Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Scouting Renardo Sidney

If it's Martin Luther King Day in Seattle, that means it's time for the King Holiday Hoopfest, an all-day marathon of high school basketball held this year at the University of Washington's Bank of America Arena.

Highlights of this year's seven-game schedule included the opportunity to catch's No. 1-rated H.S. junior, Renardo Sidney of Fairfax H.S. in L.A., and also Hoop Scoop's No. 1-rated H.S. freshman, Tony Wroten of Seattle's Garfield H.S.

Among the dignitaries I spotted in the house were UW head coach Lorenzo Romar, the immortal Eldridge Recasner, and Microsoft CEO and future Sonics franchise savior (just planting the seed...) Steve Ballmer. Rick Pitino was also in attendance, but I did not personally see him, ahem, walk through that door.

Since Wroten's just a freshman, I'm going to refrain from writing up a scouting report on him for now. There will be plenty of time to evaluate the young man. For now, suffice it to say that the 6-5 lefty guard looks like a hell of a prospect, and I look forward to watching his career develop. (Here is some background on Wroten if you're interested.)

Instead, we're going to focus on Sidney, who led his Fairfax Lions (ranked No. 17 in the U.S. in the ESPN High Elite 25) against Franklin High (ranked no. 2 in the 4A division of Washington state), a perennial Seattle power whose alumni include Jason Terry, Aaron Brooks and also Clock Killin' Corey Dillon.

Franklin has a top 50 junior of its own in 5-11 PG Peyton Siva - that's who Pitino was in town to recruit - and the Quakers came away with a wild 56-55 win over Fairfax on a putback in the final seconds (Game story).

OK, enough preamble, let's try to get our Givony on with an evaluation of Renardo Sidney (USC is thought to be the leading contender among his college suitors):

- The young fella has a pro body, that's for sure. Sidney's a long 6-10 and is solidly built (listed in the 230-250 range), though he seemed to be carrying extra weight and did not appear to be in great shape, as he struggled to get up and down the court occasionally when the pace picked up.

- Sidney really moves and handles the ball exceptionally well for his size. He led the break a few times, and while he didn't necessarily create buckets, his decision-making was sound and his court vision was quite good overall (he was an able and willing passer from the post, as well).

- He often had trouble getting ball in the low post in the halfcourt O. While I would have liked to have seen Sidney work harder to sit down in the post and establish position, I have to note that his coaches and teammates didn't seem to know how to set him up with post entry passes.

More notably, Franklin is very well-drilled in team D, and despite being drastically undersized, their hustling combo of ball denial in front of Sidney and weak-side help behind him was effective.

Franklin's Keiwaun McMorris did an especially good job of ball denial as his team built a 36-20 halftime lead, but Sidney ultimately led Fairfax back by wearing the Quakers down into foul trouble. Renardo was just too damn big for them to handle, and ended up with 24 points and 22 boards, with most of his buckets coming inside.

- Fairfax set up Sidney with the ball on the wing a few times and he looked comfortable (they probably should have done more of this when they were struggling to feed him down low). He's coordinated and has a good first step, though he didn't always finish with strength at the basket.

That might have been due partially to the fact that another key element of Franklin's D is that their help defenders hustle like crazy to establish position and fearlessly take charges against driving opponents. (And I mean *fearless* - they were stepping in on Sidney, and last year I saw them do the same against Kevin Love!)

- Sidney also showed good shooting form and touch from the outside overall, even though he wasn't connecting on his jumper.

- On the defensive end, Sidney was a minimal presence, given his size. He did not patrol the lane as a help defender, and did not really work to affect shots unless they were coming right at him. I know this is weird to say about a guy who had 22 rebounds, but he was not really an active presence on the boards. Most of his rebounds were due to sheer size advantage (he did have a bunch of offensive rebounds as he showed good timing/coordination on putbacks/tip-ins).

- All in all, Renardo Sidney seems like a diamond in the rough - a top prospect who is going to need to establish a professional work ethic to ultimately be worthy of the status as the No. 1 pick of the 2010 Draft, as many currently forecast him to be.

On the one hand, just this weekend in the Boston Globe, Paul Pierce offered strong praise for Sidney:
    Then-NBA star Reggie Miller was so impressed with Pierce when he starred at Inglewood (Calif.) High that he would get him on the floor during exclusive pickup games with pros and college stars at UCLA in the offseason.

    Pierce is now equally impressed by Los Angeles Fairfax High forward Renardo Sydney, who is arguably the best junior in the country. In fact, the versatile 6-foot-9-inch, 240-pounder gave Pierce more than he expected during a one-on-one knockout game in Redondo Beach last offseason.

    "I worked out with him one day," said Pierce, who likened Sydney to Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "He can handle, big, he has good size. He was nice. I couldn't believe he was in high school when I played him. He was good, man. He should be a pro.

    "He could do pretty much everything. He made me kind of raise my game up. You don't want to let a high school guy beat you. I went extra hard on him . . . He scored a little bit on me. He didn't win."
Yet, Sidney is something of an enigma, as this quote from a story on captures:
    Intrigue surrounds Sidney because he's a big man with stunning, guard-like skills; he's susceptible to lapses in effort but also more versatile than the NBA player to whom some recruitniks have him compared, Chris Webber. Of Sidney's potential, [Sonny] Vaccaro says, "Should he be the No. 1 pick [in 2010]? Physically it would be without question. The key is what happens, mentally and with everything else over the next two to three years."
Note that, if we're playing the comparison game, I think that SLAM gets its best in its list of top Class of 2009 players (which, shockingly, is headed by a player from Brooklyn's Lincoln High School):
    Almost unfairly talented, Sidney is a 2008 version of Derrick Coleman: he can shoot, pass and handle like a guard, but has the bulk, athleticism and footwork to dominate the paint and boards.
I'll take that one. Sidney appears to have all the tools to be a force inside and out. But can he harness them? How bad does he want it?

Tom Wyrwich, prep reporter for the Seattle Times, offers a fine collection of Sidney stories from the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times, plus a video highlight reel, in his blog.

The full portrait makes it clear that Sidney certainly has a unique backstory. He's originally from Mississippi but moved to Southern California after his freshman year to increase his profile. He's been on a different high school and AAU team each summer. He's even toyed with just playing summer AAU ball, and not playing high school ball, considering that it's possibly unnecessary given that most serious player evaluation is done in summer competition, when the top potential talent can be collected and matched up against one another. The stories are definitely interesting reads, with the ones from the Washington Post and SI probably being the best overall.

Finally, here's Sidney's profile and scouting report from Draft Express, in case you think our player evaluation skills are dodgy. Or even if you don't, really.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hold The Mayo

Alright, let's run through a few hoops odds & ends quickly:

In my life as a basketball fan, there are few things I am more loathe to do than to admit I agree with the disagreeable human being named Billy Packer. Yet, I have to say I concur 100% with this statement Packer made during today's UCLA-USC game: "O.J. Mayo is a good player. He is not a great player."

I have now watched Mayo play several times as a high school and college player, and I have yet to fully understand the fuss. He clearly has excellent physical gifts, with very good size, strength and athletic ability for his position, and all reports seem to indicate that he is wise and mature beyond his years off the court.

That said, I find that he plays with a shockingly low basketball IQ, highlighted (lowlighted?) by a very poor sense of shot selection. He's only 20 of course, so he has plenty of time to develop. I just think he has a long way to go mentally before he'll be able to contribute as an effective, efficient NBA guard, much less to become an NBA All-Star.

From Blog-a-Bull (whom we also love), commenting on Wednesday's Heat-Bulls game:

"But no dunk was more satisfying than Veektor with a reverse (on a bullet pass from Tyrus), followed by Mike Tirico laughing it off only to be chastised by Hubie Brown for disrespecting a pivotal member of the Russian national team."

So, the NBA has once again released its top 10 teams and players in terms of jersey sales on and at the NBA Store in Manhattan.

It's that last part that amuses me to no end. As much as midtown Manhattan is a top destination for tourists from around the country and the world, I still believe that a disproportionate number of people who shop at a retail store in New York are from the New York metropolitan area.

And I believe that the evidence to back me up is pretty clear: Stephon Marbury has the no. 9 selling jersey and the Knicks are the no. 3 team overall! Give me a break! As much as New York sports teams have an outsized profile, there's no way that that's an accurate measure of the popularity of that player and that team in 2007-08.

Here are some greatest hits through the years:
- April 2006 (i.e. the "Larry Brown Year"): Marbury ranks no. 5, Knicks rank no. 2
- Dec. 2003 (my personal favorite): Allan Houston ranks no. 9 despite not having been an All-Star since 2001, and never having been a particularly stylish player.

I'm just saying, I wish they could release just the numbers so we could get an accurate read on how the country and the world thinks, because I do think it's an interesting list. I also have my suspicions that Celtics, Nets and Sixers are consistently overrated on the list b/c of their proximity to New York. I just want a real list.

(Hat tip on both of the above to KD's 10-Man Rotation)

An addendum to our love note to Bill James in the fall.... As I'm writing here on Jan. 19, halfway through the NBA season, I'm wondering if Mr. James could kindly inform me who the predetermined NBA champion for 2007-08 is.

Is it Boston or Detroit, maybe? How about one of the five teams within 1.5 games of first place in the Western Conference? Any love for the Cavs, whose record is pretty good with LeBron in the lineup?

I'd just like to know the predetermined winner so that I can stop watching, and more importantly, so the players can stop trying.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An Opinionated Man

A couple weeks ago, Henry Abbott at TrueHoop offered a post entitled "Black Athletes Have Long Seen Boston As Racist" which touched upon a couple thoughtful pieces published recently - J.A. Adande's look at how the Celtics organization were racial pioneers - which runs counter to perceptions that developed in the '80s - and John Gonzalez's feature-length story on the past and present of athletes' perceptions of Boston racism, from Boston magazine.

A central figure in the history of black athletes and Boston racism is of course the great Bill Russell. Indeed, Adande noted right upfront that Boston "had a long-standing reputation -- fueled in part by stories Bill Russell told -- of being an unfriendly location for African-Americans."

Gonzalez's story included this: "Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell may have been named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, but that didn't shield him from bigotry during his playing days. Russell, who once called Boston a 'flea market of racism,' even had vandals break into his home just to defecate in his bed."

I decided to look back through Russell's acclaimed autobiographies - Go Up For Glory (1966) and Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (1979) - to dig a little deeper into his perspective on Boston racism.

I thought that Russ's perspective might be relevant to the issue today, but frankly, it was less so than I expected. His books are really documents of their times - the heart of the civil rights era in the '60s and the aftermath of the ferocious desegregation busing controversies of the '70s, respectively.

As the effects of events of those times still inevitably linger in modern-day Boston, then sure, Russell's experiences are essential background to understanding why athletes' perceptions about Boston may be what they are today. But all in all, his books feel too unique to their particular times to be directly relevant to Boston circa 2008.

That's not to say that Go Up For Glory and Second Wind aren't fascinating. They are. My reaction upon skimming back through them was mainly this: Damn.

The man did not pull any punches whatsoever in terms of expressing what he thought, in unvarnished, uncompromising terms. Modern-day athlete autobios so often seem manufactured to fall somewhere between anodyne and salacious, so it's jarring to me to be reminded how engaging and genuinely provocative the Russell books are. You might love Russ if you read these books or you might hate him, but I'm pretty certain you'll have an strong opinion about him.

Russell's comment about Boston being a "flea market of racism" was from a passage in Second Wind about where he stood in terms of Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X (note that Russell's co-author, Taylor Branch, is best known for his monumental Pulitzer Prize-winning America in the King Years trilogy - not your average jock ghostwriter!):
    Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had the most passion among black national leaders then, and I was drawn to both of them. When Dr. King's voice rose to that preacher's pitch, and he rocked back and forth in his shoes, all my old church days came back strong. Initially, however, I had the same reservation about Dr. King that I had about the Vietnam War: the white people in Boston liked him, and so I knew something must be wrong. To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city-hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-'em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists (long before they appeared in New York).

    I had no doubt about those people in Boston because I saw them every day. They constantly surprised me, since I thought of Boston as the city where Paul Revere rode for freedom. If Paul Revere were to ride today, it would be for racism: "The n------ are coming! The n------ are coming!" he'd yell as he galloped through town to warn neighborhoods of busing and black homeowners. Most of the Irish Catholics in Boston were ready to pick your fillings out if you weren't the right religion or from the right clique - much less from the right race - and almost everybody else wouldn't acknowledge you unless you'd gone to the proper school and came from the proper family. I had never been in a city more involved with finding new ways to dismiss, ignore or look down on other people. Other than that, I liked the city.
Whew. I would note that that is part of a particularly fiery and intense passage from Second Wind. In fact, the book includes Russell's thoughts on all manner of topics, including his description of how basketball became mystical and magical for him at its highest moments.

One last note apropos of largely nothing.... In this era in which players' bodies are essentially canvases of avant-garde art, I was amused when I found this passage while flipping through Go Up For Glory:
    I came to Boston in December [1956] and I came in under a lot of pressure.... I was six feet, ten inches tall, and a Negro. And I began wearing a beard, just to be different. After the first season, I let Heinsohn shave my goatee off in the celebration over the world championship.

    The next year I just grew it back. People have commented on the beard ever since. It has become the cause célèbre of the NBA. Everyone says, "He could be a nice guy. Why doesn't he shave that beard?"...

    I wear it maybe to let people know that I am an individual. I am me. It's just something I want to do. It's part of me.
Yes, wearing a goatee was the cause célèbre of the NBA in the late '50s and early '60s. Fairly unfathomable today.