Cardinals on minds of rising seniors

Although Louisville’s signing class for 2016 likely will be small due to the number of underclassmen present on the roster, that fact hasn’t precluded the Cardinals from casting a wide net with the nation’s rising seniors.

The first of two April live weekends took place a few days ago, and Nike’s opening EYBL event tipped off in Hampton, Va.

My first impression of the EYBL circuit is that it’s down this year, which works out okay for Louisville because — unlike several other prominent ACC schools — they have relatively less work to do with the 2016 class.

That said, some established and rising UofL targets took the court in Hampton, and I had the opportunity to evaluate and speak to three of them during the weekend.

King feeling the love, but also the pain

There’s no fair or accurate way to assess V.J. King (pictured above) based on last weekend. The versatile, All-American caliber wing struggled with back spasms and in fact suited up for one obviously gimpy game with Team Takeover.

King transferred from Ohio to Fairfax (Va.) Paul VI this past season and also switched teams within the EYBL circuit, moving to Takeover from the King James Shooting Stars. Clearly, at the point he becomes healthy, he’ll boost an already loaded squad that went 4-0 in Hampton.

With a healthy back, King could become a dynamic EYBL scorer

”Last year, we didn’t have a good summer (with King James),” King said. “I’m just trying to get better and play hard, and not worry about a ranking or what people are writing about me.

But the injury did take a massive, and frustrating, toll over the weekend.

”I stretched the best I could and tried to work it out, but I’m not nearly 100 percent,” King said. “If I’m not going to be 100 percent, I don’t want to take away from the team.”

Truthfully, King doesn’t face an inordinate amount of pressure. He doesn’t require as much exposure as most rising senior prospects because he holds widespread national offers and interest. He was hesitant to delve too deeply into his recruitment, but at this juncture it’s safe to say that he’ll have his choice of big-time programs.

And Louisville could emerge as one of his most prominent options.

”I talked to Coach Pitino a couple of weeks back, towards the end of the tournament,” he said. “I’m definitely very interested in Louisville, I’m just not looking to rush into anything right now.”

Forrest playing among the trees

Rising senior wing Trent Forrest finds himself in a unique situation this spring. He changed EYBL teams as well, switching from the Alabama Challenge to the Georgia Stars. The Florida Panhandle native now competes for one of the most talented, yet oddly constructed teams on the travel circuit.

The Stars feature three centers in the starting lineup — Abdul Ado (more on him below), Udoka Azubuike and Wendell Carter — and all three carry blue-chip accolades.

A top-75 talent himself, Forrest succeeded in Hampton despite not having much room to operate as a slasher — clearly where he excels most.

”It’s different because we’re playing with three bigs so that was something to adjust to,” Forrest said, “but they all have high basketball IQs and know how to jell together.”

Forrest is accustomed to winning. His Chipley (Fla.) High team captured the state title a few weeks ago, and the junior played a critical, all-encompassing role.

”I think I did really well individually,” he said, “but mostly we just came together at the right time at the end of the season.”

Forrest would be an excellent defensive fit for the Cardinals. He’s strong, athletic and physical, and he possesses solid 6-4 height for the wing. He’s playing shooting guard for the Stars, but I might prefer him as a wing forward for college who could defend either wing spot.

He historically has struggled with his jump shot on the EYBL circuit, and this past weekend was no different. He missed both of his three-point tries, preferring to get out in transition or take advantage of the infrequent opportunities to attack an open lane. Despite the challenges, he led the team in scoring at 11 points per game and shot an impressive 60 percent from the field, including 17-24 (71 percent) from the foul line.

Non-shooters may struggle to gain the affection of Rick Pitino in light of this past season’s perimeter difficulties, but in other respects Forrest could be a fit. He certainly appreciates the Cardinals’ interest.

After the state championship, Coach (Mike) Balado called me,” he said. “They’ve been on me a little bit lately. I like their program, they obviously have a very good program, and of course they have a great coach with Coach Pitino.”

Forrest has been linked closely to Florida State and also lists Providence, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and others.

Much Ado about defense

As for Ado, it’s difficult to get excited about his offense in light of his 3.5ppg average in Hampton. For a player enjoying a massive amount of court time, he simply has to be more productive.

Ado actually has shown promise as a post scorer in the past, including back last summer in Las Vegas. And in fairness, all three of the centers cannibalized each other’s output to some extent. Still, he lagged the other two significantly and struggled severely at the free throw line, hitting just 4-13 for 31 percent.

Ado could become an immediate defensive weapon in college

Those shortcomings aside, he’s by far the best defensive player on the team and arguably in the entire class. I watched Ado shut down 2015 Duke signee Chase Jeter last summer, and consistently he blocks shots with both hands and utilizes his lean strength to play tough positional defense as well.

He averaged seven rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game over the weekend, easily more than any of the other big guys. When all three centers took the court simultaneously, Ado automatically defaulted to the true defensive center role. He and his teammates — touted as they are — understand that he’s the alpha defender.

From here, we and everyone else will wonder: Can he develop into more?

Ado, a native of Nigeria, continues to acclimate to the recruiting process in the United States. He did note in a group interview, however, that Louisville is “a dream school everybody wants to go to.”

The Cardinals obviously have made an impact, and the coaching staff now must determine how much time to invest in a player at position there the program already has depth, and whether they’d want to sign someone who’s potentially so out of balance between offense and defense.

Eons lie between now and signing day next November, but the Cardinals will enter the next live period — in under two weeks — with the assurance that they’ve already made a substantial impact with some key figures within the Class of 2016.

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