There’s a theme that hangs over the practices at the McDonald’s All-American Game every year.
Back in 2013, it was the battle for No. 1 between Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. The next year was all about the big men, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner, and Jahlil Okafor giving us a peek at the next generation of centers. It was easy to tell Ben Simmons was the biggest star in 2015. Last year was about establishing a pecking order in one of the deepest classes in recent memory.
The theme for this year’s classic is less obvious at first, but undeniable once you see these players up close. The class of 2017 is defined by size, athleticism, and the place in the middle where both meet.
On Wednesday, the 24 high school seniors making up this year’s McDonald’s All-American Game will have their national coming out party under the bright lights of ESPN. These are the players you need to know.
DeAndre Ayton: The next unicorn
DeAndre Ayton’s most recent measurement at the 2016 Nike Hoops Summit listed him at 7-feet tall, 243 pounds with a 7'5 wingspan. Those are ideal dimensions for a traditional center, but Ayton has never seemed particularly interested in being that.
Ayton would rather face-up than try to score in the post. He’s more comfortable guarding the wing than protecting the rim. While he only hit 25 percent of the 57 threes he took last summer on Nike’s EYBL circuit, his shooting stroke is smooth and the ball looks good coming out of his hands. He was hitting jumpers all over the court at Monday’s practice.
Playing alongside fellow five-star center Brandon McCoy on the summer circuit for Cal Supreme afforded Ayton the opportunity to step away from the paint. He might be in a similar situation at Arizona next year, too, with senior-to-be Dusan Ristic already installed at center. He even invoked the name of the most hallowed unicorn of all when he was asked he who patterns his game after.
“Actually to be honest, I’m in love with [Kristaps] Porzingis, though,” he told Scout last May. “We have the same game to be honest. Same exact game. He can shoot. He can put the ball on the floor and go to the rim and he can post up.”
Michael Porter Jr.: The blueprint
Every team at every level of basketball wants a player like Michael Porter Jr. He’s the ideal hybrid forward for the modern game, pairing the size of a big man (6’10) and the skill set of a wing with elite athleticism.
It doesn’t take long to tell just how rare his physical gifts are. Porter spent Monday’s practice hitting dribble pull-ups from the perimeter, grabbing rim-level rebounds, and finishing every transition opportunity with a huge dunk. There was no one in his scrimmage who could match up with him.
Porter spent his senior year of high school playing for Brandon Roy near Seattle as a Washington commit. He got out of his letter of intent after coach Lorenzo Romar was fired and announced last week he’ll attend Missouri instead.
The common thread? Both schools hired his dad as an assistant coach. Getting his old man multiple jobs before he graduates high school might be the ultimate sign of his talent.
Mohamed Bamba: First Team All-Defense
Mo Bamba is a freak. This statement is made in the most complimentary way possible.
Bamba’s wingspan was recently measured at 7’9, which would appear to make him longer than any player to ever come through the NBA draft combine. He’s also light on his feet and quick off the ground. Put it all together and it’s reasonable to think he could one day grow into a Rudy Gobert-level defender. That’s the most obvious comparison given his proportions.
He’s also serious about learning the game. He flew out to Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year and stood up during a panel to ask a question about pick-and-roll defense. This is not your typical 18-year-old in just about every way possible.
Wendell Carter Jr.: The throwback
Duke won a national championship in 2015 behind a star freshman big man who thrived in the post. Coach K will try to it again next year when Carter gets on campus.
Carter isn’t exactly Jahlil Okafor, but he’s similarly suited to have an instant impact at the college level next year. He’s going to be a tenacious rebounder and dependable interior scorer from day one. Long-term, his value will rest on how good he can be defensively at the five. He’s a tad short for a pro center at 6’10, but he has a 7’5 wingspan and carries his 260-pound frame well to make up for it.
Carter doesn’t just bully people in the post, he can step away from the basket and hit a shot, too. Coach K is thrilled he decided to come to Durham instead of Harvard.
Trevon Duval and Collin Sexton: The attacking floor generals
The point guards in the class of 2016 were always going to be impossible to measure up to. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith were all instant-impact one-and-dones who helped make college basketball a better place for one season. As they leave for the NBA draft, Duval and Sexton will try to leave a similar impression.
Both players are about 6’3 with a 6’8 wingspan who are looking to attack the basket first, second, and third. It’s best just not to get in the way.
Duval did this in a game this season:
Sexton did this to win the McDonald’s dunk contest Monday night:
Again, these are point guards! Sexton is about to make Alabama really fun next year. Duval is uncommitted and is considering Kansas, Duke, Arizona, and plenty more. If you like guards who view Russell Westbrook as their single greatest inspiration, Duval and Sexton are for you.
The rest of the 2017 McDonald’s All-Americans
PG Quade Green, Kentucky: The smallest McDonald’s All-American, Green is a dependable shooter and excellent passer. He wasn’t afraid to tell his teammates when they missed a rotation in practice.
SF Kevin Knox, uncommitted: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Florida State are after him, and they all need him. He’s a super athletic, oversized wing with a developing skill level. It will be fun to watch him go at Porter in Wednesday’s game.
C Nick Richards, Kentucky: Richards projects as a real rim protector. He could remind Kentucky fans of Nerlens Noel or Willie Cauley-Stein.
C Mitchell Robinson, Western Kentucky: Incredible athlete for a center. Rick Stansbury has a way of getting things done.
F Jarred Vanderbilt, Kentucky: Athletic 6’7 forward who can pass and handle the ball but struggles to shoot it.
SG Lonnie Walker, Miami: Strong shooting guard who can score from all three levels.
SG M.J. Walker, uncommitted: Big, strong guard with a developing jumper.
F P.J. Washington, Kentucky: Projects as a dependable rebounder and interior scorer.
SF Kris Wilkes, UCLA: A skinny wing who can knock down a jumper. He’ll need to have a big year for UCLA to keep its momentum going next season.
SG Brian Bowen, uncommitted: Considering Michigan State and Arizona; has a memorable hair cut.
G Troy Brown, Oregon: At 6’6, he was once considered a point guard but started playing more regularly off the ball in the last year.
PG Jaylen Hands, UCLA: An explosive, 6’3 point guard, he has the tools to fill Lonzo Ball’s shoes with the Bruins as well as anyone could hope to.
PF Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State: A big man with a dependable three-point shot.
C Brandon McCoy, uncommitted: Can make plays above the rim on both ends.
SF Chuck O’Bannon Jr., USC: A 6’6 shooter who should fit well next to USC’s returning horde of athletes.
PF Billy Preston, Kansas: A big forward who can fill it up offensively.
SG Gary Trent Jr., Duke: The son of The Shaq of the MAC should be an instant-impact scorer for Duke next year.
PG Trae Young, Oklahoma: Best shooter in the class.