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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.

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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

NCAA makes Johnny Juzang eligible at UCLA for next season

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LOS ANGELES — Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang can play basketball for UCLA this winter.

The NCAA on Wednesday approved a transfer waiver of the year in residence requirement, which typically forces a transfer to sit out one season before becoming eligible. As a result, Juzang is eligible to play what will be his sophomore season in 2020-21.

“We’ve very excited that Johnny will be able to play for us next season,” coach Mick Cronin said. “Johnny is a talented player who can definitely make an impact for us.”

Juzang started two of 28 games for Kentucky as a freshman. He averaged 2.9 points and 1.9 rebounds. At Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake as a junior, he averaged 23 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists.

Juzang joins fellow guard Jaylen Clark from Rancho Cucamonga, California, in next season’s recruiting class. Clark averaged 18.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a high school senior, leading Etiwanda to a 30-4 record and a berth in the CIF-SS Open Division regional final.

The Bruins recently lost out on guard Daishen Nix from Las Vegas. He had signed a national letter of intent with UCLA in November, but decommitted in April to sign with the G League. He was Cronin’s first signing since being named the Bruins’ coach a year ago.

Bobby Hurley accused Arizona State AD in booster scandal

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley sent an email to Ray Anderson about a booster scandal last season alleging the Arizona State athletic director minimized sexual harassment allegations by the wives of three athletic staff members in response to allegations made against Bart Wear.

In the email obtained by Yahoo Sports, Hurley accused Anderson on Dec. 8 of disregarding the safety of and showing no sensitivity toward the women.

“I feel like I’ve been lied to,” Bobby Hurley wrote in regards to the booster scandal.

Hurley also accused Anderson of coming up with a numeric scale to judge the harassment claims by the women, including Hurley’s wife, Leslie.

“You have chosen to create your own numeric scale on what sexual assault mean(s) which is disturbing,” Hurley wrote.

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Anderson responded by telling Hurley his email includes false and baseless allegations.

“Your approach here is puzzling,” Anderson wrote.

In a statement released by the program on Wednesday night, Hurley said, “my relationship with Athletic Director Ray Anderson today is strong. We will work together, alongside my outstanding coaching staff, toward the continued success of Sun Devil Men’s Basketball.”

Arizona State previously had an outside investigation conducted into the school’s booster scandal that determined booster Bart Wear subjected the three women to unwelcome comments and physical contact. In February, the school acknowledged to Yahoo that the situation could have been handled more quickly after waiting months to investigate.

The school canceled Wear’s season tickets and warned him security may remove him from the premises if he attends any future Arizona State events.

Houston’s White out for year after injuring knee in workout

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HOUSTON (AP) Houston forward Fabian White Jr. will have knee surgery this week and miss this season after injuring himself in a workout.

White was working out on his own this week when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees, an injury a spokesman for the school said was confirmed by an MRI on Tuesday.

White was one of two players on the team to start all 31 games last season, and he averaged 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds.

White will redshirt this season and have one year of eligibility remaining to play in the 2021-22 season.

“I feel badly for Fabian,” coach Kelvin Sampson said. “He had worked really hard to have a great senior season. Our thoughts are with him and his family, and we will do all we can to help him recover and have a great senior season in 2021-22.”

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Georgetown transfer Mac McClung commits to Texas Tech

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Texas Tech landed a commitment from Mac McClung on Wednesday.

McClung is a transfer from Georgetown where he averaged 15.7 points and 2.4 assists in 21 games during an injury-plagued sophomore season. He was considered one of the best available transfers on the market.

“It was a number of events that made me feel I had no choice but to transfer from Georgetown,” McClung said when he opted to leave Georgetown. “I really wanted to stay, but things throughout my career made me realize that I couldn’t. I’m looking for a place I can call home. A place I can be part of a family and help them succeed.”

That statement is important. McClung is going to be applying for a waiver to get eligible immediately, and nowhere in there is a reference to actual basketball when it comes to McClung’s decision to leave the Hoya program. The last year has been a dramatic one for Georgetown. In November, two players – James Akinjo and Josh LeBlanc – left the program hours before NBC broke the news that LeBlanc and teammates Galen Alexander and Myron Gardner had restraining orders filed against them by a pair of female Georgetown students. McClung spent the season in and out of the lineup with a foot injury that was sustained in practice in February.

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The goal for Texas Tech is to use McClung — in 2020-21, not 2021-22 — in large part to replace what they lost when Italian native Davide Moretti made the decision to sign with an agent and turn pro in Europe.

And despite what some critics will tell you, it makes sense.

On both sides.

McClung can get a bucket. That’s what he does better than anything else. He broke Allen Iverson’s Virginia state scoring record. He can go, and Texas Tech badly needs players that can go out and get a bucket.

His issue is on the defensive end of the floor. He barely tried to play defense for the Hoyas, and outside of Virginia, there is not place in the world where playing passive defense is more unacceptable than at Texas Tech.

Put another way, if McClung wants to be anything more than a YouTube channel, he needs to learn to guard. At Texas Tech, he won’t play unless he does. And Texas Tech needs someone that can get them buckets.

How can any place be a better fit than that?

‘Voluntary’ workouts are normal for college athletes

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Last week, the NCAA announced that basketball and football players would be able to return to campus on June 1st, pending conference and state approval, to participate in voluntary offseason workouts with teammates.

It’s spawned a conversation about the return to normalcy and how college sports can make their COVID comeback. Our Corey Robinson made the point on All Things on Friday that the voluntary workouts that he participated in while a member of the Notre Dame football team were “mandatory optional,” meaning that they were voluntary in name only. The players were expected to be there and participate, even if it cut into their summer vacation.

How this plays out in the coronavirus era is an entirely different conversation, one with too many caveats to for people that are suffering from quarantine brain. For example, while the NCAA is pulling back on their restrictions, the schools and their athletes are still subject to conference rules — the SEC will be opening things up on June 1st, while the Pac-12 is waiting until June 15th — and state laws. Ohio has re-opened, while New Jersey is still very much limiting what can and cannot open. A return will be different for Ohio State and Rutgers, who are both part of the Big Ten.

And that’s only part of the complications involved.

New York City is the epicenter of the outbreak in a country that has been hit the hardest by this virus. Will coaches want to bring players that live in the city during the offseason back onto campus and risk infection? Will players that live with at-risk relatives be forced to return home?

The other side of it, however, is that as states open up, as local gyms open up, these athletes are going to want to get back to their routine. They are going to want to get back into shape. If you think that you have taken lockdown hard, imagine being a finely-tuned athlete that is told to stay out of the gym and off the basketball courts for two months. Those guys are going to jump at the chance to start playing again, and if the option is to workout at the local Lifetime Fitness or have them back onto campus, where access to weight rooms is monitored and sanitizing can be done more often, the answer is clear.

Allowing athletes to workout on campus during the summer may actually be the safer option.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: Moving towards a return to sports is a good thing for our country. We need signs that we can get back to a regular life at some point. We need hope. We need something to look forward to, and for many, that is watching — or playing — college athletics. There are so many unknowns that a slow, cautious return might be what works.

That said, the number of questions that are still left unanswered is mystifying.

For starters, who is going to play to test all of these college football and college basketball players? Who is going to pay to test all the people they come into contact with on a daily basis? All the professional sports teams that have returned or are preparing to return have rigorous testing procedures in place. College sports doesn’t. Those pro athletes will be kept in a bubble. They are going to be quarantined. College athletes will be on campus. All it takes is for one member of a football or basketball team to decide that it’s OK to hit a party where someone is asymptomatic to mess everything up.

And what happens when they do? Will that player go into quarantine? Will everyone that he or she has been practicing against go into quarantine? Will the teams they played in recent days go into quarantine? Will they be allowed to play road games if someone in the program tests positive? Will other campuses want to risk an outbreak just so they can get the ticket revenue from a 1/3-full stadium?

What about the coaches that are 70-plus years old?

Hell, what about all of the college basketball players from overseas? Are we ever going to see them in a college hoops uniform again?

Here’s the biggest question, however: College campuses have started to announce their new schedules for classes, and many of them are starting early and ending early, right around Thanksgiving, due to concerns about a second wave coming this winter. November is when college basketball season is supposed to start. Are we going to play a full season in the throes of a second wave?

The question of whether or not these workouts are actually voluntary is hardly the question I would be asking if I’m a college sports fan right now.