Ben Simmons grabbed a rebound during a five-on-five drill Monday morning and pushed the ball in transition down the right sideline. Antonio Blakeney, his former AAU teammate and future college teammate at LSU, had leaked out ahead of the play and was sprinting to the basket between a pair of defenders.
Simmons took the ball in his right hand and saw an angle almost no one else in the gym would have noticed. He spun a bounce pass directly into Blakeney's hands for a layup. It would have been a great feed for a veteran point guard to make, let alone a 6'9, 225-pound, 18-year-old still a couple months away from graduating high school.
NBA scouts, national media and 24 tall and awkward teenagers converged in Chicago for the fifth year in a row on Monday for the first public practice at the McDonald's All-American Game. They had come to see Simmons pass, watch Jaylen Brown fly and gawk at Brandon Ingram's impossibly skinny frame drill three after three.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say the congregation on the city's West Side was there to see the future of basketball. No, being named a McDonald's All-American doesn't ensure a quality college career let alone a long one in the NBA, but the lineage at this particular all-star game is simply too strong to ignore at this point.
From Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Anthony Davis, the McDonald's Game is a rite of passage just as much as it is an announcement of things to come. It's a small window into the future of not only the best young basketball talent but also where the game might be headed. It's a celebration of four years of hard work and often a player's first induction into the basketball community to anyone who doesn't live and die with the weird world of college basketball recruiting.
There was a lot going on. This is what we saw.
The alpha dogs
Pay close enough attention and you can spot trends at the McDonald's Game every year. Two years ago, with Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker as the leading men, it was all about oversized wings. Last year the spotlight was on the centers, with Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Myles Turner dominating every drill through shear physicality.
This season seems to be defined by multi-dimensional big men, and no one sums it up like the class' consensus No. 1 player, Ben Simmons.
Simmons is something of an anomaly all the way around. He's from Australia, arriving stateside in Florida just over two years ago to play at Montverde Academy, the same prep school that helped develop D'Angelo Russell. He isn't going to Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina. Instead, he had a relatively drama-free recruitment to LSU in part because his godfather David Patrick is an assistant there. LSU isn't even a basketball-first school, but that could change for a season in the fall when Simmons and Blakeney arrive on campus.
What makes Simmons the No. 1 player in the class? Mostly, he has the size of a power forward and the passing ability of a point guard. He seems quick and explosive and already appears to possess an advanced understanding of the game. He rarely turned the ball over on Monday and often used his height to help find angles even natural point guards wouldn't have seen.
He's not a perfect player. Right now, he struggles to shoot the ball outside of 15 feet. His defense was hard to judge in a setting like this one, too. Of course, he's also only 18. The jump shot has time to develop. Even without it, he looks like the most skilled player in the class.
If Simmons is the best player right now, Georgia native Jaylen Brown might have the most long-term upside. Brown is a 6'7, 220-pound wing, whose athleticism is about as elite as it gets. He didn't waste any time proving it on Monday.
Brown had several huge dunks during the session, but one from the middle of practice stood out. He was flying down the court in transition as part of a rotating 5-on-5 drill and elevated to dunk about two steps before any normal player should have. He just kept getting higher and higher -- gliding is the only way to describe it -- and eventually hammered it home. It was a subtle display of athletic brilliance and it's the reason Brown, who is currently uncommitted, can basically pick any school in the country.
He's definitely still lacking some polish. He made some careless passes on Monday, and his handle will need to tighten up considerably. He's improved as a shooter, but the consensus is that he still has a ways to go. Still, this type of size and athleticism does not come along often and it gives Brown a chance to one day become a very good NBA player. There's a reason DraftExpress has him listed as the No. 1 pick in 2016.
Brown is deciding between Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA, among others. It doesn't really matter where he goes because more than likely he'll only be there for a season. He's going to be playing basketball for a long time and will make a lot of money doing it. This week feels like a first step.
The big men
Ivan Rabb, Thomas Bryant (pictured) and Diamond Stone
Bryant might have been the most pleasant surprise of Monday's practice. He's huge (6'10, 240 pounds, 7'5.5 wingspan), runs well and even showed a nice face-up game. He's also one of the youngest players in the class and doesn't turn 18 years old until July 31. To put that in perspective, another McDonald's All-American, shooting guard Allonzo Trier, will turn 20 in January and is 18 months older than Bryant.
Bryant is another uncommitted player, one of eight here this weekend. Indiana is supposed to be the front-runner, but he's also considering Syracuse, Missouri and maybe Kentucky. He's big and strong and fast, and has the look of a future NBA player, even if it might be a few years in the future.
Rabb is reportedly set to commit soon, either to Arizona or (more likely) Cal. He's 6'10 but skinny. His super quick-twitch athleticism was immediately evident, as was his comfort level finishing with either hand around the rim. He projects as a shot blocker and defensive standout as he matures physically.
Stone is more of a throwback player, a hefty low-post scorer, whose commitment to Maryland last week might make the Terps a national title contender a year from now. The comparison I heard thrown around before seeing him was Andrew Bynum, and it definitely fits. He has a long way to go before he's as nimble and skilled as Bynum was in his heyday, but you can see the potential.
Malik Newman (pictured), Antonio Blakeney, Allonzo Trier
Malik Newman can't do anything else at this level. He won four straight state titles in high school in Mississippi. He was named MVP of the U17 FIBA World Championships as the leading scorer (14.9 points per game) on the USA's gold medal winning team. He has a scholarship waiting for him from Kentucky, Kansas, hometown Mississippi State and just about every other school.
Newman often draws comparisons to Monta Ellis. Having the same home state is part of it, but their games are similar, too. Newman has a beautiful, seemingly mechanical shot that looks the same every time. When he gets it going, he's liable to pull up from the three-point line for three, four, five possessions in a row and just rain jumpers. He's is a bit undersized for the NBA as a 6'4 shooting guard with proportional arms, but he's still likely to have a long career there. He's also the type of guard who could dominate the college game as soon as he enters it.
Blakeney and Trier are similar. Think of these three in a sort of Jason Terry or Lou Williams role. They will put points up, plain and simple.
Blakeney is going to LSU with Simmons after long and bizarre and sort of heartbreaking recruitment that had him pick Louisville and then de-commit 10 days after his verbal, almost certainly because Louisville is an Adidas school, and he came up through Nike. It'll still work out for Blakeney and Louisville always seems to find a way to be fine, but it's a fairly transparent example of how grimy the recruiting scene can be.
Trier is headed for Arizona, where he could start immediately as the Wildcats might turn over their entire starting five. He's been on the map for a while.
The upside all-stars
Cheick Diallo (pictured) and Brandon Ingram
Ingram was the breakout player of Monday's session. It's impossible not to notice him: he's so tall (at least 6'9) and so long and so smooth, both with the ball in his hands and while shooting. He also wore short shorts (Brown was the only other player to do it) and just sort of looked like alien. I swear that's a complement. Did I mention he was ridiculously long?
Pretty much everyone in attendance was impressed:
Brandon Ingram is dominating the McDonald's West practice. It's a joke really. More than 10 jump shots made. Four threes. Up to 6-9.— Evan Daniels (@EvanDaniels) March 30, 2015
Brandon Ingram, 6-8 from Kinston, NC. was the most impressive player I saw. Wasn’t watching the Ben Simmons court though. #McDAAG— Michael O'Brien (@michaelsobrien) March 30, 2015
Not sure I've seen one guy dominate a McDs practice session like Brandon Ingram just did. 2015 SF consistently created & knocked down shots.— Josh Gershon (@JoshGershon) March 30, 2015
Brandon Ingram looks every bit as good in an elite setting as he did during senior season. Game comes easy to him. #mcdaag— Eric Bossi (@ebosshoops) March 30, 2015
Ingram is also still uncommitted, and it sounds like a battle between Duke and North Carolina. Just because of his height, length and shooting stroke, it's easy to say he has as much long-term upside as any player here.
Diallo is a very different player. He didn't display much offensive skill. While a lot of the other big men were knocking down face-up jumpers, it seemed apparent that isn't Diallo's game. It's OK. It was hard to take your eyes off the 6'9, 218-pound power forward because he might have been the fastest player at practice.
Diallo just flies. Pick the quickest animal you can think of and it applies. He might be unrefined offensively as an 18-year-old but he has the length (7'3 wingspan) and foot speed to be a special defender. St. John's, Iowa State and Kansas are considered the front-runners.
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