USA Basketball

Four Storylines: USA Basketball U18 Team at FIBA Americas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The USA Basketball U18 team begins play this week as FIBA Americas tips off in Canada.

The heavy favorites to capture a gold medal in the age group, the Americans started training camp in Colorado Springs last week as I watched some of the early sessions of practice to get a feel for how the group might look in the event.

Here’s some takeaways, and storylines, to follow over the next week at FIBA Americas as the Bill Self-coached outfit features a combination of incoming college freshmen and rising high school seniors.

1. Who becomes the team’s leader and go-to player?

One of the fascinating things to watch about this U18 tryout was the lack of a clear go-to player. Two years ago for the U18 team, this was no such issue. That group featured Michael Porter Jr., Markelle Fultz and Trae Young (to name a few off of a loaded team).

But this current U18 group is a byproduct of two down years in a row when it comes to national recruiting classes. The Class of 2018 and 2019 are two of the worst back-to-back years we’ve seen in quite some time when it comes to actual star power.

So finding a leader and a go-to guy is going to be one of this team’s main goals in the early going. It might not come down to one player. The perimeter trio of Cole Anthony, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White all had strong stretches playing together during tryouts and all three showed leadership capabilities and strong abilities to score.

Kentucky commit Tyrese Maxey also falls into this category. He’s a charismatic lead guard who can really score, which means he might also take on the role of a go-to player.

It’s not as if the USA team has to have one go-to guy like this to win the gold medal. But it would certainly help in close-game situations if they knew they could turn to one particular player (or group of players) that can produce.

2. The team’s perimeter shooting — particularly Ayo Dosunmu and Quentin Grimes

Perimeter shooting will also be a significant development with this team, most notably with a couple of college-bound guards who have been inconsistent from the three-point line in the past. Also, keep in mind that FIBA rules are in play here, which means a different ball and an expanded three-point line from the college level — yet another reason why college hoops needs to expand the three-point line closer further from the basketball.

One of the intriguing storylines will involve Illinois commit Ayo Dosunmu and his re-worked perimeter jumper. A known scorer who was always streaky with his jumper in the past, Dosunmu has completely overhauled his shot since the end of March and the high school season. Now sporting a full follow through and a higher release, Dosunmu’s jumper looked way better than before as it’s a skill that has given him added confidence as a scorer. With Illinois counting on its highest-rated recruit so much for the upcoming 2018-19 season, if Dosunmu has a decent perimeter jumper, it could make him one the Big Ten’s most dangerous threats.

Future Kansas Jayhawk Quentin Grimes is another perimeter player to watch when it comes to shooting. The U18 team is a fascinating parallel to how Grimes could be used next season as Bill Self will be coaching both teams. Grimes is probably best suited to have the ball in his hands as an attacking guard, but with other steady floor generals like Anthony and Maxey on the U18 team, he could be relegated to playing mostly off the ball. Since Kansas has Charlie Moore and Devon Dotson on the smaller side of Grimes in next year’s guard rotation, Grimes might also be forced more off the ball at Kansas next season. So how will Grimes look as a catch-and-shoot option? Like Dosunmu, Grimes has been streaky with his jumper in the past.

The USA doesn’t need Dosunmu and Grimes to make perimeter jumpers in order to win. Anthony, Maxey and fellow Class of 2019 guard Mark “Rocket” Watts Jr. were three of the most prolific perimeter shooters in the Nike EYBL this spring. But Dosunmu and Grimes knocking down open shots could go a long way towards the team’s ultimate success.

3. The role of Coby White

One of the better and more consistent players during training camp was North Carolina commit and guard Coby White. An advanced scorer from multiple levels, White had it going with the perimeter jumper at times during camp as he nailed catch-and-shoot jumpers and jumpers off the bounce.

As noted earlier, there are plenty of really talented guards already playing with the U18 team, so White likely doesn’t need to play on the ball and be a facilitator. But that’s the thing North Carolina fans should probably be watching for during FIBA Americas. Somebody has to replace Joel Berry’s massive presence in the Tar Heel backcourt for next season. White looks like a prime candidate to potentially do so.

The problem lies in White’s DNA as a natural scorer. Since he’s never asked to be a true facilitator, White is learning the nuances of the point guard spot while still trying to keep his offensive aggression as a shooter.

There were some promising signs of lead guard development from White at USA. White showed a strong ability to read ball screens, changing paces and navigating into the paint whenever he felt like it. Also making basic reads and some solid one-handed passes to corner shooters, White appears to be improving at the basic functions of being a facilitator.

Finding that balance between running a team and hunting his own offense will be something to track with the U18 team because White will likely have to do the same at North Carolina. The Tar Heels will have a strong frontcourt featuring Luke Maye and fellow five-star freshman Nassir Little. Upperclass perimeter options like Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are back as well. White will be asked to score next season, but more importantly, he’ll also need to set the table for those others to get involved as well.

4. Which big men will step up and see heavy minutes?

It should come as no surprise that this USA U18 team is a guard-driven outfit. But that doesn’t mean the big men should be ignored in this equation. While small-ball and floor-spacing lineups are the popular thing coming into American basketball at all levels, there is still a need for true big men and a rotation of frontcourt players.

Among the group’s frontcourt players, Texas commit Kamaka Hepa could be perhaps the team’s best interior defender for this event because of his advanced feel, communication skills and versatility. Others in the group could eventually be better than Hepa, but his enthusiasm for smothering ball screens and recovering back to the post was unmatched at the camp.

The Class of 2019 duo of Armando Bacot and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was also really good during camp as the duo compliments each other pretty well. Bacot is more of an old-school, ground-game big man who isn’t an elite athlete, but he has great hands and feel as he’s a natural double-double threat at the college level. Although a tad undersized as a combo forward, the 6-foot-8 Robinson-Earl makes up for it with great first and secondary leaping ability that enables him to be a demon on the glass.

Tracye Jackson-Davis was also active on the glass and defending on the interior as he’s continuing to blossom this spring. And Matthew Hurt provides a skill element the frontcourt is lacking with his floor-spacing and passing abilities.

Again, this team’s success will be driven by guard play, as Self will likely incorporate two, three or even four-guard lineups with the amount of perimeter talent he has at his disposal. But the big men will need to play a part in capturing a gold medal as well. Seeing how Self uses his lineups will be a huge part in determining which big men will shine.

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

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North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

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Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

Doppelgangers Grayson Allen, Ted Cruz finally meet

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Ever since Grayson Allen burst onto the national scene during the 2015 Final Four, the former Duke star has been called a Ted Cruz lookalike.

That, frankly, is not exactly a compliment, and it is a comparison that Allen initially bristled at, but now that his college career, Allen seems to be embracing the long-running joke.

We know that because Allen met Cruz this weekend as he helped the senator from Texas beat Jimmy Kimmel in a game of one-on-one:

The actually game won’t be broadcast until Monday night so we won’t know exactly how Cruz won or what Allen did to help, but Cruz did beat Kimmel 11-9.

We will get getting our answers this evening.

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

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The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

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TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.