Seven takeaways from the LeBron James Skills Academy

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The first of July’s three live periods ended at 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Each of our writers were at an event last week, and each will be giving you seven takeaways from those events. 

One of the showcase events of the first open weekend in July was the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Sure the free agent status of the event’s namesake hung over the proceedings, but the camp was an important one for some of the nation’s best players at both the college and high school levels. There aren’t many camps with both sets of players in attendance going through workouts (during separate sessions), which makes this event unique compared to others held in July.

With college coaches in town to not only check out recruits but also (in some cases) check in on their current players and NBA scouts having the opportunity to watch both sets of players, all involved had the opportunity to improve their standing with those decision-makers. Here are seven thoughts on the action from Las Vegas.

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1) Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker is poised to have a big junior season.

Dekker enjoyed a solid sophomore season, posting averages of 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for a team that was an Aaron Harrison three-pointer away from playing for the national title. That’s served as a catalyst for the 6-foot-9 forward (he’s grown two inches, and is working to be a more physical player), who displayed an improved floor game and more assertiveness in Las Vegas.

Dekker scored from anywhere on the floor during the camp, knocking down perimeter shots at a solid clip, and was also good on the defensive end. From a jump-shooting standpoint it was good to see Dekker knock down those looks consistently, as his three-point percentage dipped more than six percentage points from his freshman (39.1%) to sophomore (32.6%) year. That area will be key for Wisconsin as they look to make another deep run into the NCAA tournament and account for the graduation of Ben Brust.

2) Based upon the talent in Las Vegas, the Big 12 is going to be incredibly fun to watch in 2014-15.

That statement won’t come as a surprise, based upon how competitive the league was last season with Kansas winning the regular season title and Iowa State taking the tournament crown. And while the Jayhawks have won at least a share of the last ten regular season titles, players representing other programs in Las Vegas have no plans of conceding anything in 2014-15. While Kansas’ Perry Ellis put together a very good week at the camp the same can be said of Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, who also made some waves by stating that the Sooners are going to win the Big 12 this year.

Iowa State’s Georges Niang, having lost 25 pounds since the end of the season, looked more mobile on the court and that’s a good sign given the broken foot that ended his season. Add in the likes of Kansas State’s Marcus Foster (who expects to have more opportunities as a primary ball-handler in 2014-15), Texas’ Isaiah Taylor and West Virginia’s Juwan Staten and there’s a lot of returning talent to like in the Big 12.

3) Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Kansas’ Kelly Oubre are ready to produce immediately on the offensive end.

Johnson and Oubre were the lone freshmen playing amongst the college players, and their abilities on the offensive end are what stood out. Johnson proved to be a difficult matchup at the camp, especially when it came to his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim through contact. As for Oubre, he was very good at slashing to the basket and finding solid looks himself. While there’s still work to be done for both players, they have the tools needed to be primary scoring options in their respective systems.

4) Ted Kapita likely did more to help his status within the 2015 class than any other prospect at the camp.

Kapita entered the week rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports and a four-star according to Rivals. And in the aftermath of his performance in Las Vegas, Kapita is now deemed to be a five-star player by 247Sports. Kapita ran the floor well, was active in the paint on both ends and remained engaged throughout the week. That last bit can be difficult for some young players (as evidenced by the decision to cancel Friday’s night session with fatigue being one reason; there were legitimate injuries to consider as well), especially when taking on-court communication into consideration, but this wasn’t a problem for Kapita. He’s definitely a name to keep an eye on as the month progresses.

5) Ivan Rabb and Cheick Diallo led the way in the post amongst uncommitted big men at the event.

Of course the likes of Bryant, Kapita and Caleb Swanigan were also in attendance, but Rabb and Diallo were both very good at the camp. Rabb’s skill set on the block made him a very tough matchup for most of the players he went up against, and he also showed himself to be an adept shot blocker and rebounder outside of his area. As for Diallo, while there are still strides to be made offensively he played incredibly hard and was a presence in the paint on both ends.

6) The camp provided further evidence to the fact that LSU landed a stud in Ben Simmons. 

Simmons is rated by multiple scouting services as the top player in the Class of 2015, and he did nothing to dispel that notion in Las Vegas. Simmons displayed the ability to score from anywhere on the floor, making him an incredibly difficult matchup throughout the week. He’s a player who at the next level has the skills needed to be a “mismatch” that LSU head coach Johnny Jones can plug into either forward slot, taking smaller defenders into the paint and bigger defenders out onto the perimeter.

7) Jayson Tatum is an incredibly smooth wing, and the race for him will continue to be fierce. 

Tatum’s rated as one of the best players in the 2016 class (and tops in the eyes of some), and the reasons why were on display in Las Vegas. Tatum combined the ability to get to the basket off the dribble with solid perimeter shooting ability, and he isn’t the kind of player who gets out of control on that end of the floor. As his body matures and he gets a little stronger, Tatum should remain one of the top players in his class. Duke, Kansas and Kentucky are among the programs working hard to land Tatum, and the same can be said for a Saint Louis program hoping to keep the elite small forward from leaving his hometown.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.