The options appeared few as Elfrid Payton drove into the lane with a trio of towering players awaiting him. But as the Louisiana-Lafayette sophomore guard floated the ball toward the basket during a U.S. under-19 team scrimmage Thursday at the Verizon Center practice facility, in swooped Justise Winslow, a rising senior at St. John’s High in Texas, catching and slamming home a perfectly planned two-handed alley-oop along the baseline.
Paying no attention to the ooohs from those in attendance, Winslow turned and sprinted toward his defensive assignment, pressing his arm against the player’s waist to better track his every move. His four teammates did the same, relaying directives while flailing their arms to distract the inbounds efforts of their opponent, a collection of former high school players from the D.C. area. under the direction of DeMatha Coach Mike Jones.
The scene is sure to be a recurring one during the next two weeks, as U.S. national team competes in the FIBA U-19 world championships in Prague. Under the assistance of Coach Billy Donovan of Florida and assistants Tony Bennett of Virginia and Shaka Smart of VCU, the talented 12 members of this squad will be employed to find opportunities within Bennett’s masterful half-court offensive sets and Smart’s “havoc” full-court press.
Here are some observations leading up to Thursday’s opening contest against Ivory Coast and following last week’s scrimmage against the likes of Arinze Onuaku, Austin Freeman, Marcus Thornton (McNamara), Jerai Grant (DeMatha) and Marcellus Bennett:
–After earning MVP honors last year in leading the U-17 team to gold, Jahlil Okafor looks to start his much-hyped senior year at Whitney Young (Ill.) with another impact performance overseas. Despite being the second youngest, the 17-year-old Okafor is the biggest player on the roster at 6-foot-10, 253 pounds. The nation’s top recruit used his size Thursday to set up up-and-under moves at the rim and open up space for a few dunks. For this trip and looking ahead to college, Okafor will need to improve his conditioning to better run the floor but he still possesses a rare blend of finesse and power while being light on his feet.
“This is my third year doing USA basketball, so I’m very excited to play with guys a lot older and that I can learn a lot from,” Okafor said. “But even though I’m one of the youngest, I’m not going to back down. … The one thing I’d like to work on is being more dominant on the defensive end.”
Okafor said his final list of colleges remains at the eight he tweeted out on May 29: Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Illinois, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and Ohio State.
–The latest product of former Washington Bullet Harvey Grant, Syracuse swingman and DeMatha alum Jerami Grant is coming off an impressive freshman campaign with the Orange. It appears Grant has put on a few more pounds and continues to improve his mid-range jumper, making it even harder for opponents to check the versatile forward.
“I think my effort and skill level stood out to them,” said Grant, who is just getting over strep throat. “I can play and defend a lot of different positions.”
The youngest Grant, Jaelin, will be a junior at DeMatha next season and according to Jerami and others, he’s expected to make a bigger impact for the Stags, so be on the lookout.
–After entering camp with arguably the least clout, Payton has made the biggest impression as a capable ballhandler and facilitator. With each strong drive to the rim, reporters and spectators wondered aloud which school Payton hailed from. The first-team all-Sun Belt junior guard is a solid on-ball defender and crafty enough with the ball to make him the perfect fit for this coaching staff’s philosophy.
—As Mark Giannotto noted in his story Friday on Virginia sophomore Mike Tobey, the Cavaliers are high on the the 6-foot-11, 227-pounder as he continues to pack on weight and develop his game. When he came out of Blair Academy in New Jersey, I remember hearing scouts label Tobey as soft, but he was anything but that on Thursday, banging for rebounds and muscling his way for dunks.
–Ever since I covered him as a junior at Flower Mound Marcus (Tex.), I’ve been a big fan of Marcus Smart’s game. The guard has gained a lot more fans since his impressive freshman campaign at Oklahoma State, one that had many projecting him as a lottery pick in this week’s NBA draft. But Smart will be back in Oklahoma City next winter with hopes of developing his point guard skills.
That was evident Thursday, as Smart deftly handled the ball-handling duties along with Payton. His poise in traffic and core strength is helpful in fending off defenders and attacking seams before opening up opportunities for either his teammates or himself.