We attended Tuesday’s McDonald’s All-American practice session and came away with the impression the West team is the favorite going into Wednesday’s game. Mr. Basketball USA candidates Stanley Johnson and Jahlil Okafor standout as does sparkplug guard Tyler Ullis.
Since there doesn’t seem to be the two or three overwhelming talents that overshadow the rest of the group, the 2014 McDonald’s All-American practice sessions have been some of the most spirited we’ve seen in recent years.
In 2012, many players deferred to Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA/NBA) in practice. The eventual Mr. Basketball USA for that season wasn’t challenged often and outshined others not so much with his skill, but his dominant work ethic. Last year, much of the attention was focused on the matchup between Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) and Jabari Parker (Duke) and the ability of MVP Aaron Gordon (Arizona), who teamed with Parker to lead the West team to a 110-99 victory.
This year, the talent level is more balanced and that has created spirited and intense practice sessions. In 2011, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky/NBA) set the tone for his East team and this year Stanley Johnson of Student Sports FAB 50 No. 3 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) is doing the same for the West club. Johnson is a jack-of-all-trades and lifts the play of his teammates much like Kidd-Gilchrist did, but his much more skilled offensively on the perimeter.
Johnson, natural 3-man, ran the point guard on many occasions for his high school team and his ability to facilitate has uplifted the play of the West club. Johnson was knocking down long range perimeter shots and before being poked in the eye on Tuesday, was crashing the boards inside. Johnson did return to practice later, but he wasn’t the only one who took a hard spill as both clubs were going at it when traditionally the Tuesday practice has a tendency to be lighter than Monday in preparation of the Tuesday afternoon scrimmage.
Another factor for the up tick in intensity is three or four players in the class legitimately have claim to the top rankings spot. Johnson first joined the club that includes Cliff Alexander (Curie, Chicago), Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young, Chicago) and Emmanuel Mudiay last summer when he was ranked No. 1 by the Hoop Scoop and other ranking services are now placing him in that elite category because of his high school resume and myriad of skills.
“It has been competitive all week,” Johnson said. “A lot of players here are good with the ball in their hands, so I’m trying to find others things to do to contribute to the team, whether it’s play defense or pass. I definitely feel I’m in that category if you look at my track record this year. I always say, put me with four other guys, and then those other guys, put them with those four same guys, and let’s see who wins.”
Johnson also praised the play of Okafor, his Duke-bound West teammate. Okafor’s skill level among the big men has stood out. He has scored from the right and left block with equal efficiency and uses a spin or running hook if he’s operating from further out. During the scrimmage, he and Myles Turner (Trinity, Euless, Texas) were getting extremely physical with each other and no player makes more of an impact with his sheer presence in this class. In a nutshell, Okafor has impressed as much as any player in attendance. At Tuesday’s media day, he also drew the most attention as the local player whose took home some national player of the year hardware and the one who could take MVP honors for his team.
Although he doesn’t generate the same media buzz as Okafor, Kentucky-bound Tyler Ullis of Marian Catholic (Chicago Heights, Ill.) is another local who’s shined for the West club. His defensive work has been nothing short of outstanding. He was intense during the practice session and carried that over to the scrimmage, harassing the East guards in the West’s unofficial victory.
On offense, Ullis did a good job of getting everyone of his West teammates on the court involved during the scrimmage. He, Johnson, and Kentucky-bound forward Trey Lyles (Arsenal Tech, Indianapolis) led the West to a 14-point halftime lead and didn’t let up.
The East club got good moments from Theo Pinson (Wesleyan Christian Academy, Greensboro, N.C.) and Melo Trimble (Bishop O’Connell, Arlington, Va.), but it general its shot selection wasn’t going to get it done against a West team that’s been clicking on all cylinders all week.
During today’s practice for the East, there is little doubt D’Angelo Russell of Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) was the team’s top performer. He was knocking down shots in rhythm and finding open teammates. The best way to describe his performance was efficient. It begins with his approach to practice and it could end with a big performance on Wednesday night.
The Cliff Alexander Factor
During the McDonald’s media day, Alexander was at a local hospital getting his right wrist X-rayed. His injury was described as a contusion. If he can’t play it would be a big blow, not only to the East club’s chances of winning the game, but for local fans who want to see Alexander play in person one more team before he’s off to Kansas.
Alexander told Evan Daniels of Scout.com he plans to play in Wednesday’s game. Considering it’s in Chicago, the way his high school season ended with Curie and with no No. 1 consensus player in this class, look for Alexander to give it a go despite wearing a wrist brace after the hospital visit.
Alexander’s power around the rim and intimidating nature on defense was definitely missed by the East club during the scrimmage.