Seven takeaways from the LeBron James Skills Academy

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The first of July’s three live periods ended at 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Each of our writers were at an event last week, and each will be giving you seven takeaways from those events. 

One of the showcase events of the first open weekend in July was the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Sure the free agent status of the event’s namesake hung over the proceedings, but the camp was an important one for some of the nation’s best players at both the college and high school levels. There aren’t many camps with both sets of players in attendance going through workouts (during separate sessions), which makes this event unique compared to others held in July.

With college coaches in town to not only check out recruits but also (in some cases) check in on their current players and NBA scouts having the opportunity to watch both sets of players, all involved had the opportunity to improve their standing with those decision-makers. Here are seven thoughts on the action from Las Vegas.

MOREAll our content from the 2014 July Live Recruiting Period

1) Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker is poised to have a big junior season.

Dekker enjoyed a solid sophomore season, posting averages of 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for a team that was an Aaron Harrison three-pointer away from playing for the national title. That’s served as a catalyst for the 6-foot-9 forward (he’s grown two inches, and is working to be a more physical player), who displayed an improved floor game and more assertiveness in Las Vegas.

Dekker scored from anywhere on the floor during the camp, knocking down perimeter shots at a solid clip, and was also good on the defensive end. From a jump-shooting standpoint it was good to see Dekker knock down those looks consistently, as his three-point percentage dipped more than six percentage points from his freshman (39.1%) to sophomore (32.6%) year. That area will be key for Wisconsin as they look to make another deep run into the NCAA tournament and account for the graduation of Ben Brust.

2) Based upon the talent in Las Vegas, the Big 12 is going to be incredibly fun to watch in 2014-15.

That statement won’t come as a surprise, based upon how competitive the league was last season with Kansas winning the regular season title and Iowa State taking the tournament crown. And while the Jayhawks have won at least a share of the last ten regular season titles, players representing other programs in Las Vegas have no plans of conceding anything in 2014-15. While Kansas’ Perry Ellis put together a very good week at the camp the same can be said of Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, who also made some waves by stating that the Sooners are going to win the Big 12 this year.

Iowa State’s Georges Niang, having lost 25 pounds since the end of the season, looked more mobile on the court and that’s a good sign given the broken foot that ended his season. Add in the likes of Kansas State’s Marcus Foster (who expects to have more opportunities as a primary ball-handler in 2014-15), Texas’ Isaiah Taylor and West Virginia’s Juwan Staten and there’s a lot of returning talent to like in the Big 12.

3) Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Kansas’ Kelly Oubre are ready to produce immediately on the offensive end.

Johnson and Oubre were the lone freshmen playing amongst the college players, and their abilities on the offensive end are what stood out. Johnson proved to be a difficult matchup at the camp, especially when it came to his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim through contact. As for Oubre, he was very good at slashing to the basket and finding solid looks himself. While there’s still work to be done for both players, they have the tools needed to be primary scoring options in their respective systems.

4) Ted Kapita likely did more to help his status within the 2015 class than any other prospect at the camp.

Kapita entered the week rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports and a four-star according to Rivals. And in the aftermath of his performance in Las Vegas, Kapita is now deemed to be a five-star player by 247Sports. Kapita ran the floor well, was active in the paint on both ends and remained engaged throughout the week. That last bit can be difficult for some young players (as evidenced by the decision to cancel Friday’s night session with fatigue being one reason; there were legitimate injuries to consider as well), especially when taking on-court communication into consideration, but this wasn’t a problem for Kapita. He’s definitely a name to keep an eye on as the month progresses.

5) Ivan Rabb and Cheick Diallo led the way in the post amongst uncommitted big men at the event.

Of course the likes of Bryant, Kapita and Caleb Swanigan were also in attendance, but Rabb and Diallo were both very good at the camp. Rabb’s skill set on the block made him a very tough matchup for most of the players he went up against, and he also showed himself to be an adept shot blocker and rebounder outside of his area. As for Diallo, while there are still strides to be made offensively he played incredibly hard and was a presence in the paint on both ends.

6) The camp provided further evidence to the fact that LSU landed a stud in Ben Simmons. 

Simmons is rated by multiple scouting services as the top player in the Class of 2015, and he did nothing to dispel that notion in Las Vegas. Simmons displayed the ability to score from anywhere on the floor, making him an incredibly difficult matchup throughout the week. He’s a player who at the next level has the skills needed to be a “mismatch” that LSU head coach Johnny Jones can plug into either forward slot, taking smaller defenders into the paint and bigger defenders out onto the perimeter.

7) Jayson Tatum is an incredibly smooth wing, and the race for him will continue to be fierce. 

Tatum’s rated as one of the best players in the 2016 class (and tops in the eyes of some), and the reasons why were on display in Las Vegas. Tatum combined the ability to get to the basket off the dribble with solid perimeter shooting ability, and he isn’t the kind of player who gets out of control on that end of the floor. As his body matures and he gets a little stronger, Tatum should remain one of the top players in his class. Duke, Kansas and Kentucky are among the programs working hard to land Tatum, and the same can be said for a Saint Louis program hoping to keep the elite small forward from leaving his hometown.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.