Letters From Camp: Emptying the notebook

June, 29, 2011
6/29/11
9:09
AM ET
Letters From Camp are my dispatches from this weekend's Nike Skills Camps in Chicago. Previously: On Thomas Robinson, Ashton Gibbs and Jeffery Taylor.

One final bit of housekeeping: Beginning this afternoon, I will be traveling in Ireland and various other parts of Europe for about 10 days. In the meantime, Diamond will see you through to the other side. Oh, and I'll be sure to send you a postcard. Cheers.

Because media availability was limited at this weekend's camp to a quick 10 minutes after the workouts were over -- campers were almost immediately shuffled onto a bus and driven back to their hotel -- the opportunity to spend individual time with more than a handful of players was pretty limited. (Not that I'm complaining. Seriously! These events are for the players and NBA scouts; media availability is almost a bonus.) But I did have the ol' notebook and pen handy. Here are a few things I noticed from the sidelines in my two days at Attack Athletics. For the second straight year, we go ... to the bullet points! (That's your cue to cheer wildly. No? Let's just move on.)

Kevin Durant remains the coolest camp counselor ever. I talked about this last year, and made copious mention of it in Tuesday's post on Jeffery Taylor, so I won't dwell on it too much here. But just for good measure, here are a couple more amateurish videos I made of Durant participating with his campers in some the structured five-on-five games that ended Sunday's activity. They're nothing special -- there were no high-flying dunks of this magnitude to offer -- but hopefully they offer a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at the environment the campers participated in. Also, you know: Kevin Durant. A year later, that's still really cool. (If you want a roster to refer to, here you go.)

Look out, world. Jared Sullinger just keeps getting better. In an April interview with the New York Times, Satch Sullinger, Jared's father, cited his son's desire to expand his game and adopt more of a true power forward role as a collegian as one of the reasons Sullinger turned down a likely top-five spot in the 2011 draft. This process is already underway. On Saturday, Sullinger caught the ball in unusual spots -- he was often 10 or 15 feet away from the rim, as opposed to the low block spot he dominated in 2010-11 -- and, rather than back his defender down for an easy interior bucket, pivoted away from pressure, squared up and knocked down silky face-up jumpers from the wing.

At one point, Sullinger even drained a 3-pointer, and it came with the sort of panache (and mechanical solidity) that exceeded some of the better point guards in the gym. Sully could continue to dominate the college game as a low-post force, but he seems determined to move away from the hoop and become what he'll have to be at the next level: a power forward. So far, so good. (And, if you have to guard him, so, so scary.)

Can Connecticut's supporting cast step up? We're a long way from knowing the answer to that question -- which could be rephrased as "Can Connecticut compete for a national title with Kemba Walker in a Bobcats jersey?" -- but early signs are positive. Two key pieces from UConn's run, guard Shabazz Napier and forward Alex Oriakhi, were impressive in their own rights Saturday. Napier said he was working on slowing his game down and making better decisions. Oriakhi said he was looking to expand his offensive game outside the immediate rim area. Both displayed such improvements this weekend, something UConn fans, drunk on the program's suddenly revived success, will very much like to hear.

Jordan Taylor's ill-timed struggles. If you're like me, you tend to think that an incredibly efficient (if undersized) point guard like Wisconsin star Jordan Taylor deserves a chance to prove his worth to the NBA over some marginal foreign prospect with a silly contract buyout and a 4.5 points per game average in Latvia. Call me crazy, I know. But if you're rooting for Taylor -- one of the smarter, funnier, down-to-Earth college players in the game today -- to catapult into the NBA draft stratosphere, well, maybe there's a reason why that hasn't happened.

To be frank, Taylor didn't impress many scouts Saturday. The quickness of opposing defenders (Kentucky freshman Marquis Teague especially) gave him fits bringing the ball up the floor, he often found himself fighting merely to get the ball to a teammate on the wing, and he was never able to free himself up for that patented 3-point jumper he hit so often in Wisconsin's brutally slow swing system. If I've said it once, I've said it, like, five other times: It was just two hours on a random Saturday in June. Small sample size. All that. Still, against some of the better point guard prospects in the land -- guys who will set the standard for NBA backcourt riches in 2012 -- Taylor had a decidedly disappointing outing.

Yep, these guys are good. I don't do recruiting stuff -- better to leave that to the experts -- and it's hard for me to tell how good players are when they're playing against overmatched high school opponents anyway, so this weekend was really my first look at a handful of freshmen that could have major impacts for their teams and the college hoops landscape at large in the coming season. (Last year, such freshmen included Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes. That went pretty well, especially the Sullinger thing. And yes, I'm still patting myself on the back for that one.) So: What did this year's freshmen have to offer?

The answer is, well, a lot.
  • Kentucky freshman Marquis Teague has been hailed as the latest in Kentucky coach John Calipari's long list of successful freshman point guards, a legacy that includes Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and, most recently, Brandon Knight. There's no reason to think Teague can't live up to that billing. During Saturday's full court five-on-five session -- in which guards from the Deron Williams Skills Academy played with forwards from the Amar'e Stoudamire camp -- Teague sliced and diced opposing defenders, found his way into the lane with relative ease, and showcased an intuitive understanding of the various ways to attack off a ball screen. One play in particular stood out: About 30 feet from the hoop in the corner of the court -- picture where Duke ran its spread high-screen sets for Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith this season -- Teague got a screen from fellow Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. The guard split the two defenders, took off toward the rim, saw help arrive and dished a nifty little bounce pass to Davis, who crashed toward the basket and finished with a ferocious dunk. The play was as impression a piece of team basketball as I saw all weekend, and Teague deserved the credit for its creation.
  • Speaking of Davis, well, it's not hard to see why college recruiting services (including our own) have named him the best prospect in the class. Nor is it difficult to see why pro scouts are already drooling. To use a once-banished draft term, Davis is incredibly long. He's also very athletic. That combination allows him to rise above other tall and athletic defenders to snatch rebounds, challenge shots and finish at the rim. But there's also a reason Davis didn't become a highly touted prospect until this year: He's still pretty soft. That's not really a knock -- we're talking about a 6-foot-10 college freshman with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, after all -- but it is something that could hamper Davis' production in his first full season as a college hoopster. Davis has the height to play center at the college level -- with Terrence Jones back in the fold, it seems likely that's where Kentucky will opt to play him -- but can he stand toe-to-toe with big, physical upperclassmen? Won't Festus Ezeli, to name one example, be able to impose his will on this kid through strength and positioning? For that reason, it's easy to see a few growing pains for Davis, who might draw a lot of comparisons to Baylor's Perry Jones: Both are insanely talented, versatile, athletic stretch forwards who don't quite have the frame to bang in the low block. Jones struggled somewhat during his first season in Waco and decided to return for a second. Could Davis do the same?
  • Florida freshman-to-be Bradley Beal was also on hand at the Deron Williams camp. The No. 4-ranked prospect in the 2011 class, Beal has been touted as a pure shooter, and he showcased a bit of that ability Saturday afternoon. But he was arguably most impressive off the ball. Beal crashed the glass from the weak side for a series of offensive rebounds and putbacks, using his 6-foot-7 wingspan (which is sort of crazy for a guy measured by camp staff at 6-foot-3.5) to rise to the rim and finish plays against taller defenders. Billy Donovan's team desperately needs a more consistent outside shooting presence. Beal should easily provide that. But he may also bring some bonus abilities to the floor, too.
  • Washington guard Tony Wroten, Jr. might have been the most impressive player during scrimmages Saturday. He hit outside shots. He beat defenders off the dribble. He ran the fast break with impressive ease, and on several occasions -- including one lightning-quick, no-look pass perfectly placed in the arms of a rim-running forward -- he got the NBA scouts in the audience murmuring about his court vision and decision-making.
  • Duke guard Austin Rivers, meanwhile, did not do as much to impress. The son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers is obviously talented, and he might already be the quickest player in the country with the ball in his hands. But he didn't have much success breaking down defenders and creating his own shot, his main calling-card as a player to date. Of course, Rivers didn't have much opportunity; the only time he faced actual defenders Sunday was during those structured five-on-five scrimmages. Still, it will be interesting to see if Rivers suffers some early struggles adjusting to the strength and speed of the college game.
And last but not least ... everybody loves the Euro Step. Are you familiar with the Euro Step? You know, the move Manu Ginobili patented? The move Dwyane Wade used to eviscerate Kevin Garnett in the NBA playoffs? It really is all the rage. One station in Sunday's skills camp drills circuit was designed to show players a variety of useful moves, including step-back dribbles, crossovers, hesitations and the like. But nearly every drill required its campers to finish with a carefully calibrated Euro Step: One foot goes here, the fake comes next, the other foot falls, and you finish with the opposite hand. (It was almost exactly like the Ginobili video above.)

Is this the new hotness? Are young players going to start Euro-Steppin' to the beat? Three reasons the answer may be yes:
  1. For one, coaches (or at least skills trainers) seem to love the move. Players want to please their coaches. Over time, that stuff sticks. When I was in high school, I remember being relentlessly drilled on the two-footed jump stop by camp coaches. I still bust that thing out at pickup games. Why wouldn't the nation's best young stars do the same?
  2. It works. For proof, please see Exhibit A at the Wade-Garnett link above.
  3. It's easily the single most unstoppable move in NBA2K11 to the point that it's borderline unfair: Once you master the Euro Step, your ability to score around the rim in an otherwise realistic, difficult game skyrockets. How many young, basketball-obsessed gamers are executing pixelated Euro Steps this very second? How many of them will go on to play college basketball?

Yes, I'm afraid the Euro Step, once a nifty little Ginobilism, is on its way to global hoops domination.

Alas, as with any transformational revolution, there are dissenters. When Sunday's Durant Skills Camp participants lined up for another round of "do this, then Euro Step," one of the NBA scouts within earshot half-jokingly cracked: "Remember when that used to be a travel? How is that not a travel?!"

To be honest, I don't know. But you can bet I'll be trying out my own Euro Step the next time I'm at the gym. As the old saying goes, if you can't beat 'em ... break your ankle trying to join them. Something like that, anyway.

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