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Jordon Varnado: Troy’s Hidden Gem

Troy star Jordon Varnado is turning heads and receiving guidance from his NBA champion brother.

Alex Kennedy

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Last week, Troy forward Jordon Varnado hit a game-winning jump shot over Eastern Illinois. Not only did the sophomore step up when his team needed him the most, he made his presence felt all evening by filling the box score to the tune of 22 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two assists.

Shortly after the win, Varnado spoke with Basketball Insiders and was nonchalant. He didn’t exhibit any excitement about his monster performance or clutch shot. Coaches often tell players to “act like you’ve been there before” after an impressive win or play. Varnado has that down.

Varnado is one of the best kept secrets in college basketball, but the word will be out soon. He’s simply playing too well to continue flying under the radar.

He’s currently averaging 15.7 points, seven rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game for the Trojans. He has been incredibly efficient as well, shooting a 50 percent from the field (on 13.3 attempts per game) and 42.9 percent from three-point range (on 2.3 attempts per game).

Varnado is a 6’6 forward who can play inside and out. When asked which NBA players he watches and models his game after, Varnado doesn’t hesitate: “Draymond Green and Paul Millsap.” He studies those players because of their versatility, physical strength, ability to cause mismatches and the fact that they’re similar in size to him.

“My versatility is an advantage, no doubt,” Varnado said. “I can cause mismatches because I can go both inside and out. I take the bigger guy outside of the paint; if it’s a smaller guy, I can go right at him or shoot a jump shot. Offensive rebounding is a big part of my game; I like to crash the boards, make hustle plays, stuff like that.”

Another player with NBA experience has influenced him much more than Green or Millsap ever could, though. That’s because Jordon’s brother, Jarvis Varnado, was a second-round pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Jarvis is the NCAA’s Division I all-time leading shot blocker, recording 564 rejections during his collegiate career at Mississippi State. Only two college players in history have recorded 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 blocks in their career: Jarvis Varnado and David Robinson.

Jarvis is currently playing in Italy, but he had NBA stints with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, he has a championship ring because he was on the 2013 Heat team that defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.

For Jordon, growing up with Jarvis helped him improve drastically as a player. Very few people can say that they spent their childhood honing their basketball skills against one of the best defenders in NCAA history. Jordon learned how to score in a variety of ways, leading to the versatile offensive arsenal we see today. It also increased his confidence. After all, he started to think, “If I can score on Jarvis, I can score on just about anyone.”

“It was great,” Jordon said. “Every day was a battle, ‘cause me and him used to go at it. We were very competitive. It was always a battle.”

Jarvis has been a huge asset for Jordon off the court as well, especially when it came time to pick a college and now that he is starting to get some NBA buzz. A big reason Jordon landed at Troy is because their head coach, Phil Cunningham, has ties to the family; he was an assistant coach at Mississippi State when Jarvis played there, and everyone in Jordon’s life felt that Coach Cunningham would do a great job developing him and preparing him for the next level.

Also, watching his brother’s career play out has given him an idea of what to expect each step of the way as he goes through his own process. Most players don’t have that luxury, and Jordon doesn’t take it for granted.

“It’s helped me out a lot because going into college, I knew what it would take to be a great player,” Varnado said “I knew the work ethic I had to have to succeed, what I need to do to make it to the next level.”

Varnado may not have a ton of buzz surrounding him now, but that’s sure to change if he continues playing at such a high level. Either way, Jordon will be in his own bubble and concentrated on the team’s success rather than his own.

“I haven’t realized it,” he said when asked if he’s getting more recognition lately. “I just tend to keep to myself, just focus on the task at hand and try to help my team win every game that we can.”

As if Varnado didn’t have enough motivation, he uses his lack of high school offers as an additional chip on his shoulder. He’s determined to make a statement to the teams that passed on him.

“A lot of teams were looking at me in high school, but they never offered me,” Varnado said, sounding annoyed. “They were just ‘interested’ in me in high school.

“So every time I go out on the court, whoever I play against, I just remember in my mind that they could’ve picked me and they didn’t. I just try to go dominate them.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Trae Young Looks To Be Next Up

Oklahoma’s Trae Young is taking college basketball by storm, and drawing comparisons to All-Star point guards.

Dennis Chambers

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When basketball fans glance across the college landscape to find the next wave of talent they expect to dominate the sport, they check in on the usual spots.

Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kansas and UCLA are among the culprits. Norman, Oklahoma, and the Sooners, though? Well, they’re not a destination that comes to mind very often when debating what young player is in position to take the reins at the next level.

Until now, that is. Meet Trae Young.

Young is Oklahoma’s freshman point guard. He’s 6-foot-2, isn’t overly muscular, and operates up and down the court with a smoothness that’s eerily similar to the guy who plays the same position out in the Bay Area.

How he looks isn’t the only thing that draws comparisons from Young to Steph Curry. Look at the numbers, and the obscene production the 19-year-old point guard is putting up. At the moment, Young leads the entire country in points per game (28.7) and assists (10.4). Young has reached the 30-point plateau four times in eleven games, including his 43-point outburst against Oregon. He’s scored 29 points on two occasions, and twice more reached 28 points.

Young’s picture-perfect shooting form and effortless release from beyond the arc are what makes this teenager so lethal. But he’s not just a one-trick pony. On Dec. 20 against Northwestern State, Young tied the NCAA record with a 22-assist performance (to go along with his 26 points). It was the first time in 20 years a player had reached 20 points and 20 assists in the same game. In six of Young’s first 11 collegiate games, he’s reached double-digit assists.

The invigoration of Young into the Oklahoma offense has Lon Kruger’s 11-20 team from a year ago at 10-1 and ranked No. 17 in the country heading into Big 12 Conference play. Make no mistake about it, that’s large, if not wholly, because of the freshman point guard.

How exactly did the Sooners land a superstar player of this caliber, though?

Well, they almost didn’t.

Young’s college choice came down to his hometown Sooners (he attended Norman North High School right down the road) and typical blue-blood powerhouse Kansas. Even with the commitment of a five-star point guard, few, if any, saw this type of impact from Young right away.

Ranking No. 23 on ESPN’s Top 100 for the class of 2017, Young was behind three other point guards: Trevon Duval (Duke), Collin Sexton (Alabama) and Jaylen Hands (UCLA).

Expecting the supernova level star Young has become almost immediately would’ve been a bit overzealous in any prediction. But that’s what makes college basketball the marvel that it is. Young has looked like the best player in the country, on a team where, at just 19 years old, he is considered “the man,” and without the usual supporting cast that players get at Duke and Kentucky.

After a 31-point, 12-assist performance against Northwestern on Friday, opposing head coach Chris Collins couldn’t do anything but rave about the teenager that dominated his team.

“With how deep he can shoot it from, you have to extend out on him, and then it just opens the floor,” Collins said. “He does a great job. He changes speeds well and he is shifty. And so the moment you are kind of a little off balance, he does a great job getting into your body and kind of playing off your movements. He’s got incredible vision. I always knew he was an incredible scorer. But the one thing I think he is underrated is his ability to pass. I thought he made some great passes and found guys.”

While the comparisons between Young and Curry are obvious, Collins offered up his own version of the mold he believes Young is fitting into.

“I had the opportunity to coach Kyrie Irving at the same age, and he was similar like that before he got hurt,” Collins said about Young. “There was just a maturity to his game that he had. He knew how to change speeds. He looked like a veteran from day one and that’s how Trae is out there. He plays at his pace. He knows where he wants to go.

Ironically, 11 games were all Irving got to play at Duke during his freshman season, and he still managed to be drafted first overall. Young may have a bit more competition than Irving did come next June for the draft’s top spot, but just over a month into his rookie campaign in college, Young is looking every bit of the best player in the entire nation.

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NBA

College Basketball Has A Money Problem, But No Solution

The FBI confirmed that college basketball has a big money problem. But it won’t go away until NCAA fixes their rules.

Dennis Chambers

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College basketball saw its world rocked on Tuesday when the FBI made a two-year long investigation into the illegal paying of amateur players public for all the world to see.

Ten people total were arrested and charged with fraud and corruption. Those men included active assistant coaches from Auburn, USC, Arizona, and Oklahoma State, along with a prominent executive from Adidas.

All the FBI did this week was confirm what was potentially the worst kept secret in college sports: that high-profile high school athletes receive under-the-table benefits to attend certain schools and keep certain relationships with shoe companies, agents, financial planners, etc. once they make their jump to the NBA.

As the curtain is pulled back on the backdoor dealings of the grassroots basketball scene and the public receives more confirmation about how some of these basketball powerhouse schools continuously get the best of the best, surely there will be more professional casualties. Already this probe has cost a Hall of Fame coach his job, as the University of Louisville announced Wednesday that Rick Pitino would be suspended from his duties. Pitino’s attorney later released in a statement that the coach “has, in effect, been fired.”

With the massive involvement the FBI seems to have in this matter, the smart guess would be to assume that Pitino isn’t the only prominent coach that will fall victim to this case. On Tuesday, Adidas executive Jim Gatto was arrested in the initial sweep by the authorities, making all of the schools with an Adidas sponsorship immediately look suspect. Just one day later, the FBI issued a subpoena to employees of Nike’s EYBL grassroots division, which runs their AAU basketball circuit.

These initial offenders appear to be the tip of the iceberg. Common sense would suggest that since the long arm of the law is now involved in how certain recruits make their college decisions things will certainly change. However, until the NCAA finds a better way to compensate their student-athletes, don’t hold your breath.

Yes, this is going to be a long and excruciating process for the NCAA. Once certain people involved are facing federal agents and the likes of jail time, they will turn over more information, dragging others down with them. For a while, maybe the recruiting process will get back to operating more organically. But in a multi-billion dollar business like college basketball, money will find its way back in.

Each year there are more than a few top prospects who come from families that are in need of assistance. That player, despite being just a kid, can be viewed as the family’s ticket out of their difficult situation. Those realities are what makes this entire scandal somewhat understandable. That certainly isn’t advocacy for cheating, but when you take into account the financial status of a high-profile player and his family, coupled with the impending millions that a university is set to make off of that individual, with no effective legal payout from the NCAA heading their way it almost makes the cause just.

Certainly, though, rules and laws were breached by these individuals and they will face the consequences as a result. The list of those involved will grow, and the pointed finger at who to blame will swing wildly in the direction of many. But until the conversation is had as to why this truly happening, nothing will ever change permanently for the better.

According to Forbes, Louisville’s team value in 2016 stood at $45.4 million, with their 2015 revenue reaching $45.8 million. Those are eye-popping numbers for a basketball team that doesn’t have to pay its players. An organization can only be as successful as its employees. So, while Louisville continues to be one of the nation’s top basketball programs as a result of their high-tier talent, their payout to these athletes reaches only to the price of tuition and room and board. Most of the players that help keep elite team’s like Louisville relevant don’t stay for more than a year or two.

In the documents released by the FBI, Gatto, agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood are named directly as helping provide funding to a particular player.

The statement reads that Gatto, Sood, and Dawkins “conspired to illicitly funnel approximately $100,000 from company-1 to the family of Player-10, an All-American high school basketball player; to assist one or more coaches at University-6, a school sponsored by Company-1, and to further ensure that Player-6 ultimately retained the services of Dawkins and Sood and signed with Company-1 upon entering the NBA.”

Clear as day, the NCAA’s biggest problem is written in black and white by the FBI. These companies and agents know that players are more than willing to take money (truthfully, who wouldn’t?). When a player or player’s family recognizes their worth in a market that doesn’t let them cash in on it, their recruiting process becomes marred with wink-wink agreements from the schools that are recruiting said player, and ultimately the decision is made to attend whichever school is willing to bend the rules the most.

On Tuesday, the world saw for certain that this time the rules were bent to their breaking point. Dark days are ahead for college basketball during this scandal, but until the NCAA develops a reasonable way to compensate their athletes, the problem will never fully disappear.

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NBA

Is Lauri Markkanen Finland’s Dirk Nowitzki?

Draft prospect Lauri Markkanen talks to Michael Scotto about preparing for the draft and his NBA prospects.

Michael Scotto

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Not many 20-year-olds have drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and have an opportunity to be a basketball ambassador for an entire nation. Lauri Markkanen is not your average 20-year-old.

“First of all, it’s an honor to be compared to him,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “It’s probably not fair to him to have some young guy compared to a Hall of Fame player and champion. We have similarities because of the height, being from Europe and shooting. But I have a long way to go before I’m in the same category as him. Hopefully, I can get there one day.”

Markkanen, a 7-foot prospect from Finland, shot 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from downtown and 84 percent from the foul line in his freshman season at Arizona. Nowitzki has shot 47 percent from the field, 38 percent from downtown and 88 percent from the foul line in his 19-year career.

A few weeks ago, video footage surfaced of Markkanen draining 18 straight 3-pointers from the corner.

“He has the most ready NBA skill of any player in the NBA draft,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “He’s the best shooter coming into the draft in my opinion. That’s one skill you can rely on.”

Markkanen isn’t just a standstill shooter. He’s lethal in pick-and-pop sets, and can move off the ball and attack off the dribble.

“He has a lot of similarities to a guy like Ryan Anderson,” another Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “I think later in the season he showed more versatility to his game. He’s shown that he has more to his offensive package with his ability to post up, which will only get better as he gets stronger. He has a good enough handle to create space and is tall enough where his shot will be hard to contest.”

As the league emphasizes floor spacing more than ever before, Markkanen could be a matchup nightmare in small ball lineups.

“He’s an excellent shooter with range for his size,” an Eastern Conference scout told Basketball Insiders. “He knows how to play and has good overall fundamentals. Center will be his best position as a stretch-five. He has deceptive mobility. He’s a below the rim player, not a rim protector, nor a top rebounder now.”

While Markkanen’s shooting ability is unquestioned, he believes other areas of his game are underrated.

“I think I am the best shooter in this class,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “I think my ceiling as a rebounder and defender is higher than people may think. And my work ethic is something I take a lot of pride in, which will help elevate my game.”

Scouts and executives believe Markkanen will need to improve his lateral quickness to compete better on the defensive end at the NBA level. He will also have to get stronger to fight for rebounding position in the post, but that’s a natural progression for any rookie coming into the league.

Unlike most foreign players, Markkanen skipped an important adjustment. He came overseas and got a chance to adjust to lifestyle on and off the court in the States while attending the University of Arizona.

“As a player, the physicality of the game and the pace was different and took some getting used to,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Otherwise, the adjustment was not that bad. As a student, there was more work than back home, but it was not too difficult to me.”

While Markkanen enjoyed his time at Arizona and is looking forward to NBA life as a rookie in the States, he believes he can eventually help grow the game of basketball back home in Finland.

“That is one of my biggest goals,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Hopefully my story can inspire more kids back home to learn the game and enjoy it. I look forward to many future projects back home and hopefully continued success of the national team program.”

Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played for Kansas and was a member of the Finland National Team. At 15 years old, Markkanen made his Second Division debut for BC Jyvaskyla. At Helsinki Basketball Academy, Hanno Mottola – one of two all-time Finnish NBA players – was one of Markkanen’s coaches, as DraftExpress noted. Markkanen’s international debut for the Finland U-18 National Team came at the 2015 FIBA Europe U-18 Championship. A year later, Markkanen was the top scorer in the 2016 FIBA Europe U-20 Championship, averaging 24.9 points per game, and participated in the NIKE Hoops Summit.

“As a player, the kid dominated at the junior level,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “In big games, he stepped up. He led Arizona to an incredible record.”

Arizona won the Pac-12 Tournament and was a No. 2 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. Markkanen led all freshmen in offensive rating (134.1) and made as many 3-pointers as any 7-footer in college since 2000, as DraftExpress noted. As a result, Markkanen was named a member of the Pac-12 First Team. Arizona eventually lost 73-71 against No. 11 Xavier in the West Regional Semifinal.

While Markkanen hopes to become a role model for children in Finland and inspire them to play the game, he has other goals in mind before hanging up his sneakers down the road.

“Winning an NBA championship, winning an Olympic medal and being an All-Star,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders.

Markkanen’s journey will begin Thursday night at the NBA Draft, where colleague Steve Kyler and I both have him going to Minnesota with the seventh pick in our latest mock draft.

However, the Timberwolves may trade their pick for an established veteran or as part of a package to acquire Jimmy Butler. With the uncertainty of the draft in mind, why should any team select him?

“I think I am unique as a player,” Markkanen replied. “I am a very hard worker and give everything on the court. I am going to do everything in my power to help my team win.”

While becoming the next Nowitzki is the ceiling for Markkanen’s career, becoming a basketball ambassador and role model for young children in Finland could be Markkanen’s greatest accomplishment by the time he hangs up his sneakers.

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