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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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March Madness

NBA Daily: Five Tournament-Tested Prospects Worth Watching

With the NCAA Tournament in the rearview mirror, here are five tournament-tested prospects worth keeping an eye on.

Ben Nadeau

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After nearly a month of relentless basketball, the NCAA Tournament is finally in our rearview mirrors — which means all the focus has turned to the upcoming draft process. While many of this class’ top prospects have already been identified, everything outside the lottery largely remains a mystery at this time. However, many on-the-bubble candidates stepped up during their respective tournament runs. From leading the way in the tournament final to sparking an unexpected run to the Elite Eight and everything in between, these players have all made themselves interesting options headed into some of the key spring months.

Jevon Carter, West Virginia

West Virginia’s strong tournament run ended in the Sweet 16 at the hands of the eventual champions, but senior Jevon Carter thoroughly proved that he’s a prospect to watch. Carter racked up six and five-steal games against Murray State and Marshall, respectively, to open up the tournament, and that wasn’t all. Over those two contests, Carter finished with a total of 49 points and 13 assists, even hitting on 5-of-8 attempts from deep. Beyond being named to the Consensus All-American Second-Team this spring, Carter has taken home back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year honors as well.

His calling card is absolutely tenacious perimeter defense, but the West Virginia star is no slouch offensively. Carter averaged 17.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game on 39.3 percent from three-point range during the 2017-18 season — so what’s not to love? He’ll be 23 years old by the time his rookie season rolls around, but the Mountaineer’s lengthy award resume and impressive tournament set him up mightily moving forward. As an experienced, hard-nosed defender with a steady three-point shot — not dissimilar to Malcolm Brogdon in recent years — Carter could be a steal this June.

Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler has Carter slotted in at No. 29 overall in his most recent mock draft.

Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

Of course, the man of the hour was bound to make an appearance on this list. Although it may appear as if Donte DiVincenzo came out of nowhere, Wildcats fans have watched him torch opposing defenses for quite some time. DiVincenzo markedly improved in each of his three seasons at Villanova, and he currently holds an average of 13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 40.1 percent from three-point range. He’s been overshadowed thus far by recent draftee Josh Hart and the newly-minted College National Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson, but DiVincenzo stole the show against Michigan.

DiVincenzo dropped 31 points on 5-of-7 from three-point range, part of a red-hot second half run that buried the Wolverines for good. As the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, DiVincenzo is no stranger to these types of nights — but if he wasn’t on draft radars yet, he definitely is now. The Wildcats’ streaky shooter has the size and athleticism to bother opposing teams should he take his impressive run into next month’s combine.

But the program’s continuity is what earned Villanova two national championships in three years, so DiVincenzo remains a compelling candidate to return for his senior season. With Brunson heading to the NBA, DiVincenzo could-be the go-to star on another talented roster — that alone may be too tempting to pass up. Either way, DiVincenzo has outgrown his playful “Michael Jordan of Delaware” moniker, but this may just be the beginning for another standout Villanova prospect.

Tony Carr, Penn State

If you’ve not yet heard of Tony Carr, you will soon. Trae Young and Collin Sexton have earned high remarks all year, but Carr is a point guard to watch out for — just ask the entire NIT field.

As Penn State’s featured guard, the 6-foot-5 scoring machine helped the Nittany Lions take home their second NIT crown in the last decade. During Penn State’s title-clinching blowout of Utah, Carr registered a near-triple-double with 15 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds. If that wasn’t enough, Carr led his fourth-seeded squad past Mississippi State the round prior after tallying 21/5/6 — more or less cementing his already intriguing draft status.

But unlike most younger players, Carr has already stated his intention to sign with an agent ahead of the draft. This decision would eliminate the possibility of Carr returning to Penn State should the next month go awry — but his confidence is at an all-time high. At a recent press conference, Carr noted that most of the current draft projections have him going somewhere in the mid-to-late first or early second round — and it’s not hard to see why. In 2017-18, Carr averaged 19.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and five assists on 43.3 percent from three-point range — contributions that would earn him a well-deserved spot on the All-Big Ten First-Team.

In one of the cooler subplots of the season, Carr led Penn State to three consecutive wins against Top 25-ranked Ohio State over the span of five weeks, flat-out dominating with 27.6 points per game. For franchises that need an explosive guard but don’t have the means to grab one of the studded lottery picks, Carr should be a hot commodity further down the draft board.

Keenan Evans, Texas Tech

As of late, it’s been Zhaire Smith quickly rising toward the lottery conversation — but don’t sleep on Keenan Evans, Texas Tech’s top scorer. After averaging 17.6 points and 3.2 assists in 2017-18, Evans was named to the All-American Consensus Second-Team alongside the aforementioned Carter and likely lottery selection Miles Bridges. When Evans scored 20 or more points, the Red Raiders went 13-1 — but when he scored fewer than 10, that record drops to just 1-4. Like Carter, Texas Tech’s tournament ended against Villanova — but Evans’ recent play will keep him on front office radars nonetheless.

Prior to their Elite Eight loss to the Wildcats, Evans took down 23, 22, 16-point efforts against SF Austin, Florida and Purdue, even outscoring Smith on all three occasions to boot. Best of all, Evans showed promise from three-point range, a skill he’ll no doubt need at the next level. During the regular season, Evans converted on just 32 percent of his looks from deep. But over that three-game tournament run, the prospect hit on five of his nine attempts (55.5 percent). A small sample size, surely, but it’s always noteworthy when prospects show progress on the game’s biggest stage. Evans is a senior, so he’ll look to build momentum during the upcoming combine — but he has a knack for scoring, something that professional benches will always scour the class for.

Tyus Battle, Syracuse

Last but not least, there’s Tyus Battle, a 6-foot-6 sophomore-year guard that propelled a surprise Syracuse Orange team into the Sweet 16. After leading Division-I with a tireless 39 minutes per game, Battle was on the floor for every minute of Syracuse’s play-in victory over Arizona State. In fact, Battle didn’t miss a single second of the Orange’s four tournament games — making the scorer extremely well-tested already. Battle can get going in a flash and notably recorded 29 points on 6-for-11 from downtown in a mid-December win over Georgetown. More recently, of course, were Battle’s 19 points and five assists in their tournament-ending loss to Duke.

As of now, Battle has not yet announced if he’ll test the NBA waters — but nobody would blame him for gauging interest after his stellar season. Battle averaged 19.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game as Syracuse’s go-to scorer and playmaker. Due to his high offensive usage, Battle’s field goal (39.9) and three-point (32.3) percentages aren’t where they need to be quite yet — but there’s plenty else to like here. Battle will likely be deployable in many flexible roles at the next level and his defense — albeit not often highlighted given Syracuse’s zone defense — shows promise as well.

Of note, Kyler currently has Battle going with the No. 22 overall pick. A formidable combine performance could shoot Battle into draft contention — so keep an eye on him.

With the NBA Draft Combine set to take place on May 16, expect many of these tournament-tested prospects to continue rising upward. For seniors like Carter and Evans — or those who will sign with an agent like Carr — they’re entering a crucial portion of their basketball journey. Present commodities like DiVincenzo and Battle will likely stick their toes in the water — but they’ll always have the option to head back to promising programs. Either way, these five players are certainly worth watching as their quest to play at the next level begins anew.

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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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