Dancing With Noah

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Scottie Barnes & Vernon Carey Jr: Precocious Basketballing Minors

Somewhere in Florida, at a prep school called Nova Southeastern University, aka The University School, play two of the best non-NBA basketball players in the country of the United States of America. Scottie Barnes, a 17-year-old high school junior and Vernon Carey Jr, a 17-year-old senior, are runaway barrels tumbling down the hill of high school basketball, flattening obstacles that impede their inevitable progress. This isn’t about winning or losing, but about a unification of ability and skill that arrives before its time and lays waste – except when it doesn’t which is some of the time because teenagers, high school, imperfection.

Within their respective graduating classes, these players are ranked second (Carey in 2019) and third (Barnes in 2020). Theirs are games that flash with the brightest of lights like when Carey Jr goes coast to coast bulldogging his way through 175-pound, underdeveloped high school bodies, leaving carnage and hurt feelings in his wake. Or when Barnes pulls off the kind of interior pass that makes one think Draymond Green, not a high school junior. But, and probably less so, their games are littered with peculiar teenage funk and I don’t mean funk in a good kind of way, but in the kind of way where Carey Jr’s coast to coast forays are ill-advised with his handle too high, rumbling, bumbling, stumbling towards turnover town. Or you cringe when Barnes convinces himself that the pull-up contested three is the right decision even though there’s no shot clock and his shot is kind of broke and his release is something preceding the work-in-progress stages. This appears to be high school basketball and even the best players aren’t exempt.

I’m lumping these two together simply because they’re teammates. Beyond them being highly talented teammates, as players they have very little in common: Barnes, a 6-8 combo forward with guard skills, has innate ability and feel. When I first saw him as a sophomore against prep juggernaut Oak Hill Academy, his passing immediately popped and had me like Whoa (h/t, Black Rob). He’s an instinctual player who’s shot looks like it’s never been loved though I’m sure it has been loved and tended to. Carey Jr, by contrast, is a combination of highly refined skill mixed into the human form of a freight train: he’s listed as 6-11, 275-pounds. He has the jawline of a boxer and the shoulder-neck of a football player which makes sense since his dad is a 6-5, 340-pound former NFL player named Vernon Carey who had an 8-year career as an offensive lineman.

The giant Carey Jr is already committed to Duke for the 2019-2020 season. How his game translates at both the collegiate and pro levels isn’t difficult to imagine, but the degree to which he improves his game is harder to predict. Carey Jr’s already more offensively skilled than a lot of NBA big men – he’s highly coordinated, light on his feet with sound footwork and a fluid jumper. He has no issue playing the role of bully, muscling straight through or over shorter, weaker high school opponents. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a mean streak, but he’s happy to use his size and strength as a weapon. More often though, he defaults to catching in the post and then turning and facing. From the face up range, he has a variety of attack options, most of which involve putting the ball on the floor. While his handle exceeds that of many NBA centers, his decision-making and decisiveness do not. At times, it appears that he’s already decided he’s going to shoot before he ever assesses the defense which is unfortunate as he’s a capable passer with above average vision. Carey Jr negates all this well-developed skill when he lulls himself into pounding the ball and bailing out defenders with contested fadeaways.

Carey Jr’s biggest challenges as a senior have been against elite teams full of D1 players and athletes: IMG, Sierra Canyon, and Gonzaga-bound Anton Watson. The challenges aren’t all his fault. The University School lost two high D1 guards last season and there’s a thinness to the roster that has shifted much of the offensive load to Carey Jr and Barnes, neither of them equipped as primary initiators. The result of that imbalanced load, for Carey Jr in particular, has been forced attempts and default isolations. This is all well and good when he’s competing against Central Catholic of Oregon, pushing the grab and go and Earl Campbelling and Julius Randling through the entire opposition for monster dunks. Against the better teams and athletes though, the lack of facilitators leads to indecisiveness and contested attempts. While his handle is solid and he has some shake for a near-7-footer, on the move the handle gets looser and higher, making him vulnerable to swipes and strips. Against Villanova commit, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl of IMG, a versatile and sturdy 6-8 combo forward, Carey struggled to put the ball on the floor as the smaller player encroached on his space. Against more complex college and pro defenses, these types of weaknesses will quickly be exploited.

On the face up, Carey Jr is at his best when being decisive: catching, turning and attacking, usually to his left as he did against the aforementioned Watson at the Les Schwab Invitational over the holidays when he attacked hard to his left off the catch, never giving help defenders a chance to settle, and dunking straight through the 6-10 Watson. His footwork and tight spin move are advanced even for college kids. If and when he’s able to use the handle and footwork to create space, he has a fluid mid-range jumper that he shoots with confidence. Carey Jr can improve upon his decision making which will lead to greater efficiency and less isolation. This could be mitigated by better guard play and a more balanced court, but he can go a long way to improve his own reads and timing.

I struggle to assess high school defenders in part because the talent gap can be so massive, but so far Carey Jr’s defense could best be described as opportunistic disinterest: IE; if he can pick up a highlight help side block, he’s there. If not, sorry. He’s not the most expressive player, but his facial expressions and defensive effort and awareness call to mind another Duke Blue Devil, Jabari Parker and his “they don’t pay players to play defense” ethos. Going back to games I’ve seen of his as a junior, there’s a lackadaisical tendency to stand around and almost look bored on the defensive end. Against Watson and Gonzaga Prep’s cutting offense, he was easily beaten backdoor more than once and one occasion, he saw Watson cutting and didn’t react, giving up an easy score in the process. Part of the frustration around his defensive effort comes from his obvious ability. At his size and with his athleticism, he’ll occasionally get his shit together long enough to destroy shot attempts on help side blocks and based on how well he moves with the ball, it’s clear he can move well laterally. The lack of focus and effort are decisions he’s making or bad habits he’s forming. I’d expect these lapses to be directly addressed at Duke, but Coach K’s had plenty of players who never learn or commit to that end of the court and if Carey Jr produces offensively, it won’t be a surprise if he cruises on defense.

Stylistically, Barnes couldn’t be much more different from Carey Jr. At 6-8 with a 7-2 wingspan, per ESPN, his measurements compare to Al-Farouq Aminu and Jerami Grant; a pair of long, versatile, defensive-minded NBA forwards. Barnes, as a high school sophomore, was a better passer than both of those players are now as seasoned pros. He’s long, strong, and athletic with an ability to think the game. If Carey Jr plays with a poker face and obscured emotions, Barnes is expressive and plays with high energy. During the Geico Nationals telecast last season, he was described as the “alpha dog” of the team (as a sophomore) and in October, ESPN wrote of him at the USA mini-camp that “players gravitate to his joyful nature.”

Last season with University School, he was able to facilitate without having to be the primary ball handler. This year, Barnes has been forced at times to act as the primary initiator, a role that’s revealed more weaknesses to what’s an otherwise strong all-around game (jump shot notwithstanding). While he has a quality handle for a front court player, bringing the ball up against smaller, peskier defenders, Barnes is forced to turn and put his body between himself and the defender to protect the ball, Mark Jackson style but without the intent or ability to back the opponent down from 30-feet. Barnes is much more effective catching the ball in the half court set and attacking off the dribble or pushing in the full court. Off the dribble, he’s adept at driving and kicking or driving and dumping. His first step is quick enough and his handle tight enough that he can regularly get a step on defenders and when help comes, he’s elite at recognizing where the open man is before defenders have a chance to respond – be it on the perimeter or around the rim. No-looks and look-away passes are functionally executed and commonplace for Barnes.

Defensively, his engagement and effort are superior to Carey Jr’s in that he’s more physically capable and he tries. Physically he has the tools to be an excellent defender, but technique-wise, there’s room for growth. On the interior, he’ll lean on his man with arms straight up in the air and just stand there like a 6-8 turnstile hoping or expecting opponents to shoot the ball into his outstretched hands. He doesn’t move great laterally, but he’s long enough that as he develops his defensive awareness, his length can be used as a cushion against quicker opponents. As a high school underclassman, it’s not surprising that he can wind up out of position defensively, but against current opponents (many of whom include high-level D1 players) he’s still long and athletic enough and plays with enough effort and pride to recover.

The biggest cause for concern, and it’s visible in every game I’ve seen of his, is the shot. Be it the free throw line, on catch-and-shoot 3s, on pull-ups. It doesn’t matter where the shot’s coming from or even if it goes in, it’s just mangled and hasn’t improved much in the year I’ve been watching him. In four games at Les Schwab, he was 2-10 from 3 and one of the makes was an ill-advised side-step attempt that defenses would love for him to take. And his misses are bad misses: airballs, bricks, shots that are woefully short. I’m not a shot doctor, so I’ll borrow from ESPN on his shot description: “he’s a non-shooter who doesn’t show much potential to improve at this stage, with side spin and unconventional shooting mechanics.” Shooting is a critical skill necessary to fully unlocking his passing and creation. He’s not on Ben Simmons’s level as a passer, but he may end up getting the same type of treatment as Simmons at upper levels as teams just sag off and dare him to shoot. He’s also not as bad a shooter as Simmons. In 17 games of Nike EYBL play in 2018, he shot 12-33 (36%) from deep which, on its own, hardly constitutes a destitute shooter, but when viewed alongside his game tape, gives pause as a possible fluke. How his shooting potentially limits his playmaking is of interest at the next levels. Smart coaches will find ways to take advantage of his passing similarly to how Golden State’s continued to do with Draymond Green despite him shooting a career-worst 24% from deep. Less coherent teams will struggle to maximize his game and this is the risk of any player who has a massive hole in his game.

In an ideal world, Carey Jr commits to learning the defensive side of the ball the same way he’s clearly committed to honing his offensive craft. Barnes becomes a high-energy, high-IQ player who can impact the game on both sides of the ball and at least keep defenses honest with 30-35% 3-point shooting. What I’m asking for from either player is no small thing, but they are addressable things. Both players already have the requisite physical tools and skills for NBA ball which already place them in the upper echelons of a craft that our society places a massive monetary value on. They’ll both make the NBA, but the nits I’m picking at (defense, effort, shooting, and decision making) differentiate rotation players from starters, starters from All-Stars, and All-Stars from All-NBA players. As 17-year-olds, their destinies aren’t completely in their own hands. Team and scheme still matter and we’re already seeing how a departure of skilled teammates is affecting their current games, but Carey Jr and Barnes are complete enough already to chart their own courses, shape their own trajectories, land on their own moons. Whether they do or not is a burden they shoulder as minors beset with in-demand, cash-generating talents. What could possibly go wrong?

Cam Reddish: Laissez-faire Basketballism

At some point, people are who we are. We have traits or temperaments that have either been hardcoded or fully realized through habitual refrain. Basketball players, as humans, are not exempt from this. Players become and evolve and settle. That doesn’t mean players can’t develop skills (Brook Lopez and three-point shooting) or become better versions of themselves (JJ Redick) or, in rare scenarios, tap into higher planes (Pacers’ Victor Oladipo). At what point the calcification occurs is hard to say: Is it age-based or experience-based? Is Karl-Anthony Towns forever a highly-skilled, but emotionally volatile contributor; fated to eternally be grasping for a potential he can’t attain?

Cam Reddish is the third banana of Duke’s Big Three freshman class (that’s not a slight on Tre Jones, but he’s not at the level of those three, not in terms of ability or perception which isn’t to say he won’t be a better pro than one of them, just that he’s not as good) which also includes Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Reddish, as a prospect, is both dependent on and exists independent of Williamson and Barrett, but I’ll scrape away at that later. He’s not third banana because he’s a lesser player or lacks their level of skill. He’s possibly the most skilled of the three. He’s the third banana musketeer (that sounds like a dessert) because of his approach to the game which has been described as passive or, in this case, as laissez-faire.

Maybe there’s something enigmatic in Reddish in the sense that for our elite athletes and basketball, even for the most gifted, hard work is a pre-requisite. Maybe a player can jump out of the gym and out-run Jon Ross in the 40-yard dash, but that doesn’t mean they can play a lick of ball. And in that hard work, there’s a baseline intensity that we expect. It doesn’t have to be Kobe Bryant, but we expect our best players to go hard and compete. Reddish has all the skill and ability: at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and weighing nearly 220-pounds, he already has the frame of an NBA player, but it doesn’t stop with his size. For 6-8 and 19-years-old, Reddish moves like he’s lived in this same body size for an eternity. He’s entirely graceful with long strides and great balance. In terms of skill, he plays like a kid who was taking AP Basketball courses at 14. A teenager doesn’t play this way without copious time spent in the gym, honing his game when the world and friends and kid stuff is beckoning from outside. His handle, with those swinging, loping arms calls to mind the peace of flowing water in nature, a running stream in its natural element with the ball bouncing easily, fully under his teenage control. To borrow from Bruce Lee, “be water, my friend.” His passing, probably being underutilized with Duke, isn’t just competent, it’s very good. He can see and execute a nice pocket pass and act as a primary ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. In transition, his ball handling combines with his athleticism, size, and court vision to weaponize him.

And his shot, specifically his 3-ball, which he’s launching over 7-per-game, is infinitely effortless, a casual, aligned, rhythmic toss that freezes time on aesthetic alone. That he’s shooting it at just a 36% clip with Duke on over 7 attempts-per-game and that ESPN’s Draft Express crew has him at 30% on 260 pre-Duke attempts doesn’t bother me although it probably should. I’m not concerned because it all looks so beautifully harmonic. My notes on Reddish are littered with exclamations about the ease of his jumper from distance and his pull-up. What can I say? At the end of the day, I trust his jumper – even if he doesn’t look, feel, or smell like he’ll reach that high-level volume/efficiency combo that separates the good from great NBA shooters. To be fair, most of those “good” shooters can’t handle or pass as well as even 19-year-old Cam.

It’s all very nice, but undertaken with the urgency of the collective world’s grandfather on a Sunday morning stroll in late spring when the birds are singing and he’s figured out how to finally, truly appreciate nature’s presence and has developed gratitude just for being. Cam Reddish plays basketball like that grandfather strolls (but probably without the gratitude because it’s harder for young people to fully articulate gratitude just based on volume of life experiences though there are certainly plenty of our young people who’ve seen and lived far too much in their short times on Earth). In games I saw of his in January and March, announcers had already picked up on the trend, suggesting he was occasionally “too cool” or telling us they’d “like to see a more intense approach.” In a story with the Philadelphia Inquirer from September of his senior season, Reddish responded to questions about areas of improvement with  “motor and…defense.” The Inquirer story took place before those January and March games and so while young Cam knew his areas of opportunity, he struggled to make change.

This disconnect between effort and ability is strangely insulating at Duke where Cam has comfortably settled into a third option behind Barrett and Williamson. Zion is a black hole for attention, sucking in eyeballs and mindshares and tweets and highlights with his all-consuming gravity. Barrett is the team’s (Coach K’s?) un/disputed go-to-go-guy averaging 24-7-4 and for a while had missed more shots than Williamson had attempted. Barrett’s go-it-alone ethos in a loss to Gonzaga sopped up even more bandwidth from an audience trained to be ever-eager for scandal and someone to blame. And so Cam has settled into his role as a floor-spacing shooter who sometimes feels compelled to attack off the bounce. The reason this is semi-beneficial is that anyone who’s ever seen Reddish knows his game, particularly his offense, contains more than his Duke role implies. He can grab and go, he can pass, he can create for others. And as is sometimes the case with elite college players playing in well-established systems, the question becomes one of: Is this player in this role what we can expect at the next level? Or: Is this player being pigeonholed by a coach and system? In the latter scenario, Jaren Jackson Jr and Karl-Anthony Towns immediately come to mind as players who were limited by successful college coaches. Like an agent holding a player out of the combine or out of workouts, not knowing can work in a prospect’s favor. (Back in April during the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, I asked myself in my notes, “In love w/the 3?”)

While Reddish owns his own career, the presence of Williamson and Barrett is inescapable. They are black holes, vacuums, forces of nature that both obscure and force comparisons to Reddish. Alongside Barrett, Reddish is absolutely passive, a standstill shooting specialist who gums at defenses while RJ chomps. Against the perpetually-sweating, in-motion bulk of Williamson, Cam moves in slow motion uncertainty. As a prospect, he must be compared to them by proximity alone even though he remains his own, uniquely talented prospect.

Within all this compare and contrast and context forming, we’d be remiss to not touch on Reddish’s defense. In the pre-Duke clips I watched, he was a circumstantial defender with questionable effort and technique even more so than on the offensive side where his evolved skill and size could carry him through Sunday-stroll exertions. At Duke, he’s exhibited greater effort, but within his attempts has been revealed a poor execution. Through ten games, he’s averaging over 2-steals and has three games of 4 steals, but he has trouble keeping up with shooters when screened, is quick to bite on fakes even though he has just 2 blocks through 240 minutes of play, and gets turned around due to bad positioning. There’s work to be done here, but the most important thing is that he’s trying. It’s weird, but when you try, you’re vulnerable and an object for criticism. When you coast and take plays off, there’s no risk except looking stupid like James Harden on backdoors a couple years ago.

I’ve seen or heard Reddish compared to everyone from Kevin Durant to Tracy McGrady to Grant Hill because he’s tallish, smooth with a handle, and can shoot. Even if he had a more aggressive mentality, I think those comps are overly optimistic. Physically, he most resembles Hill or McGrady, but doesn’t have the explosiveness of either. He’s not the Swiss Army Knife Hill was and nowhere near the off-the-dribble attacker McGrady was. But he’s some thing, some laissez-faire basketballing thing who one hopes or imagines is just waiting to be unlocked like the mysteries of space or the Bermuda Triangle. I tend to think Cam’s role at Duke is the outcome of several factors: 1) The superior ability and aggressive approaches of Barrett and Zion, 2) Coach K’s schemes, 3) Cam’s own comfort slotting in as a supporting piece. Seen through this lens, he has the look of a player talented enough to contribute as a high level starter, but 3rd or 4th option on a winning team. The challenge with the NBA and a finite player pool is for Reddish to land in a spot where he’s expected to push a team over any humps. Team and scheme matter and as much as I like Reddish the kid (the Jay Bilas interviews on the beach in Maui were corny but I walked away from Cam’s thinking, “I like this kid”), he doesn’t strike me as a player good enough to transcend team or scheme.

But then again, maybe he’s just a malleable, ultra-talented, humble wing waiting for his James Harden-to-the-Rockets moment to grow a great big beard and unleash his full arsenal on an unready opposition. Maybe.

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