I attended the 2011 King James Shooting Stars Classic this past weekend, otherwise known as the Basketball Grand Tour of Northeastern Ohio. It is an AAU tournament held annually in Akron (and Kent, Barberton, North Canton, Green and various other points) and is one of the marquee events on the circuit. Events like this require planning, research and preparation and even then a certain amount of frustration is inevitable. For example, the major recruiting services list Jabari Parker as playing for the Mac Irvin Fire, which was at a competing event in Merrillville, Indiana the same weekend. Turns out he was playing for the Ferrari team and I missed him completely at the King James. (For what it's worth, Jerry Meyer of Rivals was impressed with him.)
The problems include that kids change teams and jersey numbers at the drop of a hat, team uniforms generally don't have names on them and roster sheets are at a premium: I still haven't figured out a good way to get them other than relying on the kindness of strangers. If you make a bad call, it can have a domino effect: you can end up driving to a far-flung location only to find that the player you were interested in is not on the team you thought and now you're stuck, as your fallback game started at the same time 15 miles away. For example I drove out to a Kent State Annex building hoping to see Tony Farmer (a 2013 forward prospect) and Cha Cha Tucker (2013 PG). Farmer's game was a forfeit, another common aggravation, and I had to watch a fair amount of the All-Ohio Red 10th grade game before I concluded for certain that Keon Johnson of Mansfield was not Tucker. All of this cost me the chance to see Derrick Walton and Steven Haney, who were playing at another venue.
Enough whining. I got to see a lot of basketball, much of it involving players committed to or interested in Michigan State. You can read all you want from the scouting services, but there's nothing like seeing for yourself. I don't pretend to be an evaluator of talent: what follows is simply my take on these players, based on the 1 to 2 more or less structured games I saw them play. Take it for what it is.
Class of 2012
Kenny Kaminski (MSU verbal) — Wow. Kaminski was the most impressive player I saw this weekend, and I caught two full games of his All-Ohio Red 17U squad, which won their bracket in the tournament. All-Ohio is one of the blue blood AAU programs in the country and they have featured players like Jared Sullinger, Adreian Payne, Jon Diebler and Aaron Craft, so the addition this year of Kaminski is significant. Like, I suspect, many TOC readers, when I read that Kaminski was a tall guy mostly known for his outside shot I wondered if maybe he was, well, kind of soft. I couldn't have been more wrong. He's big and he's tough and he just also happens to have a deadly jumpshot out to around 23 feet, which, in true AAU fashion, he fires up without a conscience when he gets a chance.
Kaminski is listed at 6'7" and 240 pounds. Just looking at him I would have guessed 6'8" 250#. Matt Costello made the same drive I did from Barberton High School about 20 minutes away to see Kaminski's first game against rival Ohio Basketball Club. They're apparently friends and they were hanging around together after the game, which gave me a chance to see them next to each other. Costello is listed at 6'9" 220# and Kaminski looked close to the same height and noticably thicker and more solid. Kaminski, who also plays football, is a physical player and seems to enjoy contact, either battling in the post or setting screens up high. He's one of those guys who gets under the skin of the guy he's guarding and gives at least as good as he gets.
He has a post game. Some reports have described it as something he's added and I can't comment on that. On at least four occasions I saw him back his man down in the post and either take a short turnaround shot or bring it to the rim. He got to the line each time, twice for and-ones. I also saw him take a pass along the baseline and drive to the rim for a layup.
Nevertheless, he does think 3-pointer first. He's the kind of guy parents of players on the other team identify as "the shooter" after he knocks down a couple from deep early. The play All-Ohio ran all day for Kaminski was having him set a ball screen at the top of the key and then step back past the arc for a jumpshot if they elected to switch or double the ball. He'd either be open or able to shoot over the smaller guard who switched onto him. The prospect of Kaminski, a great pick-and-pop guy, playing with Costello, who has a much more natural inside game is definitely intriguing.
Also of interest to Spartan fans is Kaminski's defense. Fortunately All-Ohio plays man defense instead of the zone (or no defense at all) you see a fair amount of at these things and I'm pleased to report that he was quite competent at hedging, switching and double-teams. He moved his feet well and was able to stay in front of smaller players when needed. I was also concerned that his tendency to drift outside the arc would hurt his rebounding, which it did to some extent, but I did have him with 5 boards in limited minutes in the second game and several more in the first. His game is not at all like Raymar Morgan's, as some commenters here on TOC have speculated, but he is, I believe, a definite combo forward who could defend both the 3 and the 4.
Matt Costello (MSU verbal) — I saw Costello twice but wasn't able to gather a lot of data. I drove to Barberton to see him on Friday, which was more than the other team could say. Faced with a forfeit Costello's team scrimmaged with themselves, but even that was of little value for assessment purposes as the coaches would stop play every ten seconds to, you know, coach. Damn coaches.
I drove back to Barberton on Saturday only to be bitten by another bug of AAU tournaments: horrendous mismatches. Costello plays for ACB Bank Hoops, the team associated with Michigan high school hoops guru Steve Bell and coached by former NBA center Tim McCormick among others. They are a powerhouse squad featuring Costello (currently ranked #36 in the country for 2012 on ESPN.com) and rising star Dontel Highsmith. The team they played on Saturday resembled the Fat Albert gang as much as anything, with an effective height range of about 4'8" to 6'2" and a similar range of weights. The players apparently furnished their own uniforms with little in common save a shade of green somewhere between kelly and forest. I'm pretty sure ACB could have put a team on the floor where each player was taller than the tallest player on the other side. Despite resting Costello and Highsmith as much as possible, ACB kept bumping their lead close to 30, in a game of two 16 minute halves. During the few minutes he was in there, Costello very nearly blocked every shot that was taken (or not blocked by someone else). The game also featured a long delay when one of the referees ejected a supporter of the losing squad who refused to leave, forcing tournament officials to be summoned. So, needless to say, there were not a lot of takeaways from this game.
Sorry about that rant. It was just that kind of day on Saturday. From what I could see, Costello is a smooth and athletic post player who runs the floor very well. He already has a nice arsenal of post moves, which is refreshing to see in a young big man. He is also able to turn around and hit a midrange jumper, which those of you frustrated with Garrick Sherman will be happy to hear. If I could pick one word to describe his game, it would be versatile.
On defense, well, he could sure block some shots.
Denzel Valentine (MSU verbal) — I did get a good look at Lansing Sexton's Denzel Valentine and his Michigan Mustangs team. He has great length for a 2-guard at 6'5" and his game is very smooth. He plays with a lot of confidence and never seems to be in a hurry or get flustered. He's also unusual for a 2-guard in that he seems to be looking to pass first, almost to a fault. He's a smart player with tremendous court vision but he has a tendency to look for the spectacular pass, even if it's not there. He's like Korie Lucious in that, and only that, way. He definitely gets his shots in, but it's generally within the flow of the offense. He never seemed to be trying to dominate the game and on a team that features high-scoring Javonte Hawkins, among others, he didn't need to.
I wish I had been able to see some of their Sunday games, when they made it to the Gold bracket finals before losing to the eventual overall runner up, the unfortunately named DC Assault. The game I saw was against an overmatched team from Illinois, so Valentine and the Mustangs were never really pushed. As far as his skills go, Valentine seemed to have a great handle. Of course if you talked to the guy from Illinois next to me, who loudly lobbied for a palming call every time Valentine touched the ball, you might get a different answer. He didn't take a lot of outside shots but from what I saw in warm-ups and the few he did take, it's probably still a developing part of his game. I did see him hit one nice three from the right of the key.
The question last summer was whether Valentine could play the point for MSU. I wouldn't say the one game I saw provided any definite answer. The Mustangs don't use Valentine at the point, but they have Chris Harrison-Docks of Okemos there, a skilled and experienced ball-handler with multiple D-I offers of his own (though he does have a tendency to pound a hole in the floor with his dribble). As mentioned, Valentine possesses the primary skills of a point, and could probably handle it in a pinch, but it doesn't seem like his natural role.
Defensively he also looked good. His length causes a lot of problems for the usually smaller players he has to guard and he had several steals in the game I saw. In fact, I would imagine he's going to be a stat sheet stuffer, as he scores, distributes and rebounds capably as well as getting some steals.
Class of 2013
Monte Morris and Denzel Watts — Since these guys are teammates on Team Detroit as well as point guards from Flint in the loaded Michigan 2013 class I thought I'd cover them together. Patrick Hayes did a piece on the two of them earlier this year here on TOC and I covered both of them as part of the larger class back in November.
You can actually see footage of the game I watched over at UMHoops. As you can see from the camera angle, we were forced to watch the game from a sort of catwalk above the court. Apparently Dylan was the tall guy with the video camera on the other side of the column from me. He got some suprisingly good footage which I encourage you to check out.
What follows should not be taken as me jumping off the Morris bandwagon. I'm still convinced he's one of the top point guards in the state. He just didn't have a particularly impressive game on this occasion. As Dylan notes, the opposing team was seriously overmatched, there were clock problems and the Team Detroit starters all got a lot of bench time. Not ideal circumstances for anyone to shine. For a look at Morris that shows him to better advantage, take a look at this footage of him shot by our friends at Michigan Prep Stars (@MichiganPrepStars on Twitter).
The thing that first jumps out at you about Morris is that he really is slender. He seems taller than he looked in the pictures I saw back in October but his listed weight of 160 on UMHoops seems like it might be a tad generous. He does play with an ease and confidence beyond his size. In this game he didn't have much chance to show off the handle he is known for and, in fact, he missed several opportunities to finish at the rim, a couple of which you can see in the UMHoops footage. He did hit a couple of jumpshots and looked good doing it. I'm anxious to see more of him in more competitive situations to get a complete picture.
Denzel Watts looked bigger and stronger. When both Morris and Watts were on the court, Morris generally played the point. The team they were playing was not competitive so it's hard to really judge Watts' skill, but he was effective getting to the rim in traffic and also hit a couple of outside shots. He played aggressive defense that resulted in some steals as well, one of which you can see in the UMHoops footage. Morris looks like the classic leader/distributor while, based on this tiny sample, Watts looks like more of a scoring point guard. I'm really looking forward to seeing how both of them develop over the next two years.
Dontel Highsmith — Strictly speaking, Highsmith shouldn't be included in a list of MSU prospects. Any Spartan interest in him is conjectural at best right now, but since I brought him into the mix back in November, I was interested to see how he has developed.
For one thing, there was a question whether to even list him as a point guard. He clearly is one now and should be added to the impressive list of 2013 Michigan point guards. He played the point for the Dowagiac team he took from a 7-14 record his freshman year to a 20-6 record and a trip to the Breslin Center for the state semi-finals. Now he plays the point for Matt Costello's ACB Bank Hoops team in AAU.
All I have to say is, don't be surprised if this guy catches fire and generates some major-college interest. Back in November I included Sam Hosey's initial take on Highsmith. The positives Hosey noted are definitely there. He looks like a college player right now at a chiseled 6'2". He combines that size with great skill and athleticism. Even in the scrimmage I watched ACB run, Highsmith was lightning quick getting to the rim. The interesting thing is that the ACB Bank Hoops coaches are clearly working hard on getting Highsmith to see the court and distribute it better. And he seems to be cooperating: in neither the scrimmage nor the game I saw did he seem to be trying to dominate rather than get his teammates involved. He seems quiet, serious and focused on the court.
I didn't see the big arc Hosey saw on his jumpshot. In fact, his shot seemed sort of flat without much rotation. He's probably working on it and still has some work to do. He has time, though, and if he can make the improvements he's working on he should be a force by his junior and senior years.
The final takeaway from this event is a bit of an intangible one: all of these guys are on teams that win, and win a lot. Kaminski's team won the whole thing and Valentine and Costello's/Highsmith's teams went nearly as far. Team Detroit got bumped a little earlier than they were happy with (they won their pool but lost their first game in the Gold bracket), but there's a lot of talent there and they'll get their share this summer. When you're putting together a team with high aspirations, like Tom Izzo is, it's always a plus to bring guys in who have experienced winning and the disciplines it requires.