Players for the Jordan Brand Classic high school all-star basketball games, which will be at the Barclays Center on Saturday in Brooklyn, practiced Thursday in Manhattan and we learned five things.
1. Two of the best underclassmen in the country are from Australia.
Ben Simmons, a 6-9 sophomore point forward from Melbourne, Australia, is playing for the International Team. He made an impact in his first high school tournament in the United States last week, helping lead Montverde (Fla.) Academy to a championship in the National High School Invitational in North Bethesda, Md.
"I thought Ben did a fantastic job just in doing what they needed him to do," said his father, David Simmons, who played at Oklahoma City University and then professionally in South America, Belgium and Melbourne. "That was certainly not his game. Ben is more a perimeter player and I saw him doing the inside work and I thought, 'Oh, that's pretty good.' In the end, they got the success they wanted getting him to do what they needed to do."
While Simmons is one of the top recruits in the 2015 class, Thon Maker is considered a top recruit in the 2016 class. The 7-footer's family fled the Sudan for Sydney several years ago. Maker started the season with Country Day (Metairie, La.), but three games into the season, Maker's guardian, Edward Smith, a former assistant at Chaminade University, moved his family and Maker to Martinsville, Va., so that Maker could play for the Carlisle School.
Maker led the Chiefs to a 23-2 record while averaging 23.4 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.9 blocked shots, 2.1 assists and 1.7 steals. He said he plans to play his summer club ball for Boo Williams this spring.
"Mainly, I've been working on everything," Maker said. "I want to hit the weight room hard first and work on my inside game. The basketball is more competitive over here."
Maker has seen a lot of interest from colleges though he doesn't turn 17 until next February.
"He's so young, so it's a long process for him to decide," Smith said. "In four years, you never know which coach is going to be where."
Simmons and Maker last played on the same court in the Australian 14-15 state championships two years ago.
"I kept him to 12 points," Maker said. "He's so aggressive. My coach said to go right at him. It was the best against the best. I had to read his game. Since he plays left, I had to force him right."
2. Look out for Canada at Rio.
Huntington (W.Va.) Prep's Andrew Wiggins, from Toronto, is considered the top recruit in the 2013 class. Imagine him and fellow Jordan Brand guard Tyler Ennis from St. Benedict's Prep (Newark), also from Toronto, playing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro alongside current NBA player Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph (both from Toronto) and soon-to-be NBA players such as UNLV's Anthony Bennett (from Brampton, Ontario) and Khem Birch (Montreal).
"It can be something special," said Wiggins, whose father, Mitch Williams played basketball for FSU and in the NBA and whose mother, then Marita Payne, won two silver track medals for Canada at the 1984 Olympics. "Hopefully we can win it all or place for a medal."
3. These guys are ready for the NBA now.
While many of the players at the Jordan Brand Classic will likely be entering the NBA draft in two seasons, some are readier than others for the punishment of the league.
Unlike most of the big men, Kentucky signee Dakari Johnson of Montverde Academy is a solid 250 pounds and enjoys mixing it up underneath. Arizona recruit Aaron Gordon of Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) and Kentucky recruit Julius Randle of Prestonwood Christian (Plano, Texas) are both explosive players in the paint and look as if they could play tight end in the NFL. Kansas signee Wayne Selden of Tilton (N.H.) School, is strong enough at 6-5 and 220 to stymie bigger players and could easily overpower smaller guards.
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4. Now presenting the case for the defense.
All-Star games are not about playing defense, but several players showed in practice Thursday that they are willing and able to play shutdown defense.
Despite his cherry-picking ways last week at the McDonald's All American game, Gordon made it difficult Thursday for whoever he was guarding to get into the paint. Indiana signee Troy Williams of Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Kentucky recruit Marcus Lee of Deer Valley (Antioch, Calif.) are turnover-creating machines with their long arms and quick hands, and Arkansas recruit Bobby Portis of Hall (Little Rock) showed both good timing in his shot blocking but also an ability to close down passing lanes with his quick feet and reach.
5. Wildcat recruits are getting to know each other well. Kentucky's top-rated recruiting class includes six players in the Jordan Brand Classic. Between McDonald's, Jordan Brand and the Nike Hoop Summit, the future Wildcats are getting an early introduction to their future teammates.
"They're all goofballs," said Rochester, Mich., forward James Young, who committed to Kentucky in October.
"I didn't know they were that funny. We've just clicked. … Getting our chemistry together will hopefully help next year on the court. We're all getting closer and that will help us."