Christmas coming up big
AKRON, Ohio -- In the morning session of Day 3 of the LeBron James U.S. Skills Academy Tuesday, team play was the emphasis. The players worked on running a controlled fast break. The drill was set up like this: Two wing players sprinted down the court in the outside lanes, while the first post ran to the rim. The point guard received the outlet pass from the other post, who had pulled down the defensive rebound, and the team quickly transitioned to five-on-five, half-court play. The players learned the importance of ball and player movement, while at the same time maintaining floor balance and spacing. The afternoon consisted of an hour of scrimmages in which 2011 power forward/center Rakeem Christmas (Philadelphia/North Catholic) stole the show with his scoring from the low and high post and rebounding on both ends. California big man, 6-foot-9 James Johnson (Mildomar, Calif./Samuel Morse) stuffed the stat sheet with his ability to score away from the basket and rebound on the defensive end. Starting on Wednesday, the skills academy transforms into the King City Championship, as the players head to Cleveland State University for two days of games that played in tournament format.
Rising junior prospect Christmas is a young post that is long and lean. Most important, he's consistently productive. Christmas has improved each time I have seen him, and has dominated games with his ability to score off the dribble from the high post. Christmas can drive to both sides from the free-throw line and get to the rim and finish with either hand in one or two dribbles, if he doesn't dunk in traffic with his length and explosive athletic ability. He can hit the midrange jumper off the catch if the defense backs off. In the low post, he can face and shoot the short corner jumper or drive the lane, using his great length to elevate over opponents with ease. He will show the jump hook over his left shoulder, and he goes to the offensive glass on a regular basis. Defensively, he has trouble holding his ground at times because of a lack of lower-body strength. But what he lacks in that area he makes up for in heart and desire. He is an excellent shot-blocker with great timing on or away from the ball. Christmas is terrific at waiting for the offensive player to make his move before going to get the ball out of the air. This kid has off-the-charts upside, and is fun to watch.
Johnson played extremely well Tuesday. He is fundamentally sound, he faces off the lane and has the ability to consistently hit 15-foot jumpers. He also can knock down the open 3, if given time and space. Johnson is a matchup problem for less mobile post players because he can pull them away from the basket. He has good, not great, athleticism, and welcomes contact. Johnson runs the floor well, and plays with urgency. He has great length, which, along with his effort, helps him rebound consistently. He can start the fast break with a strong defensive rebound, and can come up with a timely tip-in on the offensive boards. He plays with his hands up on the defensive end, and works to hold his position. He must add strength to be more effective in the low post, but this young forward is aggressive and draws your attention the entire time his is on the floor.
Frank on fire
Class of 2010 prospect Frank Williams (Raytown, Mo.) is a 6-foot-5 wing who came to the skills academy with the reputation as a jump shooter, and he didn't disappoint Tuesday afternoon. Williams is a confident shooter with a quick trigger. He is rail thin, and must add strength to be more effective off the dribble and on the glass. But knocking down open shots is his specialty. He is athletic, and can finish above the rim with ease. On Tuesday, he ran the outside lane, spotting up, feeding the post and relocating to the open area for shot opportunities. His release reminded me of a young Andrew Toney at times. Williams is fun to watch get it going from the outside. If the defender is not close to him on the catch or approaches with his hands down, Williams has the ability to make deep jumpers look like layups.
Trey on display
Shooting guard Trey Zeigler (Mount Pleasant, Mich.) was terrific in the open court; he made plays in the passing lanes that turned into easy fast-break baskets. Zeigler made excellent decisions on the break. He made great passes to teammates ahead of him, and when the defense approached out of control, he got to the rim and finished. Zeigler displayed the ability to see the entire court, and rebounded on the defensive glass, after which he was a threat to go coast-to-coast and finish above the rim.
Purdue head coach Matt Painter found a perfect fit for his offense in 6-9 big manTravis Carroll (Danville, Ind.), who has excellent low-post footwork and the ability to hit the midrange jumper off the catch. He is a good area rebounder and screener. He works hard for position on defense, and does a good job of denying the ball into the low post. He is a good passer out of the low post, and likes to shoot the left-handed jump hook from the right low block. Carroll will fit right in with Purdue's motion offense and in-your-face, man-to-man defense.
2010 wing Moses Morgan (Las Vegas/Palo Verde) showed the ability to knock down open shots with 3-point range. He did a great job of squaring his body as he came off screens or filled in the wing position. His shot preparation was good, and his release and follow through were smooth. He held his follow through until he received a result.
Reggie Rankin covers basketball recruiting for ESPN Scouts Inc.