Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five players that impress. Player statistics are through Jan. 13.
Ben McLemore has all of the physical tools. But as we see year in and year out, physicality is only one of the pieces to a complex puzzle when discussing the makeup of an elite basketball player.
Obviously physical tools are an important aspect when you’re talking about truly elite players. But pick a greatest athlete who has no basketball sense and take a below-average athlete who is tough as nails, thinks the game and knows the angles on the court — and I’ll choose to play against the freaky athlete 10 times out of 10.
Playing hard, playing smart, playing with integrity and character — all the while doing so within a team concept — are the other pieces that complete the elite-player puzzle. McLemore has all of those traits. This youngster gives the game its due each time he laces ‘em up. He’s a rare basketball player in a day and age when so many guys are more concerned with just making the nightly highlight reel. Simply put, McLemore’s game has substance.
McLemore’s jumper is beautiful. The elevation on his jump shot is tremendous. His form is textbook and he has range for days. Right now, McLemore is a much better spot-up shooter and catch-and-shoot guy. When curling, coming off staggers, pin-downs and the like he’s spot-on. Kansas coach Bell Self does a terrific job of running sets to get his fantastic freshman quality looks in the halfcourt.
Like most young players, McLemore’s efficiency drops when he is forced off his spot. McLemore is less consistent as a shooter at that point, but that may be the only real knock on this kid’s game. And this time next year I’m guessing his off-the-dribble-J will be on par with his catch-and-shoot-J — or it’ll be darn close.
In the open floor, McLemore is nothing if not sensational. Kansas does a great job of running lob plays for this youngster. Credit Self for realizing what he has in this kid. The staff has gotten very creative with their lob-game since McLemore is now in their toolbox, especially after time outs and to begin games and halves. The Jayhawks catch opponents sleeping at least once or twice a game.
When I watch this stud on the break, I can’t help but be reminded of a guy I played against for many years, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. McLemore is fast, quick, explosive, exciting and imaginative. He’ll dunk on you or float around the rim, playing hide-and-seek with the ball while ultimately finishing with either hand. Being able to finish at the rim with either hand is something awfully special — and as a frosh in college, to boot.
Ben McLemore is a name you’ll be hearing for many years. I can’t decide if he’s more Drexler or Ray Allen, but what I do know is that, health permitting, we’ll be comparing kids to McLemore before too long.
Hey, in case you didn’t know, I’m an unapologetic Kentucky homer from way back. Anthony Bennett is easily the one young man in the past 15 years or so who, when he chose to sign with the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels last year instead of my Wildcats, caused me to go into a deep depression for a few days. I was tempted to not write about “Big AB” today because I was just beginning to get over the hurt he caused. But I decided to not be an idiot. Just know big fella, you hurt me.
I do love Bennett’s game. This Canadian is the real deal. I really do try to not make a habit of comparing 19 year olds to Hall of Famers. I mean, after all, I was compared to Jerry West at roughly the same age as AB. It was so unfair. I knew Jerry could never live up to all of that. … Seriously though, throwing around the names of 15-year NBA vets when discussing the potential of a college kid is not something I enter into lightly. But Bennett is the closest thing I have seen to “The Round Mound of Rebound” -– Charles Barkley — since Chuck was at Auburn playing “bully ball” for three years, destroying folks in the SEC.
Some compare Bennett to Larry Johnson. I can see a bit of Larry in Bennett’s game as well. But all of this comparison stuff is really no more than just a fun exercise. I’ve yet to see any one player have a game that is identical to another, not even in the cases of the many identical twins we’ve had the pleasure of watching throughout the years. So again, I really only use the comparison thing as a descriptive tool, nothing more and nothing less.
What excites me so much about Bennett, aside from the obvious enormous size-skill ratio, is his passion. Bennett plays extremely hard. He gives himself a chance every night and really does try to will his team to a win when he steps between the lines. Bennett plays much bigger than his height (6-foot-7). For instance, Barkley is just shy of 6-5. He and I have been eye-to-eye for as long as I can remember. But when we stepped on the floor I was a two-guard and he was a “big.” Charles might as well have been 6-11; that’s how big he played.
Bennett appears very Charles-like to me in some ways. From his touch to his strength to his explosiveness, this youngster is freakishly good. And, to quote one of my former teammates (who will remain nameless) after “encouraging” him one night during a game, “Come on dog, you’ve got to run with us!” and he replied, “C’mon now, Rex, you know I run like a cantaloupe!” Well, Bennett runs like a cantaloupe … er, I mean, antelope. He really does. Bennett has a beautiful, light, long stride for such a long and large human being.
If you’re on the East Coast and haven’t caught much of AB, do yourselves a favor and set those DVR’s to catch his late games on the left coast. You’ll be glad you did. Young’un can go.
Cody Zeller’s back had better be Hercules-strong, with shoulders as wide as a Mack truck, because he’s carrying all of the hopes and dreams of the Hoosier nation on them this year.
This 6-foot-11 center out of nearby Washington, Ind., has certainly been up to the task of exceeding expectations placed upon him as he exited the high school ranks only a year and a half ago. Zeller won the prestigious Indiana Mr. Basketball award, and was recruited nationally as much as any home-grown player has ever been in the tradition-rich basketball state of Indiana.
Zeller is a workhorse. The one common thread that each of the young men on this list today have in common is that their motor runs on “high” all of the time. And his motor may even out run everyone’s in the college basketball game this year. I can’t stand watching players who are on “cool duty,” too soft to take a charge or get on the floor for loose balls and the like. There’s none of that softness to Zeller’s game.
He is unique in that he’s a slippery athlete around that bucket. He has a knack for using his body and feeling/sensing his opponent’s body leaning on him and at just the right moment, spinning off his foe and dropping the ball in the hole.
Zeller is a fun player to watch. He runs extremely well and is a super transition player. What I like about Zeller’s game as much as anything else is that he basically meets his opponent at midcourt to begin the game and may as well say, “Well, here I am. I’m just going to play harder than you do. I’m going to run faster than you do. I can out think you.” My point is that there is no magic behind what Zeller does on the basketball floor. You know what he’s going to do.
Zeller figured out long ago that playing hard is a habit. There’s no real flash. That’s not to say he isn’t highly skilled, because he absolutely is. He also has a great feel for the game and his instincts are spot-on. But with Zeller there’s no “mean mugging,” no beating his chest or flexing for the camera. Zeller is a youngster who is a throwback. He’s so unique that I cannot think of a comparison for him that would do the kid justice.
Zeller acts like he’s done it before. And the Hoosier faithful are awfully happy he decided to stay at home for college and show off his lunchpail and hardhat approach inside hallowed Assembly Hall.
“NOILENS! N’yuk, yuk, yuk.”
That’s the first thing I said to pal, fellow UK diehard and co-star of TBS’ smash hit sitcom Cougartown, Josh Hopkins, upon watching Nerlens Noel announce on live TV last fall that he would be attending Kentucky and playing ball for our beloved Wildcats. It’s become one of my favorite expressions; I use it every time Noel swats a foe’s attempted shot out to midcourt (which happens some 3.5 times per game). Yes, it’s obnoxious — but it’s so fun, too. I just can’t help myself.
His name isn’t the only thing I’m enjoying about Noel. His game pleases me to no end. Anybody coming in to play center following Anthony Davis is going to be scrutinized. I had really tempered my expectations before watching Noel play in person. But after seeing him practice in Lexington a handful of times and catching three games at Rupp Arena earlier this season, my expectations quickly began to rise. This pogostick of an athlete is some kind of basketball player.
Noel’s feel for the game is extremely good. I’ve been most pleasantly surprised at his ability to pass the ball and make clever reads. He led the team in assists with six against Texas A&M on Jan. 12. I mean, the kid is a basketball player. His motor runs for 40 minutes.
Noel does something very rare. Like Nene on the Washington Wizards, and a former teammate of mine, the late Armon Gilliam, Noel is a right-handed big man who plays around the rim almost exclusively as a lefty. He easily prefers using his left hand if given the choice on the offensive end. However, we are now to the point in the season where teams and staffs are picking up tendencies of freshman players. Opposing teams are starting to force Nerlens off of his left hand, and I’ll be darned if in recent games he hasn’t begun going to his right hand more and more often with success. The guy is a quick study.
Still, Noel is raw on the offensive end. Right now his bread is buttered on the defensive end. And on D he is a force. Noel is as quick off the floor as any player I’ve ever seen — and I’m talking a young Hakeem Olajuwon (yes,Hakeem!), or Theo Ratliff, or The Admiral, David Robinson or any other quick-twitch shot-blocker you can think of.
I’m still giddy that Noel chose to play his college ball at my alma mater. And I’m not the only one. There’s an entire Big Blue Nation that’s right there with me. C’mon, say it with me. You know that you wanna … “NOILENS! N’yuk, yuk, yuk!”
I was talking to an NBA executive buddy of mine a couple of days ago and I asked who he is reminded of when watching freshman point guard Marcus Smart lead Travis Ford’s Oklahoma State Cowboys squad? I was more than a bit taken aback with the response: Jason Kidd. … Wow. I sort of chuckled. (Wait, do people still chuckle? Or do we just LOL? Anyway, I laughed.)
I played with Kidd for five years. We started in the same backcourt together for the Phoenix Suns. J-Kidd is my guy. I am naturally biased and even somewhat protective of a guy who made me far better as a basketball player than I ever was. So, when I’m told anybody “is like Jason Kidd” or “is a poor man’s Jason Kidd” or anything along those lines, I’m immediately skeptical.
But then I began watching more and more film of Marcus “Don’t call me Keith” Smart, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t begin to see a whole bunch of similarities in Smart and arguably the best point guard to play the game of basketball in the past 15 years.
Ford and his staff plucked out a gem from the Lone Star State’s prep ranks when they snagged Smart from Flower Mound, Texas. Well done, fellas. Playing the point for a coach who was such a fierce competitor and super college player in his own right is never an easy task.
Smart, like J-Kidd, is 6-foot-4; terrific size for an elite point gaurd. He’s rock-solid at 225 lbs. (Ford needs to keep an eye out for Mike Gundy and hope the Cowboys’ football coach doesn’t try to steal Smart in the middle of the night.) Smart is powerful and has a low center of gravity — also very similar to Kidd, which allows him to be on balance nearly all of the time. That low-center balance is something most basketball players lack.
Look, Marcus “Don’t call me Maxwell” Smart has a lot of basketball to play before becoming Jason Kidd. But with his strength, quickness, tenacity, terrific vision and willingness as a point guard to pass the ball before looking for his own scoring opportunities he’s well on his way to becoming one of the all-time great Oklahoma State players. There isn’t a program in the country that wouldn’t love to have him competing on a nightly basis for their squad. Smart is one of the more interesting and intriguing players in the college game this season. The Big 12 is about to find out the same.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman