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Making A Five-Star: Collin Sexton’s rise from unranked to MVP of Team USA

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — When covering an event like Peach Jam, it can be hard, at times, to remember that the kids playing in these games are just barely old enough too legally drive a car.

These kids are doing things athletically that I can only dream about with the kind of build that makes it obvious they don’t spend their summers sipping cold beers while shoveling hot dogs, burgers and chips and dip down their gullet. I’m also 6-foot-3, and it’s rare when I interview a player that is shorter than me.

Put another way, these kids don’t look like the 16 and 17 year olds you’re used to seeing.

And that’s before you consider that the players at the top of every class are already aware and conscious of their image and branding. The best of the best are going to end getting picked in the NBA Draft within two years, and even the kids that are destined to end up as role players in college have dealt with enough interviews over the years to be media savvy and know the right things to say.

These kids don’t always talk like the 16 and 17 year olds you know, either.

Which is why it was so refreshing to hear Collin Sexton tell an NBCSports.com reporter how excited he is to get to AAU Nationals in Orlando to … ride Go-Karts?

“Go-Karts, that’s what I do,” Sexton said, without so much as trying to contain a grin stretching ear to ear. He checks out the best spots to ride Go-Karts everywhere he travels, which makes me worry for the parents of a young man that doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. “They’re some fun. I can’t wait to get down to Florida because there’s a Go-Kart place called Fun Spot. It has like a four story track. It’s huge.”

Sexton’s exuberance is palpable. He’s genuinely excited that reporters want to interview him after games. Even games that he plays poorly, like the one I saw him play in Augusta. He’s blown away by the fact that the likes Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self and Sean Miller are leaving the Peach Jam to drive 15 minutes, literally into a different state, in order to watch him play.

“I didn’t see none of this coming,” his father, Darnell, said. “Nowhere close. This wasn’t in the ball park at all.”

There may be a reason behind that.

For everything that Sexton is as a player today, six months ago, even the best recruiting analysts in the business didn’t know much about him.

And, when you know the story behind the growth, you’ll know that says more about who Sexton is than it does anything else.

———-

Collin Sexton is the best scorer in the Class of 2017, and that’s really not up for debate.

A 6-foot-2 guard that played for Peddlebrook HS (Georgia) as a junior this past season, Sexton averaged 29 points during the high school season, a number that looks paltry compared to the 31.7 points he averaged on the Nike EYBL circuit. That was nine points better than Michael Porter Jr., the second leading scorer on the circuit. His ability to put up a massive amount of points in a hurry earned Sexton a trip to Colorado Springs for the U17 trials. He played his way into a spot on the team, where he averaged 17.2 points, 4.8 boards and 3.4 assists off the bench to win MVP of the U17 World Championships in Spain.

That’s quite a résumé for anyone to have put together, but it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that Sexton was a relative unknown outside the state of Georgia prior to his junior year. He didn’t climb his way into the national rankings until midway through last season, and he only really came under consideration as a potential McDonald’s All-American and a top ten prospect in the last month. He has scholarship offers from North Carolina, Kansas and Arizona. He’s spoken on the phone with coaches from Duke and Kentucky.

“I haven’t seen a guy like him make a rise like this ever in Georgia,” said Justin Young, a longtime, Atlanta-based scout that is now the editor of HoopSeen.com.

It’s uncommon anywhere for a player to make a jump like this. Anthony Davis did it once upon a time, but his rise came as he sprouted up from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-11 without losing any of his coordination or perimeter skill. John Wall also exploded onto the national scene after getting cut from his high school team, but his status as an unranked prospect had everything to do with his attitude and little to do with his ability.

With Sexton, he wasn’t exactly a nobody. He played in Peach Jam with the 17s last summer. He was an honorable mention Class 6A all-state player as a sophomore, one of just two underclassmen to get recognized in Georgia’s largest division. And it’s not like he suddenly turned into a freak of an athlete. He has been competing at the state championship-level in the high jump and the 4 X 400 relay; his career-best jump of 6-feet-8.5 inches would have won him a state title if he didn’t miss the meet to play in the EYBL in Brooklyn.

Sexton didn’t have a come-to-Jesus moment like Wall did. He didn’t suddenly turn into a player that has one of the most valuable physical profiles in basketball like Davis.

He just got better.

Can it really be that simple?

“A wild horse got tamed,” Young says. “Now he’s using that ‘put your head down, get to the foul line’ skill, channeling his aggression. He couldn’t draw fouls before because he wasn’t strong, he was making bad decisions. And he improved on it.”

“He’s been on a mission.”

Both Sexton and his dad back that up. According to Sexton, the last year of his life has centered around this schedule: He’s up before 6 a.m. and in the gym, lifting weights and working on his conditioning. Then it was off to school before he would head to high school or AAU practice. After practice was over, it was time for the skill-work, getting up jumpers or working on his handle or running through the same move until it becomes nothing but muscle memory. Step-backs, euro-steps, finishing through contact. All of it.

And it paid off.

But there was more to it than just adding to his skill set.

Because Sexton had a rep prior to his junior year, and it is what kept a lot of people from buying in on him.

Off the court, he’s bright and engaging, but even to this day, he’s something of a lunatic on the floor. He talks to himself. He curses himself out when things don’t go his way. In the game that I watched, the game that had 18 high major head coaches in the stands, he never once sat on his team’s bench, choosing to instead sit on the floor or on the stairs of the bleachers when he wasn’t on the court.

And this is the toned down version?

That is something the family has worked hard on.

“What it really was was understanding how to redirect his energy to reflect what he’s able to do on the floor,” Darnell said. His intensity is a good thing. Keeping that intensity focused and under control isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

But the end result is a player who is in the midst of becoming a nationally-pursued recruit, whose ability to get into the paint and draw fouls is unmatched at this level. Sexton made 181 free throws in the EYBL this season, which is more than No. 2 and No. 3 on that list combined.

There are questions about whether or not he is truly a point guard or a simply a scorer that can handle the rock. There are concerns about how he’ll be able to handle being on a team where he can’t simply dominate possession.

But the bottom-line is this: When you can get buckets the way that Sexton can get buckets, the big boys will come calling and figure the rest out later.

———-

Part of the reason that a story like Sexton’s is so interesting to us is that it doesn’t happen all that often.

Between the accessibility to information that the internet provides and the profitability of aligning oneself with an elite prospect, we typically know who the best players in the country are when they enter high school. If a kid gets labeled as a high major prospect as a freshman, he’ll stay there. If he’s slotted as a mid-major guy, he’s probably going to end up being considered a mid-major guy by the time he graduates.

Diamonds In The Rough are, by definition, hard to find.

But they do exist. Steph Curry is the best example today. His story has been told a million times by now. He had no ACC offers coming out of high school — not even Virginia Tech, his dad’s alma mater — and he would go on to become one of the most prolific college scorer we’ve ever seen and one of the best players in the NBA today. Kawhi Leonard made a similarly meteoric rise, as has Draymond Green and Russell Westbrook.

Those guys have a couple things in common as well. Curry and Leonard both have a legendary work ethic, bordering on clinical insanity. They were seen in high school. As legend has it, Curry scored six points in six games at the NBPA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va., prior to his senior season in high school. Leonard was Mr. Basketball in California and a top 50 recruit in 2009, the same year that five top 30 recruits came out of the state.

Green’s story is a little different. He’s gotten better since he was the No. 35 pick in the draft in 2012, but he also found a role that fit him better than a tailored suit. Westbrook grew — and grew into his athleticism — later in his development than most kids.

They were all known. They weren’t considered good enough. They got better.

It happens.

Just like it happened with Sexton.

“We make snap judgements in high school,” Young said. “If you’re not a high major by your sophomore year, that’s who you are. It’s not intentional, but we forget just how much better kids can get. When it happens, we go nuts. Sexton is a perfect example. He didn’t come out of nowhere, he just kept adding pieces. He’s always been talented. He played with Kobi Simmons. He’s been around.”

“He’s just gotten better, to the point we can’t ignore it.”

Collin Sexton, USA Basketball
Collin Sexton, USA Basketball

Marvin Bagley III’s 34-point outburst carries No. 1 Duke to overtime win vs. Texas

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What was billed as a matchup between potential No. 1 picks Marvin Bagley III and Mo Bamba turned into a showcase for the talents of the former, as MB3 went for 34 points and 15 boards to lead No. 1 Duke to an 85-78 overtime win over Texas in the semifinals of the PK80 tournament in Portland.

The Blue Devils had dug themselves a 43-31 hole and trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half, but that changed once Duke figured out that Texas had no way to stop their big freshman. His 34 points tied him with J.J. Redick for the Duke freshman record.

Gary Trent Jr. added 17 points for the Blue Devils, who lost senior Grayson Allen to fouls with two minutes left in the game. Coach K played the final two minutes and overtime with five freshmen on the floor.

Texas was led by Dylan Osetkowski, who finished with 19 points. The 6-foot-9 Tulane transfer played well, but a couple of questionable decisions and a missed dunk cost Texas some points; their 16-point lead should have been closer to 25. Bamba finished with nine points and 10 boards, but he fouled out in regulation and struggled to make as much of an impact as the other three big men that were on the floor.

Duke will play the winner of tonight’s No. 7 Florida vs. No. 17 Gonzaga game in the final of the PK80’s Motion bracket.

After win over No. 15 Xavier, is Arizona State the Pac-12’s best team?

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On a day that the Pac-12 desperately needed some good things to happen for the league, Arizona State provided it.

Tra Holder popped off for 40 points and Bobby Hurley’s four-guards provided a total of 91 points as the Sun Devils erased a 15-point first half deficit before running No. 15 Xavier out of Las Vegas, 102-86. It was the second time this season that Holder has scored more than 35 points, and after adding four assists, four boards and three steals, he’s now averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 boards, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals.

Hurley also has Shannon Evans on this team, and after putting up 22 points on the Musketeers, Evans is averaging 19.5 points and 5.3 assists on the season. Kodi Justice, who had 28 points in a win over Kansas State in the opener of the Las Vegas Invitational, is averaging 15.5 points this season, and that doesn’t even factor in Romello White, De’Quan Lake or Remy Martin, who are all capable of putting up 20 points on a given night.

Put another way, Arizona State has scored at least 90 points in every game that they’ve played this season.

There may not be a more potent scoring team in college basketball this season.

And it begs the question: Is Arizona State actually the best team in the Pac-12?

We wrote about it this morning. The Pac-12 has had a rough go of it this week. Arizona lost twice in the Battle 4 Atlantis. UCLA lost their opener to Creighton in the Hall Of Fame Classic. Oregon got beaten by UConn. Cal was blown out by Chaminade. Oregon State fell to St. John’s and Long Beach State. It’s been rough out west.

Unless you hail from Tempe, where the Sun Devils are now 6-0 on the season with a blowout win over a Xavier team that, despite pooping the bed on Friday night, look like a team that could legitimately test Villanova in the Big East.

If you want my take on Arizona State, it’s really pretty simple: On the nights where Tra Holder and Shannon Evans get it rolling, there isn’t going to be much anyone can do. They’re nearly impossible to guard. They make tough threes off the dribble, they can get into the lane and finish amongst the trees, and if you try and help on a drive or trap a ball-screen, they are both willing a capable passers. We saw it on Thanksgiving, when Kansas State held them in check while allowing Justice to hit for 28 points and White and Lake to combine for 30 points and 11 offensive rebounds.

Put another way, on their best night Arizona State is going to be able to beat just about anyone in college basketball this season.

The question is what happens on the nights when those two don’t look like a back court made up of Steph Curry and Allen Iverson.

They beat Kansas State when Evans and Holder combined to shoot 6-for-23 from the floor, but I’m not exactly sure that beating Kansas State is all that impressive.

At the very least, we know that there is going to be a fifth team in the mix at the top of the Pac-12 standings, and that if Arizona, UCLA and USC don’t figure out their issues, there will be someone there to take advantage.

POSTERIZED: Texas guard Kerwin Roach throws down Dunk of the Year candidate on Duke (VIDEO)

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Kerwin Roach is one of the best dunkers in college basketball, and he was at it again on Saturday afternoon in the PK80, as he went soaring in to throw down a dunk in the face of Duke forward Javin DeLaurier:

Luke Maye’s career-high 28 paces No. 9 North Carolina past Arkansas

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In hindsight, maybe we were a little too concerned about Luke Maye’s ability to anchor North Carolina’s front court.

In the toughest test that the Tar Heels have faced to date this season, Maye turned out the game of his life. He finished with career-highs of 28 points and 16 boards while tying a career-high with five assists and knocking down four threes as the No. 9 Tar Heels took care of Arkansas, 87-68, in the semifinals of the PK80.

The Tar Heels will advance to face the winner of this evening’s No. 4 Michigan State-UConn game.

But the story here is Maye, who became the first North Carolina player since Antawn Jamison to post 100 points and 50 boards in a season’s first five games. On the season, he’s averaging 20.8 points, 10.8 boards and 2.8 assists. He’s shooting better than 50 percent from three and nearly 60 percent from the floor. On a team that features a potential first-team all-american and the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player in Joel Berry II, it’s been Maye who has been the star of UNC’s season to date.

And there’s no reason to believe that this is a fluke, either.

Maye had 26 points and 10 boards in a win over a Northern Iowa team that just beat SMU and N.C. State. He had 20 points, nine boards and four assists against a good Bucknell team. He had 12 points, nine boards and five assists in a win at Stanford. And, of course, there was Friday afternoon’s performance.

What makes Maye’s development so important is the reliance of big men in Roy Williams’ system. He is one of the only high-major coaches that still builds his team around two big men. He values rebounding above all else. He runs his offense through post touches. The crux of his transition offense is the ability of his big men to beat their defenders down the floor.

Maye not only can do all of that, but his ability to make threes helps to space the floor.

After the year that he had last season, it’s not all that surprising that Maye was able to step in and have success this year.

But if you’re going to tell me that you thought Luke Maye would be doing this, I’m going to need to see the receipts.

No. 25 Alabama tops BYU in Barclays Center Classic

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NEW YORK (AP) — John Petty scored 16 points to spark No. 25 Alabama to a 71-59 win over BYU in the second game of the Barclays Center Classic on Friday.

Dazon Ingram added 15 for Alabama, which improved to 5-0, the best start for the Crimson Tide since 2012-13, when they began 6-0. Donta Hall had 12, and Collin Sexton finished with 10.

BYU fell to 3-2 with its second loss in its last three games. Yoeli Childs led the Cougars with 21 points.

In his third season, coach Avery Johnson is attempting to build Alabama into a program that can compete on a national level. And the matchup against BYU displayed why the Crimson Tide could be an intriguing team this season.

Alabama was able to build a 15-point lead in the second half following Riley Norris’ layup layup with 10:43 left. Part of that was because of the Crimson Tide’s ability to pressure BYU defensively. Alabama recorded six blocked shots and forced 11 turnovers.

But program building does mean growing pains. And the Crimson Tide’s youth also revealed itself in the second half. Following Petty’s 3 with 7:35 left, which gave Alabama a 61-47 lead, BYU outscored the Crimson Tide 8-2 in a span of 1:21 to cut the deficit to 63-55. Dalton Nixon made two free throws and Zac Seljaas made consecutive 3s for the Cougars in that stretch.

BYU got back into the game in part because of questionable shot selection in the second half from the Crimson Tide, who made 18 of 30 shots from the field before halftime.

Eight points was as close as BYU would get. Ingram knocked down two free throws, and Hall’s tip-in in the final two minutes gave the Crimson Tide the margin of victory.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Size matters. At least it does to the Crimson Tide. Alabama has 11 players 6-foot-5 or taller. That size and length allowed Alabama to create turnovers and contest shots, leading to fast breaks.

BYU: It may not be fair to say as Elijah Bryant goes, so does BYU. But Bryant, who entered the game averaging 21.5 points, was limited to three points in the first half and five for the game.

NOTES

The Crimson Tide entered the game having won their first four by an average of 18 points per game. Moreover, Alabama was holding opponents to .411 shooting from the field and .338 shooting from 3-point range, while blocking 6.8 shots and forcing 7.3 steals in those games. … The Cougars fell to 0-2 all-time against the Crimson Tide. In the only other meeting, BYU dropped a 77-74 decision on Dec. 30, 1957.

UP NEXT:

Alabama: Will play No. 14 Minnesota Saturday in the Barclays Center Classic.

BYU: Will play Massachusetts Saturday in Brooklyn.