From Underneath The Shadow Of Michael Jordan, Jordan Brand Classic Stars Show Out

At one point early in the first half of Saturday night’s Jordan Brand Classic, the crowd at Barclays Center suddenly and incongruously erupted into a thunderous ovation during a dead ball. Only one person’s arrival could have elicited such a reaction.

Nope, not him. It was Drake.

Depending on what you think of Drake and his music — for me, it’s a guilty pleasure — some might consider the fact that he received arguably the biggest ovation of an event that also had Michael Jordan in attendance to be a sign of an oncoming apocalypse. Quite to the contrary: What it demonstrates is that the Jordan Brand, plain and simple, gets it. Playing in front of M.J. is a big part of the experience, for sure, but there’s no avoiding that Drake also holds quite a bit of cache for the new generation of ballplayers.

In that sense, on the one side, the Jordan Classic falls right in line with the McDonald’s Game and others of its kind in providing the best aspect of high-level prep basketball: the opportunity to watch emerging players on the verge of potentially becoming household names, thus being able to say you had an advance look at the brilliant future of the sport.

But the Jordan Game has gone the extra mile to present a unique experience — for spectators, sure, but especially for the prep players involved. The game was the culmination of a whirlwind weekend in New York that included a tour of legendary Gleason’s Boxing Gym, a visit to the Sports Illustrated offices and a private movie screening with Spike Lee. Jumpman-obsessed players get a grip of fresh gear and sneakers to take home. And they get to experience all of it as a group of peers preparing to make a communal and individual jump to the next level.

“I also played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, but I really like this one,” Indiana-bound forward Noah Vonleh said. “We get a lot more gear; Jordan takes care of us. And we’re playing against a lot of the other top players in the country, so it’s good to get in like a family type environment with them. I’m going to see a lot of these guys for years to come, so it’s great to build relationships with them.”

“Probably,” mused future Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison, “the Drake concert was the best part.”

Drake aside, the fanfare surrounding the game is an illustration of how far prep basketball has come from the proverbial dusty high school gym. New York sports icons Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and CC Sabathia sat courtside, as did Spike Lee and rappers Joe Budden and Fabolous. (Sabathia, for his part, was particularly excited to see future Blue Devil Jabari Parker, whom he described as “unbelievable.”)

Upstaging them all was Jordan himself, who took in the action from a skybox while players and fans alike peered up at him as if at Vatican City. Of all the things that make the Jordan Classic unique, foremost is the literal presence of the greatest player ever, going right along with his virtual ubiquity, his logo connoting excellence literally everywhere you looked in the Barclays Center.

In general, the freewheeling style of play allows players the latitude to showcase what they’re individually best at. With the beat from “No Church in the Wild” rumbling in the background, future Kentucky front line Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson muscled to the hoop, while Dime favorite Chris Walker pogo-ed over everyone to dunk home the East team’s first four points. Cerebral players Parker and Nigel Williams-Goss took proper advantage of their savvy to excel within the flow of the game. And while Canadian star and Drake favorite Andrew Wiggins didn’t quite take over, per se, he showed multiple flashes of having a higher gear than anyone else.

That said, though the action wasn’t entirely different from the standard All-American Game fare, there was a notably heightened level of intensity, not to mention far tighter defense than high school showcases generally are known for. The game came down to the final possessions, with Williams-Goss — who’s developing a reputation for hitting clutch shots — connecting on a three-point play to put the West ahead, and then hitting two free throws to ice it after Wiggins stepped out of bounds.

For an exhibition game that you might logically expect to morph into a dunk contest, the fans — and the players — stayed engaged right to the end. This was in large part a testament to the atmosphere the Jordan Brand has cultivated over the years, with an NBA-style crowd that had each player wanting to put his best foot forward. But don’t kid yourself: The primary reason was sitting in a skybox, watching the next generation attempt to do the game’s namesake justice.

“Knowing that the G.O.A.T. was there, and Carmelo was there and Amar’e, Drake… all these celebrities watching all of us young kids trying to put on a show,” Walker said after finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds. “It felt good.”

The night concluded with Drake summoning the Jordan Brand All-Americans on stage during, appropriately, “Started From the Bottom.” These prep stars are not quite here; they still have quite a ways to go in their basketball journey. But the bright lights and big city of the Jordan Classic provided a tantalizing taste of what lies ahead as they continue to work toward their collective and individual dreams.

A few notes:

Best player: Parker, who won co-MVP honors with Randle. For a player not known for his athleticism, Parker is certainly no slouch in that department, while possessing a prodigious basketball IQ. He does the same things as Ryan Kelly, but he’s better at them; it’s not a shot at Kelly, who was a very good college player. Parker’s just that good. CC Sabathia was on the money.

Best Nerlens Noel impression: Joel Embiid, a native of Cameroon who didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16. Though unpolished, Embiid had seven rebounds and five blocks against the caliber of players like Randle and Walker. For perspective, the rest of the players in the game combined for seven blocks. Kansas could be getting a true under-the-radar game-changer.

— Next to Andrew Harrison, the two best point guards in the country next year might be wearing Orange. Often matched up against each other, Syracuse-bound Tyler Ennis and Florida’s Kasey Hill both played excellent floor games; Ennis finished with 14 points and six assists, while Hill had 12 points and seven assists.

— Another of the historic locales the Jordan Classic athletes visited was Junior’s in Brooklyn, home to the world’s best cheesecake. As the players wrapped up their lunch, the wait staff brought out a cake and sang Happy Birthday to Kennedy Meeks, who looked befuddled. Meanwhile, his teammates all started cracking up. Meeks’ birthday, for the record, is February 5.

What do you think?

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