CHICAGO — The Champions Classic is an early-season highlight of the college basketball schedule that doubles as an annual NBA summit, the sort of thing that happens any time you pack four top programs into one gym for one night of basketball. Top executives and scouts from around the league gathered at the United Center on Wednesday for the high-profile doubleheader, with Duke topping Michigan State in the first game and Kansas edging Kentucky in the second.
Between the two games, there were a good two-dozen NBA prospects on display, and The Crossover’s Front Office bore witness to get an improved firsthand feel for each player. Here’s what you need to know about every player that took the court.
UP: Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Bagley left just 10 minutes into Duke’s game after being inadvertently poked in the eye. He’s apparently going to be just fine, and was held out only as a precaution. As a result, we didn’t learn a whole ton. Bagley drifted in an out of a game that started slowly, but was active on the glass as usual (five offensive boards in his short stint) and hit a neat floater off a Eurostep dribble. Duke’s 2–3 zone appeared most effective during the brief stretch Bagley spent at center, given he’s the closest thing they have to a true rim protector.
Bagley is noticeably left-hand dominant and doesn’t yet have a consistent go-to move or method on the interior. He has definite potential to space the floor, but his jumper looks a bit flat and hard and lacks consistency or demonstrable touch right now. Bagley did, of course, skip his senior year of high school and we’re seeing him encounter a learning curve. He’s going to produce just based on his talent, but when we talk about him as a top draft pick, it involves more projection than some of his peers.
UP: Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State
Tuesday’s biggest winner may have been Jackson, whose performance was a nice shot in the arm for his early draft hype. He popped up all over the floor, draining several threes, nabbing some big rebounds and altering plenty of shots. He finished with 19 points, seven boards and three blocks in Michigan State’s loss, and continues to establish himself as a prospect on the level of his more heralded teammate Miles Bridges.
On the perimeter, Jackson is strictly a set shooter, with a weird sort of push shot and low release, but he’s consistent when open and has the ability to space the floor (although bad things tend to happen when he puts it on the ground). His timing and length make him a formidable shot-blocking prospect, and his touch around the basket is pretty natural. The package of strengths screams lottery pick.
UP: Kevin Knox, Kentucky
Based on Tuesday, it looks like Knox might emerge as the go-to guy for the Wildcats, who are even younger than usual and continue their journey of self-discovery. For my money, he looked like the top prospect on the floor in the second game. Knox made a splash with three consecutive three-pointers in the first half (one of them off the dribble) and showed some touch with his right-handed floater. He was a matchup problem for a Kansas team that was missing its top forward in Billy Preston, and finished with 20 points and seven rebounds.
While it looks like Knox may indeed have a chance to play more on the perimeter as a small forward, his finesse-oriented game paired with his physical tools are a bit of a strange combo. It would be nice to see him attack all the way to the rim more often, but it was also great to see his production level match his considerable talent. If Knox stays aggressive, good things will happen.
DOWN: Wendell Carter Jr., Duke
Of all the touted players who took the court, Carter probably came the closest of anyone to being exposed. Michigan State’s athletic bigs took advantage of his lack of lift and explosion under the basket, and Carter had his shot altered or blocked on several occasions. He habitually uses a two-handed power move to create space to finish, but against this kind of length, bully-ball moves are far less effective.
Carter looked lost at times trying to play the middle of Duke’s 2–3 zone and was largely outplayed by another guy with athleticism questions in Michigan State’s Nick Ward (who beat him down the floor on multiple occasions for easy baskets). Carter also elbowed a defender in the face while trailing a play, out of apparent frustration. It wasn’t his night, and while he remains an intriguing talent, the game hinted at many of the ongoing concerns about his NBA adjustment.
UP: Miles Bridges, Michigan State
It was strange to see Bridges take only three shots in the first half, but he eventually came around, finishing with 19 points and five rebounds, and also making five three-pointers. The jumper is an encouraging sign, although he has a bit of a slower release and mostly hits deep shots only when stationary. At the next level, defenders will play up on him and make him put it on the floor, which isn’t his strength right now as a left-hand dominant three with an occasionally high dribble.
While it may not be time to buy stock in him as a jump shooter yet, it’s also encouraging that Bridges doesn’t need to score the ball to have an effect on the game. He can really elevate, goes up to get rebounds and often comes out of nowhere to block shots, and his athleticism translates on the defensive end, where his versatility holds the most appeal. Bridges is a bit of a polarizing prospect, but he has a place in today’s smaller, faster NBA.
UP: Trevon Duval, Duke
Duval answered his critics on Tuesday with an eye-opening performance as a distributor to go with his usual good work as an on-ball defender. He’s been dinged by scouts for playing out of control and being turnover-prone, but Duval took care of the basketball (10 assists, three giveaways), got Duke into its offense and led by example in a game that could have easily gotten away once Bagley went down.
His athletic burst, graceful finishing and ability to advance the ball quickly (including one jaw-dropping full-court outlet assist to Grayson Allen for three) are clear NBA talking points. Duval was strong guarding at the point of attack, coming up with six steals in spite of Duke playing a 2–3 zone the entire game. He shoots poorly from outside and managed an ugly 7 of 20 clip from the field, which will obviously have to get better. But If he continues to play with this much poise, he’ll have a chance to be the first point guard drafted.
DOWN: Devonte Graham, Kansas
As Kansas’s undisputed leader, Graham draws a lot of defensive attention and plays a precise, scoring-oriented style. He has nice size at the point and displayed great lateral agility and the strength to handle defending bigger players at times. It wasn’t his best game, with a 3–14 mark from the floor and five turnovers against Kentucky’s ridiculous length while playing nearly all 40 minutes. But this was more likely an outlier than anything else, and Graham’s intuition as a scorer will continue to turn heads.
UP: Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
For his own sake, it’s a good thing Diallo stayed in school to work on his game, and it’s certainly huge for a Kentucky team that lacks perimeter creators. Diallo’s freakish agility lets him turn the corner on most defenders, and while he floats in and out of games, he’s great in transition and capable of highlight plays. He’s not an awful passer, but not a lead ball-handler either. He must continue to improve his handle to better attack defenders and get himself to the paint. It was great to see Diallo getting to the foul line and put pressure on the Kansas defense despite being a non-factor as a shooter.
UP: Grayson Allen, Duke
Allen’s shot-making ability was on grand display against a Michigan State team wholly unable to mark him on the outside. Seven threes led to 37 points and a 23-point second half that got Duke over the hump and earned a win. It was a big moment for Allen, who’s seen plenty in the past and played with a sort of cold-bloodedness that’s requisite for elite shooters. Because he can get his shot off accurately with minimal space and make it consistently with range while on the move, defenders are forced to play Allen tightly. That constant threat buys him time to drop a shoulder and take a first step to attack the basket, and he’s great at drawing contract and selling it. He’s been on the first-round radar for two years now, and looks set for a full bounce-back that should keep him there.
DOWN: Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
Watching Mykhailiuk, who’s been a prospect for what seems like forever, can be exhausting. At long last he’s a more involved piece of the Jayhawks’ offense, but it didn’t look like great news for them on Tuesday. Mykhailiuk is pegged as a shooter, but hasn’t consistently made many shots in games and doesn’t do much when he isn’t scoring the ball. He doesn’t have a well-built upper half, is extremely streaky and can make things look more complicated than necessary at times. An airball on a one-dribble pullup late in a close game left an alarming, lingering image. Kansas won, and he led them in scoring, but it may not mean a ton.
UP: Sacha Killeya-Jones, Kentucky
Gifted an early opportunity as Nick Richards battled foul trouble, Killeya-Jones made the most of it. He was the only Kentucky big who made a consistent impact during his minutes, scoring eight points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking three shots. He also displayed some touch, stepping out to drain an 18-footer. Killeya-Jones is highly mobile, and his size and length give him a definite chance as he comes into his own as a prospect. As John Calipari pointed out after the game, Killeya-Jones was one of the youngest players in all of college basketball last year, making him the same age as most freshmen. While he may be another year or two from the draft, if he can wean away a bigger chunk of minutes, who knows?
DOWN: Gary Trent Jr., Duke
Trent is fundamentally a scorer at his core, and while he shot an ugly 3 of 14 on Tuesday, it’s worth noting that a lot of it came with some necessity as the Blue Devils figured out what to do without Marvin Bagley and needed shot creators to step up. Ultimately Grayson Allen took over as Trent had little going. He didn’t appear expressly overmatched, but needs more time to learn where his spots are and how to feel them out. Better days are ahead.
DOWN: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky
The Canadian import has nice size as a lead ball-handler, but lacks a true calling card strength right now. Calipari deployed him as a defensive stopper on Graham, and he fared pretty well, but struggled with turnovers and his jumper for much of the game. He’s a toolsy player deserving of long-term attention and appears to have earned the coach’s trust, but still a bit of a project.
UP: Nick Ward, Michigan State
Ward has always had great feet and soft hands to go with his big frame, and had a solid showing with 19 points while exposing Duke’s soft underbelly much of the game. He needs to keep getting in shape and working on his body if he wants a role at the next level. He needs time to define himself at the next level, but has great touch and instincts that make him a key piece for MSU.
DOWN: Malik Newman, Kansas
Newman is still very much a ball-stopper a lot of the time, and he doesn’t score with enough efficiency to justify it. That coupled with less-than-ideal size for a shooting guard doesn’t bode that well for him, given he’s not that versatile defensively. He can shoot the ball from the outside and can get hot and change college games, but will need to show more this time around to pique much interest.
Nick Richards (Kentucky) spent most of the game in foul trouble but did manage nine rebounds in 13 minutes…Cassius Winston (Michigan State) quietly amassed 11 assists, but isn’t the type of dribble penetrator his team could really use…Lagerald Vick (Kansas) can make plays and pops up all over the box score, but remains a guy who has yet to really show up…Marques Bolden (Duke) has been so marginalized that he probably should have transferred or turned pro over the summer…Udoka Azubuike (Kansas) was an asset as a banger with a heavy frame, but will probably never be anyone’s offensive focal point…Wenyen Gabriel (Kentucky) shot just three times in 18 minutes, including a bad air ball, and needs an offensive position…PJ Washington (Kentucky) also battled foul trouble and never got into the flow of the game…Quade Green (Kentucky) is more of a game manager for Kentucky, but not at the level of say, Tyler Ulis yet…Billy Preston (Kansas) was a late scratch after a car accident led Kansas to hold him out so they could examine the “financial picture” with the vehicle…Jarred Vanderbilt (Kentucky) continues to sit out and will supposedly return to practice later this month.