After a crazy weekend in the Big Apple, I’m officially headed back to reality in Lexington, Kentucky.
I checked out the Knicks vs. Heat game on Friday night, spent all Saturday morning/afternoon at the Jordan Brand Classic practice and Media Day, and then followed it up with the actual Jordan game on Sunday afternoon.
As I sit through this flight with a crying baby in the row behind me, here is a collection of all the random thoughts I had throughout the weekend:
Madison Square Garden
When KSR first decided to send me to New York City to cover the Jordan Brand Classic, my first order of business was to check what other sports were going on while I was in the city. I sought out the Knicks schedule first, and followed it up by looking at the Brooklyn Nets and New York Yankees. Bam Adebayo, Dwyane Wade, and Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat in town on Friday night? Against Enes Kanter and the Knicks?
I applied for media credentials last week to get into game, and within two hours (surprisingly) got approved. And it ended up being one of the coolest things I have ever done.
When I got to the arena, it was overwhelming and confusing. The employees were extremely accommodating and helped a kid that had no idea what he was doing find his way around. The press workroom/dining area fed right into the court entrance of Madison Square Garden where the players run out of the tunnel. I walked through and onto the court, and I couldn’t help but smile like a little school girl. I’m a diehard Boston Celtics fan, and have zero personal connection with the Knicks, but I was in awe. The championship banners, retired jerseys, celebrities sitting courtside, it was all too much. The history was something you just have to see to believe, and even for a team that really isn’t any good, the crowd stayed rowdy from start to finish.
If you have never been to Madison Square Garden, put it on your bucket list now.
As for the actual game, Kanter didn’t play and Adebayo didn’t do much, but it didn’t matter. When I interviewed Adebayo, he was shocked and happy to see a guy from Kentucky come up to see him, almost relieved that someone was actually there to talk to him instead of Wade or Whiteside. Players in the locker room still called him “rook” and teased him about his age, and he seemed to somewhat enjoy that. I couldn’t help but notice that he still looked like he was getting into the groove of life as an NBA player. He was very shy around his teammates, almost like he didn’t want to say the wrong thing or overstep his boundaries in any way.
As far as the interview, he gave some excellent quotes and was pretty fun to talk to. He seems to have matured a good bit from when he was at Kentucky, and he warned other players on the fence trying to make an NBA decision at Kentucky that they needed to be 100% sure they were ready to experience a whole new grind in the NBA. He genuinely loved his time at Kentucky and appreciated Coach Cal for wanting him to provide for his family. He’s a great kid with a great head on his shoulders, and I’m glad he’s making an impact at the next level.
Beyond Bam, I have to admit I geeked out a bit talking to Dwyane Wade. The way other media members treated him and he interacted with them, he almost had this larger than life persona to him. Like he’s a future Hall of Famer, and he knows it, and the media respected him for understanding his veteran presence in the locker room. It wasn’t arrogance by any means, rather just an NBA All-Star and champion understanding his place on the totem pole.
(Another side note, there are major rumors circulating about Hassan Whiteside and the Heat being in, and I can absolutely confirm there is something odd going on with him in the locker room. No one talked to him, he kept to himself on the side, answered questions, and got out of there as soon as possible. Everyone else was interacting and having fun, and he stuck out like a sore thumb. If he ends up being traded this offseason, look for Adebayo to take over as the team’s premier big man. So if you follow the NBA, keep a close eye on that.)
Jordan Brand Classic Practice and Media Day
The first part of the Jordan weekend was held at the USS Training Facility, where the Brooklyn Nets practice and train regularly. From the outside, you would have no idea it was anything other than a random warehouse in the middle of a crappy part of Brooklyn. I almost got back in my Lyft when they dropped me off in front of it (side note, taking a Lyft/Uber anywhere more than a couple miles in NYC will cost you at least $40 a pop. If you take a visit to the city, just learn the subway system on the first day, and you’ll never look back.)
On the inside, however, the facility was awesome. There was Jordan/Nets plastered everywhere, with unique stations sponsored by Gatorade for energy drinks/snacks and training technology. Everything was state of the art. There were large glass windows everywhere with the Manhattan skyline in all its glory in the background. There were two courts, where the White team took part in their own practice on one court, with the Black team doing the same on the other. After about an hour and half of typical basketball drills (half-court dribbling/shooting, full-court press/transition/shooting, etc.) the scrimmage took place.
I’ve already talked a ton about the specifics of the actual drills and scrimmage, where Herro put on a show against elite competition in front of NBA scouts and league executives. He emphasized to me he was “more than just a shooter” on multiple occasions, and I truly think he showed that in front of all the right people. The president of the New York Knicks was in attendance keeping tabs on everyone, who really seemed to like Herro’s game. I tried to keep a close watch on his facial expressions/whispers when the Kentucky guard would do something impressive, and he almost always had something to say when Herro had the ball in his hands. It could mean nothing, it could mean something about his NBA future. Just thought I’d point it out.
I also talked to a lot of random bloggers/analysts/beat writers from around the nation to catch their thoughts on the event, specific standouts, surprises and the like. Sometimes I’d tell them I was there for a Kentucky website covering Herro and Johnson, other times I would see if they would single them out without me revealing anything about myself. I wanted to make sure I was watching it without my blue-tinted goggles. Luckily, the others shared similar opinions on the future Cats. Some singled Herro out immediately as a major surprise, others said Johnson (though he was held out with an ankle injury) would be a sure-fire star for Kentucky next year.
In the interview session, I wanted to see what other top-level recruits thought of Herro, and other media members actually beat me to the punch. I overheard four players single out Herro, to my surprise, with two saying he should be seeing a jump in the rankings before it’s all said and done. Duke’s Tre Jones and Cam Reddish were very complimentary of UK’s recruiting class and the Kentucky program as a whole. They were all pretty solid soundbites, and it wasn’t even the best one I would receive that weekend (That was from Zion Williamson calling Tyler Herro the most underrated prospect in the nation. That article is linked at the bottom).
Beyond the Cats, in a lot of ways, the practice and media sessions were more entertaining than the actual game. They all played with intensity, locked up on defense and seemed to really enjoy going back and forth with elite competition. They even argued with referees on random fouls and out of bounds calls, which was pretty hilarious.
To open the five-on-five scrimmage, Oregon signee Bol Bol and LSU signee Emmitt Williams tipped off, where Williams jumped a bit early to gain possession for his team.
When the ref called him out on the violation and reset the jump ball, Williams said, “What am I supposed to do?? The dude is 7’11??? I can’t compete with that s**t?”
As a player and personality, LSU got a pretty good one in Williams. He dropped 44 in the actual game, and put up ridiculous numbers in the scrimmage, as well. There are rumors he may struggle with his eligibility for some shady parts of his recruitment and off-court issues, but if he gets to play in the SEC, Kentucky fans will love watching him. Javonte Smart also impressed me a lot, and he’ll be joining the Tigers next season too.
Vanderbilt also had a few players at the event, and with some other elite prospects playing for other SEC programs, it’s a safe bet that the SEC will take yet another positive step up next season. It was fun to see the SEC get so much positive publicity in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s very likely we see more of that this coming year.
Bol Bol was one of the most fascinating prospects I’ve ever seen in person because I still have no idea what to think of him. At 7-foot-3, his offensive skills are extremely impressive, and he showed off some crafty moves for a guy that has no business being able to do what he can do. On defense, though, I wasn’t very impressed at all. He got bullied in the paint, and for a guy his size, he really wasn’t much of an impact as a shot blocker. He was pretty sluggish on both ends and really only played with energy with the ball in his hands. His potential is through the roof and it would be awesome to see him thrive in college and in the NBA, but I’m still up in the air on what he actually is. There are unicorns, and then there’s Bol.
What started as a Duke lovefest ended with only Cam Reddish and Tre Jones participating. RJ Barrett didn’t even show up to the event, and Zion Williamson wore a hard cast. Meanwhile, Keldon Johnson was being worked out by trainers nonstop, as he chomped at the bit to get back in a meaningless scrimmage. Dude just can’t help himself.
You can read more about some of my other scrimmage/practice/interview thoughts here:
Jordan Brand Classic
The Jordan Brand Classic game was held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the non-Herro/Johnson team pulled out the victory. Herro played very well, scoring 13 points on 5-9 shooting, five rebounds, and five assists, while Johnson was on the sideline screaming and yelling for his teammate every time he touched the ball.
I got to see it a little bit in the practice and Media Day on Saturday, but the chemistry between Keldon Johson and Tyler Herro was extremely evident in the main event. They sat by each other on the bench. Every time Herro came out of the game, Johnson gave him a little pep talk. After every Herro made basket, Johnson went nuts on the bench.
All weekend, it felt like Herro knew he belonged talent-wise, but wasn’t very outspoken with anybody. When Johnson came around, however, he came out of his shell and his personality really showed. Johnson has a contagious personality. He’s extremely funny, gives great quotes in interviews and thoroughly enjoys just being a kid. We’ve seen his passion for the game of basketball on several occassions now, but that’s actually just how he lives his life. There is always a smile on his face, he’s always giving it his all, not taking life too seriously.
Like we saw with Quade Green last offseason, players gravitate toward Johnson, both teammates and opponents at the event. If he’s working the phones with recruits like he told me he was (we already saw one pull the trigger in EJ Montgomery) I find it hard to believe Ashton Hagans won’t jump on the opportunity to become a Wildcat very soon. Very, very soon.
I really wish Immanuel Quickley and Montgomery (very weird calling him a commitment, still crazy to me he’s a Wildcat) made the Jordan roster so we could see the chemistry continue to grow between all four of them.
If you missed any of my other articles throughout the weekend, check them out below:
And with that, I’m outta here NYC. It’s been a blast.
Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR