On November 14, 2002, Carmelo Anthony, a 6-8, 230-pound former McDonald’s All-American, dominated in his first collegiate game, scoring 27 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in a Syracuse loss at Memphis. He looked bigger, stronger, and overall better than the other nine players on the floor. Kevin Durant followed suit, scoring 20-plus points in his first seven games at Texas. In their first game of the 2014 season, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker scored 16 and 22 points, respectively.
McDonald’s All-Americans are the cream of the crop when it comes to high school prospects (the top 20, and 24 out of the top 30 prospects this year, according to ESPN’s Top 100), which means it’s no wonder these players often come in and immediately have great success. When you were 18, were you 6-8 and 230 pounds of elite athleticism and ability?
For some players the adjustment to the college game isn’t quite as easy; the game is faster, the players are stronger. Strength is usually the biggest issue; there are 6-5 players weighing in the 170s coming out of high school. Now they’re facing 220-pound men on the verge of the NBA. The days of going up against teams with two, maybe three good players are over (unless you schedule like Larry Brown, that is). These players, who just four short months ago were going to prom, are now asked to play against players who’ve been lifting, eating and developing on the college level for two, three, even four years longer than them.
But each year there are a select group of players who come into college and immediately put the upper class on notice; we’re here and we’re ready now. After spending the week observing this year’s class of players in practice, scrimmages and the McDonald’s All-American Game, I’ve done as much scouting in four days as Phil Jackson has since taking the Knicks job–with about half the peyote consumption (just kidding, Mom).
After talking to media and scouts alike, I’m here to give my scouting take on the high schoolers most ready to make an impact in college next season.
*** *** ***
12. Justin Jackson
23 points, 5 rebounds
Jackson was the surprising high scorer of the game. He did so mostly because of hustle, scoring his first 20 points off of layups and putbacks, which led to a small debate between a scout and I about his actual ability. He proceeded to drain a three-pointer the next play down. (Personally, I believe I had some sort of effect on him from my seat eight rows up.)
“Coach just challenged us to get stops and run, so you know I just tried to do the little things and I had a pretty good game,” Jackson said.
The 6-8, 200-pound guard/forward has range extending out to the three-point line, and uses his length to shoot over practically anyone who’s guarding him. Like I said, he scored the majority of his buckets on layups and other close shots, but that’s due to his I.Q. and hustle, too. He’s an athlete, and North Carolina has always done a good job of highlighting their athletic players (Marvin Williams, James Michael McAdoo, Vince Carter). He needs to add some serious muscle, and continue to develop his outside shot and dribbling, but you can’t teach size or athleticism.
Jackson said, “For me obviously, it’s the thing that you work for when you start playing basketball so for me I try to take the moment in, but I also try to just look at it like any other game so that whenever I go out there and I get nervous and stuff it wouldn’t be as bad.”
J.J. should take that same mentality and mindset with him to Tobacco Road, and his combination of length and athleticism makes him a weapon right away. With three All-Americans headed their way, get ready to watch an exciting North Carolina team next year, and get ready to hear the name Justin Jackson.
11. D’Angelo Russell
11 points, 4 assists
The Ohio State signee put on quite a show offensively in the All-American game. The No. 1-rated shooting guard out of Kentucky, Russell stands 6-5 and weighs 190 pounds. A number of scouts told me they believed Russell was sold on Ohio State with the intention of eventually taking over Aaron Craft‘s seat at point. For his part, Russell says he just wants to be on the floor. Whether or not that is the truth, it’s easy to see why.
Russell is a gifted scorer who also has a knack for making the highlight-reel pass. He had a particularly phenomenal sequence of plays in the second half. After a nifty jab-step freed him for an open two-point field goal, Russell led the break the following play before leaving the ball behind him (without looking nonetheless) for Cliff Alexander to slam home. (He missed–he was trying to literally throw them down the cylinder.) The next play he took an outlet pass himself for a big slam. Russell will need to provide a majority of the Buckeyes’ points next season, and he’s looking forward to it, saying, “I’m trying to prepare for it anyway I can.”
I caught up with him after the game and I asked him what it meant to play in this game.
“It was a great experience, start with that,” he said. “You don’t get to do this a lot–play against the top guys in the world, it’s just a blessing, so I tried to take advantage of it.”
In regards to finishing third on the East in scoring, Russell said, “Definitely with the amount of guys there were, the time and rotation it was going for me tonight so I was thankful for that. But it could have been anybody third in scoring.”
10. Isaiah Whitehead
Seton Hall has missed out on some once-in-a-lifetime prospects in recent years (most notably Kyle Anderson two years ago), but Whitehead is here to change that. Standing 6-4, 200 pounds, Whitehead is an athletic guard out of legendary Abraham Lincoln High (which has produced Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson and Stephon Marbury…sorry I had to slip the nickname “Born Ready” in somewhere).
Whitehead excels at attacking the rim and converting with contact, using his strong frame and burst to make tough shots. Whitehead entered the game early in the first quarter and grabbing a long rebound in the left corner, proceeded to drain a turnaround two-pointer.
No player is going to have quite the load next year as Whitehead, who will become the face of the school at Seton Hall. He’s also a strong rebounder and an underrated passer, but scoring is Whitehead’s trademark. He reminds me a little bit of Dion Waiters physically, although he’s not as thick as Dion and is about an inch taller, but plays similar offensively to the Cavaliers shooting guard. Both are streaky from beyond the arc. Whitehead will have to put up big numbers for Seton Hall to win many games, and is more than capable of doing so.
9. Rashad Vaughn
14 points, 5 rebounds
Vaughn grabbed my attention before the scrimmage even started when he threw down three or four powerful dunks in warmups. The 6-6, 210-pound shooting guard is headed to UNLV next year, where he should join a talented team featuring Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith. Vaughn will be the featured player offensively and on the break, where he can use his athleticism to score easy buckets in transition.
Vaughn scored in a variety of ways, from outside or driving to the rim. After a Theo Pinson slam that brought the house down, Vaughn went on a personal 4-0 run, displaying a variety of dribble moves to beat Pinson to the hoop. He’s also a strong ballhandler and an underrated rebounder for his position. Once he adds a more reliable outside jump shot, Vaughn will be an extremely tough player to match up against.
Vaughn was all business after the game: “It’s business every time you step out on the court, so I just stay locked in.”
For now, tune into UNLV games for those power slams and other exciting plays this upcoming season.
8. Devin Booker
Booker is a 6-6, 205-pound shooting guard out of Mississippi. Heading to Kentucky next year along with three other All-Americans, Booker provides something Calipari teams have often lacked: lethal outside shooting. Watching him practice running off of screens in practice, Booker looks a little bit like a smaller Klay Thompson out there. Averaging 32 PPG, nine RPG and five APG out of high school, Booker knows where to find openings on the court. Booker did just that during the McDonald’s Game, running hard off a set play to get him free for an open three, which he obviously knocked down. He showed off his I.Q. later on in the game, pulling up for the transition three-pointer on a fast break.
Personally, I love the way Booker plays; he knows where to be on the court, and he flat-out can shoot the ball. He used that later on to make his defender bite on a fake and then quickly dished it to a cutting Okafor for the slam. With a handful of talented big men demanding the defense’s attention, Booker is capable of putting up big numbers if he gets hot. An underrated player off the dribble and entry passer, Booker should be ready for a year or more in Lexington.
7. Myles Turner
7 points, 7 assists
Turner, the No. 2-rated prospect out of Trinity High School in Texas, is the only undeclared All-American. Standing 7-0, 230 pounds (WHY IS EVERYONE SEVEN-FOOT IN THIS CLASS?), Turner is the best shotblocker of the bunch. Drawing comparisons to fellow Texan LaMarcus Aldridge, Turner may have the highest ceiling of all the big men. Possessing an already respectable jump shot, and a more polished post game than you would expect from such a slim player, Turner just needs to put it all together. The only reason I have him so low is because in my viewing at practice number two and then reading the scouting reports from the first practice, Turner didn’t play very hard or well this week in practice. Maybe he was saving it all for the game, but the effort was lacking. Turner proceeded to drain a three-pointer to start the game and attacked the hoop (drawing a foul and making one of two free throws) two plays later.
Two final things on Turner: 1) Like I mentioned earlier, the buzz was that Emmanuel Mudiay was pitching SMU hard to Turner–whether or not that is true I couldn’t tell you. But can you imagine those two together. They might be better then the Duke combo; they’re easily the more athletic pairing of the two. Larry Brown is on the verge of something special at Southern Methodist. And 2) Seeing Turner up close, the player he most reminded me of physically was Anthony Randolph. Both have extendo-arms and look incredibly skinny because of their height. But let’s not forget how much potential Randolph had coming out of college after a strong year at LSU. Turner will have to prove he can be more than just a high ceiling player, and should be able to make an impact wherever he decides to play.
6. Stanley Johnson
8 points, 4 rebounds
What exactly is Stanley Johnson? Normally a question like that is taken in a bad way, but for Johnson I mean it positively. The 6-7, 220-pound guard does it all. Coming out of famed Mater Dei High in California, Johnson is on his way to the University of Arizona next year. Watching him in practice I never quite got a feel for his position because he was everywhere on the court. He went from dribbling the ball down the floor to defending the post on defense. Handling the ball, grabbing rebounds in the paint, attacking the rim for the deuce, or hitting the open big man or cutter for the easy bucket, Johnson did it all.
Johnson runs hard, even in an exhibition game, and it pays off in the form of easy transition buckets. He had four of the first 12 points for the West by simply outrunning his defender. While not the best shooter (saying it nicely), his athleticism is off the charts and he has a chance to be a lockdown defender at multiple positions. Scouts I talked to said he reminded them of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in terms of his motor, length, defensive ability, and sadly, because of his jump shot. He reminds me a little bit of a fellow Arizona Wildcat, Andre Iguodala. Like Iggy, Johnson is a selfless, jack-of-all-trades kind of prospect.
All reports say he possesses an incredible work ethic. If Johnson can improve his jump shot, the future will be extremely bright for Johnson and Arizona, too.
5. Tyus Jones
7 points, 10 assists
Unlike the four players above him, Jones does not come in to Cameron Indoor Stadium looking physically imposing. But Jones is point-blank too talented to not make an impact as a freshman. Standing 6-1, and 180 pounds, Jones will need to put on about 15 pounds of muscle before he’s ready for the NBA. But because he possesses such incredible speed, ballhandling and court vision, Jones is already the best pure point in the class. He plays with poise and control that is extremely rare in a young guard. He knows how to distribute the ball and manage the game, or he can take it and finish it himself.
He spent most of the McDonald’s Game setting up his teammates, dishing it out to shooters or to the roll man on a pick-and-roll, but late in the game showed off his individual ability when he hit a step-back three-pointer after freezing Berry II. A few plays later he froze Berry II again before taking it to the hoop, finishing over future teammate Okafor. He had his fair share of highlight-level passes too; Jones made a pretty no-look pass to Justin Jackson that was just fantastic.
Lofty comparison not withstanding, his play does bring to mind Chris Paul. Buddying up with Okafor next year at Duke, Jones should be a frequent contributor to Duke’s success with Jabari Parker (if he stays), if not ESPN’s Top 10 list. While he plays without the flash of players like Mudiay, don’t sleep on Jones next year.
4. Cliff Alexander
9 points, 11 rebounds, 1 block
Alexander has been subject to a Chicago Westside Story-type of rivalry with fellow big Jahlil Okafor. Fans on both sides debate whom the No. 1 big man out of Chicago this year really is. It’s a reasonable argument; Alexander is no slouch himself. Standing 6-9 and 235 pounds, Alexander does not look like an 18-year old. Cliff looks like a grown man, and his play furthers that notion. He’s built like a brick, and is known for rebounding and interior defense. He blocks and alters a ton of shots, and played with more energy than Okafor when I saw him at practice.
Okafor is the more polished of the two, but Alexander is the more explosive. Comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire may very well be in reach if he develops his post moves and midrange jumper. Cliff was the subject of at least four monster finishes (and at least four missed dunks, too), including one particularly nasty slam from the right baseline, where he seemingly stayed suspended in the air. Alexander plays full of energy and aggression. He doesn’t just grab the rebound, he tears it out of the air.
Heading to Kansas to play for Bill Self next year, can you imagine a frontline of Embiid and Alexander? While probably unrealistic (Embiid will probably/or may have already entered the draft, depending on where you look), Alexander will come to Lawrence ready to make an impact on day one.
3. Emmanuel Mudiay
15 points, 6 assists
I had the opportunity to speak to Mudiay before the All-American festivities got underway, and so I thought I had a pretty good grasp on who he was. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw in practice from him Tuesday morning. Mudiay stands 6-5 and 185 pounds, but he looked even bigger when guarded by the other point guards in practice. Seriously, I thought he was a small forward until I put on my glasses. He’s just dominant as a lead guard; he can beat defenders of the dribble, he sees his teammates and knows where to distribute the ball. That stuff I knew going in. But there was more: Mudiay grabbed at least eight rebounds during the 20-30 minutes of half-court scrimmaging. He was the recipient of an alley-oop attempt that failed only because the pass was too far behind him… and he still almost threw it down! He’s got an improved jump shot too; Mudiay finished a tough fallaway jumper over Towns with five minutes to go in the game. Two plays later he completely faked Towns out with a no-look pass to Okafor for the flush. Big time playmaker moves.
Defensively, he has all the tools to be a great defender: he’s big, strong and has quick hands. It’s going to be all about his continued effort on that side of the ball, an area he openly admits he wants to improve in college. For example, Mudiay swatted 6-9 Kevon Looney‘s three-point attempt and then rose and finished at the other end. His physical talents are off the chart, and his basketball I.Q. is right up there as well. I’ve seen a lot of scouting sites saying he reminds them of Russell Westbrook, and I get that. But I’m going to go a step farther: Emmanuel Mudiay reminds me of a 6-4 guard by the name of Gary Payton. You might have heard of him.
As a writer, I recognize that there’s a high probability that most of the things I predict turn out to be totally incorrect (Cavs in the playoffs!!). But, if I had to predict one player who’s going to eventually become a star, it would be Emmanuel Mudiay. With rumors swirling that he was heavily recruiting Myles Turner to join him at SMU next year, SMU could be on the verge of putting something incredible together. Here’s to hoping my prediction doesn’t jinx the career of Emmanuel Mudiay.
2. Jahlil Okafor
CO-MVP, 17 points, 7 rebounds
Surprise, right? Okafor is the consensus No. 1-rated prospect in this year’s class. A whopping 7-0, 270 pounds of human being, Okafor is easily the biggest player in the McDonald’s Game. I’d love to have some scouting take on him that differs from the norm, but after watching him up close it’s true–Okafor is the real deal. The player of the year winner, Okafor can be a dominant player right away. He has great hands and body control. He has an incredible touch around the rim. His footwork is much more polished than you’d expect for an 18-year old. That’s the biggest surprise for me: I expected to see a giant who stood under the rim and dunked it. That was not Okafor. (Though I’m more than willing to bet he’d be great at that too) Instead, Okafor took entry passes and calmly attacked whomever had the misfortune of defending him. He simply manhandled fellow seven-footer Thomas Welsh in practice number two. Double down on him and watch Okafor dish it to a spot-up a shooter or a cutting teammate. He’s even added a midrange jump shot, making him seemingly unguardable in the half court.
Defensively he’s long-armed, and has quick reactions. He started the game by scoring four of the first six points on his way to a team-high eight at half. But, as the half wore on, Turner began to give him fits and he finished the half 4-for-10 from the field. Still, I’m nitpicking; Jahlil was still arguably the best player on the court. He returned to sensational form in the second half, going 4-for-5 from the field. He’s still the most physically dominating player out there, but he is 18, he isn’t a complete player just yet. Learning to be a defensive anchor is the next step, as well as continuing to transform his body. Remember when Mercer pounded it inside because Duke lacked a real presence in the paint? That won’t be the case this year.
“The game was really fun,” he said afterward. “I really wanted to win this game, it being my last time playing in Chicago as a high schooler. Coach Frank, he really challenged me to compete through the practices and through the game tonight, and I think I did that tonight. He wanted me to play hard and compete, and I think I did my job. I’m just happy that we won.
“It’s been a crazy two weeks for me, I won the state championship last week and now I’m here in the city as a McDonald’s All-American. I was able to win the game. I came out and wanted to win tonight. The game was everything I expected.”
1. Karl Towns
6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks
Towns comes in as the ninth-ranked prospect, behind fellow big men Okafor, Turner and Cliff Alexander. But after watching the Kentucky Wildcat recruit take it to Myles Turner, after reportedly giving Cliff Alexander difficulties the day before, I was comfortable saying he’s right on par with them. But that was before he put on a show at the All-American game. He didn’t have the stats the other guys had, but Towns showed how unique his game is.
Towns is a 7-0, 250-pound stretch big man with range out beyond the three-point line. When I think of stretch forwards, I think of the long and skinny guys. This is not Karl Towns. Towns sort of resembles Andrew Bynum physically, before Andrew Bynum became more interested in hairstyles than basketball. Towns also has the benefit of having played for Coach John Calipari as a member of the Dominican Republic National Team. Not sure what the limitations of that relationship is with the NCAA, but let’s assume he at least feels comfortable with Cal, at the minimum.
Out of all the big guys with range, I think the most fitting comparison is Rasheed Wallace–on the court at least. Off the court, I haven’t heard ‘Sheed-like stories about Towns, and he acts very mature for an 18-year-old. A player who admits to liking the physicality of basketball, all the while being nimble enough to pass and handle like a guard, Towns potential is sky-high.
Towns showed off his full range of ability during the game: blocking a shot, grabbing the rebound and making a perfect Love-like outlet pass for the easy bucket. Then he made another perfect pass a few plays later. He had a powerful block at the four-minute mark of the first half, which led to a collective “OOOOOH” from the crowd. But if there is one play that describes what he can be it’s this: Towns caught the ball at the top of the key early in the second half. He pump-faked (his defender bit), and put the ball on the floor, driving to the rim. Alexander met him there and went for the swipe, at which point Towns WENT UP-AND-UNDER HIM, finishing with a combination of nimbleness and power through the contact (which I didn’t think was possible). You do not see plays like that from a center. Set to join an already stacked Kentucky frontline next year, Towns is already the best of them.
Who will be a star right away next year?
Follow Ian on Twitter at @Ian_Flick.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.