The second live evaluation period of April is in the books. With the Nike EYBL (Lexington), Under Armour Association (Louisville) and adidas Gauntlet (Indianapolis) all within approximately three hours of one other it was a great chance to check out all three shoe-company events and evaluate the top players in the country — as well as the ever-evolving landscape of major grassroots basketball.
1. The big names in the 2016 class came up with some signature performances this weekend
One of the fun things about player rankings is the debate that comes with it. With some of the best players in the 2016 class putting up big numbers this weekend, that debate will only continue to rage on. Whether it was five-star wing Josh Jackson’s 41-point outing in the Under Armour Association, Malik Monk putting up multiple big scoring outings, Jayson Tatum doing some great things in a high-profile game against Michael Porter Jr.’s team or Dennis Smith leading his Team Loaded to the title at the adidas Uprising event, a lot of the top dogs had themselves a nice weekend. Those four players, plus Class of 2016 forward Harry Giles, have positioned themselves to be in the discussion for No. 1 in the class by the end of the summer. Others like Kobi Simmons (who unfortunately got hurt and couldn’t play when I attended adidas on Sunday) Lonzo Ball and Terrance Ferguson (to name a few) could certainly enter that equation, but those aforementioned five are off to a strong start this spring.
2. For the second consecutive class, there is a drought in high-level point guards
The Class of 2015 didn’t have a lot of point guards for high-major programs and it led to a lot of coaches offering combo guards or scrambling to find anyone who could effectively run a team. It appears that the 2016 class doesn’t have a lot of great high-major point guard options either. All three shoe company circuits had a number of 2017 prospects starting at point guard on some teams and the amount of high-level floor generals is once again down. There are some really good combo guards out there in the 2016 class, but very few players who can actually step up and run a team entering major college basketball next season. It’ll be intriguing to see if some other names step up this spring and make a play for some of these spots because many college coaches were quick to mention the lack of options.
3. The 2017 class is trending in the right direction for high-level players
Because of adidas adding a lot of 17U teams to their adidas Gauntlet this season, there appears to be even more younger prospects playing up in major events then ever before. Members of the 2017 class playing up on the 17U level seemed to acclimate well in the games I took in over the weekend. The heavy hitters like five-stars Michael Porter Jr., Troy Brown, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wendell Carter all had strong performances while plenty of other younger players playing up started to make a name for themselves on the national scene. The 2017 class is intriguing because it already features some great big men, some good wings and some talented guards. The class doesn’t appear to have a defining positional group yet and that speaks to the balance we’ve seen so far.
4. De’Aaron Fox will be in the discussion for best two-way guard in the Class of 2016
While many of the five-star 2016 prospects had themselves strong offensive outings this weekend, none of them displayed the defensive intensity of Texas native De’Aaron Fox. The duo of Fox and 2017 wing teammate Jarred Vanderbilt were a two-man wrecking crew on the defensive end for Houston Hoops in Lexington and Fox uses his quickness and tremendous natural instinct to make plays in passing lanes that few others can make. Fox told me after the game that he loves the intensity of Russell Westbrook on both ends of the floor and that kind of passion shows especially on the defensive end.
5. The best Class of 2018 prospect might currently reside in the Class of 2016
Utah native Frank Jackson is a rising senior guard who is also rising up the Class of 2016 rankings thanks to a complete scoring package and an ability to play a bit of both guard spots. He’s also being recruited, heavily, because he’s looking to take a two-year mission trip before he enters college basketball. That effectively makes him a member of the Class of 2018 and coaches are already enamored with the prospect of landing a potential All-American guard and then giving him two additional years to develop further. As one college coach put it to NBCSports.com, “There will be better long-term prospects in 2018, but nobody will be more ready for college basketball in that class then Frank Jackson.”
6. There are still plenty of big men who want to play near the hoop
Over the last few years there’s been an abundance of big men trying to develop perimeter games so that they can be the next stretch four or the next Kevin Durant. At all three events, there were also plenty of classic back-to-the-basket big men who seemed to have no desire to shoot the ball outside of 15 feet. This is encouraging to watch because some of these younger big men need to focus on improving near the basket first before worrying about stretching the defense. If you’re a high school basketball player pushing 7-feet tall, you should dominate in the paint and there were plenty of bruising big men with
7. Things continue to get better in the shoe-company circuit (for all three companies)
The modern “shoe wars” are only going to continue to grow and it’s because all three major brands competing for American grassroots supremacy keep making changes to enhance the scene — and the game — even further.
The Nike EYBL continues to be at the forefront of the scene thanks to its longevity, history and overall approach to spring basketball. While adidas and Under Armour have done a great job to catch up as best they can with Nike these last two years, Nike is still the king in the equation thanks to owning the deepest amount of overall talent, the best quality of basketball and the backing of the EYBL’s name brand.
The Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington was probably a bit too small to house an EYBL event, but it showed that casual basketball fans will continue to attend these events no matter where the location. Having now attended EYBL events in Hampton, Dallas, Minneapolis and Lexington the last few years, the crowds for EYBL events is bigger and there’s more local buzz surrounding the events. Having EYBL alums — like Kentucky players in Lexington –show up to watch games also enhances the credibility of the league going forward.
That’s not to say the other companies aren’t doing tremendous things in their own right.
Under Armour continues to be at the forefront of innovation by adding iPhone apps, advanced film breakdown and analytics in Synergy sports to cover games and by putting 15U, 16U and 17U games under one roof for the same event. They’ve also done a nice job of building fun player profile pages where you can find out a player’s favorite pre-game song and basketball movie. They do a nice job of treating each player more as individuals, where as the other leagues focus more on the overall teams and the top players.
The consensus opinion among coaches and media for adidas, meanwhile, seemed to indicate that the Gauntlet has improved greatly since last year from a talent perspective. Having seen the games on Sunday, I tend to agree with this assessment and there’s a lot to like going forward with the Three Stripes as well. Synergy is also working with adidas and their overall branding around the event and the league was significantly up compared to last year. The only thing holding adidas back was the confusing nature of their scheduling, which sent many coaches and media members scrambling on the final day of the event. But that’s a small change to make going forward and not too big of a deal.