(Jon Lopez/Nike)

Five observations from EYBL Minneapolis

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(Jon Lopez/Nike)

MINNEAPOLIS — The spring season of the Nike EYBL is finally in the books. Memorial Day weekend is always busy in grassroots basketball and the Minneapolis session — session No. 4 of the EYBL this spring — culminated with some great battles for the final spots at Peach Jam in July. The play was very good at times and showcased that plenty of talented players are still looking to improve before the important July live evaluation period. Here’s some thoughts from this weekend’s action.

1. This is the time during grassroots when college coaches should be out watching players

In the current landscape of college basketball recruiting, NCAA rules dictate that college basketball coaches at the Division I level can only be out for two spring weekends — often the second and fourth week of April. It’s nice that coaches get some time to watch a bevy of players during an all-day tournament but college coaches really need to watch the grassroots basketball played in May instead of April. Teams really start playing well together after figuring things out in April and there were a lot of EYBL battles in Minneapolis that were fun to watch and well-played basketball games. There was good competition for spots at Peach Jam and many teams ran solid sets with coaches finally knowing which rotations to use. Players were more familiar with each other as teammates and had more time to adjust after just completing the high school season. It would be a better evaluation tool for Division I coaches to watch May grassroots basketball and they should look to move one weekend from April to May to see how players develop over the course of the spring.

2. Division I coaches aren’t out but there are still some important coaches watching

College basketball coaches can’t be out watching players in May, but that doesn’t mean the best prospects in America aren’t being evaluated by important people in the world of basketball. National talent scouts are out checking in on prospects and the EYBL was also under the watchful eye of members of USA Basketball, specifically U16 national team head coach Don Showalter. The long-time, gold-medal winning head coach is back at the helm for the U16 national team that will play in FIBA Americas in Argentina this June and he was looking for players to potentially invite for the U16 tryouts which begin this week while getting an early look at what to expect at tryouts. Representing America and playing with the top players in the country is an important honor for many of these high school players, so it meant just another reason to close out the spring in strong fashion.

3. Elite 2016 prospects closed out in strong fashion

The last spring stop in the EYBL has been skipped over by some elite prospects in the past who try to take the holiday weekend off before a busy month of summer hoops. This year, the elite prospects came out in full force and there’s a lot to like with the competitiveness of this 2016 class. On the Nike circuit, Harry Giles is the pace-setter for elite prospects after putting together some tremendous efforts in both Houston and Minnesota. The 6-foot-10 power forward continues to get more comfortable without his knee brace and he is so productive around the basket as a scorer and rebounder. He’s also a willing passer with an improving face-up game and he plays a team brand of ball while putting up great numbers. Other five-star 2016 prospects like St. Louis native Jayson Tatum, Arkansas native Malik Monk and Houston-area native De’Aaron Fox also finished top-ten in the EYBL in scoring and played good ball over multiple sessions. The top of the 2016 class continues to compete for the top spots in the rankings and it should be fun tracking them, along with players from other circuits, this summer.

4. Some under-the-radar Class of 2016 prospects emerge

It was good to see some unranked players close out the spring with some solid play in Minneapolis. PSA Cardinals guard Christian Vital had a very good weekend, hitting 9-for-18 3-pointers and scoring in double-figures in his last three games. Off the bench, Vital gave a huge shot in the arm for the Cardinals and his overall competitiveness also translated to rebounding the ball effectively from the guard spot as well. The 6-foot-2 guard had a strong weekend overall and can hopefully build on that for April. As the fourth option on a loaded Houston Hoops team, 6-foot-8 forward Robert Williams doesn’t get a lot of minutes or touches, but he’s very productive in his limited time on the floor. Playing only a shade over 17 minutes a game this spring, Williams led the EYBL in blocks per game and tied for total blocks, even though he played 163 fewer minutes than his co-leader Kassoum Yakwe. A mega athlete who can leap with the best of them, Williams had one monstrous two-handed tip dunk that came off of a miss from his own 17-foot jumper. The Louisiana native is still raw and needs a lot of skill work, but his physical tools are there and he was very productive in limited minutes again this weekend.

5. Marques Bolden is coming on strong

Texas native Marques Bolden is beginning to emerge as one of the best centers in the country after playing through injury and having another strong showing in Minnesota. The 6-foot-10 Bolden is the No. 29 player in the country in the Class of 2016, according to Rivals, but he might be pushing five-star status if he continues his stellar spring play. As a scorer, Bolden knows how to get things done in the paint and runs the floor well with good hands to receive tough passes. If Bolden ramps up the motor a bit more as a rebounder and shot blocker, he’ll really change the game on both ends of the floor. For now, there’s a lot to like and he showed toughness by playing through an injury that limited his mobility.

Seven takeaways from the AAU weekend at Nike EYBL, UAA and adidas Gauntlet

(Kelly Kline/adidas)
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Dennis Smith (Kelly Kline/adidas)

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.

EYBL Day 1: Jayson Tatum vs. Michael Porter Jr.; De’Aaron Fox, Jarred Vanderbilt go for big outings

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LEXINGTON — The second live evaluation period tipped off on Friday night as college coaches swarmed the Kentucky Basketball Academy to see some of America’s best college basketball prospects.

A matchup of Midwest five-star wings was the spotlight matchup on Friday night, but a pair of Houston Hoops standouts stole the show during the opening night.

Jayson Tatum vs. Michael Porter Jr.

The headlining matchup of Friday night was a 9:30 p.m. local tip between the St. Louis Eagles and Mokan Elite. The Missouri grassroots programs feature a pair of top-five wings in different classes as Class of 2016 wing Jayson Tatum faced Class of 2017 top-five wing Michael Porter Jr.

The highly-anticipated matchup between elite prospects drew a bevy of high-major (and other) college coaches, but it also drew a ton of local Kentucky fans and quite a few members of the 2014-15 Wildcat team. Former Mokan center Willie Cauley-Stein was in the front row for the contest while Devin Booker, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress were among other players spotted in the stands at the event.

Kentucky fans treated the matchup as if they were watching their own, as some fans would clap and cheer on Tatum when he made plays. The 6-foot-8, highly-skilled wing is down to Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and St. Louis in the recruiting process, so the Wildcat faithful wanted to make a strong impression on a potential future player.

As for the game, Class of 2017 guard Trae Young from Mokan stole the show with 29 points, five rebounds and three steals, but Tatum and Porter had plenty of ridiculous moves and showed why they’re likely future pros.

Tatum continued to show his tremendous mid-range game and overall skill level as he finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and three steals on 8-for-16 shooting. Porter also made some tough three-pointers as he tallied 20 points (7-for-13 from the field) with four rebounds.

The St. Louis Eagles won the contest, 73-70, and hopefully, we’ll get to see Tatum and Porter play against each other again soon.

De’Aaron Fox and Jarred Vanderbilt have a ridiculous outing

The Houston Hoops duo of five-star Class of 2016 guard De’Aaron Fox and Class of 2017 wing Jarred Vanderbilt is one of the best tandems in all of grassroots basketball. One of the major reasons why is their ability on the defensive end.

Fox and Vanderbilt were dominant in a Friday night win over E1T1 as Fox had 20 points, seven assists and six steals, while Vanderbilt hit a new level in the second half to achieve 26 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals.

Assigned with defending elite Class of 2016 scorer Maverick Rowan, Fox took pride in the challenge and did  the best job he could of denying him the ball. At 6-foot-8, Vanderbilt can switch on any player on the defensive end and is already tremendous as an apex rebounder, often snaring balls at rim level that nobody else can get to.

When you throw in that both of these guys have continually improving offensive games — both of them are pretty good passers as well — and Houston Hoops looks like a strong challenger for the EYBL crown early in the spring.

They stand 5-0 on the young season and it’s going to be tough for any team to stop Fox and Vanderbilt.

CJ Walker steps up his play

Spiece Indy Heat point guard CJ Walker recently opened up his recruitment after previously being committed to Purdue. With a large amount of head coaches present for his Friday night game against the Mac Irvin Fire, Walker had a solid outing.

The 6-foot-0 lefty guard has a power game attacking the rack and he doesn’t try to do too much on the offensive end. Walker often plays in control and has an ability to fire passes to teammates using both hands.

Walker finished with 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting while dishing out four assists in a win for Spiece. Spiece coach Brad Johnstin told NBCSports.com that Walker currently holds scholarship offers from Butler, Penn State, Purdue, Texas A&M, Wichita State and Xavier.