The following is a piece based on a few hours spent in Ottumwa, Iowa (pop. ~25,000) at Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) watching a JUCO basketball game with the principles being Jay Scrubb (John A. Logan) and Tyon Grant-Foster (IHCC).
The Hellyer Life Center is home to the Indian Hills Community College Warriors men’s basketball team. It’s a small gym with modern plastic maroon-colored pull-out bleachers and an upper balcony of sorts. To reach the court level, you walk down a staircase and your proximity to the court is that of a high school gym. Everything and everyone is accessible. I’d ordered my tickets for the game online, apparently I was the only person to do this because I saw my name handwritten on a sheet of paper at the ticketing desk when I showed up. I was given my choice of any open seat and chose center court: eight dollars.
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, about 90 minutes northwest of Ottumwa and when I was just a skinny teenager with a full head of hair in the late 90s, knew of IHCC for its prodigiously winning men’s team. But in all my years, I’d never made the trek to see the JUCO juggernaut and was reminded of their dominance upon walking into the Hellyer Center and seeing the banners: 89-straight wins and three straight national championships from 1997 to 1999. They were led by Cincinnati Bearcat and eventual Euro MVP, JUCO par excellence, Pete Mickeal.
The stage was more than up-to-par for a battle between the country’s top two JUCO players: 6-foot-6 wing Jay Scrubb from 4th ranked John A. Logan, committed to Louisville and 6-foot-7 wing Tyon Grant-Foster from IHCC, committed to Kansas.
This was less a head-to-head comparison either in my intent (I didn’t go down there to crown Scrubb or Grant-Foster) or in their on-court matchup (they were rarely matched up with each other), but drawing comparisons and contrasts is only natural and the first ones we make are typical surface level. Scrubb looks the part: he’s more physically developed, lean but with square shoulders and the face of a young man with mustache and goatee. He looks like he was cast for the role and carries himself as such. By contrast, Grant-Foster has the look of a high schooler, his facial features soft, his chin hairless, his long arms dangle but without much definition.
And of course, there are my own biases and preconceptions. Scrubb was the prime attraction. He averaged 20-a-game as a JUCO freshman on 55-46-79 shooting. He was the only freshman to make the JUCO D1 First Team All-America squad and prior to committing to Louisville, he flirted with going pro after his sophomore season at Logan. Scrubb was the main attraction, Grant-Foster an intrigue, a recent Kansas-commit who averaged just 8 points as a freshman; I was more intrigued by KU coach Bill Self’s interest than my own.
Off the opening tip, IHCC made their intentions with Scrubb clear by face guarding him with the solidly-built 6-2 Chris Childs (it does not appear he’s related to the former NBA player though of course it’s entirely possible). This portended what would be a long night for the Cardinal commit who would struggle get breathing room for all 38 of his on-court minutes.
Breathing room be damned, it was easy to see how Scrubb’s game comes together. At 6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan and listed at 220 pounds (this seems generous but people hide weight in strange places), he has a pro ready frame though his functional positional strength looks to be an area he can improve upon (more on this below).
He moves extremely well, on and off-ball, guarding ball or defending off-ball. He gets low with a strong knee bend on post-ups, which appear to be part of his repertoire though, again, his strength holding a seal is something I’ll get into, and does the same guarding the ball. His lateral and hip movement are effortless and his focus and intensity, particularly on-ball, are high; he locks in well. Off-ball, he had the occasional bad habit of turning his head and losing sight of ball in order to stick with man, but this is relatively easy to correct.
Scrubb’s been reported as having a 40-inch vertical and his functional elevation was easy to observe; most notably attacking the offensive glass and on his pull-up jumper. He averaged over one-and-a-half blocks as a freshman and given his lift and length, it’s easy to see why. In this game, he attacked the offensive glass, but with limited success. IHCC was great putting a body on Scrubb and his instincts were to elevate for boards instead of seeking out optimal position. That said, he shows good awareness attacking the o-glass in the first clip below. Unfortunately, going backdoor against an overplaying defender wasn’t a route he frequently sought out.
On the night, Scrubb shot just 4-15 from the field which isn’t that big of an issue. The IHCC defense was keyed in and focused on slowing him down. John A. Logan surprisingly did very little in terms of off-ball actions to help create space for him, opting for the occasional ball screen or post-up, but mostly settling for a balanced shot distribution. While I didn’t chart all 15 of Scrubb’s looks, I want to say 13 or 14 were contested and probably 11 or 12 were outside the paint.
He’s clearly more jump shooter than slasher and emphasizes his elevation to create space on pull-ups. The errant try below felt like a shot more out of frustration than anything else. While it’s a bad miss (and many of his misses were bad bricks), the lift and form are evident. His mechanics don’t break down from three and while I felt his release could use a bit of work, his balance and body control are strong:
As mentioned above, Scrubb sought out post-ups throughout the game and while he was able to establish position, he struggled to maintain it. Credit to IHCC’s coterie of defenders who, even when losing position, contested all entry passes, but some of this was an inability from Scrubb to hold the defender on his hip for extended periods. I don’t anticipate him doing a lot of posting up in the ACC, but it’s interesting to see how and where strength does or doesn’t translate. While not being the strongest player, he didn’t shy away from physical contact on either side of the ball or lose his cool over IHCC’s physical play.
In a lot of ways, seeing how a player reacts to adversity is ideal and between his shot being off and IHCC’s parade of physical defenders, Scrubb played within himself with the exception of a short stretch in the 2nd half when he sought out contested jumpers. His effort remained high and his offensive gravity allowed teammates more operating space. He projects out as an off-ball player, ideally operating off-the-catch with catch-and-shoots and attacking closeouts. In this 38-minute sample, he threw a couple of good passes and lost his dribble in traffic a couple times, but ultimately the sample was too small to draw any significant conclusions on his creation and playmaking though it seems secondary to seeking out his shot.
Part Jordan Crawford, part Jamal Crawford? Maybe it’s the similar skin tone or looping languid limbs, or maybe it’s the sharp handle, comfort freelancing, or heat check pull-ups, but Tyon Grant-Foster brought to mind those two Crawfords.
On a night when NBA scouts and Bill Self were in attendance, Grant-Foster navigated some early foul trouble to put together a signature second half. After a mostly forgettable first half marred by foul trouble, I didn’t write off Grant-Foster, but rather shrugged my shoulders and envisioned him as a future end-of-the-bench Jayhawk.
That he came out with a 22-point second half is less interesting than how he did it. While playing wing, Grant-Foster is one of IHCC’s primary initiators though he’s presently much better suited to create his own shot instead of creating for others. This is evidenced by a negative assist-to-turnover rate over his 34 career games at IHCC (1.5 turnovers for every one assist). That’s not to say he doesn’t vision or awareness as he exhibited good feel passing off the dribble, rather it’s an area he’s working to improve.
But getting his own shot? In both half court and transition, he showed ability to break down defenders, rise for the pull-up, and finish in traffic. For Grant-Foster, like Jamal Crawford, it all starts with the handle. An assortment of hang dribbles, hesitations, and crossovers kept defenders off-balance all night. Once he achieved advantage, he opted primarily for pull-up threes or slashing attacks. From deep, he shot 4 of 7, including some huge clutch makes while IHCC clawed back from a double-digit deficit, but there were some questionable attempts and his release could probably use refinement. Grant-Foster doesn’t hold his follow-through at all which isn’t a death knell to the jumper, but over longer samples, I’d expect struggles with accuracy. In the clip below, his wiggle and confidence are on display, but that quick release, almost fling, is worrisome:
When not banging in heat check threes, Grant-Foster attacked the basket. He got to the line seven times and showed natural instincts for getting to the rim. His wiggle combined with the threat of the outside shot allowed him to beat primary defenders. His change of pace and direction allowed him to beat help defenders while his length, craft, and touch helped him to finish inside. And while not the explosive leaper Scrubb is, Grant-Foster showed good lift finishing one dunk and just missing a second one in traffic.
Where he can expand his attack is in creating for others off-the-dribble. He’s good enough to beat defenders and while he was able to connect on a couple of drive-and-dumps, a combination of spacing and more consistent awareness will help bump him to the next level. The other area that was of some concern was his dependency on somewhat of an isolation-heavy, freelance approach. IHCC desperately needed him to takeover this game, but he’s prone to pounding the ball east-to-west (and back, and back, and you get the point) trying to shake a defender and there’s likely fine tuning to occur there. That said, I’m somewhat loathe to mess with a player’s natural expression, particularly if it’s effective and would be interested to see if and how frequently Grant-Foster goes on these forays. He’s not a selfish player, but he is a self-interested, confident one.
Defensively, I didn’t get near as good a sense of his game as I did Scrubb’s. He was engaged on the defensive end and looked to pounce on passing lanes at times, but by focusing on Scrubb’s offensive game, I missed out on finer details of his defense. Purely looking at his stats, he definitely makes an impact defensively. Through a short two games, he’s averaging 1.5 steals and a single block, but last season he put up a gaudy 7.5 blocks/40 minutes. That number’s ridiculous enough that I wonder if he was just leaping at everything trying to swat balls into the bleachers.
Driving home in the dark with a quarter moon hanging low on the horizon, smoke curling into the sky from factories and plants sitting miles off the highway, it still struck me as random that out here, in southern Iowa lives and breathes a JUCO basketball hotbed that’s produced 22 current NCAA players, over 30 current pros, and five NBA draft picks. My dad had driven up to Ottumwa from where he lives in Kansas City and was kind enough to bake some chocolate chip cookies for me and I drove, eating cookies while the moon finally dropped below the horizon, pondering that basketball history and the spaces being carved out in the present by young men half my age like Jay Scrubb and Tyon Grant-Foster. Future pros in some league somewhere; perhaps as obscure as Ottumwa.