CHICAGO – Last August, when Dariq Whitehead announced his commitment to Duke, he did so operating under the mindset that he’d play a key role in what he believes can be Jon Scheyer’s storybook run to the Final Four in his first year.
Nick Smith Jr. had similar plans when he decided to stay home and play for Arkansas and Gradey Dick is confident that he and the rest of Kansas’ loaded 2022 class can get it done against next season.
Lofty goals when you consider the madness that is March, but that trio, along with a handful of other SI99 stars, displayed the full range of their skill sets over the last four days, as well as in Tuesday’s game giving fans a preview of things to come.
Whitehead took home MVP honors, scoring 13 points and handing out seven assists to lead the East past the West, 105-81.
“It felt great being able to play among the best in the country,” Whitehead said. “Being able to come together this weekend and bond was special. I wanted to show the Duke fans that I’m a player that will do whatever it takes to win.”
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Arkansas coach Eric Musselman could’ve used Smith’s firepower last weekend in the Elite 8 loss to Duke when the Hogs shot just 30% for the game.
One of the reasons Smith has been the most popular player over the last four days among NBA personnel is because of his all-around dominance in the uber-competitive practices.
At 6’4”, Smith is long and wiry and uses that length masterfully to his advantage, stretching out on drives for high percentage finishes and shooting over the top of smaller guards after separating with crafty ball handling combos. He brings the same intensity on the defensive end, pressing up on guards and beating them to their spots on the floor.
Smith was the best player in both practices and seemed to subconsciously garner respect from his peers as such. Expect him to challenge for the No. 1 spot when the updated SI99 basketball rankings drop next month.
Smith along with his future teammate Anthony Black will give the Razorbacks a potent duo in the backcourt from day one. Their chemistry has been apparent all week finding each other consistently as they learn the other’s tendencies.
Both Black and Smith are high IQ stars who think the game three plays ahead and have the ability to impact the game in multiple ways.
Dereck Lively posted 10 points, four rebounds and three blocks for the East.
The 7’1” center will step in right away and give Duke another shot eraser with the probable loss of Mark Williams to the NBA.
Lively said his No. 1 goal coming into the game was to prove to everyone he wasn’t satisfied with being No. 1 in the SI99, and from rebound positioning to blocking and changing shots he displayed a relentless work ethic to make good on that mission.
Lively and Whitehead’s future teammate Mark Mitchell showed his all-around game, scoring 19 points for the West.
All three proved to be fully capable of stepping in from day one in Durham, a good sign with the Blue Devils’ likely mass NBA exodus after the season.
Villanova signee Cam Whitmore continued his strong week at McDonald’s, capping off two strong practices with a 19-point effort for the East.
Whitmore will organically fit into Jay Wright’s system as a do-it-all athlete who scores in a variety of different ways and defends all five positions.
Also, Baylor signee Keyonte George showed flashes throughout the practices and added 13 points for the West. George has had one of the most dominant high school seasons this year and fits the mold of a Scott Drew point guard; strong and scrappy who can knock down shots and score in bunches.
In the end, the general consensus among the players was that they were happy to compete in the games after a COVID-induced two-year hiatus.
“Not having the games the last two years, it was an honor to be able get back on the court for the McDonald’s games,” Mitchell said. “I think we were all just happy to be here. We got to compete. That’s all we want.”