LAS VEGAS -- You know what they say: What happens in Vegas takes two columns to cover.
As I told you in part one yesterday, I spent three days last week in Sin City, where three basketball events were taking place. The first two were grassroots tournaments: the Adidas Super 64 and the Fab 48. The third was the USA Basketball trials for the national team comprised of NBA players that will play in the World Championships in Turkey this summer.
My interest in the USA trials centered on the group of 20 college players who were brought in as a permanent scout team. The folks at USA Basketball only permitted the media to watch the college kids scrimmage against the pros for 30 minutes per day, but several dozen NBA scouts and executives were permitted to watch all of the action. So at the end of my visit, I asked one of those scouts to give me his unvarnished, anonymous assessment of a few of the collegians he watched. Here's what he had to say about ...
Lavoy Allen, 6-foot-9 senior forward, Temple: "He has good size and he'll rebound and get slams, but I don't know how tough he is. If he were tougher, he would be an NBA player, but I have to watch him more to gauge how tough he is. At the college level he can do some things, but a guy that size has to be pretty tough when it comes to rebounding."
Jimmer Fredette, 6-2 senior guard, BYU: "He had his moments, though he was a little up and down. He handled pressure a little better than I thought, and I saw him have one decent spurt. I think he'll play in the league because he can really shoot the ball. I like his nose for it."
Scotty Hopson, 6-7 junior forward, Tennessee: "This guy is one of the biggest enigmas out there. It's like a guy who walks up to the plate and just won't swing the bat. He'll get to spots on the floor but won't shoot it, or he'll turn down stuff. I watched him at Tennessee and he's scoring eight or nine points. I'm thinking this guy should be getting 18. He's talented but he just doesn't let it go."
Scoop Jardine, 6-2 junior guard, Syracuse: "He's going to have to be a Doug Overton type of guy. He'll never wow you. The strength of his game is that he's savvy. I could see why someone would say he was a little underwhelming, but he's got a lot of moxie to his game. He's not that athletic, so he doesn't look great in that kind of setting."
Shelvin Mack, 6-3 junior guard, Butler: "He's one of the guys who kind of surprised me. I didn't think he could play point guard, but he did a better job than I thought handling the ball. He's strong, he can make shots, and he did some good things while playing outside of Butler's system. I think he can be an NBA player, and I didn't think that going into the summer."
John Shurna, 6-9 junior forward, Northwestern: "He's a good college player, but he was just physically mismatched."
Kyle Singler, 6-8 senior forward, Duke: "I'm a big Singler fan. He's just a basketball player. You can just put him out on the floor and he'll figure things out. I don't think he's quite as good as Shane Battier because he doesn't shoot the ball like that, but he can get more done in other areas than Battier. If he becomes a better shooter, he has a chance to be a really good pro."
Chris Singleton, 6-9 junior forward, Florida State: "He's probably the best defender in college basketball. I think he's a little more athletic version of James Posey. He steals, blocks, rebounds, he can guard three positions. I really like him."
Nolan Smith, 6-2 senior guard, Duke: "You know he can make shots, but he handled the ball against pressure pretty well. I think he's an NBA player because when he gets there, he'll figure it out. The problem is he's too small to play two-guard in the NBA, so he'll have to be a point. But with Kyrie Irving coming in next year, he won't have much chance to do that. Someone will draft him and just say he's a guard, and let him figure it out from there."
Trey Thompkins, 6-9 junior forward, Georgia: "He grew on me. He's a poor man's Antoine Walker. He's not athletic, but he's a little bigger than I thought. He held his own inside defensively, he made threes and he can pass the ball. He was a pleasant surprise."
Kemba Walker, 6-1 junior guard, UConn: "He has good quickness and speed, but he just turns it over too much. He's too erratic. That was the problem with UConn's team last year was that he and [Jerome] Dyson turned it over too much and didn't value the ball enough."
July represents the heart of the summer evaluation period, during which college coaches are permitted to watch high school players compete in various camps and grassroots tournaments around the country. Before I offer you my take on some of the best high schoolers in Vegas last week, let me offer a couple of swing thoughts.
In the first place, keep in mind that I had not seen any of these guys play before. It is very, very difficult to properly evaluate a player based on one or two viewings -- especially in late July, when they are so physically and mentally drained from a long month of two or three games per day that it's nearly impossible to be at their best.
Also, while several of the top seniors were playing in Orlando at the AAU National Championships last week, the consensus from what I saw and heard is that the junior class is far superior to the seniors. Not only that, but the Class of 2012 has lots of really good big men, which will give the college game a badly-needed influx (at least for a year, anyway). One major head coach told me that by his math, there are 27 high-major big men in the junior class, as opposed to just 11 in the Class of 2012.
So consider what follows as more impressions than proper evaluations. Still, I know what I saw:
• Two teams I saw play two full games (including once against each other) were the New England Playaz and the San Diego-based Dream Vision. New England featured the one player I saw in Vegas who appeared to be the most ready to have an immediate impact at the collegiate level: Alex Murphy, a 6-9 rising junior at St. Mark's School in Southborough, Mass. Murphy is a very skilled three-man in the Mike Dunleavy/Mike Miller mold, but what I liked most is that he wasn't afraid to mix it up in the paint and finish around the rim. There are other players in his class that have more pro potential, but Murphy is extremely polished for a player so young. He is considering a bunch of schools, but Duke must be pursuing him hard because Mike Krzyzewski followed a long day coaching his USA Basketball guys by taking in the same game I was watching -- not so he could watch Murphy, but so Murphy could see Coach K watching him. That's how all this works.
Murphy's teammate (both high school and summertime), Kaleb Tarczewski, was likewise impressive. He is a bouncy, agile 7-foot center who is entering his junior year. I had been told by several recruiting experts and college coaches to check out New England so I could see those two, but another player I hadn't heard about who jumped out at me was Markus Kennedy, who is a 6-10 forward and a rising senior. Kennedy is, shall we say, a mite prodigious around the waistline, but he had terrific footwork and drew a ton of fouls on Dream Vision. I later learned that Kennedy has committed to play for Villanova. That should help 'Nova escape the label that big men need not apply.
As for Dream Vision, the player to see was Shabazz Muhammad, a 6-5 lefty guard whom Scout.com ranks as the No. 5 player in the Class of 2012. Muhammad hails from Las Vegas, and I have to say he was rather disappointing and disinterested in the first game I saw him play. During the second game, however, he demonstrated why he is so highly regarded. Still, while Muhammad is a terrific slasher and uses his size effectively posting up smaller guards, it would have been nice to see Muhammad throw a decent pass or two along the way. In that sense he kind of reminds me of Kenny Boynton, who is going into his sophomore year at Florida. I watched Boynton play a lot as a high schooler, and it seemed like every single time he touched the ball he jacked it up. Good players make their teammates better, and I think the very talented Muhammad would do well to heed that.
By the way, Dream Vision has a real sleeper prospect in 6-9 forward Angelo Chol. He is pretty graceful for his size and is excellent at defending the rim. UConn, Georgetown, Kansas and Alabama are all in hot pursuit.
• One guy that almost everyone I asked urged me to check out was another big junior, Isaiah Austin, a 7-foot center who lives in Arlington, Texas, but plays for an Arizona-based team called The Magic. I want to be fair here considering that a) I only saw Austin play two games, and b) he has not even started his junior year of high school. But I have to say it was incredibly frustrating watching this kid play. He is obviously gifted and is a very good ball handler for a guy his size. Still, call me old fashioned, but I believe a guy who is seven feet tall should spend more time posting up under the basket than roaming the perimeter behind the three-point line. Austin also plays classic matador defense around the basket.
Maybe I was expecting too much based on his reputation (Scout.com has him ranked second in the junior class), but it looked to me like someone was advising Austin to develop his perimeter game for the NBA level as opposed to playing the game from the inside-out like a seven-footer his age should. From where I was sitting, that looked like really bad advice.
• Lots of coaches were on hand to watch Indiana Elite play. The main object of their attention was 6-10 swingman Cody Zeller, younger brother of Tyler (who plays for North Carolina) and Luke (who played for Notre Dame). Zeller, who hails from Washington, Ind., is not as big as his brothers, but he is very skilled, and he can drain threes and drive to the basket, depending on what the defense is giving him. Zeller is a rising senior who is considering a bunch of schools in the Midwest, but Indiana is the one school that really needs him. Zeller has to choose whether he wants to be a significant piece on an established team, or go to Indiana and potentially become the local icon who helps bring IU back to prominence. That could be a very enticing proposition.
• There are certain things a player does that are so impressive that even a writer schmo can't help but notice. That happened frequently while I watched Norvel Pelle, a 6-8 jumping jack from Los Angeles. Pelle plays for the Compton Magic and when he wasn't skywalking for ridiculous blocks he was finishing thunderously on the break. He looked to me like a young Amar'e Stoudemire. I had not been alerted about Pelle, and after a few exchanges I asked a prominent head coach who he was. "That's the biggest freak in the class," he said. Seems to me Pelle is better than the No. 55 overall ranking that Scout.com gave him, but we all know the rankings don't mean much anyway.
• Late Friday night, I checked out Ohio Basketball Club against D.C. Assault in the Super 64. I had been encouraged to watch OBC to see 6-8 senior forward Chane Behanan. He is an indeed an impressive physical specimen, and I was especially taken during one sequence when I saw him catch a long pass in transition, then quickly gather himself, reverse direction and float in for a slam. It was a great move for someone who is built so thick.
On the next possession, Behanan caught another pass in transition, and this time he deftly passed to a teammate for an open layup. When I told Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News the next day that I was impressed with Behanan, he seemed surprised and told me that the kid only scored six points the whole game. Still, as I said before, I know what I saw.
As for D.C. Assault, the premiere player was supposed to be Quinn Cook, a 6-1 senior point guard from Maryland's famed DeMatha High School. Cook looked strong and efficient enough, but if I didn't know about his reputation, he wouldn't have jumped out at me. Again, I'm not saying that means anything. One game does not an evaluation make.
Another on that team who did stand out for me was Jordan Goodman, a 6-9 rising junior swingman. Goodman originally committed to Georgetown, but when Hoyas assistant coach David Cox left for Rutgers, Goodman switched his commitment to RU as well. Mike Rice is just getting settled in his new job, but the versatile, graceful Goodman is the kind of player who will be a big help in due time.
• On my final day in Vegas, I checked out the action at the other major tournament in town, the Fab 48. (What's with these names, by the way? Fab 48? Super 64? To quote my colleague Steve Rushin: Ah, alliteration. Always annoying.) There were two teams I was itching to see. The first was the Drew Gooden Soldiers, who ended up winning the tournament championship the next day. The biggest reason -- literally -- I wanted to watch this team was Brandon Ashley, a 6-9, 225-pound rising junior from Dublin, California. Ashley is ranked No. 5 in the Class of 2012 by Rivals.com and he definitely lived up to that hype. Ashley played hard every possession, defended the rim as well as the perimeter, and best of all, he posted up and finished with authority, despite his rather slender frame. Would like to see Isaiah Austin play up his size like that.
Another intriguing player on the Soldiers was Kyle Wiltjer, a baby-faced, 6-9 forward from Portland who is choosing between Kansas and Gonzaga, among others. Wiltjer is sneaky athletic, and from what I saw he can really stroke it. Rivals.com has him ranked 22nd in the senior class.
The featured performer on Seattle Rotary was, naturally, Tony Wroten, the 6-5 rising senior guard who is the center of yet another tug o' war between Washington and Kentucky. (Here's hoping this one has far less drama than the Terrence Jones soap opera.) Wroten's assets were obvious, but so were his flaws. He is a big, strong kid with incredible raw athleticism. He can get to the basket any time he wants, and on one sequence, when his teammate threw a low pass for an alley-oop, Wroten was still able to catch the ball on his way up and flush it with ease.
And yet, like most high school players, Wroten still has a lot of improving to do. He has no outside shot whatsoever, and he lacks the ability to finish with his right hand, even on a simple, wide-open layup. This might barely merit a mention aside from the fact that Wroten wrote on his Twitter feed over the weekend that if he wasn't ranked No. 1 in his class, then there shouldn't be any rankings. I understand writers and fans like to pay attention to the rankings -- I certainly mentioned them enough in this column -- but when players pay too much attention to them, to me it's a bad portent, IMHO.
Moving forward, my advice to Wroten and all the high school players who competed in Las Vegas and other locales this month, is to go home, get some rest and don't touch a basketball for a week or two, maybe more. Then they should find an empty gym, work on their games and stop worrying what recruiting experts or amateurs like me think. It wouldn't hurt to hit the books as well. The month of July is a lot of fun, but it's almost over now, and I'm sure a lot of players and college coaches around the country are plenty happy about that.