Derrick Jones, Deryl Bagwell

Seven Takeaways from Pittsburgh Jam Fest

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PITTBURGH, Pa. — There was only one live period in the spring this year, making last weekend all the more important for college coaches and the recruits that want to play for them. Here are seven takeaways from a weekend at the Hoop Group’s Pittsburgh Jam Fest:

1. Athleticism gets you noticed, but it only gets you so far: Seventh Woods (No. 5 in Rivals’ Class of 2016) and Derrick Jones (No. 25 in Rivals’ Class of 2015) are two of the most explosive athletes that you’ll ever see at the high school level. Jones’ exploits in layup lines drew bigger crowds than any game this weekend. And Woods? Well, he’s this guy.

The problem comes when a player relies strictly on his athletic ability to get by. That works at a younger age against lesser competition, but as the competition gets better, simply running past or jumping over defenders isn’t as simple. That’s part of what frustrated people watching Woods and Jones this weekend. Woods is naturally a scoring guard. He’s at his best when he’s trying to beat people off the dribble, attacking the rim, drawing fouls. He needs to be aggressive to be effective, and he spent much of the weekend trying to prove that he’s a point guard by … playing passive? He settled for jumpers and opted to distribute the ball around the perimeter instead of trying to break down defenses, which wouldn’t have been a terrible thing if he didn’t turn the ball over so much or struggle with his perimeter shot.

I get it. He’s just a sophomore. It’s a learning process, and he’s still learning how to play a different role. He’s still got a ways to go.

As far as Jones is concerned, he’s a defensive playmaker and a threat on the offensive glass that hasn’t gotten much better offensively. He still needs to improve his handle. He still needs to add weight and strength. He’s still a liability as a jump shooter. His ceiling will land him at a marquee program, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s an impact player at the high-major level.

2. MJ Walker was the best prospect at Pitt Jam Fest: Want to know what kind of physical specimen Walker is? He’s still a freshman in high school (Class of 2017) and hasn’t played football since 2011, yet when word spread that he would be suiting up with his Jonesboro HS (Ga.) team next season, Clemson and Miami offered him scholarships sight unseen.

That’s not all. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard led his high school basketball team to the Georgia 4A state title this past season. His strength and athleticism are despite his age, and his game is more well-rounded that you would expect from a player that only completed his freshman season. He can handle the ball, he can attack the basket, he’s got range on his jumper, he’s willing to get after it defensively. And high majors are only now starting to take notice. Auburn is the only school that’s offered him, but Ohio State and Iowa State are starting to show serious interest.

Walker told NBCSports.com his goal for the summer is to get an invite to the U-16 Team USA event this summer.

3. New Heights’ Mike Nzei and Dupree McBrayer were the two best Class of 2014 players at the event: McBrayer was lights out over the course of the first two days. The 6-foot-3 lefty combo-guard showed off a knack for being able to get into the paint and knocked down perimeter jumpers more consistently than he has in the past, but he’s primarily a scorer that can spend too much time dominating the ball and strongly favors going left. McBrayer holds a number of low- to mid-major offers in the Class of 2014, but he told NBCSports.com that he’s going to prep school. He wants to go high-major, and even claimed an offer from Seton Hall.

“What I need to do is put on some strength and strength my right hand,” he said.

Nzei is an interesting prospect in that he’s an active and athletic 6-foot-8 forward that showed off a nice perimeter touch this weekend. He holds offers from Iowa and St. Joseph’s, among others.

4. Pitt is doing everything they can to keep Moustapha Heron’s commitment: Heron was arguably the MVP of the New Heights team that won the 17u title, which certainly made Pitt fans that were in attendance giddy. Heron, the No. 19 player in the Class of 2016, committed to the Panthers last fall. But there’s a catch: Heron was recruited by Barry ‘Slice’ Rohrssen, and Slice has since taken a job at Kentucky. Pitt had an assistant tailing him all weekend and came full staff on Sunday. “Family-wise, we had a real close tie to [Slice],” Heron told NBCSports.com. “Right now, we’re just working on building a good relationship with Coach Dixon.”

Heron is a powerful, 6-foot-5 guard that butters his bread attacking the rim off the dribble. He’ll need to develop his handle and his perimeter stroke for the next level.

5. Dewan Huell or Juwan Durham?: Team Breakdown’s 16s has the best kind of problem: two top 50 recruits in their front court. Juwan Durham is the more highly-regarded of the pair — he’s a bit taller and longer and more athletic — but Huell’s more physical and more aggressive around the rim. He outplayed another top 25 forward, Justin Jackson of Findlay Prep, on Sunday morning.

6. Keep an eye on Danjel Puriefoy: Tevin Mack was the best scorer in Pittsburgh this weekend — we wrote about him here — but Puriefoy might have been the best wing at the event. He’s 6-foot-7, powerful and athletic, making him tough to keep out of the paint, but he’s got a knack for being able to create offense for his teammates. He needs to add some range on his shot, but he reminded me a bit of Pitt’s Lamar Patterson, the senior season version.

7. Mike Watkins will be a player for Penn State: Watkins is still learning how to be a basketball player and not just an athlete, but his athleticism and effort level on the glass and the defensive end will make him a capable Big Ten post presence for four years. He’s currently ranked 123rd in the Class of 2015.

Villanova beats Duke, Kansas, Indiana for Jermaine Samuels

Atlanta, GA - MAY 27: Nike EYBL. Session 4. Jermaine Samuels, Jr. #23 of Expressions Elite dunks. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
Jon Lopez/Nike
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Villanova landed a commitment from top 50 prospect Jermaine Samuels on Saturday.

Samuels is a tough and athletic 6-foot-5 wing that will remind many Wildcat fans of Josh Hart. He’s got the same kind of versatility and nose for the ball that will let him guard perimeter players as well as work in as a small-ball four. Players like this are a specialty of Jay Wright.

Samuels picked up an offer from Duke recently and also had Indiana, Kansas and Georgetown in his top five. Beating out blue-bloods for a prospect like this is quite the statement for Villanova, one that should tell you the reigning national champs are here to stay as a national power.

Syracuse lands critical piece in Andrew White

LINCOLN, NE - FEBRUARY 3: Andrew White #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers shoots the ball over Rasheed Sulaimon #0 of the Maryland Terrapins during their game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on February 3, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Syracuse has found their replacement for Malachi Richardson.

On Sunday, Nebraska transfer Andrew White committed to the Orange, picking Syracuse, in the end, over VCU. White is a graduate transfer who spent last season with Nebraska, where he averaged 16.2 points while shooting 41.2 percent from three. A top 50 prospect out of Virginia back in the Class of 2012, White played a limited role for Kansas his first two seasons in college.

This is a significant pickup for the Orange, one that legitimately puts them into the conversation as a Final Four contender and a threat to finish at or near the top of the ACC. Jim Boeheim has put together a roster full of talented, long and athletic front court players, but after Richardson declared for the NBA Draft as a one-and-done freshman, he was left with just two back court players on his roster.

Earlier this offseason, Cuse landed Colorado State grad transfer John Gillon, a 6-foot-1 combo-guard, to reinforce their back court. The addition of White gives them a lights-out shooter and a big-time scorer on the wing, something that would have been a major void on their roster.

With Paschal Chukwu getting eligible at the center spot and Tyler Lydon likely landing on every breakout player list this preseason, the Orange should be a markedly better team than the one that made their way to the Final Four last season.

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (Jon Lopez/Nike)
(Jon Lopez/Nike)
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Arizona landed their first commitment in the Class of 2017 on Friday night as point guard Alex Barcello pledged to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.

Barcello is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Tempe who plays his high school ball for Corona del Sol. He committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to the Tucson campus.

Barcello is a borderline top 100 prospect who sits at No. 123 in the Rivals top 150. He’s known for his ability to shoot, and he’s more of a combo-guard — i.e. shoot-first — than a point guard at times, but he’s a nice pickup and projects as a solid four-year player for the Wildcats.

Virginia, Indiana, Stanford and Butler were the other four schools on Barcello’s list.

Duke lands first commitment in 2017 class

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Alex O’Connell knew exactly where he wanted to play his college ball, which is why, just two days after picking up an offer from Coach K and the Blue Devils, he became Duke’s first recruit in the Class of 2017.

O’Connell announced the on twitter on Friday afternoon:

O’Connell is a four-star prospect from Georgia that had a terrific summer, going from being a borderline top 75 prospect to a player that caught the interest of Duke, who, along with Kentucky, sit atop the college recruiting hierarchy. He’s an explosively athletic and lanky 6-foot-6 wing with three-point range on his jumper. He needs to add some weight and some strength — he’s listed as a crisp 175 pounds — but he has the tools, and the swagger, to develop into a very effective player in the ACC.

Is he a one-and-done prospect?

Probably not. In fact, since 2010, Duke has landed just two players that were rated lower than O’Connell: Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White. If you know who both of them are, you’re probably either Jon Scheyer or lying.

But what O’Connell is is a kid who put in the work to get better this past year and who has the skill set, the physical tools and work ethic to continue to improve. He may not be on Grayson Allen’s trajectory, but O’Connell has the makings of being an impact player for the Blue Devils for three or four years.

Alex O'Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Alex O’Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Shaka Smart lands contract extension at Texas

Texas head coach Shaka Smart instructs his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Shaka Smart has already landed himself a contract extension at Texas.

The school, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has given Shaka a one-year extension — through the 2022-23 season — and bumped his salary up to a cool $3 million, a raise of $100,000 annually.

Smart’s Longhorns went 20-13 last season and lost on a half court buzzer beater from Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen. It will be tough for Smart to match the success that he had last season, specifically because he lost senior point guard Isaiah Taylor to the professional ranks.

That said, the former VCU head man has been reeling in quite a bit of talent from the state of Texas — namely, Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen — and is not all that far from turning the Longhorns back into a relevant member of the Big 12 title race.