No-post era? Not for college team that lands prospect Diamond Stone
The following clip is from April's national championship game between Connecticut and Kentucky. It consists of one possession, which did not appear in highlight packages. It is not exciting. No one scores any points. I'm still requesting that you watch it.
Done? Congratulations! You've viewed the entirety of UConn's back-to-the-basket post possessions in the national title game: One left-block feed to 6-foot-9 forward DeAndre Daniels, who was trying to exploit a mismatch after James Young, a 6-6 guard for the Wildcats, switched onto him around the 13:00 mark of the second half. Daniels spun baseline, then dished to Phil Nolan, whose dunk attempt was blocked from behind by UK forward Julius Randle.
The Huskies scored zero post-up points against Kentucky. This was remarkable but not out of character for UConn. Just five percent of its possessions all season came on post-ups, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Its two young big men, Nolan, a sophomore, and Amida Brimah, a freshman, lacked developed post repertoires, and Daniels was more of a spot-up shooter/pick-and-pop artist. Regardless of the defensive alignment -- UK's man-zone split in that game was roughly 75/25 -- the Huskies' advantage was always the freelancing ability of barely guardable guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, and they dominated the ball against the Wildcats.
The obvious lesson to be gleaned from UConn was that great backcourt play trumps everything else in the NCAA tournament. There's truth in that. But as college hoops keeps trending away from low-block play -- go back to, say, the Fab Five's final against Duke in 1992 and you'll see constant back-to-the-basket maneuvering -- I wonder if the Huskies' most lasting statement in 2013-14 should be something that went unnoticed in April: A team can cut down nets without any semblance of a post offense.
Three months and two days after winning that national title, UConn coach Kevin Ollie was at the Reebok Breakout camp in Philadelphia, on the opening night of the NCAA's summer recruiting period. He was at Philadelphia University primarily to watch the No. 1-ranked post prospect in the high-school class of 2015, Diamond Stone, a behemoth from Milwaukee who stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-3 wingspan. Just because your college team didn't have post offense doesn't mean it doesn't want post offense.
And Ollie was hardly the lone coach tracking Stone. John Calipari was front and center in the stands for Kentucky; Bo Ryan and assistant Lamont Paris were representing Wisconsin; Kansas, UCLA, Arizona and Georgetown all had assistants there, too. The word I kept hearing about Stone, prior to seeing him, was "skilled" -- that he's the opposite of a project big man.
"He's probably the best high-school post scorer we've seen since DeMarcus Cousins," said Evan Daniels of Scout.com, which has Stone ranked as the No. 1 overall player in the 2015 class. "He's just polished on the offensive end. He's not physically dominant yet, but he has terrific hands, great touch, he can hit hooks over both shoulders, he has counter moves, and he can step out and hit jump shots."
Daniels said that he had previously called Duke-bound center Jahlil Okafor, the top-ranked player in the high school class of 2014, the best post scorer since Cousins. But Daniels, who's been tracking Stone since his freshman year of high school, said that he'd begun to flash a more advanced -- albeit less bullish -- skill set than the soon-to-be-Blue Devil.
The Reebok camp was my first time seeing Stone, and it was somewhat of a bust. In his opening game, while guarded by 6-10 Skal Labissiere, a fellow five-star prospect, Stone scored in the post on two of the first three possessions and looked like the real deal. But he soon became ill from what he said was some bad pregame macaroni and cheese, and eventually left the court to go purge in the locker room. His scholarship offers were not at risk. Instant-impact post scorers are not exactly in abundance on the recruiting market, and even if they're one- or two-and-done players, they tend to have significant impact on their college teams.
A brief summary of "polished" five-star freshman bigs in the past five seasons: Cousins' absurd level of offensive production as a freshman helped Kentucky earn a No. 1 seed in '09-10; Jared Sullinger's low-block play made Ohio State a title contender in '10-11; Cody Zeller helped Indiana break through to the Sweet 16 in '11-12; Julius Randle's bullishness around the rim was a big reason UK reached the championship game in April; and Joel Embiid, who had been billed a project but in reality was highly skilled, helped Kansas win yet another Big 12 title in '13-14.
Yet in that same time period, there's been a drop-off in the frequency of overall post-up play in the NCAA tournament. An examination of every offensive possession logged by Synergy Sports Technology from the past five NCAA tournaments -- a sample of roughly 50,000 possessions -- reveals that post-ups accounted for 10.0% of offense in both 2010 and 2011, then 9.9% in 2012, before dropping off to 8.5% in 2013 and 8.8% in 2014. That may seem small, but it represents a decline of more than two post possessions per game, per team -- a noteworthy number.
There's no clear answer for why this is happening, although multiple coaches suggested to me the possibility of a trickle-down effect from the NBA, which has begun to fetishize the "stretch four" over the traditional power forward. The pros have also offered fewer classic, low-post centers for young players to emulate.
But it's promising, for the sake of Stone's future and his possible impact on the 2016 NCAA tournament, that his sense of who he is falls in line with scouts' evaluations. He's a low-post big with a skillset that includes the ability to properly frame an NBA comparison.
"I like DeMarcus Cousins, and I think I play just like him," Stone says. "Back to the basket, but with quickness, and lateral movement, and jumping. I think we're exactly alike. At least on the court. Not off the court."
Fans with knowledge of obscure college post players from the '70s -- there has to be someone out there, right? -- might compare Stone to a former All-Conference center from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. That would be his father, Bob Stone, who was 6-6 but crafty enough to score over either shoulder in the post, and later passed those skills on to his progeny.
Bob grew up in Flint, Mich., and began his college career in D-I at New Mexico, but he didn't take well to being hazed by upperclassmen teammates and got homesick for the Midwest. He said he left Albuquerque before playing a single game, and a relative in Wisconsin helped steer him to Whitewater, where Bob went on to have a decorated career. He chose to stay in Wisconsin and take a job with General Motors in Janesville after college, and moved to Milwaukee after meeting his wife, Cynthia Oliver-Stone, a former college volleyball player at Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Their daughter, Endia Oliver, went on to play volleyball at Tennessee State, and when their son was born, in February 1997, Bob insisted on naming him Diamond. "It just flowed, man," Bob said. "Diamond Stone is a great name."
Bob was a big fan of jazz fusion -- particularly the '70s German band Passport, with Klaus Doldinger -- and he tried to diversify Diamond's early interests. He had his own drum set, and learned to play and read music, and he also studied Taekowndo. Both ended up inadvertently helping his basketball game. "You've gotta play drums with both feet and both hands, so that was great for Diamond's coordination," Bob said. "And the Taekwondo" -- even though he stopped at brown belt -- "was good for balance and footwork. He had to learn to kick with both legs and hit with both hands."
By the time Stone entered Milwaukee's Dominican High School, where he began specializing in basketball, he was a center with soft hands, fluid feet and good instincts. He appeared in SI's Faces in the Crowd as a freshman after blocking 14 shots in a varsity state-tournament game. He was one of the youngest players invited to LeBron James' Skills Academy the following summer. He found a strength trainer and a skills trainer and Bob became an assistant coach for his Under Armour-sponsored AAU team, the Young Legends.
The Stones will soon get serious about Diamond's recruitment. He has scores of scholarship offers and no narrowed-down list, but said he wants to commit to a school on signing day in November on ESPN. On the homefront, Wisconsin remains in the mix for the state's biggest prospect of the entire recruiting-rankings era.
Stone is related to former Badger forward Ryan Evans, and Bob has known coach Bo Ryan for four decades; they first encountered each other while Bob was playing for Whitewater and Ryan was an assistant coach at Dominican College of Racine. Stone may represent Ryan's best-ever shot at a one-and-done player.
Working against the Badgers is that location doesn't seem to matter to Stone -- "My parents will move to whatever school that I go to," he said -- and he might be involved in a package deal with a prospect that Wisconsin isn't recruiting: five-star shooting guard Malik Newman from Jackson, Miss. He and Stone have been close friends since playing together in USA Basketball's development program, and they want to team up in college, as long as the situation is right.
"If it happens, it happens," Bob said of the package deal. "But I’m sure that Malik's dad is not going to go to a Plan B just so they can play with Diamond, just like we're not going to a Plan B so we can play with Malik. It has to be mutually beneficial."
UConn, Kentucky and Kansas aren't the only other schools in the hunt, but they're thought to be the ones most aggressively recruiting Stone and Newman as a package. Stone has taken an unofficial visit to Storrs, Conn., and Ollie has done an in-home visit with him in Milwaukee. The Huskies are serious contenders. Stone watched their run to the national title and was undaunted by their style of play. He seems to recognize that he's big enough to bend any offensive scheme -- even in this no-post era -- back in his direction.
"Everything in college now is jump shots," Stone said. "But to be a difference-maker, I have to get inside."