The Southern Stampede and the South Beach All-Stars are playing an early evening game on the far east court of the Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington on Friday night. It's one of five games going on in the gym at this very moment in the EYBL -- Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League -- and the crowd is sparse, mostly just a collection of parents and a few college coaches.
The game is physical and uptempo but it is not particularly well played. Both teams are filled with players in the class of 2017, the juniors-to-be just now getting their first chance to play at the highest level of the league. South Beach ended the weekend in last place in its division, while the Stampede would get their first victory of the new year in this game.
Still, there is a reason to be here. The main attraction is Zach Brown, South Beach's starting center and one of the best prospects in his class. Brown may be weeks away from finishing his sophomore year of high school, but he's already bigger than almost every NBA center right now. He is listed at 7'1, 260 pounds and he is 16 years old.
Brown's guardian is sitting center court for this game with his wife or girlfriend. When South Beach makes a key bucket late in the game, the woman stands up and slaps the floor with both hands in a way that would make prime Kevin Garnett proud. None of the players really seem to notice, which is good because otherwise it would be embarrassing as hell.
At the next timeout, a woman sitting next to the couple strikes up a conversation. She is at least in her 70s, fitted with short white hair and a floral pattern blazer. They start talking about Brown.
"One of our boys is very big, as well," the older lady says. "He's off to the NBA now. Willie Cauley-Stein. I think they say he's like No. 6."
Brown's guardians ask if Cauley-Stein is her son or grandson. "No, we're just fans. The newspaper advertised for this event for three days and we just love basketball."
On the other side of the same building, Cauley-Stein is signing autographs, posing for pictures and watching the players John Calipari hopes to recruit to replace him. Calipari, of course, is here too, along with almost every other major college coach in the country.
Throw it all together, put it Lexington and it's something of a surreal scene: crazy parents, basketball-obsessed grandmas, players like Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Cauley-Stein walking around like celebrities and the likes of Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, Tom Crean and Mike Brey all crammed in a gym that's way too small to accommodate everything.
It's an incredibly important weekend. College coaches are permitted to be on the road for only two weekends in the spring, and this is one of them. With the Nike tour in Lexington, an Under Armour event in Louisville and adidas camp in Indianapolis, everything that goes into making college basketball recruiting such a bizarre, insular world is all located within two hours of each other.
To make matters even more compelling, the talent at the top of the class of 2016 looks as strong as it has been in years. The class of 2013 had Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon; the class of 2014 had Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and D'Angelo Russell. Still, some scouts on the road this week think the best players in 2016 are even more impressive at the same stage of their careers. The top of 2017 appears to be promising, as well. There are future NBA players at all three events.
One of those players is Malik Monk, a 6'4 shooting guard from Bentonville, Arkansas, who is currently ranked No. 6 by ESPN. Everyone in Lexington -- grandmas included -- knows he's likely to be deciding between Kentucky and Arkansas. When he takes the court on Saturday morning, the gym is buzzing with anticipation.
There are more than a few famous faces in the crowd. Booker and Ulis are standing on one baseline. Near the other sits Shaka Smart, Billy Donovan and former NBA players turned coaches Dan Majerle, Avery Johnson and Chris Mullin. Calipari is in a front row seat leaning over to talk to Tom Izzo, who is situated a few spots down. They are cracking each other up like two old friends who haven't seen each other in years:
I saw Monk play on Friday night, too. He was good but not great, scoring 16 points on 5-of-14 shooting in a 20-point loss to a loaded Georgia Stars team. Fortunately, this game will be different.
One the first possession, Monk receives a pass on the left wing and swishes a three. On the next possession, he dribbles the ball up the court on the right wing, pulls up for three and drains it. He does the same thing again on the following possession. Three possessions, nine points for Malik Monk to start this game. He does it again on the ensuing possession, and gets fouled by two guys before calmly sinking two out of the three free throws.
Monk put on a show the entire way through, finishing with 39 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 6-of-8 makes from three point range. He had a couple of huge dunks but missed one late by slamming it off the back iron with two hands.
After the game, he essentially held a one-man press conference with a group of reporters, most of them from Kentucky outlets. When it's done, he signs autographs for a group of kids.
"Coach Calipari has compared you to Derrick Rose. Who do you compared yourself to?"
"Do you notice all the college coaches on the sideline?"
"At halftime when I'm sitting down getting my rest, I'll see them over there."
Later that day, I'm in Louisville at the Under Armour event. The talk of camp is Josh Jackson, who earlier in the day scored 41 points on 19-of-24 shooting. Jerry Meyer of 247 Sports called "one of the best performance I've scouted in 11 years."
Jackson's second game of the day draws an impressive crowd. Arizona's Sean Miller is sitting courtside, ESPN's Fran Fraschilla is a few spots down, Bruce Pearl is standing up against the nearest wall and Minnesota coach Richard Pitino walks in shortly after tip-off.
They would not get the same show Jackson put on earlier. Jackson -- who appears very aware of how good he is -- looked disinterested and frustrated for most of the game. He was talking trash to anyone who would listen, whether it was the poor kid from Philly Pride trying to guard him, his own point guard when he failed to toss him a backdoor lob or a referee whenever a call didn't go his way.
Even as he went 5-for-14 for 11 points, his talent jumped off the floor. During one sequence in the second half as the opposing team was chipping into a big lead, Jackson hit a three, finished a spinning drive at the rim, chased down an opposing player for an incredible block and swished a fadeaway from mid-range that looked like a move Kobe Bryant would pull off.
Jackson is a consensus top three player in 2016. It's easy to get caught wondering if he could play in the NBA right now. For one, he's already 18, making him a year older than everyone here. It made his shit talking a little tiresome, at least from this perspective. There's nothing wrong with being cocky on a basketball court, but at least do it against people your own age. Oh well. Jackson will be a professional soon. His college choice appears to be down to Arizona and Kansas, but most people in Louisville think he'll opt to play professionally overseas instead.
The next morning, adidas camp opens up with point guard Dennis Smith leading Team Loaded North Carolina. Smith doesn't just play like Damian Lillard, he even looks like him in the face. His explosion is incredible, he has good size and he's splashing in threes all afternoon.
After the game, Smith doesn't want to talk about recruiting. "All I can tell you is that my in-home visits start in the fall." Even if he won't say it, the faces watching him tell you everything you need to know. NC State's Mark Gottfried and Kansas' Bill Self are sitting right there on the baseline. Both schools are sponsored by adidas, which is not a coincidence.
You hear a lot of stuff like that just talking to people. Shoe company influence isn't everything, but it's becoming more transparent lately.
Severals scouts think Emmanuel Mudiay's decision to play overseas will open up that possibility for other top players, including several in 2016. Once they see that Mudiay was still a high draft pick while getting over $1 million to play internationally instead of for free in college, it seems like it's only a matter of time before more blue chip recruits start doing it. Hanging over everything is the NBA age limit, which Adam Silver wants to raise at least one year.
If that happens, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the EYBL and the other shoe company tours start to take on added meaning. Hang around the AAU circuit enough and it becomes apparent many of the top kids are already small economies unto themselves.
Nike wants Monk, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum to go to Nike schools, to get to the NBA and to help them sell shoes. Same goes for Under Armour with Jackson and adidas with Smith. It's only something to get bent out of shape about if you're naive to the realities of what's going on here -- that these kids are really good, and the only thing holding them back is their age.
As long as this country keeps producing top basketball talents, the AAU circuit will survive in a way that entertains some and irritates others. It's not perfect, but it's not some dark plague on the spirit of the game, either.
As youth basketball continues to evolve, the structure of these events is only getting more professional. The players may only be 16 and 17, but watch Monk rip a pull-up three or Smith explode to the basket or Jackson casually drain a fadeaway and it becomes clear that the future isn't all that far away.
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