We previewed the Champions Classic last week, hyping it up with the enthusiasm of a young Flavor Flav, and wouldn't you know it, all four teams more or less delivered the goods. Isn't it great when that happens, when a sporting event actually lives up to a ton of hype?
What we saw on Tuesday night at the United Center was two terrific college basketball games. In fact, so terrific that for this week's version of the prospect watch, all I'm going to write about is what happened on Tuesday night in Chicago. Sorry, Aaron Gordon. Next week, pal.
Amongst others, Levin wrote about the so-called Big Three*: Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, and Jabari Parker. In their first major college basketball games, all three players were excellent despite dealing with adversity.
*They are literally very three tall teenagers. Oh, and extremely random thought: While they were all in Chicago, couldn't they have recreated the bicycle scenes from the "Family Matters" opening credits? Randle sure would make a great Carl. College is all about the experience, right? Oh well, maybe at the combine.
In the first game, Randle struggled with space as Michigan State threw multiple bodies at him all night. Sparty forced eight turnovers from the six-foot-nine man-child, and still felt lucky to get out of there with a win. Randle put up an efficient 27 points and bullied his way to 13 rebounds, carrying himself like a mean Buddy the Elf against the Spartans' tough and experienced frontline.
No play captured Randle's potential to flat-out dominate more than his last bucket of the game. Down four points with a minute left, he corralled a horrendous entry pass on the right baseline ten feet from the hoop. Randle put his right shoulder down, took two hard dribbles, elevated over THREE defenders, and flicked in a baby hook from about four feet.
Of the three, Parker probably faced the least amount of adversity. In his first two college games, the Chicago native has displayed an insanely advanced understanding of how to play offense. I keep coming back to "Unselfish Carmelo," and it's a pretty scary thought. He seems to consistently see the play unfolding a couple of seconds in advance.
Ironically, the least athletic of the three heralded freshman was the one that made the two biggest highlight reel plays. Parker put most of the athleticism questions (at least offensively) to bed on his dipsy-doo coast to coast drive and emphatic one-handed alley-oop finish.
Wiggins shrugged off a quiet and foul-ridden first half and became the best player on the floor during crunch time, basically matching Parker's per-minute stats. While not as polished as Parker offensively (who is?), the Canada native has a combination of elite quickness and length that translates to both ends of the floor.
At least to my eyes, Wiggins' shooting stroke and offensive moves, while still a bit raw, are far more effective than he's given credit for. The step-back jumper he knocked down with over a minute left was a thing of beauty.
They're all pretty damn good, and yet they're all going to get picked apart like crazy over the next couple of months. Draft boards are going to change with every blocked shot, airballed three, turnover, etc. It's a bit unfortunate that we can't simply appreciate these three guys for a longer period of time, but it's also the nature of the beast. In this space, I'll give them one week without criticism.
Here are the rest of my impressions on players that participated in the Champions Classic, many of whom I was getting a first extended look at against high-level competition.
Andrew Harrison: Shot the ball pretty well, but largely struggled running the talented Wildcats. Many of his mistakes seemed to be mental, with Harrison unsure of how to exactly pick his spots. As many draft experts are quick to point out, John Calipari's freshman point guards have traditionally struggled early, including Derrick Rose. One thing I'd like to see from Harrison a willingness to shoot threes when the defense is giving him that open shot.
James Young: Beautiful lefty three-point stroke, and smooth all-around offensive game were on display. Offensively, it seems that like Parker, Young can score at all three levels of the defense (three-point line, mid-range, at the rim), albeit in a secondary role. Defense is an area I'm intrigued to learn more about Young.
Willie Cauley-Stein: Solid, but didn't really stand out either. I can't really add much to last year's scouting report from this game.
Aaron Harrison: From everything that's been written about him, Aaron's major strength is his deep three-point range. It might've just been an off night, but his lack of shooting proved killer at times for the cramped Wildcats offense. He needs to at least be Doron Lamb (college version) for this team to run at peak efficiency.
Alex Poythress: After a disappointing freshman season where he showed plenty of explosive flashes, Poythress is now coming off the bench for a loaded team. He's not the go-to guy anymore, but his activeness on the offensive glass last night was impressive. I don't think this game told us anything new about him, but I like the idea of him as a role player. He has a chance to thrive as a sixth man.
Dakari Johnson: Have to be honest, didn't learn a thing about this guy. All I remember is one nice stick-back and a bunch of fouls.
Gary Harris: Really impressive game. Offensively, he showed the ability to thrive in multiple areas like transition, pick and roll, and curling off screens. These are all skills that are ultra-useful for starting NBA shooting guards. Did some nice things defensively, too.
Adreian Payne: Showed a nice touch from the outside, and helped force some of Randle's struggles in the first half. Still not completely sure what to make of this guy.
Joel Embiid: Came as advertised, but also not as advertised. Embiid is a big, strong and athletic kid that struggled around the basket, but he also made three amazing passes that directly led to Kansas' buckets. Defensively, he did some good stuff around the rim, which is important. Positive defensive strides will make NBA scouts much more patient with his offensive game.
Wayne Selden: Really solid all-around game where his scoring, rebounding and passing skills were all evident. Selden, physically mature and with a deceptively decent feel for the game, makes for a nice fit next to Wiggins. As of today, he looks like a late lottery pick.
Rodney Hood: Didn't quite show the brilliance on display against Davidson in the opener (22 points, 9-10 shooting) as he struggled with turnovers. The ultra-smooth wing showed some playmaking chops though, with five assists.
Rasheed Sulaimon: Not a lot new to see here. Excellent team player with a plus shooting stroke who I believe at least projects to be a decent combo guard off the bench. Sulaimon played pretty well, but as a sophomore, he should play pretty well. It will be interesting to see if he can expand his role within the offense even with the additions of ball-dominant players like Parker and Hood.