ORLANDO -- Nike's Vince Carter Skills Academy was held in Orlando this past weekend. The nation's top small forwards in the high school ranks got together to work on their skills and compete. The basketball drills, skills and teaching was under the tutelage of Kevin Eastman, an assistant coach of the Boston Celtics. (Kudos also go to Nike Director of Scouting Vince Baldwin who assembled the rosters.) This was a remarkable camp to learn from the best and compete against the best!
The highlight of the camp was the participation of Vince Carter. The NBA All-Star took a hands-on approach in teaching and instructing. Carter, through his work with the kids, his words and his attitude, sent the correct message about what it takes to become an elite player. His instruction made a huge difference in the lives of all the players as they aspire to get to his level. Some day Carter would make a great coach.
College programs look for players with diverse skill sets and talents to man the small forward position; it usually is the position that most impacts the game besides point guard. The small forward can contribute in so many ways at both ends of the floor. Teams depend on small forwards to assist the guards in ballhandling and playmaking duties -- this is especially true with forwards handling the ball more, giving rise to the point-forward slot. This position allows the small forward to initiate the offense when needed. Defensively, the small forward is valuable as he can "lock down" one player or be involved in team defensive schemes that involve switching. He also should rebound at both ends unless given a specific reason not to by the coach.
Small forwards have to excel at shooting from the perimeter, scoring in the paint and rebounding on both ends of the court. They also need to have the ability to apply intense defensive pressure on the perimeter and occasionally to provide a defensive presence in the paint.
Successful players at the small forward spot need height and strength comparable to many interior players as well as the quickness of a guard. Oftentimes, the player who a team decides to slot at small forward has more natural athletic ability than any other player on the team.
Undoubtedly, the top high school small forward prospects take notice of the college programs that develop their small forwards for the NBA and allow them the freedom to display their versatility on the national stage when they are ready. Here's a look at the top small forward prospects from this weekend's Vince Carter Skills Academy.
The best scorers from the small forward slot have tremendously versatile offensive games. They have the ability to shoot from the perimeter with the same range and consistency as guards. However, a small forward who can score the ball also will score in the paint by using the dribble to penetrate past defenders or by posting up smaller, weaker opposition.
1. DeShaun Thomas, 2010, (Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Luers), committed to Ohio State
This lefty plays the game with a high motor -- especially on the offensive end of the floor -- and strong effort. His ability to knock down 3s sets the table for the rest of his game. In transition he hits the long-range jumper trailing the break, setting a ball screen or spotting up with confidence. He is a monster in the paint when he gets close to the basket, scoring over his right shoulder with his left hand. This young man is a hard worker. To complete his offensive skills, we'd love to see him work on his weak-hand drive and pull-up jumpers.
2. Jereme Richmond, 2010 (Waukegan Ill.), committed to Illinois
Richmond is a smooth operator facing the basket. What stands out about his game is that he can create for himself and his teammates. He is most dangerous as a dribble-drive player; he is very clever in finding ways to get to the basket. From his penetration, he finds the open man usually on time and on target. When he sprints the floor, he can finish around or over the defense. He is improving all the time. He is learning to move without the ball, which is a must to be successful at the next level. This young man shows some terrific ballhandling and passing skills. When open behind the arc, he displays a good jumper -- though he could stand to extend his range.
3. C.J. Leslie, 2010, (Word of God/Raleigh, N.C.)
Leslie is an explosive, active athlete who is a big-time finisher when he gets in the paint. He has a quick first step to the basket; he stays low on the drive to finish high above the rim. He gets points from finishing dump-off passes from his teammates' penetration along with climbing on the offensive glass. You will see him at the foul line quite a bit, as he is an aggressive scorer who is always attacking the basket with his wiry, strong body. He needs to work on his perimeter jumper from deep and a pull-up, midrange jumper.
The best slashers have the ability to get almost anywhere they desire on the court using the dribble-drive. They wreak havoc when they have the ball in their hands by getting into the teeth of the opposition's defense. In addition to using penetration for their own scoring chances, slashes also are effective in creating scoring opportunities for teammates.
1. Terrence Jones, 2010, (Portland, Ore./Jefferson)
This lefty is a physical specimen who drives the ball with explosive strength and overpowers defenders on his way to the basket. A good percentage of his points come from the free throw line because he is so strong and attacks the basket on the drive and from the post. Jones finishes through contact well and finds himself at the foul line frequently. To elevate his game to another level we'd like to see him refine his perimeter shooting ability and weak-hand drives
2. Jamail Jones, 2010, (Stone Mountain, Ga./Greenforest Christian)
Jones slashes his way to the basket with speed and a little bit of shake and bake. In transition, he sprints the lane then once he receives the ball in a scoring area he has a knack of getting to the rim and scoring. What's impressive about his drives is that when he gets in the paint he is under control. For someone whose strength lies in driving the ball, Jones is a surprisingly good shooter. This young man is a hard worker. His ability to score should certainly continue to develop as he works on his midrange game.
3. C.J. Fair, 2010, (Baltimore/City College), committed to Syracuse
A long, crafty driver, Fair is very graceful and controlled in getting to the hoop. When at the rim he has shown the ability to finish with either hand, which is unusual given his young age and size (6-foot-8). Fair can handle the ball from just about anywhere on the floor with confidence and purpose. He will take small defenders on the block and score when he sees the advantage. He likes to use his size and rebound on the offensive end of the floor, while defensively he is versatile as he could defend a small forward or a power forward. Like many wings, we'd like to see him improve his consistency on his jumper.
Usually, the best defenders from the small forward position use their length and athleticism to hound opposing ball handlers and contest shooters. They have the length and quickness to bother guards and defend other small forwards. Defensive-minded small forwards also possess the tenacity and strength needed to defend interior players when called upon. With their different sizes, athletic abilities and versatility they are able to switch on screens and not get hurt if you commit to playing on or off the ball defense. Remember the old adage that defense wins championships.
1. Casey Prather, 2010, (Jackson, Tenn./Northside)
He is extremely athletic and has quick hands and feet. Defensively, he sits down low in his stance and takes the challenge seriously of guarding his man one-on-one. When his man attempts to drive the ball, Prather does a great job of holding his ground and leveling off the dribbler. Offensively he is tough to get out of the lane with his explosion and wiry, strong body. He does a good job rebounding on the defensive end then starting the fast break himself. He can defend point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. He's also big and versatile enough to switch onto almost anyone in screen situations. If you ask him to deny his man the ball, he will do so with a passion which is different than most kids today. He could refine his offensive skills a bit -- his 3-point shooting and weak-hand drives need a bit of work -- but that said, there might not be a better wing defender in the 2010 class than Prather.
2. Dwayne Polee, 2010 (Los Angeles/West Chester), committed to USC
Polee is long, lean and extremely athletic. He is just an OK on-ball defender and could be great on the ball with more work and a self commitment. But where he really shines defensively is anticipating the next pass and denying his man the ball or getting the steal. When he does get the steal, he turns it into points quickly. On offense, he can slash over defenders with his athleticism, but he must continue to work on his outside shooting. He would really fit well into a system that likes to pressure, trap and rotate.
3. Tony Mitchell, 2010, (Grand Prairie, Texas/Living Faith Christian)
Mitchell may have been the strongest player in the camp. When he guarded Vince Carter in a one-on-one drill, Carter made mention of his strength. By nature he can defend in the post, but his 7-foot, 2-inch wing span allows him to go out deep on the perimeter and guard. He will be an extremely valuable defender in college. He will be able to defend small forwards, power forwards and some centers. Offensively he drives and finishes well along with scoring on offensive putbacks, and finishing dump-off passes through contact at the rim. He could stand to add a bit of range to his jumper.
The top shooters from the small forward slot should have enough range and consistency from the perimeter to allow them to stretch defenses. Good shooting 3-men can stick it well beyond the 3-point line and play in two-man pick-and-roll action. It is important that they show a strong middle game by using screening action for 12- to 17-foot jumpers and where they shoot off the dribble before the help defender can get there. They also should be high percentage free throw shooters so they can be on the floor at the end of games.
1. Russell Byrd, 2010 (Fort Wayne, Ind./Blackhawk Christian), committed to Michigan State
If there is space available for Byrd to get his shot off, there's a good chance it's going in. He is very comfortably off a catch-and-shoot situation with his feet set. When his teammates drive the ball, the defense should never leave him -- especially on the ball-side corner. On a hard defensive close out, he has expanded his game to a shot-fake pull-up going left or right. He is an excellent free throw shooter, which means the ball can be in his hands at the end of games. Defensively, he gets in his stance and concentrates on keeping his man out of the lane. He could improve his ability to read the defense in determining when to drive and when to shoot.
2. Daniel Alexander, 2010, (Dripping Springs, Texas) committed to Texas A&M
Alexander has a lighting-quick release and great size, which allows him to see over defenders as he spaces the floor for any offense. He has a strong basketball IQ and utilizes it on each possession. He understands that he needs some time and space -- although there were times he drove the ball and surprisingly finished with a dunk. He moves without the ball with a purpose, which makes him hard to guard. He displays a nice dribble pull up with bounce into his shot. He needs to dedicate himself to a strength-training program to maximize his potential.
3. Cameron Clark, 2010, (Sherman, Texas)
While Byrd and Alexander stroke it from deep as well as anyone, Clark is the king of the midrange jumper. He makes a difference with the dribble pull-up and off the catch -- he is a high percentage shooter from 12 to 17 feet. He sets up his defender with a shot fake or does a good job using the jab step. He has what most players need offensively but could extend his range to the 3-point line.
Paul Biancardi, who spent 2007-08 as an assistant coach on Rick Majerus' staff at Saint Louis University, is the national recruiting director for ESPN Scouts Inc. He has 18 years of coaching experience at the Division I level. He was an assistant at Boston University, Boston College and Ohio State before becoming the head coach at Wright State, where he earned Horizon League Coach of the Year honors in the 2003-04 season. He is on the selection committees for the Gatorade National Player of the Year award and the McDonald's All-American Game.