Zion Williamson, Marvin Bagley III headline top performers from first live period in July

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — My NBC Sports colleague Rob Dauster claimed that Peach Jam had the best atmosphere of any event during the first week of the live period in his Peach Jam Takeaways column. You can trust what Rob says 99 percent of the time.

He’s dead wrong on this one.

Check out any adidas Gauntlet Finale game where Class of 2018 mega-athlete Zion Williamson took the floor and you’d see why he’s a worldwide phenomenon. This is also why the adidas Gauntlet Finale, for perhaps the first time ever, had a better atmosphere than Peach Jam this year.

I sat in a mostly-empty gym at Peach Jam as the best player in the country (Marvin Bagley) took on one of the best teams (Howard Pulley and Tre Jones). Zion Williamson’s entire court would be surrounded on all sides (as well as the track above) as early as 45 minutes before he was scheduled to even play.

People would even stand on bleachers while other teams were playing in the hopes of getting a glimpse at the YouTube sensation.

And Williamson didn’t disappoint the local fans.

Leading the week at adidas in points and rebounds per game (averaging 29.6 points and 13.2 rebounds), Williamson looked nearly fully healthy following the minor knee injury that forced him to sit out most of the spring.

Displaying the jaw-dropping bounciness at his size that enables him to throw down highlight-reel dunks and erase shots at 11 and 12 feet, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Williamson was a playmaker on both ends of the floor this week as he is still easily a top-five prospect in this class.

Still showing an ability to take over a game as a scorer or rebounder, Williamson is a downhill driver with the ball in his hands and there just aren’t many players as big and as athletic as he is at the high school level. With a unique skill level that enables him to handle and pass a bit, Williamson dissected talented defenses and put up big numbers all weekend.

Williamson’s jumper was still very inconsistent in Spartanburg, (4-for-19 from three-point range) but it does actually look a bit better in terms of overall touch and mechanics as he said he practiced it a lot during his downtime with the knee injury.

One of the biggest high school basketball stars of the last decade, I’m looking forward to seeing how Williamson closes out his career in Las Vegas in two weeks.

MARVIN BAGLEY III: The top prospect in the Class of 2018 (and possibly 2017 if he reclassifies), the 6-foot-11 Bagley showed why he’s the best with his performance at Peach Jam.

Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 50 percent from the field as he displayed skills all over the floor at his size. Pushing rebounds for breaks and finding shooters for assists, Bagley speeding up and leading fast breaks as a ball handler is a scary recent development as he’s also able to finish with long and effortless strides going to the rim.

Still a double-double machine thanks to his ability to get off the floor, Bagley can snatch rebounds over other players and finish on putbacks before they even get off the ground to contest.

Bagley and his team also deserve credit for winning. After being included as a controversial at-large bid to Peach Jam after winning only two games during the spring, the Nike Phamily went 3-2 at Peach Jam and Bagley was a huge reason why.

Perimeter shooting continues to be the only major weakness to Bagley’s game as he was 1-for-11 last week but he’ll have time to work on that soon enough. If Bagley enters college next season, he would have a serious chance to be an All-American.

Marvin Bagley III, Jon Lopez/Nike

JERICOLE HELLEMS: Playing with Bradley Beal Elite this spring, the 6-foot-7 Hellems was a solid role player for a good team. At Peach Jam, Hellems scored more points in seven games than he did during the 16-game EYBL regular season as he exploded for a huge week.

Putting up  22.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game Hellems earned a ton of new scholarship offers based on his play in North Augusta. He’s an intriguing offensive player as he’s equipped with some improved three-point range, post abilities and intelligent cuts without the ball.

Capable of playing multiple spots on the floor, Hellems is going to be a player to watch the rest of July to see if he can sustain the kind of numbers he put up during the first week. It could have just been that Hellems needed more of an opportunity to shine with more shots. He certainly made the most of his time at Peach Jam.

SIMI SHITTU: Canadian forward Simi Shittu continued his strong stretch of play over the last several weeks following his MVP performance at the NBPA Top 100 Camp. The 6-foot-9 Shittu was dominant at times during Peach Jam as he put up 20.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 65 percent from the field.

Simi Shittu; Photo by Jon Lopez

Shittu has always been a high-motor double-double threat, but his passing ability and overall feel for the game are beginning to stand out in more subtle ways. Able to lead a break as a ball handler off of a rebound, Shittu is becoming dangerous in multiple ways as he continues to push up the rankings.

Mentioning to reporters that he’s constantly studying ball-dominant bigger players like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Shittu might have his eyes on eventually handling more serious handling responsibilities.

MATTHEW HURT: I haven’t talked much about the Class of 2019 for CBT this spring, but the 6-foot-9 Hurt has been one of the most productive players in his class the last two summers.

The younger brother of Minnesota sophomore Michael Hurt, Matthew is bigger and more talented as he put up 21.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game at the adidas Gauntlet Finale in South Carolina. A skilled offensive player who is capable of scoring from all three levels of the floor, Hurt has adjusted nicely since missing this spring with a broken hand.

He’s also a bit tougher than his skinny frame might indicate as he averaged 2.0 blocks per game while playing some solid post defense.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.