While LeBron James only needs three more wins to reach the NBA Finals again, his AAU squad is also closing in on a shot at a championship.
The King James Shooting Stars have a chance to qualify for the Nike Peach Jam this weekend. If they do, they'll be among 24 teams who can win what is, arguably, the most high-profile event on the AAU circuit.
For the last 20 years, some of the top prep talent in the country traveled to North Augusta, South Carolina for the Peach Jam. The King James Shooting Stars have never been. It's a surprising fact given the talent on past squads – although they suffered injuries, last year's team featured V.J. King, Luke Kennard, Kipper Nichols and Buckeye A.J. Harris.
With a strong showing this weekend in Minneapolis, King James will finish among the top five in their division and qualify for the Peach Jam.
"I think if we win two out of five games, we're in," head coach Steve Wright told Eleven Warriors. Obviously, our goal is to go 5-0, that's our goal every weekend."
The Minneapolis session is the fourth tournament of the Nike EYBL season, and King James is currently 8-4. Wright attributes their strong start to the team's dedication to defense.
"The guys are playing extremely well, guys are playing together and, most importantly, the guys like each other," he said. "We practice once or twice a week and we always emphasize our defensive strategy."
Thad Matta scouted Derek Funderburk Jr. well before offering a scholarship and before accepting his commitment. He's still a long way from fulfilling the potential Matta first saw years ago, but Funderburk is on track.
"Derek is one of the most skilled guys in the 2016 class," Wright said. "'I've seen a lot of kids play last year and this spring, and he's definitely one of the most skilled guys in the country."
Funderburk is currently averaging 8.7 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting from the field in AAU play. Wright admits they're not utilizing his complete skill set.
"He can step out, shoot the 17-footer. We don't really emphasize him shooting the three but he can," he said. "His low-post moves and facing up against defenders are great. His game will translate well [to college].
Once AAU is over, he can focus on getting stronger with his upper and lower body, and continue to work on his skills.The sky is the limit for Funderburk."
Wright on Other Players to Watch
- PG Xavier Simpson: "He leads our team on and off the court. He's a great leader. Guys follow him."
- G Jarron Cumberland : "He left Ohio Basketball Club. He's a scoring machine, instant offense. Glad we got him."
- F Willie Jackson : "He's been playing strong, rebounding the ball well. He's expanding his game, also. He's stepping out, playing more of the 'three,' and playing off the dribble."
- PG D.J. Hoskins : "Honestly, I think he's the best on-ball defender I've seen in the EYBL. He does what we ask him to do. If we ask him to pick a guy up full court, that's what he'll do. He's been great for us, especially backing up Xavier and coming off the bench. Brings great energy."