This past weekend, I had the pleasure of embarking onto my first trip as a media member at the Nike EYBL. Session I took place in Atlanta back in April and you might recall some of the great work Jack Pilgrim did when he was down there. Session II was in Indianapolis, which is the one I attended. And I was absolutely blown away at the level of talent that was being showcased on all eight courts.
There was a group of prospects in particular that I tried to focus my attention on – players on Kentucky’s radar for the classes of 2020 and 2021 such as Cade Cunningham, BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, and a few others. Every player was scheduled to participate in four games throughout the weekend, giving me enough opportunities to at least gain a basic understanding of how good these 17- and 18-year olds are at this moment and how good they could be going forward; whether that’s at Kentucky, another top-tier program, or even the NBA. Here’s a quick rundown of the prospects who impressed me the most.
N’Faly Dante – 2020 (five-star recruit – Wichita, KS)
*6-foot-11, 230 pounds – center: Averaged 11.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks through eight EYBL games while shooting over 76 percent from the field.*
The No. 10 overall prospect in 2020 according to 247 Sports, Dante is an ideal blend of old-school post play mixed with impressive quickness. At nearly seven-feet tall, Dante can move like a wing. There were a couple of instances where he would suck in a rebound, swivel his head 180 degrees, and begin to sprint down the court with his eyes surveying every option. What impressed me the most when he did this was his decision making. If Dante knew he didn’t have an alley for himself, he’d dish it off to a teammate for 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 opportunities.
There wasn’t a more dominant player in Session II when it came to scoring in the paint than Dante. He’s attempted all of zero three-pointers throughout the first two sessions but controls such a refined game down low that he has a mismatch almost every time he’s on the block. His moves are quick. He wasn’t one to hesitate. Even though he’s only recorded four total assists at the EYBL, he showed the ability to make accurate passes out of the post. He’s wasn’t big on commanding the ball on the block, but he typically made the right play whenever he did.
He’s the perfect lob target and mimics that on the defensive end of the court with explosive shot blocking abilities. The bounce in his step is surprising for his size.
The Crystal Ball prediction on Dante from 247 Sports currently has LSU as the favorite (43 percent) to land the big man with Kentucky not too far behind (29 percent). However, lead expert Evan Daniels is currently undecided on Dante’s college landing spot.
Jalen Johnson – 2020 (five-star recruit – Milwaukee, WI)
*6-foot-8, 215 pounds – combo forward: Averaged 15.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game through seven EYBL games while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 13.6 percent from three.*
The No. 3 overall prospect in 2020, Johnson is a point guard in the body of a modern-day power forward. As evident by his 6.6 assists per game – despite standing at 6-foot-8 – the Wisconsin product loves to run the break, lead the offense, and create havoc for the unlucky defender who stands in his way.
I didn’t get to see nearly as much of Johnson as I did some of the other top recruits, but just a glimpse of his talent is all I needed to convince me he’s got what it takes. He’ll have to improve on his outside shooting (3-22 so far at the EYBL) and his decision making on those shots (a good chunk of them were contested or not within the flow of the offense), but there is no denying his diverse skill set. He can pass, score from practically anywhere within the perimeter, rebound, and even play a little defense. If you force him left, he’ll gladly finish with his left hand – and he’ll do it relatively easy.
He showed shades of Kevin Love with the way he would swallow rebounds off the defensive glass, immediately look up the court, and sling a 50-foot pass right on the money to a teammate for an open layup.
An easy comparison would be that he fits the mold of Jarred Vanderbilt or even Lamar Odom (Johnson is right-handed, by the way), but Johnson’s offensive game is already so much more fine-tuned than either of those players at his age. Imagine if Vanderbilt’s elite rebounding abilities were transferred to an unstoppable pull-up jumper. Then you have a better idea of the type of player Johnson is. It didn’t take long to understand why he’s a top-3 prospect in his class.
The Crystal Ball prediction currently favors Duke at 93 percent and lead expert Jerry Meyer predicted back in September that the Blue Devils would ultimately be his choice. But our own Jack Pilgrim reported back at the Atlanta session that Johnson said Kentucky was his “dream school” growing up and he’s supposedly going to be making his decision sometime within the next few months.
Terrence Clarke – 2021 (five-star recruit – Boston, MA)
*6-foot-6, 180 pounds – shooting guard: Averaged 17.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists through eight EYBL games while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three.*
The No. 2 overall prospect in the class of 2021, Clarke is a heavy Kentucky lean. The first thing I noticed about the high school sophomore is his gravity-defying athleticism. Then, after you’ve watched him for a few minutes, you realize he’s a born scorer. He’s a player that can fly high but showed a tendency to probe and let things develop instead. He told me in Indy that he wants to “be known as a guard”, not a wing.
It didn’t matter where he was on the court – in the paint, mid-range, beyond the arc, attacking the rim, pushing the pace – Clarke’s main goal was to put the ball in the basket. And he did so better than the majority of players I watched, including all the 2020 juniors.
That isn’t to say he’s a “ball hog” by any means. Clarke had no issue deferring to a teammate if they had a better look and he did a solid job of making the right play. I also don’t think I watched a player who shows more personality both on and off the court.
When in the game, Clarke was vocal. His body language was constantly changing and he never was short on words to teammates or quick asides with a referee. Occasionally that led to him being annoyed and standoffish, but his overwhelming desire to compete outweighed that. Off the court, he was a goofy, entertaining, accessible, and an approachable player. It clears he enjoys being in the spotlight, but not in a negative connotation. He’s a player that would have zero issues stepping under the microscope of being a Wildcat and beating even his own expectations. I personally believe that to be a huge indicator of whether or not a player can thrive within the Kentucky program. He checks that box with a giant permanent marker.
The Crystal Ball prediction currently has Kentucky as the outright favorite, although only two analysts have made that claim. Tony Barbee has been on Clarke hard and that will only escalate once he enters his junior season.
Cade Cunningham – 2020 (five-star recruit – Montverde, FL)
*6-foot-6, 215 pounds – forward/guard combo: Averaged 23.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists through eight EYBL games while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three.*
The No. 7 overall prospect in the class of 2020, Cunningham is another player who mashes several different skill sets into one unique bundle. The Montverde Academy player is built with a sturdy 6-foot-6 frame but was installed with hardware similar to a lead guard. Like Clarke, Cunningham also said in Indy that he wants to play point guard at the next level and he already feels comfortable being recruited for that position. His passing ability is well above-average and he has an entire backpack filled to the brim with dribble moves.
There weren’t many players at this event with a more NBA-ready body than Cunningham. He physically looked more like a five-year veteran of the Miami Heat than a junior in high school. And he even played like it. Cunningham has been one of the top – and most consistent – scorers through the first two EYBL sessions. He finished his final game in Atlanta with 32 points and followed it up with 30 points and 28 points, respectively, in the first two games at Indy.
His size and athleticism allow him to get to almost any spot on the court whenever he desires. If you impede his progress, he’ll just bully you into the post where he can either flip up a score or slip a pass to a cutting teammate. There isn’t a spot on the floor he can’t create offense from.
The Crystal Ball prediction currently favors Kentucky by a wide margin and lead expert Jerry Meyer listed the Wildcats as the favorite in late 2017.
Sharife Cooper – 2020 (five -star recruit – Marietta, GA)
*6-foot-0, 160 pounds – point guard: Averaged 28.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists through eight EYBL games while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from three.*
The No. 18 overall prospect in the class of 2020, Cooper was the player that impressed me more than anyone else at the event. He was the best instinctual passer I saw all weekend and it wasn’t particularly close. The creativity and ease he was able to make some of his passes literally dropped my jaw to the hardwood. He knew when and where his teammates would be open well before they did.
At an even 6-feet, he’s a bit undersized compared to the John Wall and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander types that John Calipari typically brings in, but don’t let that deter you from jumping on the Cooper bandwagon. He plays bigger than his size and has underrated strength that allows him to create openings that wouldn’t normally be there. His 8.2 assists per game are the second most among all EYBL players. I can’t stress enough how unreal he is as a passer and how he did so with complete confidence in himself.
Not to mention, he can shoot the lights out, too. His 28.1 points per game are the second-most among all EYBL players who have played at least four games. Bump the requirement up to eight games as he’s been the top scorer of the entire event. I’m convinced the only reason he isn’t ranked higher than 18th is his size. He’s so deceptively strong with the ball in his hands that you can’t bump him out of position and he’s crafty enough when penetrating that he can avoid contact altogether. Not once during any game did his facial expression look anything other than stoic. He was a straight-faced assassin all weekend. I don’t want to make the “Tyler Ulis with a few extra inches” comparison, so I’ll just speak it into existence and leave it at that.
The Crystal Ball prediction currently favors Auburn at 89 percent with lead expert Evan Daniels picking the Tigers last May. Kentucky is still in the running for Cooper and he himself mentioned only UK and Auburn as the two schools going after him the hardest. Kentucky fans should want this kid. He’s going to be special.