Practices tipped off for the McDonald's All-American Game on Monday as media, talent evaluators and NBA scouts took in the best high school basketball players in the country competing against each other.
The game at the Uniter Center on Wednesday is a fun showcase, but the practices are where the best players in the country play hard to see how they stack up against their peers. The practices are a big event for national talent evaluators and NBA people getting a late-season glimpse at the best players in the country for final national rankings for scouting services and future NBA mock drafts.
Three Chicago-area seniors will take part in the game: Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor, Curie power forward Cliff Alexander and Marian Catholic point guard Tyler Ulis.
The 6-foot-10 Okafor, a Duke commit, was impressive against solid competition in the West team's practice. Matched up with UCLA commit Thomas Welsh, a legit 7-footer, Okafor consistently played well.
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Rivals National Recruiting analyst Eric Bossi spoke to CSNChicago.com and believes that Okafor had a solid day.
"I thought Jahlil looked really good. He was physical with his offense. Sometimes he can be a bit casual because he's bigger than everyone but he played hard today," Bossi said. "He played against Thomas Welsh, a 7-foot, 250-pound center and Jahlil was scoring on him consistently."
Kansas commit Cliff Alexander played on the East team and the 6-foot-8 power forward was average on the day. Alexander made some highlight-reel blocks and power rebounds, but his skill level is still a bit of a work-in-progress against bigger centers.
Bossi noted that Alexander's difficulty against the length of some of his East teammates.
"Cliff is a power player and in practice he's going against some guys with tremendous length in Myles Turner and Karl Towns, so he's had to adjust a little bit and struggled a little bit," Bossi said. "He has to work on his 6-to-12 foot game so that people don't crowd him on defense. But he rebounded very well and made a couple power plays at the rim and played with energy."
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the day was the play of Tyler Ulis. With the Marian Catholic floor general and Kentucky commit recently battling turf toe, it was uncertain how the 5-foot-9 Ulis would look in the practice.
On Monday, Ulis played some of his best basketball of the season against the nation's best players. Bossi also came away impressed.
"I thought Ulis looked really good today. He was awfully tough to contain off the pick-and-roll," Bossi said. "Joel Berry had to really work to defend him and Ulis got the better of him more often than not. He reads which way to go, where he needs to go and attacks ball screens very well. I heard a couple NBA guys talking and they think Kentucky is a good fit for him."
With NBA scouts in attendance, there's always a question as to how the overall class of players looks.
Bossi believes things are wide-open with this current group of 2014 high school seniors as GMs and NBA people don't seem to have a good feel for this class yet.
"(The NBA people at McDonald's) seem to be pretty split over things. They're not in agreement about these players," Bossi said. "I can think of at least 5-or-6 guys who have legitimate cases for No. 1 player in the country. Nobody is really standing out so they're feeling it out right now."
Among the players nationally that played really well today included Minnesota-native Rashad Vaughn, a 6-foot-5 UNLV commit and shooting guard who showed a complete guard game.
Vaughn scored, handled and passed very well and was also a force on the defensive end.
"I really think Rashad Vaughn (was the strongest performer on Monday). He shot it well from deep, he looks more bouncy because he's fully healthy," Bossi said. "Two things set him apart from other guards: He's a very good on-the-ball defender. He switched on to Emmanuel Mudiay and he really made Mudiay work. In terms of creating his own shot, he's as good as any two-guard in the class. He can do a lot of damage off-the-bounce."
The McDonald's All-American practices continue tomorrow and the game is scheduled for Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m. for the Girls All-American game with the Boys game to follow.