An In-Person Report from The McDonald's All American Game
In-person scouting thoughts on Dariq Whitehead, Dereck Lively II, Amari Bailey, Nick Smith Jr, Cam Whitmore, and more!
I had the pleasure of partaking in my first “Boots on the Ground” experience for No Ceilings on Tuesday night, attending the McDonald’s All American Game in Chicago. Now, to be clear, this was a single game, and it did get “All-Star Game-ish” at points, so parsing out takeaways can be difficult. Still, the in-person experience left me with strong impressions of multiple players, and I’m excited to share them with you.
The first player who jumped out at me during warm-ups was Dereck Lively II. The future Duke Blue Devil is billed at 7’2” with a 7’8” wingspan, but he was moving like a guard. The pre-game routines were looser and more fun than you would see before a competitive game, and at one point, players started a dunk line. Lively threw down windmills and between the legs dunks that would be impressive for anyone, but especially for a skyscraper of a man like himself. On top of that, he wasn’t missing any of his dunk attempts. Many other players were biting off more than they could chew; however, it was evident that Lively isn’t only a supreme mover, but he’s also exceptionally coordinated to boot. His performance during the game was a bit more subtle, particularly on the offensive side. Still, he caused havoc on the defense, getting into passes and blocking three shots. He’s an exciting center prospect; if he can consistently string together an outside shot, he should be in the top five mix.
Lining up across from Lively was Oregon commit Kel’al Ware. Ware is someone I haven’t focused much on in the games I’ve seen, as he’s a high school teammate of fellow top recruit Nick Smith Jr. Ware had some phenomenal flashes on defense and is a pogo-stick leaper. He needs to fill out his frame, but of course he does— he’s a high schooler. It’s easy to see him carving out an NBA role as a mobile finisher.
The aforementioned Nick Smith Jr. had a rough night, however. I’ve seen some number one pick buzz around Smith, and while it was a single exhibition game, he didn’t look the part. The first thing that stood out was his 6’4” listed height, to which I must ask…
I mentioned it to the No Ceilings group chat, who immediately noted their similar suspicions once they saw him on the floor. Smith scored an efficient 8 points on 15 shots. He was 0-for-5 from three, which was unfortunate and isn’t representative of his outside shooting prowess; I have no problem writing that off, and I think it would be silly to freak out over it. His finishing around the basket genuinely concerned me, though. He’s shown nice craft at the youth level, and he did get a few tough ones to fall, but the length and athleticism of the game gave him fits when he got to the cup. I also noted that he didn’t get up as well in traffic as he did in the open court. I’m definitely cooler on Smith coming out than I was going in, but these are all adjustments he can make in time; it’s not the end of the world. It will be interesting to see how he looks at the college level in an Arkansas uniform.
Hometown hero Amari Bailey had a solid outing, but he didn’t make the big push for the MVP Award I anticipated. Bailey displayed polished offensive footwork and made solid passing decisions. Still, there were moments when he tried to do too much as a passer, tallying three turnovers and missing an easy dump pass for a dunk in lieu of a flashier corner kickout that didn’t lead to anything. On a positive note, Bailey displayed more vertical bounce than I anticipated during his pre-game routine. A friend of mine (a die-hard Mavericks fan who saw him for the first time Tuesday night) likened him to a “bigger, more athletic Jalen Brunson” in terms of how he played with pace and found counters with the ball in his hands. That’s a great compliment for the UCLA-bound prospect.
Dariq Whitehead deservedly took home MVP honors, further demonstrating what an embarrassment of riches Duke will be blessed with this coming fall. Whitehead did everything you want from a modern wing: he hit threes from deep behind the line, displayed outstanding craft around the basket as a finisher, made good passing reads, and mixed it up on the glass. Defensively, he has every tool you could ask for, too. He can comfortably guard multiple positions thanks to his quick reactions, savvy, and strength. Whitehead ended up with 15 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. If his three-pointer falls at a respectable clip next season, he should be a Top Five pick.
The biggest surprise for me was the Villanova-bound Cam Whitmore. He was the player I had seen the least of before this game. Whitmore did two things you expect from a Villanova guy, passing well for his position and rebounding better than you would expect based on his size. What differentiates him from the players you might typically associate with Villanova is that he is an exceptional athlete who flies off the ground with ease. He had a block on Gradey Dick that would have made a lesser man retire from public life. Whitmore finished 9-for-15 from the floor for 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. His outside shooting will be his big swing skill, but he’s nimble, smart, and has great size at 6’7”, 225 pounds. There are far worse starting points.
Chris Livingston (Kentucky) hit an impressive above the break three and showed awesome power when driving to the basket. His physicality is tremendous, and his ability to deliver passes will serve him well, given the attention he is bound to draw as a penetrator.
I can’t wait to see Jarace Walker at Houston. Purely from a build standpoint, he looked like an NBA player. His three steals, block, and four assists also highlighted his ability to process the game and read the floor on both ends. He’ll need to develop as an outside shooter, but he’s got the makings of a wonderful modern 4-man.
Gradey Dick (Kansas) has an off-night, going 1-for-7 from the floor and 1-for-4 from long range. He’ll need to get to work on his body in a hurry, as he looked the most like an ordinary high schooler of the players competing on Tuesday night. Still, I came away intrigued. He provided a preposterous level of gravity on the perimeter. When he would get the ball on the three-point line, defenders would scramble toward him like parents rushing toward their son, who picked up an unidentified object off the floor with the intent of putting it in his mouth. His mere presence incites chaos and urgency, and he had a nice array of side-step moves to deal with the incoming defenders.
There were a plethora of exciting passers with size: Brandon Miller (Alabama), Anthony Black (Arkansas), and Jordan Walsh (Arkansas). Miller was the bounciest of the three, finishing a lob dunk with an impressive catch radius. He also utilized a slick Euro-step to get to the rim, which was an enticing driving flash. Black made the biggest first impression, slinging a hit-ahead pass in transition that would make most point guards blush. He has a good handle and command of the ball; however, most importantly for his scalability to higher levels of competition, he also moved the ball quickly when needed. Black had a nice cut for an easy dunk, too. His feel is off the charts. He always knew where to go and where everyone was on the floor. Walsh has the most defensive upside from the film I’ve seen prior to this. He’s strong with good feet and a potent motor. Walsh has the ability to contort his body to finish, but he was tentative to shoot when left open from the outside.
In all, the McDonald’s game was a blast, even if it devolved once the outcome was no longer in question during the second half. The 2023 NBA Draft class is in good hands, especially when you consider Scoot Henderson and Victor Wembanyama. Even with those two playing elsewhere, it looks like we’ll be in for another great season of college hoops next season.