-built a three-court basketball complex to host 60 of the nation's top high school players and 21 of the top collegians, and a handful of NBA players dropped by to either speak to or scrimmage with the amateurs.
My focus at the Skills Academy was on the college players, the roster of them being ...
… and this is what I learned from observing three days of drills and scrimmages at the hangar:
• Monte Morris looked the part of an All-America. When we last saw the Iowa State point guard, in the NCAA tournament, he was nagged by a shoulder injury—a strain to his right AC joint that he suffered on March 5, and was serious enough to keep him out of full-team practices for the rest of the month. Morris received daily, numbing shots into the joint during the postseason, and he had to avoid sleeping on his right side until he started feeling better, in May. The shoulder was the primary factor in him not entering the NBA Draft after a junior season in which he averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 assists per game.
"I wanted to be 100 percent healthy if I was going to enter the Draft," Morris said, "And I saw what coming back did for guys like Denzel Valentine and Buddy Hield, and I experienced it with Georges Niang [who stayed in school after a junior year-ending injury], so I wasn't in a rush."
Morris arrived at the Nike event in good health, and showed not only an advanced grasp of pick-and-roll decision-making but also more basket-attacking prowess than we're used to seeing out of him with the Cyclones. He was able to beat guards of different sizes (from the 6'2" Jalen Brunson of Villanova to the 6'5" Trevon Bluiett of Xavier) off the dribble and finish effortlessly with either hand. Morris looks ready to take on an expanded offensive role after serving as a pass-first complement to Niang for the past two seasons.
"You're going to see me attacking and scoring way more [in '16-17] than even I'm doing out here," Morris said. "A lot of our offense will be me making plays. Some of it will be in the pick-and-roll; some of it will be me just putting my head down and getting to the bucket; but we have the No. 1 point guard from juco [Donovan Jackson] coming in, too, so you'll also see sets where I'm moving off the ball, coming off downscreens and things like that."
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I watched the Tuesday skills workout with one of Morris's trainers, fellow Flint, Mich., product and former UT Pan American guard Kieon Arkwright. He said the focus this off-season has been on improving Morris's shot, his footwork and his basket-attacks so he can thrive in a go-to role as a senior. "We're preparing him to not just be a preseason All-America, but a first-team All-America at the end of the year, and the best point guard in college basketball," Arkwright said. Those are ambitious goals, but they're also well within the realm of possibility.
• Defending national champion Villanova had two players at the Skills Academy: wing Josh Hart, a likely preseason All-America, and Brunson, the team's lead point guard now that Ryan Arcidiacono has graduated. Neither Wildcat stood out in the individual-skills portions—there were quicker and more athletic guards than Brunson, and there were more physically imposing wings than Hart—but in the scrimmages, they offered reminders of why they just cut down the nets in Houston. Both players are hard-nosed gamers, and Hart stood out as an opportunistic defender, making timely digs into the post, jumping into passing lanes for steals and competing at a high level. Brunson was impressively crafty in the pick-and-roll, probing defenses and finding tiny pockets of space for layups or drop-off passes. In an event where the attrition rate was high—by the last night, there were six college players sitting out of the scrimmages with nagging injuries—it was not surprising that the Villanova duo remained on the court, grinding it out until the final possession.
• The best piece of advice Brunson received at the camp was from Sonics legend Gary Payton, who was one of the most vocal, on-court instructors. Said Brunson, "Gary Payton told me, 'You already know how to play with pace, but you can play even faster and even slower. You can shift gears up or down beyond where you've been going already.' " On the third (and final) night, Brunson was already putting this into practice while being guarded by 6'5" Cavaliers reserve Jordan McRae. Brunson drove off a left-wing ballscreen and brought himself to a standstill, so that he could use his rear end to seal McRae off from the basket, and then accelerated rim-ward for a layup, completing a move that required Brunson to use his lowest and highest gears.
• Nike didn't keep stats on the scrimmages, but if they had, I'm fairly certain the lone mid-major representative, Valparaiso's Alec Peters, would have come out as the academy's most efficient scorer. The 6'9" forward made his pick-and-pop threes at a ridiculous clip—it seemed like well over 50%—and ran the floor in transition for plenty more points. When he was paired in ballscreen actions with Morris, their teams were unstoppable.
It’s not as if Peters came out of nowhere: He’s been one of the nation's most efficient offensive players for the past two seasons. As a junior in 2015-16, he made 43.8% of his treys, and had a 127.1 offensive rating while using 22.9% of Valpo's possessions. Still, seeing Peters thrive in this Nike setting, surrounded by major-conference competition and playing before a large audience of NBA scouts, led me to believe he'll be one of the nation's best perimeter forwards for '16-17 and a potential draftee next June. He declared for the 2016 draft but pulled his name out, and also turned down the opportunity to leave Valpo for another school as a graduate transfer after the Crusaders’ coach, Bryce Drew, took the Vanderbilt job this off-season. Peters could have chosen any number of national-title contenders and been immediately eligible, but, he said, "I couldn't see myself playing anywhere other than Valpo." Peters could see himself improving after the Nike experience, though: He headed back to Valpo with four pages of handwritten notes on everything from LeBron James's speech to the campers, a film session with Anthony Davis and hands-on instruction from Rasheed Wallace.
• There wasn't a clear MVP among the college players, as different guys looked great on different days, and a number of players didn't compete in all six sessions of drills and scrimmages. But my All-Academy first team would be: Morris, Brunson, Peters, Clemson's Jaron Blossomgame and Baylor's Johnathan Motley, with Oregon's Chris Boucher and Illinois' Malcolm Hill as honorable mentions. (USC's Bennie Boatwright sat out the whole camp, while Iowa's Peter Jok, Oregon's Tyler Dorsey, Arizona's Allonzo Trier, Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans and Xavier's Trevon Bluiett sat out portions of it with non-serious injuries.)
Blossomgame is probably the best college wing you haven't seen much of on TV, as he has yet to play on an NCAA tournament team in his three years at Clemson, but he offers a 6'7" package of athleticism, physicality and accurate long-range shooting (albeit with a low release point and rain-making arc). One NBA front-office member told me that Blossomgame "looked like the most NBA-ready player at the camp," and another scout said he thinks Blossomgame could be the first senior taken in the 2017 draft. The asterisk on that comment is that it's an exceptionally weak draft for seniors, but Blossomgame could sneak into the back end of the first round.
• Xavier's Edmond Sumner was not the most polished point guard at the academy—that title belonged to Morris—but more than one NBA scout thought Sumner might end up being the academy's highest eventual draft pick, either in 2017 or 2018. The appeal of Sumner is in things that can't be taught: He's a 6'6" floor general with a quick-as-hell first step and the ability to get from the perimeter to the rim in a couple of long strides. Scouts figure that Sumner's body will start to fill out in his sophomore season with the Musketeers, and that he's starting to get better at pick-and-roll pacing—rather than simply going 100 miles per hour—but they still feel his jumper needs a complete overhaul. At the moment it's neither fluid mechanically nor accurate enough to keep defenses from going way under screens.
• The best shooter in the drills portion of the academy was a guard who had a sneaky-good freshman year at SMU: Shake Milton, who made 42.6% of his 122 three-point attempts for the Mustangs and is putting himself on the radar as an NBA shooting-guard prospect. He measured at 6'7" with a 6'11 1/2" wingspan at the camp—notable because he was listed at 6’5’’ on SMU's roster last season—and had the smoothest long-range stroke of all the guards, both in pull-up and off-the-catch situations. Milton doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a shooting guard, though; he hopes to play some point for the Mustangs now that Nic Moore has graduated. Milton didn't play enough point in the scrimmages here for me to get a deep read on his skills—his ballhandling and court vision still seem well behind his shooting—but a position switch would be a big new stage in his development.
• Former Kentucky one-and-doner Devin Booker was the best shooting guard on the floor in the scrimmages, where he and a crew of young NBA players made cameos alongside the college and high-school campers. At 19, Booker is still younger than most of the college campers, and the progress he's made since leaving Kentucky—he’s added serious bulk and become a complete scorer—leads me to believe he would have been a national player of the year candidate had he stuck around for a couple of years in Lexington. We only got to see him as a catch-and-shoot role player in college.
The NBA (or freshly drafted) players who took the court in scrimmages, other than Booker, were: Tyler Ulis, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, Diamond Stone, Rudy Gay, Stanley Johnson, Aaron Gordon and Jordan McRae. LeBron James spoke to campers and did drills with the high-schoolers, and Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, Jahlil Okafor and D'Angelo Russell made appearances.
• The lone incoming freshman at the academy was Michigan State's Miles Bridges, a 6'7" forward who was the No. 10 prospect in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index for the class of 2016. He has a college-ready body, incredible leaping ability—he and Blossomgame were the camp's best dunkers—and he didn't look physically over-matched when he was going head-to-head with the Pistons' Stanley Johnson for one stretch of a scrimmage. But can Bridges be a star right away in the Big Ten? He'd have the highest impact as a basket-attacking, floor-running hybrid forward, but at the academy, he fashioned himself as a three-point shooting small forward—and he connected on fewer than 20% of his treys, with a knuckleball-ish lefty release. And Bridges's description of his likely role at Michigan State was even more expansive; he said it "would be like what Denzel Valentine did last season, doing a little bit of everything, playing everything from the 1 to the 4." Should be an interesting experiment.
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• The most interesting camper of all, and the one I can't wait to get to college, even though he's still two years away, was a high-schooler from Harlem. Mohamed Bamba stands 6'11" with a 7'9" wingspan that allows him to rim-protect at an absurd level, and he already knows that his biggest long-term impact will be as a defensive disruptor. Why an analytics nerd like me loves Bamba, though, is that he's already thinking about the game at an advanced level.
He traveled from his prep school outside of Philadelphia to Boston in March to attend MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and sat in on panels on injury prevention, the salary cap and the pick-and-roll, getting enlightened on the degree to which Steph Curry destroys the rest of the NBA. "Afterwards, I asked, do these NBA analytics correlate to high school basketball in any way?" Bamba said. The answer was no, not really. "High school offense is like baby steps," he said. But it got Bamba thinking about efficiency, and the salary cap panel had him studying this off season's free agency bonanza in more detail.
"This was the first summer I started really looking at what the language meant in contracts, like Mike Conley's, and how guys fit into the cap," he said. Bamba is the one kid who understands what "max deal" truly means, a full seven years before he'll be eligible to receive one.