In the first two installments of this series, we focused on the Champions Classic and all of the talent on display last Tuesday night in Chicago. One week later, two more potential lottery picks were notably putting their games on display.
Marcus Smart went absolutely berserk last night. His "12 points in 71 seconds" scoring barrage was probably the highlight of the early college hoops season. After an underwhelming first three games (at least statistically, I can't confess to watching much Mississippi Valley State, Utah Valley and Arkansas-Pine Bluff), the sophomore guard exploded for an efficient 39 points in a 101-80 drubbing of 11th-ranked Memphis.
Last year, Smart's major weakness was his three-point shooting, as he knocked down only 29 percent from distance (Sound familiar? MCW shot the same percentage). Against Memphis, he shot 5-10 from deep and looked damn good doing it. These were not easy looks, folks. Whether they were off the dribble or coming off of screens, Smart did a great job quickly squaring up and shooting relatively on-balance, especially considering he was running 100 miles-per-hour before most of them. Keeping your fundamentals straight isn't necessarily easy in such an up-and-down contest.
Projecting ahead, Smart seems to score well as a prospect in the intangibles and defensive departments. Simply enough, my main question about Smart as a prospect has to do with whether he can efficiently run a team in the half-court, Point Guard 101-type stuff. One night of hot shooting won't quell those concerns, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.
In Arizona, Aaron Gordon had a so-so night against Rhode Island, part of what has been far from a so-so start to his freshman season. In my opinion, he's definitely earned the right to be discussed in the same conversations as Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and Andrew Wiggins. D'artagnan-style, Gordon is "The Fourth Freshman."
Thus far, there aren't a ton of specific elements of Gordon's game to analyze. He's a little bit reminiscent of Blake Griffin in how they both get points by being ultra-athletic and playing really hard. Gordon is also a relentless rebounder.
Like Smart, the six-foot-nine forward has impressed by making threes. He's shooting 50 percent on a little less than two attempts per game, and while that won't continue, it's a positive development to see Gordon already make incremental improvements in his skill level. His draft stock is still very high.
Big Three Update (in alphabetical order)
Jabari Parker: 21 and 10 on 13 shots against Florida Atlantic. 21 and 10 on 13 shots against UNC-Asheville. Ho hum. Then he struggled a little bit against East Carolina with 21 and 9 on 18 shots, but he had six blocks. And he did this. So yeah, Parker is still very good.
Julius Randle: 10 and 15 against Robert Morris. 22 and 10 against Texas-Arlington. Of the top three prospects, I'm least interested in watching Randle against lesser competition. He's at such an overwhelming physical advantage down low against these teams. But yeah, Randle is still very good in case you were wondering.
Andrew Wiggins: Let me say one thing first: Thank God the horrible haircut is gone. Now we can just focus on basketball.
There was only one game for Wiggins and Kansas this week, against Iona last night. He had 13 and 7 on 9 shots, with three assists and no turnovers. I particularly liked how he made a concerted effort to get Kansas' bigs, Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis, involved against Iona's smaller frontcourt when the Gaels played zone. He's also still very good.
International Watch: What's Dante Exum up to?
Out of the top-tier prospects projected to enter next year's draft, the ones whose last names cause fans of lower-rung NBA franchises to salivate, Dante Exum is the least known commodity. More specifically, he will be the least known commodity when draft day rolls around.
As basketball countries go, Australia is fairly isolated. The national team, known as the Boomers, plays in FIBA Oceania, which is basically just comprised of themselves and New Zealand (Sean Marks and Kirk Penney REPRESENT).
Despite producing some very good players - Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills first come to mind - the elite Aussies traditionally aren't introduced into the American basketball fan's consciousness until they reach the college ranks. For example, St. Mary's has built a successful program largely on the foundation of, at least to the U.S. audience, previously unknown Australians.
Exum is a different caliber player. It's probably safe to say that he's regarded as the best Aussie prospect since Bogut. A velvety smooth 6-foot-6 combo guard, he showed very strongly at two of last year's major international events: The Nike Hoop Summit (16 points on 6-8 shooting, 7 rebounds, 2 assists) and FIBA U-19 World Championships (18.2 points on 44.6% shooting, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists) where he led an undermanned Boomers squad to a fourth-place finish.
So what the hell is he up to now? Well, currently he's finishing up high school because everything is upside-down in Australia. Besides that, as boring as it sounds, he's working on his game.
Per Chad Ford's latest chat, Exum and his family are strongly leaning towards entering this June's draft, which was a subject of some debate. Originally, he had indicated that playing in college next season was something that he'd like to do. In that scenario, Exum would be set up to declare for the draft in 2015.
Let's say that Ford's sources are correct and Exum will be a member of this loaded draft class. How his unusual situation, the fact that he's practicing in empty gyms in Australia while all of the other top prospects are subject to national scrutiny on a game-by-game basis, ultimately affects Exum's draft would be a fascinating subplot.
As far the Sixers are concerned, Exum is an interesting case. Taking the best player available when the stakes are that high is pretty much a given, but if Michael Carter-Williams plays at a level suggesting the Sixers are set at the point guard position for the future, Exum might be considered a luxury. Maybe MCW takes a huge step back from his hot start or maybe they can play together in the backcourt and win nine straight titles. I don't know and even if I did, it's not worth getting into yet. At first glance though, they do look to have somewhat similar skillsets.
Brett Brown's strong ties to Australian basketball add a little intrigue to the situation and it's also worth noting that his admiration of Exum's current home, the Australian Institute of Sport, is well documented. It's not like Sam Hinkie and the whole organization won't do their due diligence on any prospect, but they'll definitely take a good, long look at the Aussie phenom.
Right now, Exum is basically cryogenically frozen Austin Powers. As much as decision makers and scouts have seen him play in the past and like his skillset, there's still going to be somewhat of an unknown compared to the other top-tier players. With the difference separating these top prospects shaping up to be razor thin, Exum's lack of college experience is an unwelcome variable for NBA general managers.