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Featherston On The 2006 T.O.C.!

The Memorial Day weekend offered sports fans a smorgasbord of viewing options. Sunday may have been the biggest auto racing day of the year with major events in Indianapolis and Charlotte. Baseball fans could revel in Barry Bonds’
apparently drug-assisted leapfrog of Babe Ruth in San Francisco. There was NBA playoff drama in Miami and Phoenix. There might have been two or three dozen people outside Raleigh and Buffalo who turned in the Food Network (or was it the DIY Network?) to watch the NHL playoffs Friday night and Sunday. And for the rest of the world, there’s a fairly significant little “football” tournament in Germany that’s about to get underway.

For a college basketball fanatic such as myself, Memorial Day weekend offers a chance to check out some of the best high school prospects in the country at the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions. Over the last 13 years, Bob’s event has provided me a first look at hundreds of future college and NBA stars. I’ve been given a preview of dozens of ACC recruits, including a large number of Duke players – Elton Brand, Will Avery, Jason Williams, Chris Duhon, J.J. Redick, Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus and Gerald Henderson come to mind.

Every time I take in the tournament, it reminds me of a very important truth – there are a LOT of good players out there. It’s easy to forget that, then to be surprised when a team such as George Mason makes a Final Four run. Believe me, watch an event such as the Gibbons Tournament – which featured 72 teams in the 17-and-under category ... over 700 players – and you’ll be dazzled by many of the no-name players. There are more than enough to supply a dozen George Masons. And, remember, the Gibbons Tournament wasn’t the only major AAU event going on last weekend, so there are even MORE quality players out there.

Still, the three-day Triangle event was the destination of choice for a majority of players who are being targeted by ACC schools. It included one prep senior who will play in the ACC next season (N.C. State-bound Dennis Horner), at least three prep juniors who are committed to play in the ACC in 2007 (Duke-bound Taylor King; Clemson recruit Laron Denny; Miami recruit Edwin Rios), a 2006 commitment who will attend prep school next year before joining the ACC (Virginia Tech signee Jeff Allen), one more semi-firm commitment (Dominique Sutton, who is waiting on grades to clinch his Wake Forest commit), at least two ACC de-commits (Maryland’s Jeff Jones and Kenny Belton), and literally dozens of ACC targets in the prep classes of 2007, 2008 and even 2009.

Duke fans are naturally most interested in Taylor King, the 6-7 shooting forward from Mater Dei High School in Los Angeles. He played for the Southern California All-Stars, which was easily the best team in the competition. The team also featured 6-10 Kevin Love, who is bidding to be the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2007; point guard Brandon Jennings, the frontrunner to be named the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2008; 6-6 Southern Cal signee Daniel Hackett; 6-7 junior Kyle Austin, a solid Division 1 prospect; and 6-5 Malik Story, a sophomore who will join Jennings as a top 25 prospect in that class. And for good measure, the team picked up a late addition when after Friday night’s game, Class of 2009 sensation Renardo Sidney joined the Stars (more on that later).

I was lucky enough to see the Southern Cal All-Stars in five of their seven games, including the only one that mattered. Six of the seven games were blowouts, including the 83-62 victory over the Playaz in the title game – the first time in the history of the event that the mercy rule was involved in the championship game (a team up 20 in the final four minutes is declared the winner).

Only once were the All-Stars threatened and that was the important game as far as evaluating Taylor King is concerned.

First, let me pause and explain something. I don’t pretend to be a recruiting guru. I can’t even begin to compete with the writers who follow recruiting for a living. And I’m not talking about just the top guys such as Bob Gibbons, Dave Telep and Rob Harrington. I’m talking about the dozens of youngsters (and not-so-youngsters) who write for web-based fan sites. I’m amazed at the breath of their knowledge and the firmness of their opinions.

On the other hand, I have seen some basketball over the years and I think I can recognize an ACC-level player when I see one. But keep in mind, I’m only seeing these kids over one weekend, a mere snapshot in terms on their development. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of some serious misjudgments – I watched John Lucas
III in two games and dismissed him as a mid-major player (he led Oklahoma State to a Final Four and was an All-American); I remember telling friend that Joakim Noah was a nice player, but nothing special. Most of the time, when I’m wrong, it’s in underestimating a kid based on one or two poor performances. It’s easy to catch a kid on a bad weekend.

That might apply to Julian Vaughn, a 6-9 power forward from the same Reston, Va., high school that produced Grant Hill and Joey Beard. He arrived at the Gibbons Tournament as a top prospect ( rates him No. 26 nationally) with dozens of college offers. But Vaughn didn’t have offers from the two schools he most wanted – Duke and UNC. It looks like both have other big man priorities at the moment, but a number of people who should know told me that Vaughn was hoping to make a strong showing this weekend to impress the coaches at UNC and Duke.

It didn’t happen. Vaughn was simply awful.

Now, I’m not saying he is an awful player, only that he had an awful weekend. He was ineffective in the post (not sure of his overall stats, but he had two points and maybe four rebounds in his first two games Saturday) and appeared very passive and soft. True, his teammates didn’t feed him the ball in the post, but he also showed little inclination to attack the boards, run the floor, set screens or do more on defense than go for the block.

I’d want to see Vaughn play in several more events before I’d dismiss him as a prospect, but I can say with confidence he did nothing this past weekend to help his cause.

King, on the other hand, raised his stock in my eyes.

I watched King a year ago, when he and Arizona-bound Chase Buddinger were the stars of another strong Southern Cal All-Stars team. At the time, King was an impressive shooter – a lefty with an amazing quick catch-and-shoot release and accuracy from extremely long range.

But that was about it. In the spring of 2005, he appeared to have a poor handle and limited athleticism. Like many perimeter shooting specialists, he was labeled “soft”. The label appeared to fit.

Well, King has matured a good deal in the last year. He’s still a great shooter – maybe the best long-range gunner in this class – but he’s stronger and a more complete player now. That was demonstrated, not in his team’s six blowout victories, but in the team’s one moment of crisis.

That came Saturday night in Cameron against a very talented, mature team from Alabama – the Southeast Elite. Arizona point guard Jerryd Bayless a top 10-15 prospect in the Class of 2007 was supposed to play for Southeast, but he didn’t show. Still, Southern Cal’s opponent featured Rico Pickett, an ultra-quick 6-3 playmaker from Decatur, Alabama (supposedly a player Georgia Tech likes) and Cordell Pope, an accurate 6-8 senior from Birmingham (probably prep or juco next year).

I was watching from courtside with Watzone (who also wrote about this game for DBR) as the Alabama team spread the floor and carved Southern Cal to pieces with its slashing drives to the basket. Kevin Love, playing center, is a phenomenal offensive player, but he does not react very well at the defensive end. He couldn’t stop the penetration or the kickouts to Pope, who buried a number of 3-pointers.

Taylor King did little to help his team in the first half. His shot was off – not only did he miss all four of his 3-point tries, but the normally deadly free throw shooter missed two of three at the line. He had three points, four rebounds and a blocked shot as Southern Cal trailed 50-37 at the half.

The team’s tournament life was at stake, since this was a playoff game and the loser would be eliminated. It looked like that would be Southern Cal, especially when Love went to the bench early in the half with four fouls and Jennings soon followed.

That’s when King took over. He moved to a low post position on defense and began to play like a beast on the boards and in the lane. And after missing his first 3-point try of the half (his fifth of the game), he came back to hit a pair on back-to-back plays with seven minutes left to trim the Alabama lead from 61-54 to 63-60. Less than a minute later, he blocked a shot at the defensive end, rebounded the loose ball, then fed a teammate who was fouled and made both free throws to put Southern Cal ahead for the first time. With just under three minutes left, King nailed his third straight 3 – he caught it and shot it so fast, it looked like a hockey player deflecting an incoming shot – to push the lead to 77-71.

From that point, Love and Jennings returned and Southern Cal coasted to an 85-76 victory. King finished with 20 points (17 in the second half), 11 rebounds and two blocks. More important than the numbers:

-- Forget the “soft” label. He got down and dirty, playing (and excelling) as a physical game in the low post.

-- He demonstrated the mentality all great shooters have – a lack
of conscience. So what if he missed his first five 3-point tries? He kept firing and made his last three. That’s the same kind of approach both Redick and Jason Williams displayed when they were at Duke.

King was also effective in the blowouts, rebounding well and shooting consistently well. He had 17 points in the semifinals against the Indiana Elite, hitting 3 of 5 3-pointers and 16 points in the title game victory over the Playaz, hitting 4 of 8 3-pointers. He sat out long portions of both games as his team coasted.

His teammate, Love, captured the Tournament MOP Award and rightly so – but King was impressive in his own right. He also took the opportunity to visit with the Duke staff and get a line on what they want him to work on this summer.

And that is?

“My shot,” he said. “That’s my bread and butter. I work on that every day.”

King is also in frequent contact with Oregon power forward Kyle Singler, who is Duke’s top remaining recruiting target in the Class of 2007. Which leads to a little intrigue, since Singler’s remaining choices are Duke and UCLA, while King’s AAU teammate, Love, is trying to decide between UNC and UCLA.

The loquacious Love – whose father is ex-NBAer Stan Love and whose uncle is ex-Beach Boy Mike Love – pointed out that he and Singler are close too, even though they are rivals on the court. He was asked if he would team with Singler at UCLA, become a rival at UNC and Singler at Duke or if perhaps the two would end up 3,000 miles apart with Love at UCLA and Singler at Duke.

“That’s probably giving you guys took much information,” he laughed. “Let’s just say I’d love to play with Kyle and I’d love to play against him.”

For what it’s worth, the gossip behind the scenes at the Gibbons Tournament suggested that Love is most likely to wind up at UCLA, while Singler is a near lock for Duke. But, please, remember that’s just gossip.

Among the other things I saw or heard at the Gibbons Tournament:

-- Nolan Smith, Duke’s other 2007 commitment, was on hand, although he was unable to play with the DC Assault due to a sprained knee. He had the injury checked out at Duke while he was here and hopes to return to action in time to try out for the USA 18-and-under team June 18.

Smith, a 6-2 guard from Oak Hill Academy, is the son of former Louisville star Derek Smith, who was a teammate of Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins in the NBA.

“I wanted to go somewhere that felt like family,” Smith said of his commitment to Duke. “I can always tell when I feel the love. [Dawkins] is like an uncle to me.”

Incidentally, Duke fans might want keep Jan. 29, 2007 free – Oak Hill Academy (with Smith) will meet Mater Dei (with King) in Cameron that day.

-- Evan Turner, a very nice 6-7 wing player from St. Joseph’s Academy in Chicago, was contacted by Duke last week. Although he doesn’t have an offer yet and it’s not clear when (or even if) one will be forthcoming, Turner – a top 40-50 junior in the Class of 2007 – was clearly excited by the contact.

“I like Duke,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be interested in them?”

Turner is pretty wide open at the moment, getting strong interest from Wake Forest and Indiana, among others. He’s likely to end up in the ACC or Big Ten.

-- The really startling news to come from Turner was his revelation that he was on the verge of committing to N.C. State when Herb Sendek left for Arizona State.

“I was surprised when Herb left,” he said. “I was ready to commit to State. When it feels right, I’ll make a decision. I thought it was right, then ... now I’m open to anyone.

Turner’s news just illustrates how costly N.C. State’s coaching transition was. It looks like it’s going to cost the Pack four prime prospects from the classes of 2006 and 2007. Sendek signees Larry Davis, a very solid 6-2 guard from New York City, has asked for his release and will attend Seton Hall; Dan Werner, a fast-rising 6-7 forward who won New Jersey player of the year honors over Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, has also asked for a release and is likely to sign at either Notre Dame or Kentucky. Point guard Chris Wright, a top 20 prospect from the Class of 2007, has withdrawn his commitment from N.C. State and now appears headed for Georgetown. Now Turner claims he’s gone from a near lock for the Pack to a wide open prospect.

Of course, new coach Sidney Lowe can salvage some of the losses when he finally comes on board July 1, but it’s more likely that he’ll be starting from scratch. Well, not quite – 6-7 signee Dennis Horner remains firmly committed to the Pack. He played well in the Gibbons Tournament, displaying a very nice 3-point touch.

-- There is also a strong possibility that N.C. State will be able to get involved with 6-5 Jeff Jones, who committed, then de-committed to Maryland earlier this season.

“I thought I rushed into it,” he said, explaining his change of mind. “I just want to step back and take my time before I make a decision this time. I’m not going to make a decision anytime soon.”

That’s good news for Lowe, who is still a month away from taking over his new job. Assistant coach Larry Harris has been in contact with Jones and, reportedly, has gotten some good feedback.

“I’m still open,” Jones said. “I’d prefer to play in the ACC or Big East or maybe Big Ten. I just want to find the best situation.”

Jones bears the same name as former the former Virginia point guard and head coach, but his game is very different (just to be clear, there’s no relation between them – the former coach is white and the current player is African American). One of the recruiting writers watching him play Friday night told me that he’s compared Jones to Rodney Monroe. I’d have to see Jones more often to make that claim – Monroe ranks with Redick, Trajan Langdon and Dennis Scott as one of the great shooters in modern ACC history – but I did see the same agility and the same creativity with his shot. Plus, Jones is at least two inches taller than Monroe with much longer arms.

Jones said he’s still open to overtures from Maryland, but several recruiting writers at the tournament said that the Terps are no longer a factor and they expect the Philadelphia product to wind up at another ACC school or maybe somewhere in the Big East.

-- While Jones would be a phenomenal get for N.C. State if Lowe can pull it off, if I was advising the new Wolfpack coach, I’d suggest that he make up a highlight tape of his career at N.C. State and take it to show Demetri McCamey, a teammate of Turner’s at St. Joseph’s Academy.

The 6-3, 210-pound McCamey is much bigger than the 6-1 Lowe was at State, but he has the same stocky build and the same powerful floor game as the former Wolfpack star. The resemblance is amazing – both had the same unusual high dribble and like Lowe, McCamey uses his strength to get the ball where he wants it to go. Both are tenacious defenders, smart floor leaders and good, but not great shooters.

“I’m lucky,” McCamey said. “I get to play a slow tempo in high school and a fast tempo in AAU ball, so I’m comfortable playing either way.”

Wake Forest and maybe Virginia are the ACC school pushing hardest for the powerful playmaker, along with a number of Big Ten schools and a couple of the Big East. But McCamey said he was wide open and would listen to any offers.

Note: There were internet reports that Turner and McCamey made an unofficial visit to Wake Forest before the Tournament of Champions, but that didn’t happen due to new NCAA rules that limit using AAU trips to make unofficial visits.

-- There were no Michael Jordan sightings in the Smith Center, even with two of his sons playing in the tournament ... along with his doppelganger.

Jordan’s oldest son Jeffrey played in the 17-and-under division and didn’t make much of an impression. The 6-1 junior is not a bad player, but didn’t appear to have either the quickness or the shoot skills to be a top level player. (Of course, I said the same about John Lucas Jr., so take that with a grain of salt).

Jordan’s younger son, Marcus, played for the Rising Stars in the 15-and-under division and showed much more promise. At 6-3, he’s already bigger than his brother and appears to be a more natural point guard. His court vision and his decision-making were excellent and he had the quickness with the ball to get in the lane at will.

His only problem with an almost total inability to put the ball in the basket – either with his jump shot, from the free throw line or finishing on the drive. It may have just been a bad weekend, but it’s something to keep an eye on. If Marcus Jordan can polish even an average jump shot over the next three high school seasons, the ninth grader will be a major college prospect.

-- Funny, but neither of Jordan’s sons look all that much like him. Maybe it’s because both wore their hair long, cornrowed and in dreadlocks. I guess they’re trying to enjoy it while they’ve still got it. In addition, Marcus Jordan played in wire-rimmed glasses that made him look more like Franklin D. Roosevelt than his famous father (assuming you can picture FDR black and wearing dreadlocks).

Now, if a stranger arrived at the tournament looking for one of Jordan’s sons, he’d almost certainly pick out Dominque Sutton.

The physical resemblance between Sutton, a former Durham Jordan product who now plays at the Patterson School in Lenoir, and Jordan is astonishing. It’s something that Sutton clearly encourages – he wears No. 23; he shaves his head; he even wears a sweat band around his left biceps as Jordan did.

The 6-6 Sutton plays a Jordan-esque game in many ways. He might not have great elevation that the younger Jordan possessed, but he has superb quickness and good strength. He handles the ball well, works hard on defense and attacks the basket with ferocity. His problem is the same as Marcus Jordan’s – he cannot shoot the basketball. In this case, it’s not a question of a bad weekend, it’s a well-documented flaw in his game.

Sutton is likely to end up at Wake Forest, if he makes the grade academically. He can definitely be a useful ACC player as he is, but unless he develops a reliable shot, he’s not likely to be a star.

-- Sutton played for the DC Assault, along with Vaughn and Michael Beasley, an agile 6-9 forward whose one of the top 10-15 prospects in the Class of 2007. Beasley committed to UNC Charlotte, but is now expected to sign and play with Bon Huggins at Kansas State. So is former Pittsburgh commitment Herb Pope, a big man who played well at the TOC for the Pittsburgh Jots.

Kenny Belton, a 6-8 junior forward from Greensboro Dudley High is another member of the DC Assault who has had commitment issues. He has a very interesting story.

He was spotted in Greensboro by former Maryland star Keith Gatlin, who recommended him to new Maryland assistant coach Keith Booth, who was on hand when Belton played a couple of AAU games last fall in the D.C. area. About a week later, Booth called Belton and offered a scholarship ... and Belton accepted. According to a family member, Booth called back about a week later and explained that there was a communications problem and that he was not authorized to offer a scholarship.

The Belton camp, already upset by the withdrawal of the offer, became furious when somebody on the Terp staff told the Baltimore Sun that Belton had never been offered in the first place!

Who knows what the real story is ... at the moment, the Maryland coaches are forbidden by NCAA regulations from talking to the media about a prospect, so we only have the Belton side of the story. Clearly there was a miscommunication. Was it between Booth and Gary Williams or between Booth and Belton?

It’s now very unlikely that Belton will end up at Maryland. A number of ACC schools – including N.C. State – are reportedly interested. It’s hard to tell how good a prospect he is. He appears to be quite a physical specimen, but he is coming off an injury and played little in the TOC.

-- The DC Assault lost a heartbreaker Saturday to the Richmond Squires, thanks to a remarkable contested 3-pointer at the buzzer by 6-8 freshman Karon Johnson.

Johnson is an interesting case. He started last season at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham, but after a game against the Patterson School in Lenoir, decided he’d rather play for that school. The new prep school is the latest version of Mt. Zion, featuring a number of players with unquestionable talent but quite questionable academic backgrounds.

Johnson is a Division 1 prospect. Whether or not he ends up being an ACC target depends more on off the court issues than his clearcut talent.

-- Academic issues will keep Jeff Allen from playing at Virginia Tech next season.

That’s good news for the rest of the ACC because the 6-7, 245-pound Allen is good enough to make an immediate – and major – impact in Blacksburg.

He was probably the most surprisingly player at the Gibbons’ Tournament. Rated a marginal top 100 prospect after his senior season at Oak Hill, Allen played like a man among boys in the Triangle this weekend. He is not a great shooter, but he doesn’t need to be. He attacked the basket with overpowering strength and intensity. He looked like Charles Oakley in his prime.

Dave Telep was shaking his head after watching Allen perform, saying he’s never seen anybody improve as much between the end of his senior season and this point, two months later.

Seriously, you put this kid in a lineup with Gordon and Dowdell in the backcourt and Collins up front and the Hokies are contenders for the top division in the ACC. Unfortunately for Seth Greenberg, Allen will spend this season at Hargrave Military Academy, working on his grades. He confirmed Friday night that he’s still firmly committed to Virginia Tech, but if this guy makes any more improvement, he might be ready to jump straight to the NBA after next season.

He’s that good.

-- Brandon Jennings is that good too, even though he’s still a sophomore at Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif. It’s hard to explain what makes Jennings so special – his incredible ability to handle in traffic often looked like Marques Haynes doing a routine with the Trotters; he probably shot a better 3-point percentage for the TOC than teammate Taylor King; he displayed the vision and judgment of a point guard; and his rim-rattling dunks were ESPN highlight material.

The bad news for the Pac 10 is that Jennings is headed East. He’ll play at Oak Hill next season. Reportedly, Connecticut is the favorite for his services – Marcus Williams made the same journey from Compton to Oak Hill to UConn. ACC fans can only hope that a year’s exposure to ACC mania will change his mind.

-- A year ago, Renardo Sidney burst onto the national scene as an eighth grader, playing in the 17-and-under division for his Mississippi AAU team. That team was scheduled to compete in this year’s event, but was a last minute cancellation. But Sidney did show up and joined the Southern Cal All-Stars for their games Saturday.

A lot of writers made a lot of jokes about the rich getting richer, but the fact is, Southern Cal wouldn’t have survived their Saturday night’s test without Sidney. He and King saved the tourney favorites in their comeback against Southeast Elite.

Sidney has changed a lot in the last year. He was a very slender 6-7 wing/point guard who had people talking about Magic Johnson-like skills. Now he’s much bigger – a 6-9, 6-10 post player who still retains his perimeter skills, but has added the strength to be a dominant player inside.

Who knows what he’ll look like a year from now – if he keeps growing, we could be talking about the next Shaquille O’Neal!

But that’s the real fun of the Tournament of Champions, watching the stars blossom for the first time. When you see a kid like Jennings or Sidney start to bust out for the first time, it’s a great thrill – a lot more rewarding to me than watching race cars turn left all day or watching a bunch of Canadians slide on the ice.

SHORT TAKES: The Triple Threat team that featured Jeff Jones and Jeff Allen, also included 6-2 Adrian Bowie, who grew up in Greenbelt, Md., and was a ball-boy for the Maryland Terps. He’s a junior who would love to earn an offer from Maryland. ... The Clemson-bound Dendy is an athletic 6-9 forward who looks like a Clemson player – he’s not so far off physically from James Mays, Akin Akingbala or even Sharrod Ford. He held his own in a matchup against 6-9 James Hickson, one of the top big men in the Class of 2007. Hickson, a product of Marietta, Ga., said he’s still wide open to offers. He’s hearing from most SEC schools and several from the ACC. ... His teammate – both at Marietta and on the AAU circuit -- is 6-5 junior guard Aaron Gilstrap, a major target for N.C. State. ... Rios has been dropping in the national rankings since committing to Miami last season. But the stocky point guard played well in the Gibbons Tournament. He showed good quickness and an accurate, if unusual, 3-point shot. His left-handed set shot looks very much like the one John Lucas used to dazzle the ACC 30 years ago. ... Keep an eye on 6-8 junior A.J. Stewart, a five wing shooter from Jacksonville, Fla.. who played for a Tallahassee AAU team. He’s getting strong looks from Florida State, Miami, Alabama and maybe Wake Forest.