Getty Image / Bryan Horowitz
As the Jordan Brand Classic All-Americans warmed up at Barclays Center on Friday night, No. 1 senior Harry Giles held court at the top of the key, proudly wearing his jersey. Still mending a torn ACL suffered in November, the future Duke Blue Devil was thrilled to be included.
“I’m just happy to be out here with my guys,” Giles said. “It’s our last event of senior year, so we’re all trying to just go out and enjoy each other’s company and have some fun for the last time before we separate.”
The sneakers aren’t that bad either, right?
“Definitely,” he said with a hearty laugh, gesturing at his Air Jordan IV’s. “I love shoes!”
Amid a sea of similar games, the Jordan Classic distinguishes itself with its unmatched amenities. Players take home an armload of fresh gear and exclusive sneakers. Practices are held at the Nets’ sparkling new facility and Jordan’s luxe court at Terminal 23. An A-list celebrity row lends a big-event feel. Future soundalike Desiigner headlined the postgame concert; betraying my age, I was told the guy walked right by me and I had no idea.
Without question, the event’s biggest drawing card is the opportunity to rub elbows with Michael Jordan himself. The players almost certainly didn’t watch him play live — Giles was 5 when he retired — but it’s obvious Jordan means far more to them than just his eponymous sneaker brand and an inescapable Twitter meme.
“Growing up … I used to say he was my dad sometimes. I used to say, ‘Michael Jordan’s my dad!’ My mom is just like, ‘Go ahead and go with it!’” Giles said with a laugh. “He went to Carolina and I’m going to Duke, but he’s a big part of North Carolina history. He’s the greatest, so for me to be at his event is crazy.”
The game itself was pretty standard — plenty of dunks, scant defense, a constant hip-hop soundtrack. (If I had to hear Drake’s “Jumpman” one more time, I was going to go on a killing spree.) Still, if you look close enough, you can see distinct glimpses of what these players will become.
To wit: Miles Bridges brings a tireless motor to Michigan State, Omari Spellman will be a handful in the paint for Villanova, Washington-bound Markelle Fultz showcased his shooting range and Jayson Tatum’s fall-away jumper should play nicely at Duke. Scary injuries to Alterique Gilbert (separated shoulder) and Frank Jackson (concussion) put a damper on the proceedings, but neither should affect their freshman years
Ultimately, the Classic is just one more milepost on the journey to bigger and better things. But with things starting to pick up speed for these potential stars, it can’t hurt to slow things down, measure progress and make some memories.
“Living on my own for the first time without my moms, I’m going to miss her, but I’m just looking for the next step and that’s playing against bigger and better competition,” Fultz said. “It’s truly a blessing, coming from JV two years ago to now, this just gives me more fire. All I can do is just keep working hard and keep getting higher and higher.”
Here are four more things to know from this year’s Jordan Brand Classic:
The Total Package
Package deals are often bandied about by recruits, but they rarely come to fruition. That’s what made Duke so special two years ago: Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones never wavered from their vow to play together. Add in Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, and Duke’s freshmen were the heart of a national title squad.
Don’t look now, but the Blue Devils are once again loaded for bear. Forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum are the top two recruits in the country per ESPN, while point Guard Frank Jackson is ranked 11th. The trio is fully aware of what its predecessors accomplished.
“It kind of showed us what could happen if we go to school together,” said Tatum, who scored 18 points in the Classic. “I’m not saying it’s definitely what’s going to happen, but I think everyone comes in and wants to win the whole thing, and we’re no different. We all enjoy being around each other, and we’re just fortunate enough to be together next year at Duke.”
Of course, Duke doesn’t have the only super-elite recruiting haul. Kentucky brings in dynamic guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk — the co-MVPs of the JBC — plus bruising big man Bam Adebayo and versatile forward Wenyen Gabriel.
“From me to De’Aaron, Malik, Wenyen and Sacha [Killeya-Jones], we’re all just coming in like brothers. The Fab 5, you might say,” Adebayo said with a grin. “I don’t know if we’re going to be as good as the Fab 5, but we’re just all going in to have fun.”
Considering the waves of talent that have rolled through Lexington since John Calipari took over seven years ago, it’s worth noting he won his lone championship in 2012 when he struck the right balance between a solid group of returning players and incoming studs Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In that sense, Duke might have an edge.
“Kentucky doesn’t return a lot next year, but Duke returns about 60 percent of their offense,” ESPN’s Paul Biancardi said. “So I think Duke has a chance to go a little farther because they have all these kids coming back.”
That said, UK’s new star shooting guard might have something to say about that.
“There’s no ceiling at all to my expectations,” Monk said. “I think De’Aaron and I are both going to have a tremendous year, so we’re just trying to work hard and bond closer.
“I think it’s going to be crazy next year.”
Remember The Name
Last year, we asked our friend Paul Biancardi, ESPN’s national recruiting director, for some under-the-radar potential stars. He named Florida State swingman Malik Beasley and Michigan State big man Deyonta Davis, both of whom were impactful as freshmen and recently declared for the NBA Draft. Obviously, he knows his stuff.
This year, Biancardi raved about lanky Syracuse-bound guard Tyus Battle, a perfect fit at the head of Jim Boeheim’s vaunted zone defense, and future Gonzaga big man Zach Collins. “He’s not imposing,” Biancardi said, “but he is 6’10 and he can really shoot the leather off the ball.”
From the JBC ranks, Biancardi singled out Tony Bradley, a 6-foot-10 big man who brings a solid post game and great hands to UNC. Bradley scored just six points in the Classic, but his nine rebounds ranked second only to Villanova recruit Omari Spellman.
“He’s thicker than Brice Johnson and thinner than Kennedy Meeks. That’s what you want to be,” Biancardi said with a laugh. “I just love his ability to score inside. He may not shine in a game like this, but I think at Carolina you’re going to see a great player.”
For my part, I liked Miami recruit Bruce Brown, who looked like he had something to prove after not being selected to the McDonald’s Game or the Nike Hoops Summit. Brown, who cites Kobe Bryant’s all-around excellence as inspiration, relentlessly attacked the hoop en route to 15 points.
“This was my first time actually playing against these guys, and my first time on a big stage like that,” Brown said. “I just wanted to showcase that I can lead a team, and that I can play both sides of the ball.
“Two years ago, I wasn’t really known. Now I’m in the All-American Game, so it’s big time.”
Great White Spark
I remember three primary things from Drake’s appearance at the 2013 Classic: He hijacked my interview with Kennedy Meeks, he received the biggest ovation of the night, and he shouted out fellow Canadians Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis on stage.
Drake’s salute corresponded with an upswing of sorts. There have been just 27 Canadian players in the NBA/ABA, with a total of nine All-Star selections — eight belonging to Steve Nash. But 11 of those are active players. Wiggins in particular possesses superstar potential, and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray might be a Top-5 pick in June.
If Friday’s International Game was any indication, the next wave is already hot on Wiggins’ trail. Montverde guard Rowan Barrett Jr., the MVP of the game, was born and bred for greatness; his father starred for St. John’s and the Canadian national team, and Nash is his godfather.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old point guard Andrew Nembhard more than held his own with 11 points, 3 assists and 5 steals. Reported to be joining Barrett at Montverde, his talent speaks for itself, and he’s been emboldened by the recent influx of Canadian ballers.
“It means to me that I think I can do the same thing,” Nembhard said. “If they did it, and they came from the same schools and worked their way up, it means if I put the work in and play my best, I can get to the same place they did.”
Dangerfield: Show some respect
One of the most annoying hot takes in recent memory is that the dynastic UConn women’s team is bad for the sport. Granted, the television ratings aren’t unbelievable. But the nature of their dominance is compelling, and what are they supposed to do, lose for the sake of parity?
One person who readily dismisses the criticism is future Huskies point guard Crystal Dangerfield, ESPN’s third-ranked player.
“I just feel like that’s the people that don’t really understand the game,” Dangerfield said. “UConn is just raising the bar for everyone, and that’s exactly what the Golden State Warriors are doing. If you want to play at this level? Reach for what they’re doing.”
Dangerfield starred in the second annual Jordan Classic girls game, the brainchild of Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore, the first female baller to sign with the Jumpman.
“Growing up, Maya Moore has always been someone I’ve looked up to,” said East MVP Erin Boley, who will take her talents to Notre Dame in the fall. “I aspire to be like her, so just being able to ask her questions about the process and how she got to where she is today is just amazing.”
Moore, of course, won back-to-back titles at UConn. But with all due respect to her and 4-time champion Breanna Stewart, Dangerfield has every intention of carving her own legacy.
“I’m not letting the pressure build from that. Four championship years, it is what it is, but we’re going to try to come in and do the same thing,” Dangerfield said. “What they did last year is great, but it doesn’t determine the next year.”
In other words, let the drive for five begin — whether you like it or not.