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Las Vegas Friday Recap: Jaylen Brown, Kobi Simmons among standouts

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LAS VEGAS — Over the last year or so guard Jaylen Brown has gone from merely being a talented member of the 2015 class to becoming one of its best players. With a maturity that’s rarely seen in most teenagers, Brown has managed to balance his high-level athleticism with a good understanding of the game and what his team needs him to do at any point in time. Brown’s full skill set was on display Saturday, as he was able to not only get the basket at will but also knock down perimeter shots when open. And according to Brown, there are a number of things he’s working to improve upon this summer.

RELATED: Jaylen Brown’s professional approach paying dividends

“There’s a long list of things I have to improve upon,” Brown said. “Making sure my jump shot is consistent, and I have to improve on by ball-handling. Defensively I have to be more active, [and I have to] get myself to a high level of conditioning so I can play at a high level for a long time.”

Another important factor for Brown has been the hard work he’s put in to transform his body, which is obviously the case when considering his stated goal to become an even better-conditioned athlete. And that effort has resulted in Brown becoming a dominant perimeter presence.

“Definitely the weight room and conditioning,” Brown said when asked where he’s made the greatest strides over the last year. “The weight room really helped.” According to Brown he weighed 200 pounds last summer, and now he’s up to around 220. The added weight (good weight, mind you) has helped him become a more explosive threat on the wing, and once in the lane Brown has no problem finishing above the rim with authority.

As for his recruitment, Brown stated that he’ll take an unofficial visit to UCLA after participating in adidas Nations next weekend in Long Beach, California. Among the reasons for his considering UCLA was the presence of Georgia natives on the roster, with Tony Parker entering his junior year and Jordan Adams putting together two highly successful seasons before being picked in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft (Memphis Grizzlies).

Other schools that have been most active in his recruitment according to Brown are Kentucky, Ohio State, Kansas, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Texas A&M.

MORE: Quotables Part I | Part II | Part III | All content from the 2014 July Live Period

Kobi Simmons continues to improve: The Celtics don’t lack for talent, and one of the standouts in Las Vegas has been 2016 point guard Kobi Simmons. Simmons has run the show for the Celtics, and his importance was on full display in their win over Team Rose during Friday’s afternoon session. When Simmons was the one initiating the offense the Celtics ran like a well-oiled machine, but they struggled when he wasn’t the one being asked to make a play. Simmons displayed the ability to finish at the rim with either hand, and for the most part he remained under control in running the show.

Simmons described himself as a “scoring guard” following the game, but he also has the ability to set up his teammates for quality looks. Among the schools Simmons mentioned when asked who all is recruiting him are “Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Ohio State [offered about two weeks ago], Missouri, Memphis and Texas.”

Vanderbilt goes four deep for local prospect Braxton Blackwell: Playing alongside Simmons was 6-foot-8 forward Braxton Blackwell, who like Simmons is a member of the Class of 2016. And based upon who all attended from the Vanderbilt coaching staff it’s clear that the Nashville native is of high priority. Head coach Kevin Stallings was there with all three assistants (one left during the second half to get to another game), and the reasons why they hold Blackwell in such high regard were easy to see. Blackwell rarely gets rushed on the offensive end of the floor, and defensively he had no issue with doing the little things a team needs in order to be successful.

“Just being versatile,” Simmons said when asked what he believes his strengths to be. “I can get a rebound and go, [and play] kind of a point forward position right now.”

When asked what areas he’s looking to improve upon this summer, Blackwell mentioned perimeter shooting and being a more aggressive player on the offensive end. Vanderbilt wasn’t the only school mentioned by Blackwell when asked about his recruitment, either. “Providence, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, Memphis, Vanderbilt and a lot of other schools,” Blackwell noted. Blackwell also stated that last year he took unofficial visits to Indiana, Memphis, Vanderbilt and Auburn, and he’ll look to take more unofficial trips in August.

A possible fourth visit for Bennie Boatwright: The 6-foot-9 forward is more of a perimeter threat, an attribute that meshes well with Dream Vision teammate Chase Jeter, who has emerged as one of the best big men in the Class of 2015. Boatwright has a good perimeter stroke, and with his tendency to be out on the wing the areas Boatwright mentioned when asked what areas of his game he’s working to improve upon (being more efficient and strengthening his ball-handling), fit in well with what he’ll need to do in order to be successful.

As for his recruitment, it’s been known for quite some time that three schools that will definitely host Boatwright on official visits are Arizona State, Gonzaga and Washington. Head coaches Herb Sendek (Arizona State) and Mark Few (Gonzaga) were among the coaches in attendance, with Washington having an assistant keeping tabs on their target. And in speaking with Boatwright following the game, there’s also a possible candidate for one of his other two available official visits.

“I might go to UConn’s ‘Midnight Madness,'” Boatwright told NBCSports.com. Obviously the key word there is “might,” and Boatwright also noted that he was unsure as to whether or not he’ll use all five official visits.

Five Things We Learned This Week: Jalen Brunson’s awesome, ACC POY and all the injuries

OMAHA, NEBRASKA-DECEMBER 31: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives to the basket between Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster #0 of the Creighton Bluejays during their game at the CenturyLink Center on December 31, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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1. Jalen Brunson has been so good this year and no one’s talking about it: Maybe it’s because there are 6,000 quality point guards in college basketball this season. Maybe it’s because he’s been overshadowed by his teammate Josh Hart. Maybe it’s because he’s a sleepy-eyed, doughy land warrior-of-a-point guard and never, ever does anything flashy and simply cares more about winning than the attention that comes with it.

Whatever the case is, the improvement that Jalen Brunson has made this season has been one of the more overlooked story lines in college basketball this season. After a stellar, 22-point, 10-assists performance in a 22-point win at Seton Hall on Saturday – one that saw Brunson shoot a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor – the sophomore is averaging 14.6 points and 4.5 assists for the Wildcats this season.

He’s the engine that makes Villanova go. He’s the reason that the Wildcats haven’t missed Ryan Arcidiacono all that much this season. He’ll probably end up being the Big East Player of the Year at some point before his career comes to an end, and it’s all from a guy who looks like he’s moving about as quick as I do on a basketball court.

One NBA scout told me over the summer that Brunson is the “smartest player that I’ve ever scouted.”

And while he may not be the physical specimen that Dennis Smith Jr. or Lonzo Ball is, he’s pretty doggone talented, too.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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2. There will be no team more battle-tested than Kansas in March: The Jayhawks have won 12 games in the Big 12, and at this point, that is basically enough to crown them the Big 12 champs for 13th straight season. Nine of them are by seven points or less. Seven are by five points or less. They came from 14 points down in the final three minutes to beat West Virginia. They won at Baylor in a game they trailed by 12. They beat Kentucky on the road by six points. They beat Duke by two. They lost to Indiana in overtime.

Some of that is luck – Svi’s travel against Kansas State, the legal illegal screen at Texas Tech – but a lot of it is some combination of talent, mental toughness and Bill Self. The bottom-line is this: No one will be more prepared to handle a close game in March than Kansas because no one has been through more this season than the Jayhawks.

3. Who you got in the ACC Player of the Year race?: Because it’s not easy to pick someone.

Let’s start with Luke Kennard, who is probably the most likely player from the league to earn a spot on an all-american team. But so much of his work was done early on in the season, before the start of conference play, which would bring us to Donovan Mitchell, who has been just sensational over the course of the last month, helping to buoy the Cardinals despite the fact that they spent quite a bit of time playing without both of the point guards on their roster. But then there is Justin Jackson, who has played the best basketball of his career in league play this year and is the best player on the team that currently looks primed to win the conference regular season title outright.

Those three are probably the favorites.

But what about Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, whose ability to star at the four in the ACC despite standing just 6-foot-5 is astonishing. Or Wake Forest’s John Collins, who has gone for at least 20 points in ten straight games and has notched a double-double in six of those ten games. Or Dennis Smith Jr., who is putting up crazy numbers for a terrible team.

I’d lean Jackson over Mitchell and Kennard at this point, but I change my mind almost daily.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09: Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball against Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

4. Tell me what to make of Wichita State: I’m at a loss.

On the one hand, they’re 25-4 on the season and straight steamrolling teams in the Missouri Valley. They beat Illinois State by 41 points. They beat Northern Iowa, who had won eight of nine entering the game, by 29 points. They’re rated 13th by KenPom.com, and they’re coached by a man named Gregg Marshall, maybe you’ve heard of him. That has cache.

But their only top 100 win on the season is Illinois State, whose only top 50 win on the season in Wichita State. The Shockers lost Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to graduation, and the Valley, as a whole, isn’t the league that it’s been in the past.

So they’re good, right?

I think we can all agree on that.

But just how good? Try and find a way to cogently answer that question.

5. Injuries just keep piling up this season: On Saturday, it was Michigan State’s Eron Harris who suffered a nasty-looking knee injury that turned out to be a season-ender, joining a list that already includes teammates Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. That happened about 90 minutes before Georgia star forward Yante Maten suffered what the team termed a knee sprain just 90 seconds into a game against Kentucky, a win the Bulldogs desperately needed. That happened the same week that Florida center John Egbunu went down for the season with a torn ACL and North Carolina announced that guard Kenny Williams will likely miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Oklahoma’s Jordan Woodard tore his ACL. Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke tore his ACL. Kansas center Udoka Azubuike had season-ending surgery on his wrist. Villanova’s Phil Booth hasn’t played since the third game of the year. UConn lost Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert for the season.

Oh, there’s more.

It’s not just the volume of players. Look at these names: Indiana lost O.G. Anunoby to a season-ending knee injury. Creighton lost their all-american point guard Mo Watson to a torn ACL just a few weeks before Xavier star point guard Edmond Sumner tore his. Arizona’s Ray Smith tore his ACL for the third time in the preseason and retired. Harry Giles III had his third knee surgery in the preseason and still isn’t close to healthy.

And I guarantee that I missed some names.

Team of the Week: Arkansas Razorbacks

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - FEBRUARY 23:    Head Coach Mike Anderson of the Arkansas Razorbacks reacts to a call during a game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bud Walton Arena on February 23, 2012 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  The Crimson Tide defeated the Razorbacks 79-68.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
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Two weeks ago it looked like it was over, for both Arkansas and Mike Anderson.

The Razorbacks capped a stretch where they lost three of four games by getting smacked at home by Vanderbilt and losing to Missouri. They looked like a longshot to get into the tournament, not necessarily because they didn’t have the profile to earn an at-large bid at the time, but because any team that can lose at Missouri can lose to anyone, anywhere, any time.

The kicker?

Missing the tournament could very well be the end of Anderson’s tenure with Arkansas. There’s a reason he was on just about every hot seat list entering the season, and it looked like Arkansas was on the verge of fulfilling that prophecy.

Until this week.

On Wednesday, went into Columbia and knocked off No. 21 South Carolina in a win that should give them some breathing room on the right side of the bubble, following that up with a drubbing of Ole miss in Fayetteville.

Nothing is certain yet, not for a team capable of losing to Missouri, but as of today, the Razorbacks have gotten into the dance, likely, saved their coach’s job.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have themselves a bad week, coming back from 14 points down in the final three minutes to force overtime in a win over No. 9 West Virginia. They followed that up by coming back from six points down in the final three minutes to knock off No. 4 Baylor in Waco. Through it all, they managed to all-but lock up their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title.
  • Minnesota: We might as well lock the Gophers into a tournament bid at this point, and they’ll probably end up getting a higher seed than you may realize, thanks to close wins over both Indiana and Michigan this week. We’ll know a lot more about them in the next two weeks, however, as they have to visit both Maryland and Wisconsin before the season is out.
  • UCLA: The Bruins snapped a four-game losing streak against intra-city rival USC on Saturday, and they did it in statement fashion, winning by 32. UCLA put up 102 points on the Trojans, outscoring them by 22 points and doing a fair bit of showboating down the stretch. There was a point to be made in this game, and Steve Alford’s club accomplished that.
  • UNC: The Tar Heels made a statement on Saturday night during Gameday, mollywhopping No. 14 Virginia to the tune of a 65-41 win that didn’t ever feel that close. Their defense showed up, Virginia did not. And if that wasn’t enough, they beat N.C. State bad enough on Wednesday that the Wolfpack fired their head coach.
  • VCU: The Rams have now won eight straight games after beating Saint Joe’s and winning at Richmond, VCU’s intra-city rival, on Friday night. One of those wins was against St. Bonaventure, when they won thanks to a premature court storm, and one of those wins was against George Washington, when they won thanks to a questionable foul call with 0.4 seconds left, but it doesn’t matter. VCU has played their way into the tournament either way.

Player of the Week: Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats drives the ball past Torian Graham #4 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 12, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Lauri Markkanen entered this week mired in an awful slump.

Over the course of his last four games, he was shooting 20 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three. He hadn’t scored more than eight points in any of the four games and, frankly, looked nothing like the seven-footer who had drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki as he averaged 15.4 points and shot 45.7 percent from three.

That was until the Wildcats had to play against the Washington schools.

With Dusan Ristic and Kadeem Allen both battling injury, Markkanen played some of his best basketball of the season, averaging 22.5 points and 12.0 boards in the two wins. The most promising part of it is that Markannen was more than willing to change his game, going away from being a perimeter oriented player to anchoring Arizona’s post offense. On the season, roughly 45 percent of Markannen’s field goals come from beyond the arc. This past week, just six of the 30 shots he attempted were three-balls.

Yes, it came against Washington State and Washington.

But that’s not what matters here.

What matters is that Lauri got his groove back and Sean Miller figured out that he has another option to work the post if Ristic gets himself into foul trouble or sprains an ankle during the NCAA tournament.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Mike Daum, South Dakota State: Daum went for 51 points and 15 boards, hitting seven threes as a 6-foot-9 forward, as the Jackrabbits beat Fort Wayne on Saturday. That came on the heels of a 26-point performance during the week. Daum is the first player to score 51 points in a game since … South Dakota State’s own Nate Wolters in 2013.
  • Frank Mason, Kansas: Mason played just about his best game of the season on Saturday, finishing with 23 points and eight assists as the Jayhawks went into Waco and knocked off No. 4 Baylor. That came on the heels of a 24-point, 5-assists, 4-rebound performance in Monday’s comeback win over No. 9 West Virginia.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: Tatum had 19 points and seven boards in Duke’s win over Wake Forest on Saturday, but his most impressive performance came on Wednesday night, when he had 28 points and eight boards – including three game-changing threes in the final five minutes – as the Blue Devils landed an impressive road win over No. 14 Virginia.
  • Markus Howard, Marquette: Howard went for 34 points and tied a Marquette record by hitting nine threes on Saturday night as the Golden Eagles landed a statement, 22-point win over Xavier. That win may be enough to get Marquette into the NCAA tournament.
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall: Carrington went for a career-high 41 points and seven assists as the Pirates landed a critical win over No. 20 Creighton last week, one that could be enough to get Seton Hall into the tournament. He also had a team-high 22 points in the loss to Villanova on Saturday.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: So what do we do with Baylor and Virginia right now?

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 28:  London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on December 28, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The big question this week is what to do with Baylor and what to do with Virginia.

With Baylor, it’s pretty clear: They’re still a top ten team, but as of today, they’re just not playing as well as they were earlier in the season. They’ve lost four of their last six games, but it’s not like they were embarrassed in any of the four. They came back and had three shots to win or force overtime in their loss at home to Kansas State. They lost at Texas Tech, who very nearly beat Kansas in that same gym. They got swept by Kansas, turning the ball over when they had a chance to force overtime at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and losing by two at home after their best guard, Manu Lecomte, injured himself midway through the second half.

What’s that tell us?

Baylor isn’t some dominant team. But there is no dominant team anywhere this season, and while Baylor has been on the wrong end of some bad luck and a couple poor finishes, they’re still the same Baylor they’ve been all season. They’ll get this thing turned around soon enough.

Virginia is a different story. They’ve now lost three in a row and five of their last seven games, falling all the way off the pace in the ACC title race. The Wahoos, however, are in much more trouble than Baylor because they simply are running out of ways to score. They had 44 points with two minutes left in their loss to Duke. They managed just 41 points in their loss to North Carolina.

But here’s the question that needs to be asked: Is Virginia struggling because they aren’t good enough to win a game or two in March, or is this a direct result of having to play Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games?

You tell me.

Anyway, here are the full rankings:

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1. Gonzaga (28-0, Last Week: No. 1)
2. Villanova (26-2, 2)
3. Kansas (24-3, 3)
4. Louisville (22-5, 4)
5. Oregon (24-4, 6)
6. North Carolina (23-5, 6)
7. Arizona (25-3, 8)
8. UCLA (24-3, 9)
9. Baylor (22-5, 5)
10. West Virginia (21-6, 10)
11. Kentucky (22-5, 12)
12. Duke (22-5, 12)
13. Purdue (22-5, 13)
14. Florida (22-5, 15)
15. Wisconsin (22-5, 15)
16. Cincinnati (24-3, 18)
17. SMU (24-4, 19)
18. Notre Dame (21-7, 20)
19. Saint Mary’s (24-3, 21)
20. Florida State (21-6, 17)
21. Iowa State (17-9, UR)
22. Virginia (18-8, 14)
23. Northwestern (20-7, 23)
24. Butler (21-6, UR)
25. Wichita State (25-4, UT)

DROPPED OUT: No. 22 South Carolina, No. 24 Xavier, No. 25 Creighton
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 21 Iowa State, No. 24 Butler, No. 25 Wichita State

You Make The Call: Did Tyler Roberson set an illegal screen?

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 28:  Tyler Roberson #21 of the Syracuse Orange dunks the ball against the Florida State Seminoles during the first half at the Carrier Dome on January 28, 2017 in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
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Syracuse was unable to cap off a thrilling comeback on Sunday night due, in large part, to the fact that Tyler Roberson was called for an illegal screen with 16 seconds left in the game and the Orange down just two points.

They had gone on a 20-9 run in the previous four minutes to close the deficit, and had gotten a stop in order to get the ball on that possession.

But here’s the thing: The call was, to put it politely, controversial. I don’t think that Tyler Roberson committed a foul here.

You make the call:

The loss put the Orange in a bad spot with just two weeks left before the end of the regular season. We go all the way through their at-large profile here.