NEWSFLASH: A loathsome fan’s trashy, ill-advised toss of literal trash in the direction of LeBron James Jr. was not actually the most important thing that happened at this year’s Hoophall Classic, which is arguably high school basketball’s premier annual showcase, and inarguably the only reason to pack your bags for Springfield, Mass., with flash snowstorms on the radar. Throngs of fans proved that statement to be true this year, with the long-running event selling out on three different days for the first time ever. Many of then were there for James, a freshman who comes off the bench for Sierra Canyon, and his famous father dropping in on Monday did nothing to distill a generally unreasonable amount of hype—so much that this disclaimer felt useful.
With that out of the way, for the uninitiated, the Hoophall gathers an impressive who’s who of promising prospects each year, some of whom go on to noteworthy NBA careers. It’s effectively a one-stop snapshot of where American basketball is heading, and it’s an event this writer has made a point of attending each of the past five years. It’s also a handy jumping off point to begin discussing the following year’s draft in earnest—in this instance, a promising 2020 high school class that will be eligible to join the NBA ranks sooner than you think. And thankfully, in the context of a bland 2020 draft class, the 2021 draft has become worthy of legitimate, immediate interest, despite being approximately 17 months away. So it’s not absurdly early to start thinking about this. The prospect of a class that’s not only deeper at the very top, but boasts more depth and quality down the board, is substantial enough to influence how teams view the worth of their picks going into the trade deadline.
To put things into perspective, there could be as many as four players eligible for next year’s draft that you can currently make a case for as the No. 1 pick in 2020. Three of them—Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley—took the floor in Springfield. The fourth, Jonathan Kuminga, was in attendance but sat out with a minor ankle injury. High school games aren’t always the best place to form a first impression of a player, but January always offers a useful midseason checkpoint on players we’ve taken time to evaluate extensively in live settings over the past year or so. This is where the major players and storylines stand, and what we learned this weekend.
1. Cade Cunningham has distanced himself from the field as the top prospect.
The Oklahoma State–bound guard has yet to ascend to the No. 1 spot on most national recruiting sites, but it feels like a matter of time at this point, both from a talent and a body-of-work standpoint. The growing sense I get is that a majority of NBA evaluators view him as the early front-runner for the No. 1 pick in 2021, based on word of mouth as well as the limited glimpses teams have had. There are not many legitimate 6’7” point guards, and most of them don’t possess Cunningham’s special feel for playmaking and facilitating winning basketball. The Dallas native is now piloting what many have come to regard as the best high school team in recent memory at Montverde Academy, a status that was further solidified with a 76-64 win over talent-rich rival IMG Academy on Sunday night. Undefeated Montverde throttles regular high school teams, and even against a group with legitimate NBA size all over the frontcourt, they had little issue getting it done.
We’ve seen many stacked high school teams laden with D-I talent over the years, but this particular Montverde team stands out not only with its talent, but with its cohesion. The transcendence of this particular group should be noted. Much of that stems from Cunningham, who is one of the best leaders I’ve seen at this level and who competes ruthlessly without coming off as arrogant. Cunningham’s end-to-end domination of IMG’s Jaden Springer was extremely impressive even by his standards, and his ability to impact winning while hardly ever attempting an unnecessary shot is truly unusual. After watching him do it over and over again, it’s apparent his sorcery goes beyond the box score. I’ve written this before, but in terms of well-rounded skill set and winning approach, Cunningham is the American development system’s best answer to Luka Dončić, a comparison that feels much loftier in wake of the latter’s rapid emergence as one of the NBA’s best players.
With that in mind, Cunningham is coming along as a potential franchise building block in an era when teams are much more comfortable constructing their offenses around high-usage, oversized playmakers. He’s unique in that he supplies positionless versatility on both ends of the floor: He can lead an efficient offense without being overly ball-dominant, and he can keep up with guards and wings defensively using his size. The primary concerns with him seem nitpicky—he does still sometimes struggle to attack deep into the paint and finish around the rim, and his three-point shooting has improved and can still get better. Cunningham’s ceiling sits sky-high not necessarily in the traditional athletic sense, but more so steeped in the potential that his teams might win big on a regular basis. That quality is exceptionally rare, and his arrival will make Oklahoma State nationally relevant right away this fall. This is one that nobody should overthink.
2. Jalen Green continues turning a corner
The primary critique some held with Green coming into this season was surrounding consistency, not only in terms of results, but approach. Prolific Prep’s 6’5” guard has long flashed star-caliber ability and boasts every physical tool you could ask for in a perimeter scorer. The consensus among recruiting experts seems to be that his switch has been flipped on far more regularly all season, and it’s translated into results each time I’ve seen him live. Green poured in 26 points on 11 field goal attempts in Prolific’s win over La Lumiere on Saturday, stepping up big by nailing three threes and making all eight of his free throws in the second half.
When Green’s jumper is falling, he’s arguably the toughest one-on-one cover in high school basketball, and while there’s an extremely high efficiency bar to clear for scoring-oriented wings to be star-caliber NBA players, Green has the gifts to work his way to that level if all goes well. He’s also a capable playmaker and defender, and his all-around contributions have been much more noticeable of late. His athletic gifts are functional and impressive when he’s locked in. While Green can still be somewhat brash to the point where it can borders on conceit, it’s getting harder and harder to poke holes in his skill set, and he’s developed an alpha mentality and backed it up with his play. It’s hard to be overly critical based on the results he’s getting.
There had been ongoing speculation that Green might be the next American prep star to forgo college and turn pro in Australia for a year, following in the footsteps of R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, but Green appeared to put that to rest over the weekend. “That is not an option,” he said Saturday. “I’m considering college only.” The buzz around the industry for the last couple of months has been that Memphis sits as the clear favorite, with assistant coach Mike Miller and Green having developed a strong relationship. The Tigers certainly need him to help generate offense, with projected first-round pick Precious Achiuwa all but a lock to turn pro. Wherever he ends up, Green will project as a top-five pick entering next season, and if he continues on his current path, his potential will be extremely enticing atop the lottery.
3. Should we be concerned about Evan Mobley?
The USC-bound big man entered the season as the consensus No. 1 prospect according to all three of ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports, and he belongs near the very top of the 2020 class. But his current trajectory is at least somewhat concerning, particularly as Cunningham and Green have elevated their games. Mobley has long been dominant at the high school level, standing 6’10” with freakish length and the ability to dictate play around the rim on both ends. But progression is never linear, and there are a few items of note when it comes to his specific situation, called to light after a pair of so-so performances as Rancho Christian lost both of its games over the weekend, falling to two East coast teams in Camden (N.J.) and Washington, D.C., powerhouse DeMatha Catholic.
The common thread in those games was that both teams got physical with Mobley and reaped the benefits. Camden led by 12 at one point in the game, and Kentucky commit Lance Ware and his teammates helped make life tricky for Mobley, bumping and pushing him around the paint. Mobley is supremely long and springy, but his body hasn’t improved much over the past couple of years, and his lack of physical strength and heft makes it easy for opposing bigs to move him off his spot. He can use his length to create leverage, but when opponents get into him, it’s harder for him to move them back. That issue was even more pronounced as DeMatha and Michigan-bound big Hunter Dickinson got out to a 17-point lead in the first half and ended up leading that contest from rail to rail.
It’s tough to know exactly what to infer with confidence from these two games, but if this becomes a trend at the college level, Mobley’s place in the conversation as a top-three pick could be shaken somewhat. The weekend’s results called to light the long-held concerns surrounding his game, and perhaps exposed him a little bit. The fact that he’s been listed as a small forward on Rancho Christian’s roster all season perhaps points to the dissonance between his identity as a player and what his ideal NBA future is. Mobley is supremely skilled for his size and has all the tools to be a dominant rim protector and dynamic offensive big in the NBA, but he’s going to have to be willing to do the dirty work, too. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to address these concerns on the All-American circuit. But it’s possible he cedes the top spot in the rankings before season’s end, particularly with his peers pressing the issue.
4. The 2021 lottery might be the deepest in years
The trio of Cunningham, Green and Mobley should be supplemented by a host of one-and-done caliber prospects with real opportunities to carve out space atop the ’21 draft. The expectation remains that Jonathan Kuminga, now at the Patrick School in New Jersey, will reclassify up a year and finish as part of the 2020 class. Whether he attends college or potentially looks at pro opportunities remains to be seen, and he may end up playing grassroots ball over the summer before making his final decision. The Congo-born forward has improved at an impressive rate over the past 18 months and is talented enough to crack that aforementioned top three and challenge as a top pick. He’s that skilled, that powerful, and that good.
The dark horse in that conversation is Texas-based forward Greg Brown, who I checked in on last week in Austin and who has taken a massive leap forward in terms of skill level. Brown is far and away the most freakish athlete in high school basketball, and that’s been the case for some time, but he’s begun a full-time transition to small forward and has been tasked with handling the ball and making plays for his Vandegrift team. While Brown plays a local schedule and hasn’t faced a particularly high level of competition as a result, a lot of what he’s been able to add to his game, particularly, his pull-up shooting, looks translatable. He naturally impacts the game all over the floor with his athleticism, but there’s another level of potential here if he continues to make progress. He remains uncommitted, with the thought being that Texas and Memphis are the two teams with the best chance to land him. It’ll be curious to see whether his college team allows him to operate on the perimeter. It’s an extremely worthwhile experiment.
Also in action this weekend were Sierra Canyon wings Ziaire Williams and B.J. Boston, both of whom are viewed as potential lottery picks and bring a good deal of size and skill to the table. Boston is headed to Kentucky and has become a workmanlike scorer. Williams remains uncommitted, and the way he glides around the floor and can handle and pass at his size point to NBA potential. Scottie Barnes, Cunningham’s teammate at Montverde, will play for Florida State next year and has turned himself into a reasonable Draymond Green facsimile, from the all-around contributions to the shaky jump shot. Next season is shaping up to be a much more intriguing year of college hoops from a pro perspective. Also keep a close eye on UCLA-bound point guard Daishen Nix.
5. Makur Maker continues to slip out of the 2020 draft picture
This is more of a short-term note, but Maker was in action for Hillcrest Prep, where he transferred in December, and was not overly impressive, in keeping with the tenor of his season. I watched him audition for a number of NBA teams at the Tarkanian Classic in Vegas last month, and Maker had some serious struggles. The change of scenery (and downgrade from the prep level) has helped him a bit in terms of production and a more palatable role on his team. But Hillcrest was embarrassed 91-48 by Sunrise Christian, Michael Foster was the only productive player on the team, and game was dominated by Sunrise junior Zachary Clemence, who looked like one of the more promising long-term prospects in the field. It’s unclear whether Maker will even be eligible for the 2020 draft, but it’s possible he may have to take a different route next year, be it college or professional. Maker was ranked No. 33 on our November Big Board and held a level of prestige as a top-10 prospect in the 2020 class, but it’s becoming clear that both rankings were lofty.