2014 Jordan Brand Classic Notebook: Observations on Top Incoming Freshmen

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2014 Jordan Brand Classic Notebook: Observations on Top Incoming Freshmen
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NEW YORK — After spending two days at the Jordan Brand Classic, I've seen enough in person and have enough in my notebook to start forming impressions of the top players in the 2014 class.

This is the year of the big man and a class short on shooters, and that has been apparent through two days of practice, although several outside gunners have stood out.

Before I get to my observations, remember this is based off watching two days of practice, and this is the final stop for most of these guys after a busy few weeks on the all-star circuit. It is, however, a great chance to see them against the other best players in their class. 

Since it is the year of the big man, let's get started with the post players. These rankings are based off how they've looked in practices and projecting who is the most ready to make an impact as a freshmen.

 

Ranking the Big Men

1. Jahlil Okafor (Duke): Okafor has the body and skills to dominate right away in college, and the only question I really have is whether he has the motor. The game almost comes so easy to him that sometimes it looks like he's coasting. I'm not so sure he's a great conditioned athlete, and that is going to be important because the Blue Devils like to play fast.

As for his post game, it's a thing of beauty. He does a great job of using his feet and shoulders to set up his spin move, and he releases the ball so quickly out of his spin that it's nearly unguardable. He also has jump hooks and up-and-unders and pretty much any post move you can imagine. He can also handle the ball well in the open court for a big man and is a good finisher in transition.

Okafor has the best chance of anyone in this class to end up as a first-team All-American as a freshman.

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2. Cliff Alexander (Kansas): Alexander's reputation is a beast who tries to dunk everything and can really rebound. He's shown that this week. But what he's also shown is a developing post game that you can tell he's been working on.

What has impressed me most about Alexander is his patience. Wherever he catches the ball, he does a good job of surveying the situation, waiting to see if a double will come and then attacking. He also does a good job of passing out of double-teams when they do come. When he's able to go one-on-one, he can big boy pretty much anyone he wants with his strength. His footwork is still a little sloppy, but time and reps will help clean that up. He's going to be a really good fit in Bill Self's high-low system once he learns how to use his big body to get great position in the post. 

Alexander is also a guy who could be around for a few years. I overheard one NBA scout say that he doesn't think Alexander is a one-and-done prospect, and I agree. He's a 6'9" center who will be able to overpower college guys, but he'll need more to his game before he's ready for the pros. He needs to continue to refine those post skills and also continue to improve his 12- to 15-foot jumper. 

3. Trey Lyles (Kentucky): I've heard a lot about Myles Turner's ability to hit the outside shot, but I think Lyles has the best stroke of any big man at the Jordan Brand Classic. Granted, Turner has not been able to play, but from watching him shoot around, I still think Lyles' stroke will be more consistent. 

Lyles is going to be a really nice college player, and I was tempted to put him No. 2 behind Okafor. Alexander has the advantage in terms of motor and strength, but Lyles is really skilled, can score facing up and has great hands. Everything he does is fluid and fundamentally sound. Even with a really crowded frontcourt, I would be surprised if Lyles is not the starting 4 for the Wildcats. 

4. Reid Travis (Stanford): If I were going on upside, Karl Towns would be the pick here. But Travis looks more like a guy who is ready to contribute right away on the college level and a good fit in Stanford's triangle offense to replace Dwight Powell. Travis has good hands. He can score with either hand around the basket, and he looks like a guy who has already spent time in a college weight-lifting program.

5. Karl Towns (Kentucky): Towns definitely has ability and like I said, he has a high ceiling. In these two days of practices, he's just looked a little sloppy to me.

He is the one guy, however, on the East team who has been able to give Okafor some problems with his size. But with Kentucky's ridiculous depth in the frontcourt, I could see Towns being the odd-man out, next season's version of Marcus Lee.

6. Chris McCullough (Syracuse): If you had no idea where any of these post players were going and someone asked who do you think is the big fella going to Syracuse, McCullough would be the answer. He's perfect for the 'Cuse zone. Really long. Really quick off his feet and active. He hasn't shown much of a back-to-the-basket post game, but in recent years, Jim Boeheim has rarely used his bigs that way so that shouldn't matter.

 

Best Shooters

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James Blackmon Jr. drives to the basket during the McDonald's All-American game.

1. James Blackmon Jr. (Indiana): His release is quick and he rarely misses an open look. He'll fit in nicely next to Yogi Ferrell. 

2. Devin Booker (Kentucky): I'm not sure Booker is ready to be a starter, but he may have to be if Aaron Harrison goes pro. If Harrison stays, Booker would be a really nice weapon off the bench this year. His jumper is not as consistent as Blackmon's, but he has the most range and isn't shy about shooting it from well beyond the arc. 

3. Rashad Vaughn (UNLV): Vaughn does a really good job of setting himself up on the perimeter and being shot ready. He has good balance and good form. He does strike me as a guy who is pretty streaky. He was also a bit trigger-happy during a scrimmage on Thursday and took a few contested shots when he should have passed the ball into the post.

 

Ready to Make the Biggest Impact from Day 1: Stanley Johnson (Arizona)

Okafor and Emmanuel Mudiay (SMU) should also be in consideration here, but Johnson looks like a college veteran who was put on the floor with a bunch of high school seniors. At 6'6" and 225 pounds, he will be one of the strongest and most powerful wings in the country. He finishes through contact really well. He has a solid handle. And what has impressed me the most is his ability to make mid-range jumpers. 

On Wednesday during a one-on-one drill where each guy caught the ball with his back to the basket, Johnson consistently knocked down 10-12 footers, several of which came off one foot—otherwise known as the Dirk Nowitzki shot. Johnson is so strong that he can pretty much get this off whenever he wants. He has nice form on his jumper as well and should be able to shoot much more consistently for the Wildcats than Aaron Gordon was able to this past year. 

Johnson is also the best perimeter defender at the Jordan Brand Classic. I'm not predicting he'll put up huge numbers, but like Gordon last year, he's primed to be an impact starter on a really good team as soon as he sets foot in Tucson. 

 

Other Guys Who Have Impressed Me

Tyler Ulis (Kentucky): The tiny point guard—he's listed at 5'9" and that's generous—will make every Kentucky game DVR-worthy for his entire career in Lexington. I'm not going to say much more because I have a story coming out on Ulis soon, but I will say he has been my favorite guy to watch during the two days of practices here in New York.

Andrew Nelles

Justise Winslow (Duke): Winslow doesn't do anything that makes it so you can't take your eyes off him, but he's one of those guys whom you want on your team. He plays really hard. He doesn't make mistakes. He takes good shots. He rebounds. He finishes through contact. He'll be able to play the 3 and 4 at Duke because he has the strength, size and quickness to guard either position.

Will Winslow put up great numbers as a freshman? Probably not. But Mike Krzyzewski will have a hard time keeping him off the floor.

Justin Jackson (North Carolina): Jackson is super skinny at 6'7" and 185 pounds, but like a Tayshaun Prince, he's not limited by that. On the defensive end, he has no trouble guarding wings on the perimeter and he moves his feet really well and does a good job using his long arms. On the offensive end, he can score multiple ways. His mid-range jumper is what sets him apart from other wings. He has a decent handle and can get to the rim, where he finishes with either hand. And he's also a good passer who sees the floor well.

It's likely that North Carolina will start one freshman at shooting guard or small forward. I've really liked Theo Pinson's game as well the last two days—he's one of the best slashers here—but I would bet that Jackson ends up starting for the Tar Heels.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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