The magic and motivation of top receiver recruit Kyle Davis from No. 10 Archer

Kyle Davis (Photo: 247 Sports)

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — With more than 6,000 rabid Georgia football fans in attendance on Saturday night, with the eyes of the nation tuned in through ESPN2, you would have thought the No. 10 Archer Tigers (2-0) would have been able to find a uniform to fit its star wide receiver.

And yet, with the spotlight as bright as it gets on sleepy Lawrenceville, 30 miles outside of Atlanta, there was 6-foot-1, 218-pound senior Kyle Davis’s red-and-white No. 11 stretching only halfway down his midsection, revealing a strikingly sculpted stomach.

Archer athletic director Tim Watkins offered this defense of his school and its student-athlete: “If I had abs like that, I wouldn’t even wear a shirt.”

Between his exhibitionist tendencies and his recent commitment to and de-commitment from South Carolina, Davis might come off as a stereotypical look-at-me receiver. But, believe it or not, that’s where the flash of the country’s top-ranked wideout recruit seems to end.

Sure, Davis obliged the national television audience with a pair of SportsCenter grabs for 40-plus yards apiece in the Tigers’ 26-10 drubbing of fellow regional power Peachtree Ridge in the GEICO ESPN High School Kickoff. Despite facing off against Peachtree Ridge’s three-star tandem of defensive backs, Ray Buchanan Jr. (committed to Arkansas) and Chad Clay (University of Georgia), Davis caught seven passes for gaudy 104 total yards. He also returned kickoffs and punts, and even lined up at tailback for a couple of carries.

But his coach, Andy Dyer, insists that it’s what Davis does away from the cameras that makes him a special player. It’s the work in the weight room (not just those chiseled abs); on the practice field, focusing on blocking and footwork as well as highlight-reel hands; and in the film room, absorbing routes and opposing coverages.

“As a player, you can never stop learning,” says Dyer. “He’s got a real hunger to learn.”

There is also a selflessness that’s on full display for anyone who cares to look away from the ball. During the game against Peachtree Ridge, Davis never took a play off, running his routes at full speed and hitting his blocks. And when a teammate scored or made a play, be it a game-breaker or just a solid routine tackle, Davis sprinted to be the first there to congratulate him. When asked where this work ethic and maturity comes from, Davis pointed to his parents. His father is a former college track star and current middle-school principal in Chattanooga who sees him every weekend. Davis lives near Archer High School with his mother, who has inflammation of the spine and has been confined to a wheelchair since Davis was 3 years old. With the community’s help, she still manages to make it to almost every game to watch her son play.

“She’s my inspiration,” said Davis. “She’s the strongest person I know.”

Perhaps it was his youthful dreams of making it to the NFL to take care of his family that led to his hasty commitment to South Carolina before his junior year in 2014, a decision he said he made without considering the bigger college picture, particularly academics. He said he wants to major in sports medicine — not because of personal experience with the trainer on the sideline, but because of growing up accompanying his mother to weekly physical therapy sessions.

“I always thought the way they were helping her was really cool,” he said. “Now I really want to help people.”

The Gamecocks are still on the table, Davis said — along with just about every other college with a football program. As a sophomore, his first year as a full-time receiver, the former quarterback and running back caught 11 touchdowns. Last year, he pulled in nine TDs and tallied 1,184 yards receiving while helping Archer to an 11-win, Class AAAAAA state runner-up finish. ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said that while there are players who can run a straight line faster than Davis — ranked No. 31 in the latest ESPN 300 — few possess his size, strength, and assortment of tools. “Davis is a difference maker,” said Luginbill. “The complete package.”

The schools Davis has been most frequently associated with are SEC rivals Georgia, Auburn, and Tennessee. But, mindful of jumping to decision again, he says he has not made up his mind, and probably will not do so until shortly before he announces on Oct. 23, Archer’s homecoming.

If the weight of that decision is wearing on the 17-year-old, it doesn’t show on the field even as rumors swirled in the last month that he was a silent commitment to Georgia. For those grasping for hints, he was wearing Georgia gloves Saturday night, although Georgia and Archer do have the same colors.

During warmups on Saturday, Davis was shouting and dancing, setting a loose tempo for is teammates before the TV cameras descended. During the game, he practically skipped to his position, bobbing his head to the pep-band brass-and-thump even as he stood in formation.

He said it hasn’t yet kicked in that this is his last year of high school, his last season on this turf, in those locker rooms, and in this ill-fitting red-and-white uniform.

This article appeared on USATodayHHS.com 

Advertisements

Focusing on his game, Thon Maker is bulking up and looking forward to his strong future

SUWANEE Ga.—Over the past year, five-star phenom Thon Maker has bulked up. He started lifting weights five days a week, began eating seven meals a day, and gradually bumped the scale beneath his already imposing 7-foot-1 frame from a wiry 191 pounds to solid 218.

And yet, over the past month and a half, Maker has been playing as though a huge weight has been taken off his suddenly broad shoulders.

Last week, Maker averaged a double-double (16.5 points, 11.8 rebounds) while powering his Canada Elite team into the championship game of the Under Armour Association 17U Finals in Suwanee, Ga.  A week prior, he led all players at the Under Armour All-American Camp in Charlotte by pulling down 12.5 boards and blocking 2.2 shots per game.

This reign of domination started back in June, when Maker garnered MVP honors at the NBPA 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va. It was also at this event that the native of South Sudan announced that he had scrapped his plan to reclassify and try to graduate high school in December so as to be eligible for college in the second semester of next season. Has the decision to play out his senior year at Ontario’s Orangeville Prep affected the big man’s game?

“Definitely,” says Maker. “Now I really get to focus on the game itself.”

So why the sudden 180? Why risk injury, jeopardizing almost certain rewards in college and the pros? Was there concern over the waning interest from scouts after a lackluster junior year at Orangeville? Or perhaps Maker preferred to be the centerpiece of a recruiting class as opposed to a late addition coming in midway through the season.

Maker’s guardian, Ed Smith, says that his ward’s decision to stay in the Class of 2016 was three-fold. First, it relieves the senior of the burden of crashing out a year’s worth of schoolwork in one semester. “I think he was saddled with a lot of academic pressure,” says Smith. “He could’ve finished over the summer or he could’ve finished in the fall and went to college. He got his core work done. Now there’s just a few things he needs to do and he can stretch that out into his senior year.”

Canadian superstar recruit (by way of Sudan) Thon Maker may be on the verge of shaking up the 2015 rankings as he considers reclassification — Louisville Courier-Journal

Second, the postponement of graduation gives Maker time to get used to playing in his new body. Despite pressure from scouts and coaches to quickly add mass to reinforce a gangly body, Maker and Smith chose a more deliberate path.

“We did it the way we wanted,” says Maker. “People wanted us to bulk up straight away and get to playing. That would’ve resulted in injuries and bad plays. We took our time. We didn’t worry about others critiquing that I’m too skinny.”

Packing on 27 pounds of lean muscle to his bones has taken Maker from Manute Bol to more of a Kevin Garnett-style power forward that is now much more of a force closer to the basket, bullying his way to rebounds and blocked shots. Add that to Maker’s already formidable defense and perimeter skills—including ball-handling ability and an outside jump shot that is practically unheard of for a big man—and it’s easy to see why Maker is a Top 10 prospect (No. 8 by Scout.com, No. 9 by Rivals.com), with offers from the NCAA elite, including Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisville.

The third, and perhaps most important consequence of Maker’s decision is that it will enable him to play his entire senior season at Orangeville with his younger brother, 6-foot-11 junior Matur. The two boys fled civil war in South Sudan together and were taken in as refugees in Australia when Maker was 5. There they grew up playing soccer and basketball until Smith discovered the elder Maker and brought him to the U.S. to play basketball five years ago. Smith eventually brought Matur halfway through Maker’s freshman year.

“When Matur joined him, it changed everything,” says Smith. “All of a sudden there was laughter coming from downstairs. They were cutting up and carrying on. It’s just fun. They love each other a lot.”

The bond is obvious. Matur, who plays on the 16U Canada Elite, is front and center at each of his brother’s AAU games, and vice versa. Next year at Orangeville will be their first chance to play on the same team. It may also be their last—while Matur is a four-star prospect in his own right, drawing early interest from some of the same schools as his brother, there is no guarantee that they will attend the same school.

Maker says the benefit of playing with his brother is more than just sentimental.

“I can’t wait for the season to kick off and play with my brother,” says Maker. “Just competing with him in practice—watching us both get better. We’re both physically bigger and mentally stronger, more knowledgeable of the game. It makes it that much better for us to come at each other.”

This article appeared on USATodayHHS.com 

Motivated as an underdog, Markelle Fultz embraces being overlooked

SUWANEE, Ga.—Spectators at this past weekend’s Under Armor Association AAU Circuit Finals might have had a little trouble locating five-star prospect Markelle Fultz. He was listed on the roster as No. 15 for the DC Blue Devils 17-and-under team. That number was nowhere to be found on the court. “They lost my jersey,” said Fultz nonchalantly warming up in an ill-fitting No. 11.

With dozens of college coaches and scouts sitting in the bleachers and standing along the sidelines eyeballing prospective recruits, any other incoming high-school senior would have been alarmed by the sudden blurring of identity.

Fultz, however, seemed unfazed. He is used to being overlooked.

A little more than a year ago, Fultz was a sophomore playing for powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School (Hyattsville, Md.) on the junior-varsity team. And his AAU Blue Devils weren’t yet affiliated with a major shoe company.

“I think I was always a very talented player,” Fultz said through a mouthful of braces. “I wasn’t always on the best teams, but I always pushed myself to be a better player. What happened to me was I finally got the right opportunity.”

That opportunity was a guest shot on the DC Premiere squad for the Las Vegas Fab 48 tournament last July. Playing a year up in age, Fultz powered the team to the championship. That led to an invitation to John Lucas’s Midwest showcase for underclassmen in Louisville, where Fultz continued to impress. Last year, he averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 boards per game as a junior on DeMatha’s varsity team.

Rather than try to slip that underdog tag in light of his newfound success, Fultz wears it proudly. “When I got my chance, I was filled up with anger for everybody overlooking me,” said Fultz. “I just took advantage—played very well, did very well against nationally ranked players.”

Fultz is now fielding offers from more than 20 colleges, including Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, and Louisville. And he has kept close tabs on his own rankings among the national class of 2016, which currently sits at 21st on ESPN.com and 23rd onRivals.com.

“On the court I try not to think about the rankings,” said Fultz. “But off the court, I look at it a lot, just trying to see my position and see what I have to do to get better. And to see who is in front of me.”

That sort of frankness with the press—Fultz recently told The Sporting News that Kentucky was no longer his dream school because he “didn’t know (he) was going to be this good,” and The Washington Post that he’d like to be a college one-and-done—may come off as simultaneously naïve and a little bit cocky. But Fultz’s play on the hardwood displays the humbleness more befitting his backstory.

Before tip-off, he goes out of his way to bump the fists of each opponent, and he’s always there to pick a fouled teammate off the floor. A lanky 6-foot-4, he doesn’t show the explosive athleticism of some of his peers, instead sort of gliding up and down the court. He’s a quiet stalwart on defense, and his jump shot is a living sculpture.

Fultz’s height enables him to play all five positions in high school, and he says his body still hasn’t grown into his size-16 feet. But even as someone else’s No. 11 jersey hung loosely from his shoulders, the role of overachiever seemed to fit Fultz perfectly.

“My mindset is to always play like I’m not known,” he said. “I just act like there’s nobody in the stands, nobody watching me.”

That isn’t a hard scenario for Fultz to imagine.

This article appeared on USATodayHHS.com 

Seventh Woods keeps showing his game has more than just a mixtape

SUWANEE, Ga. — It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, the first exhibition game of the four-day Under Armour Association Finals, and a modest crowd has gathered at Court No. 5.

Almost every player who isn’t scheduled to play in one of the six other early games is standing along the west baseline, thumbs gripping backpack straps; on the opposite side, metal bleachers and folding chairs bear an equally interested cluster of college coaches. Assistants from Indiana, Virginia, and Connecticut. South Carolina’s Frank Martin. North Carolina’s Roy Williams.

Warming up, 17-year-old Seventh Woods wears a black tee shirt over his No. 3, almost as if he’s trying to hide from the attention. But even the 6-foot-2 guard’s casual layup drills display that flash-bulb first step, the sort of freakish athleticism that draws eyes. Besides, after winning gold as the youngest member of USA Basketball’s national team, an ESPNSportsCenter Top Play dunk that bested a LeBron James jam, and a YouTube mixtape that boasts 13 million views and counting, people know his face.

All that was back in 2013. Since then, a broken wrist hampered his sophomore season at the Hammond School (Columbia, S.C.) and scrubbed most of his 2014 AAU summer. He remains a five-star prospect, but his Rivals.com ranking slipped from No. 12 overall in the class of 2016 to No. 25. And a fickle public began to move on. Strangers are no longer asking him to take photos with their newborns at away games.

“It’s kind of died down,” says Woods, the sixth child in the Woods family (he’s named after the seventh day of creation from the Book of Genesis). “When I came back from my injury, I was sort of out of sight, out of mind. And I wasn’t trying to make highlights. I was just trying to play great basketball.”

He says he still feels pressure from fans expecting to see gravity defied, the acrobatics, reverse dunks and two-handed put-backs from the 14-year-old kid in the mixtape. Woods already has offers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson and Wichita State and says Florida and Georgetown have come after him hard.

In reality, scoring probably isn’t even the best part of his game — it certainly doesn’t seem to be the most natural to him. From the point, Woods displays an almost panoramic vision of the court. When he opens this game with a laser no-look bounce pass from the point to a teammate who drains a jumper from the wing, the gallery’s disappointment is almost palpable. He obliges on the second possession, dribbling straight through two defenders for a seemingly easy lay-in.

“Sometimes we have to tell him not to be so selfless,” says Woods’s AAU coach Daryl Jarvis. “We have to remind him: You have the ability to take over. But sometimes we get caught standing around watching. Sometimes we ask him to do more than he really needs to do.”

The precariousness of that balance — between Woods’s instinct to assist and his obligation to take command — becomes apparent as a close game draws down to the wire. He stumbles trying to dribble through a double team as the shot clock expires. Drives the hoop only to loose the ball in an out-of-control spin move. Then at the other end, he soars in to block a go-ahead layup from behind. Woods has also said that his perimeter defense is among the qualities in his game that often gets overlooked.

Woods’s Carolina Wolves are down 62-60 with 22.2 seconds remaining. The on-looking players are now packed three deep beyond the baseline, tip-toeing and leaning left and right to get a better view. More coaches have taken note as well.

Woods inbounds the ball, dribbles hard against the press to the top of the key, where he tries to post up against a double team. He trips and loses the ball. The ref whistles a foul. There are 2.3 seconds on the clock. Woods will get three free throws. A chance to win the game.

His first shot clanks off the front of the rim. Woods shakes his head.

The second shot rims in and out. He slaps his hands in disgust.

The third shot bounces off the rim and hits the backboard, but one of Woods’s teammates darts into the lane and leaps over his blocker to tip the ball and bank it in for the buzzer-beating basket. Carolina’s bench rushes the court, the entire team swarming the unlikely hero who tied the game at 62.

Except for Woods. He stands alone at the free-throw line and stares down at the paint. His coach tells him to shake it off — big-time players like him are going to make big-time plays, and there will be plenty more to make in this tournament.

“I know I’m a better player than I show sometimes,” Woods will say later. “As long as I keep putting the work in, I don’t think the attention will ever go away. I’m already a great player, and I can only get better.”

But as the refs tip the ball to begin overtime, the crowd around Court. No. 5 has thinned noticeably. The players and coaches have moved on to other courts, where other big-time prospects are making big-time plays.

This article appeared on USATodayHHS.com