Rob Dauster

Collin Sexton, Jon Lopez/Nike
Jon Lopez, Nike

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

Michael Porter Jr., Trae Young, Quade Green headline 2016 Peach Jam top performers

Trae Young, Jon Lopez/Nike
Jon Lopez/Nike
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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Peach Jam is always the best AAU event of the summer, and it certainly lived up to the hype. The caliber of play isn’t comparable to any other AAU tournament because of the depth on talent on every roster. There are kids coming off the bench that will be all-league players in mid major conferences. Some teams start five guys that are top 100 players in their respective classes.

Between the level of play, the intensity in the gym and the atmosphere that is created at the Riverview Park Activities Center, there is nothing better. The one downside this year is that the U17 USA Basketball team returned from winning a gold medal in Spain and immediately went to play at Peach Jam. Given the jet lag and the timing, thanks to a cancelled flight on July 4th, it was understandable that some of the biggest names at the event — Kevin Knox, Wendell Carter, Jaren Jackson Jr., Troy Brown — didn’t play their best. They have been on the road for a month.

That set, there were many truly terrific performances there this week. Here is who stood out the most:

Trae Young, MoKan Elite: Young is not the most highly-regarded prospect on the MoKan roster — Michael Porter Jr. is, more on him in a second — but he was the best player on the floor for them this week as MoKan took home the Peach Jam title. Young averaged 27 points and 7.3 assists in eight games in North Augusta, numbers that are somewhat skewed by the pace at which MoKan plays and the amount of time he has the ball in his hands. His production and his dominance, however, cannot be questioned. Deep range, beautiful stroke, handle, court vision, the ability to finish in the lane, you name it, he can do it.

RELATED: Class of 2017 point guard dominoes ready to fall

The knock on Young, who has emerged as Kentucky’s top target in the class, has always been that he’s wired as a scorer, which works on this MoKan team and at the high school level in Oklahoma. He’s a poor decision-maker at times, forcing threes and turning the ball over too much. As he ascends through basketball’s ranks, he’s going to have to continue to learn how to be a facilitator. That should come with time, with coaching and with a team surrounding him that is as or more talented than he is.

Michael Porter Jr., MoKan Elite: Porter is the best prospect on that MoKan roster and may be the best prospect in the Class of 2017. He’s a rangy, 6-foot-9 wing with elite level athleticism, consistent three-point range, the ability to score off the bounce and a knack from grabbing a defensive board and going coast-to-coast. His ability in transition and in space is what made this MoKan team so dangerous when allowed to get up and down the floor. He averaged 26.4 points and 11.4 boards this week, going through stretches were he looked totally unstoppable.

There are some issues with Porter. He needs to add weight and strength, and for a guy whose NBA ceiling centers around his potential as a versatile defender, his lateral quickness and desire to keep in front of a defender is lacking. The biggest knock on Porter is that he’s “soft”, and that narrative is somewhat overblown. His best performance of the week came Thursday morning against Team Takeover, when he played through a twisted ankle and responded to an opponent’s jawing in his ear with 33 points, 13 boards, three assists and three steals. But on Friday night, in a MoKan win over Howard Pulley, Porter totally disappeared as Gary Trent Jr., a top ten prospect in his own right, spent the whole game sticking him with elbows and running his mouth. Porter finished with just 11 points, and his impact on the game felt even smaller.

Quade Green (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Quade Green (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Quade Green, PSA Cardinals: The Cardinals were arguably the most talented team in the Peach Jam field, with 7-foot- center Mohammad Bamba the name that everyone knows. But Green was probably the best player on the floor for this week, averaging 16.7 points and 8.3 assists in front of every college coach in the country. His performance in the semifinals, going for 21 points and six assists while leading PSA back from an 18 point deficit, is something that will stick in the minds of people for a while. Along with Young, Green has emerged as a top 2017 point guard target for the blue bloods.

Deandre Ayton, California Supreme: I don’t know that Ayton will end up being the best player in this class in ten years, but I’m not sure there is a player with a higher ceiling than his. The things that he is able to do on the offensive end of the floor are absurd. He’s 7-foot with a 7-foot-4.5 wingspan (measured at the 2014 LeBron James Skills Academy). He was hitting step-in threes as the trailer on a fast break when he wasn’t sprinting the floor and getting easy buckets off of rim-runs. He can score facing up and he can use his strength to back down even the best defenders at this level. His footwork, agility and body control is unreal for a human his size, and he’s a much better passer than I realized.

The red flag with Ayton is his competitiveness and his motor, and that can show through on the defensive end. He doesn’t protest the rim as well as you would hope given his size. But I don’t think you can question his competitiveness after seeing him totally outplay Marvin Bagley III, Mitchell Robinson and Wendell Carter in head-to-head matchups. The most impressive performance came against the 7-foot Robinson, a top 15 prospect and an elite defender at this level. Robinson got the best of him in the first half, but Ayton responded with an impressive, dominating second half performance to carry Cal Supreme to a 17-point win as he spent the final 16 minutes letting Robinson know all about the whooping he just took.

Brandon Randolph, PSA Cardinals: There is a ton of talent on the Cardinals roster, but Randolph was as impressive as anyone. A top 50 prospect, Randolph had a handful of dominant performances in front of some elite programs. He’s a dexterous and explosive athlete with a unique ability to finish around the rim and range out to the three-point line. He had one sequence on Thursday where he hit three threes, had two tough, driving layups, a mid-range jumper and a thunderous dunk in transition all in the span of about five minutes.

Brandon Randolph, Jon Lopez/Nike
Brandon Randolph, Jon Lopez/Nike

Gary Trent Jr., Howard Pulley: Trent was one of the few members of USA basketball that showed up and played immediately. And while he didn’t have his best performances — when you’re a shooter and your legs aren’t there, it’s hard to be at your best — to do what he did while playing in games that tipped after 2 a.m. Spanish time is notable.

Alex O’Connell, Team United: O’Connell didn’t actually play in the Peach Jam. He played in the Peach Invitational, which was an event held 10 minutes away that included the Nike teams that didn’t qualify for the main event. An athletic, 6-foot-5 wing with deep range, O’Connell lucked out in the sense that, on Friday, when his team squared off against Collin Sexton’s Southern Stampede squad, they did so at a time when there were no games being played at Peach Jam.

And O’Connell, who is from Milton, Georgia, went off in front of 18 high major head coaches and members of more than two dozen staffs. That night alone, he added offers from Louisville and N.C. State. Duke was sitting three-deep for Sexton that day, and it’s worth noting O’Connell’s father played for the Blue Devils.

Jose Alvarado, NY Rens: The name that everyone knew on the Rens entering Peach Jam was Hamidou Diallo, the top ten recruit that had Coach K and Coach Cal sitting court side even when he rested for the final game of pool play. And given the point guard situation this season, the way Alvarado played should help him significantly depending on the way the dominoes fall.

Deandre Ayton, Jon Lopez/Nike
Deandre Ayton, Jon Lopez/Nike

VIDEO: Former Colorado guard Shannon Sharpe with the dunk of the summer

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Shannon Sharpe had an unremarkable two year career with the Colorado Buffaloes, playing a handful of minutes in 54 games over the course of two seasons in two different conferences.

There are Colorado basketball fans that likely have no idea that he exists.

They will now, because Sharpe, while playing in California’s famed Drew League, threw down one of the best dunks you’re going to see.

Here’s another angle of it:

Are we going to see a return of the prep-to-pro debate?

Atlanta, GA - MAY 27: Nike EYBL. Session 4. Deandre Ayton #35 of Cal Supreme awaits free-throw shot. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
(Photo by Jon Lopez)
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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — It should have been the most highly-anticipated matchup of the summer.

Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 was squaring off with Marvin Bagley III, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2018.

Not only were the potential No. 1 picks in the 2018 and 2019 NBA Drafts playing on the same court at the same time, they spent much of the afternoon guarding each other. At the biggest and best event in July, it was a dream scenario. And yet, in a Riverview Park Activities Center that is typically overflowing with fans, media and coaches yearning to get a peak at the Next Big Thing, the gym on Thursday was … spacious.

Part of that is because there isn’t much drama in the race for No. 1 in either class. Ayton is probably going to remain the consensus No. 1 player in his class regardless of what happens in the next year, and Bagley is so far ahead of the rest of the Class of 2018 that it’s not even a discussion. The race for the top spot matters in recruiting circles, and that race is what generates the hype for the high-profile individual battles.

But the other side of it is that there are no assurances that either Ayton or Bagley will end up playing a second of college basketball.

@SpencerPulliam
@SpencerPulliam

At the center of the question marks regarding both players is Hillcrest Prep, an institution in Arizona that fields a basketball team while sending the players to their coursework at Starshine Academy. It’s a pretty typical setup for these new-age prep school operations, except that Starshine Academy is not approved by the NCAA. A prospect with core courses coming from Starshine will not be cleared by the NCAA’s Eligibility Center.

That eligibility issue is reportedly the reason that Bagley, who transferred to Hillcrest after spending his freshman season at Corona del Sol, left for Sierra Canyon in the middle of the fall semester and was forced to sit out the 2015-16 season as a transfer. And that eligibility issue is why Ayton — who transferred into Hillcrest from Balboa City HS in San Diego, another school with NCAA question marks — made it a point to tell the media gathered in North Augusta that he is working with the NCAA to make his transcript acceptable.

The first step, he says, was to take his classes online at Arizona Communications instead of with Starshine, and that Arizona Communications has been certified by the NCAA.

“I’ve been in contact with the NCAA,” Ayton said. “They’ve given me my classes. I’m doing summer school right now. They say I’m on track. I just have to finish these classes and I’m good.”

To his credit, Ayton was adamant about the fact that he wants to play a one-and-done year.

“There’s no overseas,” he said, adding that Kentucky and Arizona had joined Kansas as the only three schools currently recruiting him. “I’m going to college.”

“I just want to have the experience. I want to win a national championship, and even though I’m one and done, I would love to be in that atmosphere.”

Bagley’s situation is different. He left Hillcrest at some point when it became clear that he would not be able to play college hoops from that school, but no one seems to know exactly when he left, how long it took for him to get from Hillcrest to Sierra Canyon or what exactly he was doing in the in-between time.

And while he was also non-committal about the prospect of playing in college — “I can’t say I want to skip college or go to college,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.” — his father told me, very specifically, that there was no way his son would not go to college. “Never,” he said. “I don’t even entertain it. I plan on having him finish college one day.”

The evidence? Bagley cut his list to six schools — Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA — to avoid the avalanche of calls he was expecting to get from staffs hoping that they had a shot.

So it’s still possible that we see both of these kids on campus.

But let’s say we don’t.

The prep-to-pros route is where this thing will get interesting, because the situations that both Ayton and Bagley have been directed into make them into prime candidates to follow in the footsteps of Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson.

Or Thon Maker.

And when you then consider that potential first-round picks like Trevon Duval and Billy Preston have eligibility question marks of their own, that’s when things get interesting.

Because Ayton and Bagley don’t need to play in college to be picked No. 1. Duval doesn’t need college to be a lottery pick the same way that Maker and Mudiay didn’t. Ferguson and Preston could get guaranteed money from an NBA contract without cashing a scholarship check.

And if the elite recruits following them see that these decisions don’t effect their chances to be a pro, and that going to college simply puts you at risk of slaloming down NBA Draft boards like Skal Labissiere, that’s when the concern about the reignited prep-to-pros movement becoming a trend gets validated.

Nike/Jon Lopez
Nike/Jon Lopez

Trae Young is the x-factor in an interesting point guard class

Trae Young , Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — The most interesting position in the 2017 recruiting class is point guard.

Trevon Duval is widely considered the best lead guard in the class, but his recruitment will likely take some twists and turns along the way, a direct result of Duval’s decision to transfer to API — the same school that left Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson with eligibility question marks — for his junior year.

After Duval, there are a handful of guards that can stake their claim to being second-best, evidence being the interest pouring in from the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Kansas. Two of them — Tremont Waters and Trae Young — squared off on Thursday at Peach Jam.

Waters got the best of the box score, but it was Young who shook off a slow start to lead MoKan Elite to a come-from-behind win despite the fact that a sprained ankle had rendered Michael Porter Jr., a top two player in the class, little more than a spot up shooter.

It’s Porter’s presence that makes Young perhaps the most intriguing player at the point guard position.

Young is a terrific prospect in his own right. He’s on the small side, but he’s a lights-out shooter with deep range that is a joy to watch in transition. He’s more Brandon Knight than he is Tyler Ulis, but there is a reason Kentucky has made him a priority. But his connection to Porter — the two are quite close and have long discussed playing their college ball together — has helped raise his profile.

Porter is probably headed to Washington. He hasn’t committed yet, but his younger brother is committed, his father was just hired as an assistant on Lorenzo Romar’s staff and the family is relocating from Columbia, Missouri to Seattle. The writing is on the wall, so the question then becomes whether or not Young will make the trek up to the Pacific Northwest as well.

“They were already recruiting me before Mike’s dad got there,” Young said, but it’s ramped up to another level since. Landing that duo would be quite the coup for Romar — and well worth using an assistant’s spot on Porter Sr. — and it would make the resulting dominoes something to track. Duke, Kentucky and Kansas (depending on how you view Malik Newman) will all likely be in the market for a point guard. Who lands Quade Green? Where does Waters end up? Is Matt Coleman good enough? Is Collin Sexton a point guard?

Young said he is waiting until after Peach Jam to cut his list and that he may wait to commit until the spring. When the decision finally comes, it’s safe to say he’ll be the x-factor in 2017’s point guard crop.

VIDEO: Michael Porter Jr. throws down windmill at Peach Jam

Father Tolton Catholic's Michael Porter, Jr. (1) celebrates after sinking a basket and drawing a foul during the first half of the Missouri Class 3 boys high school championship basketball game against the Barstow Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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Michael Porter Jr. is a top five prospect in the class of 2017. He’s a smooth, 6-foot-9 wing with three point range and the ability to handle the ball.

He can also do things like this: