Jon Lopez, Nike

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

1 Comment

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

Middle Tennessee loses four returnees during the week

AP Photo
Leave a comment

Middle Tennessee has been one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last few years but now the Blue Raiders will be facing a major rebuild.

With former head coach Kermit Davis taking the Ole Miss job and new head coach Nick McDevitt coming over from UNC Asheville, the program experienced some major roster turnover this week as four returnees left the program.

Earlier in the week, junior guard David Simmons opted to transfer out of Middle Tennessee after he averaged 17.9 minutes per game for the Conference USA regular-season champions last season.

On Friday, the losses continued, as three more players left the team. Rising junior point guard Tyrik Dixon announced his intention to transfer while the program dismissed guard Antwain Johnson and forward Davion Thomas. Dixon was a valuable floor leader for Middle Tennessee the past two seasons while Johnson, a rising senior guard, would have been the team’s returning leading scorer after putting up 10.3 points per game last week.

Since so much of the successful core of the past three seasons is now gone from Middle Tennessee, it will be on McDevitt to bring in new talent to sustain the recent great stretch of play. The Blue Raiders made two Round of 32 appearances in a row before missing the NCAA tournament last season after winning C-USA’s regular season crown.

Now, with Western Kentucky making a power play by bringing in five-star big man Charles Bassey, and the power has shifted very quickly in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country.

Report: One-and-Done rule could be eliminated for 2021 NBA Draft

Getty Images
1 Comment

The NBA is reportedly exploring the possibility of ending the infamous one-and-done rule that forces many potential professional basketball players to head to college for at least one season.

According to a report from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, citing a league memo sent to NBA teams late this week, the league office is indicating that “eligibility rules” for the NBA draft could change as soon as 2021 or 2022 — but not earlier. The league is currently trying to figure out how the FBI’s investigation into college basketball will play out while also trying to navigate the player development changes that would be needed for high school players to once again potentially enter the NBA. Recently, the NBA has started to allow its teams and front-office personnel to attend elite summer high school events as the Pangos All-American Camp and the NBPA Top 100 Camp both had an NBA presence to watch elite Class of 2019, 2020 and 2021 prospects.

Lowe’s report mentions that the one-and-done rule is not mentioned directly by name, but the NBA is trying to warn its teams before the 2018 NBA Draft. These future changes could be on the horizon and teams need to understand what they are doing with future draft picks in potential trades.

The scenario of a 2021 NBA Draft in which high school players might be eligible is a fascinating subplot for college basketball, and the sport at-large, over these next few years.

As Lowe pointed out in his report, whenever the rule is eventually opened up, it will create one large mega draft in which two elite classes of high school players would be draft-eligible in the same year. With potentially double the lottery-level and first-round talent of a typical NBA draft, it would force a lot of elite college recruits to exam the possibility of reclassifying up in order to get ahead of that mega draft and be in a pool with fewer elite prospects.

It also gives the high school players themselves a unique decision with regard to their potential college futures. If an elite high school prospect is one year away from entering the NBA draft out of school, would some go to college or would they try to go for a postgrad year and follow in the footsteps of players like Thon Maker and Anfernee Simons?

The expanding presence of the NBA’s G-League is also a factor in all of this as salaries for the league are increasing and becoming more respectable — giving high school players a viable professional option in the United States instead of college for one year before moving on to the draft.

There are still way too many moving parts to truly speculate how this will all go down. But at least we know that the NBA appears to be viewing 2021 or 2022 as the potential change to the one-and-done rule. We’ll have to see how elite high school prospects start potentially adjusting to reclassify while colleges also might have to adopt some new and unique recruiting strategies if they rely on one-and-done players to fill out their roster.

Five-star guard Ashton Hagans enrolling at Kentucky after graduating year early

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kentucky received additional reinforcements for the 2018-19 season on Friday as five-star guard Ashton Hagans graduated high school a year early with the intent to head to Lexington for next season.

The 6-foot-4 Hagans is considered by many recruiting analysts to be a top-ten national prospect in the Class of 2019 as he gives the Wildcats three five-star recruits at lead guard for next season. The Georgia state Player of the Year as a junior this past season, Hagans joins a crowded Kentucky backcourt that includes sophomore Quade Green and fellow incoming freshman and McDonald’s All-American Immanuel Quickley.

While the juggling of minutes is going to be a major storyline for head coach John Calipari this season, the addition of Hagans gives Kentucky even more lineup flexibility than they had before. Because Hagans has good size and defensive ability, he could be used to play alongside the smaller Green, giving the Wildcats a two-guard look that would have more defensive intensity. Playing Quickley and Hagans together would give Kentucky a bigger two-guard lineup that would have a chance to be pretty strong defensively.

And, of course, Calipari could opt to go with some three-guard lineups with other off-guards like Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro to give Kentucky a tough perimeter attack.

Handling minutes and egos will be something to watch for in Lexington this season, but Calipari has handled this sort of situation with a Final Four appearance before. It’s hard to say if the Wildcats will try to play another platoon type of system like we saw in 2014-15, but if they end up getting graduate transfer forward Reid Travis, they might have the personnel to give it a shot.

Villanova lands late commitment from four-star prospect

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Villanova made a late addition to their 2018 recruiting class on Friday afternoon as they landed a commitment from four-star prospect Saddiq Bey.

Bey was originally committed to N.C. State, but he asked out of his Letter of Intent in mid-May as the Wolfpack ended up over the scholarship limit. The versatile, 6-foot-7 forward is a good fit for the way that Villanova likes to play, as he can guard different positions, plays with the toughness you expect out of a kid from Washington D.C. and is a capable scorer.

Bey is also a product of Sidwell Friends, the same high school that produced former Villanova star Josh Hart.

He will joined a recruiting class that also includes five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, four star prospects Cole Swider and Brandon Slater and Albany grad transfer Joe Cremo.

The news was first reported by 247 Sports.

Marvin Bagley III, a ‘Nike kid’, to sign endorsement deal with Puma

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Marvin Bagley III will reportedly sign an endorsement deal with Puma in the NBA.

It’s a five-year deal, according to reports, that will pay Bagley and his family quite a bit of money and will allow them to fund an AAU program for Bagley’s younger brother. That program will be coached by Marvin Bagley Jr., and that gets to the heart of what makes this decision so surprising.

Bagley III has always been considered a “Nike kid”. He played for Nike AAU programs throughout his high school career. The last two years, his father ran the program that he played for, originally called Phoenix Phamily but eventually changed to Nike Phamily. That meant that Nike was able to legally pay Bagley Jr. a significant amount of money to fund that program. Eventually, Bagley would up enrolling at Duke, one of Nike’s flagship college basketball programs.

This is not the way that it is supposed to go for a shoe company like Nike. The reason they spend as much money as they do in the youth ranks is to keep as many kids as possible loyal to the brand. It’s fairly easy to figure out who will end up having a chance at being an NBA player as early as 15 years old, but what’s harder to do is to predict who will actually be able to move product. Did anyone think James Harden or Damian Lillard would be worth a signature shoe? So these shoe companies will spend a relatively small amount of money to fly those kids around the country during their high school years, keep them decked out in their gear and hope that lottery ticket eventually pays off.

What is a couple hundred thousand dollar investment when the payoff is hundreds of millions of dollars in shoe sales? All you need to do is land one Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant to make the math work.

But that isn’t all that the shoe companies are looking for here.

With the amount of money that they have invested in sponsorship deals with these schools, they need to protect that investment. We saw it with Adidas and Louisville. They funneled $100,000 to Brian Bowen, a Nike kid, to get him to an Adidas school not because they thought he would end up being an uber-profitable spokesman but because they needed to protect their investment at the college level.

So while it’s easy to look at this and same that Bagley’s time spent at Duke helped him get a big, fat shoe contract, I think it’s the other way around. He helped Nike — without getting his market value — during his one season at Duke, and what it got him was a shoe contract worth roughly $1 million a year, according to Oregon Live.

Either way, the fact of the matter is that Bagley’s value to these brands is no different now than it was when he was playing for the Blue Devils.

Why is it only now that he’s allowed to cash in on it?