Starting five: Howards choice, race for No. 1

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THE RIVALS150: Class of 2014 - Class of 2015
Four-star junior Franklin Howard is off the board to a big name, the United States got a win in the Hoops Summit, Devonte Graham got his release and is setting visits, Bryant Crawford is looking to re-establish himself as a top point guard and we'll be back on the road this weekend.
Howard goes with the Orange
No matter how you look at it, four-star guard Franklin Howard's Monday night commitment was an interesting one.
Currently ranked as the No. 58 player in the class of 2015, the 6-foot-five junior from Fairfax (Va.) Paul VI announced on local television that he will play his college ball at Syracuse.
The choice of the Orange isn't any type of surprise. Under Jim Boeheim, the Orange have always recruited the DMV area well and in particular assistant Adrian Autry has been active in the area. Autry also has a connection to Howard in that he is a former assistant at Paul VI and with Howard's summer program Team Takeover (though they were called Triple Threat at the time). By all of those standards, the decision makes a lot of sense.
Where it gets interesting, though, is that Howard just missed his entire junior season due to a knee injury and was only recently cleared to make a full return to hoops. Additionally, Syracuse already holds a commitment from another highly ranked player in 2015 who plays basically the same position in No. 21 Malachi Richardson.
This says a few things. First, Syracuse did a tremendous job of making Howard feel wanted and demonstrated to him that there was plenty of room for both him and Richardson. Also, it says that Howard isn't afraid to go compete against other highly regarded talents for playing time.
One thing is for sure -- Howard is chomping at the bit to get back into action. I spoke with Howard a few weeks ago at the Metro Challenge 60 and he said that he learned a lot this season without playing.
"I'm very excited," Howard said. "It's been a long process and I think (being away) helped me a lot. Just from a mental aspect and becoming a student of the game, I look at it as a positive. I see the game from a coach's perspective now and what they want from the game. I just want to get out there. I miss it, I love the game."
Finally, one of the things that won Howard over in the recruitment was a discussion about him learning a new position. Part of the Orange pitch is that Howard will get a chance to play some point and that was another thing he brought up during our conversation at the Metro Challenge 60.
"I'm focusing on making plays whether it be offense or defense," said Howard. "I'm trying to make the transition to being more of a point guard or at least more of a combo guard. I've been working on my shooting, scoring the ball and just making plays."
With Howard in the fold, Syracuse is working on a monster 2015 class. He joins the previously mentioned Richardson and power forward Tyler Lydon who checks in at No. 59 overall in the 2015 Rivals150.
Important win for U.S.
Whether or not it is technically an "All-Star" game, there is no question the Nike Hoop Summit is the most competitive of all the postseason All-Star circuit games. USA Basketball puts together the best group of 10 graduating seniors it can find and they square off with a team of "World" participants -- though often times many of them attend high schools in the States -- in a hard-played and well-organized game. Not to mention, it was another chance to get a look at many of 2014's elite players as we near the release of the final Rivals150 for the class.
The game doesn't always go well for the U.S. and it often gives us a first view of International talents. There was no first look at a young Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker or Serge Ibaka on the World side in this year's game. But, there was an 84-73 win for the United States in a very well-played game -- even if neither team could hit a deep jumper.
Ultimately, USA Basketball's group proved to be a little too athletic for the World group -- outside of Emmanuel Mudiay, who ranks No. 2 in the 2014 Rivals150 and was the World's top player. The Duke-bound trio of No. 1 Jahlil Okafor, No. 5 Tyus Jones and No. 9 Justise Winslow combined for 43 points and showed plenty of chemistry.
In a class where nobody seems to be standing up and demanding that they take the top spot in the final rankings that will released later this month, Okafor again made a solid case for himself with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Like so many of the other top bigs in his class, he struggles some to finish against other big, lengthy defenders, but his overall polish with his back to the basket, hands and feel for the game are strong. He'll adjust to scoring against size, but the bigger concerns in terms of his long-term future are that he is a relatively average athlete, is a bit turnover-prone and isn't a rim protecting big man on the defensive side.
However, Mudiay is making a bit of a case for himself. For much of the game, he looked like the best player on the floor and there was little the USA guards could do with him when he decided to go and make a play. At nearly 6-foot-5, he has great size, good athleticism and superb instincts. It's pretty well known that his jumper needs work, but he doesn't shoot any worse than say a Derrick Rose or a John Wall at the same age. The ultimate key for Mudiay is how quickly will he grasp proper reads of screens and how to even out his play over the course of a game.
Headed down the stretch though, we are definitely leaning towards it being a two man race between Okafor and Mudiay for the top spot in 2014.
D-Tae freed
For the last year, #FreeDtae showed up in the Twittersphere. The reference was to now class of 2014 point guard Devonte Graham. A native of North Carolina who signed with Appalachian State in the fall of 2012, the 6-foot-2 floor general decided during his senior year that he wanted out. App State and head coach Jason Capel had other ideas though and refused to release him from his scholarship. Graham decided to head to prep school instead and had a monster year at Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy.
Earlier this spring, Capel lost his job at Appalachian State and new head coach Jim Fox made the call to release Graham from his scholarship late last week. Currently an unranked three-star prospect, Graham will enter the final Rivals150 in the four-star range and is now one of the hottest prospects on the market. Already, he has set official visits with Kansas (this weekend) and N.C. State (next week) while others like Memphis, Cincinnati, Providence, Virginia and many more would like to have him.
Keep an eye out for more on Graham very soon.
Crawford angles for big return
Sometimes, top-rated prospects are too self absorbed to realize their game needs to be tuned up. Those that are self-aware, though, can see when they have to make a change. Bryant Crawford seems to be pretty self-aware.
A 6-foot-2 point guard at Washington (D.C.) Gonzaga, Crawford didn't have the type of junior season he was hoping for. Instead of blaming a nagging knee injury for his slide down to No. 51 from the high 20's, he said that he didn't perform up to his standards.
"It wasn't as good as my sophomore year," Crawford recently said when asked about his junior season. "I didn't score the ball enough and wasn't hitting shots, but now that the season is over I'm working on that.
"I could have been rusty at the beginning of the season but that's no excuse for the end. I should have picked it up and contributed to the team more."
Crawford has identified where he can improve and he's set on proving that he belongs in the conversation when discussing 2015's elite point guards.
"I've been looking forward to this summer after the season I had," Crawford said. "I feel like I need to get my name back out there and everything that people say I can't do I'm working on that now.
"Being a point guard and passing first. I've definitely improved on my shot, so that's one of my strengths. I've been taking care of my knee and trying to stay as healthy as possible so that's helping.
Crawford says Indiana, Georgetown and West Virginia have been working him the hardest. However, if he goes out and does what he's looking to do, the Hoosiers, Hoyas and Mountaineers will have a lot more company.
Spring grassroots coverage begins
It's that time of year. The high school season is over and prospects are now playing with their grassroots teams and hitting events all across the country. This weekend, kicks off our yearly coverage of the spring and summer travel circuit by heading to Little Rock, Ark., for the Real Deal in the Rock.
A great event that usually features some of the top talent from the South and a few places beyond, the 2014 field is looking good. The player we are most excited to see? No. 16 in 2015 Doral Moore of the ATL Express. A near seven-footer from Locust Grove (Ga.) Luella, Moore moved himself into five-star territory by showing tons of promise as a junior. He is big, he is athletic and he has good hands plus good touch. Our hunch is that if anything he is underranked and we are looking forward to getting back out on the circuit to check on him and many other talents from the classes of 2015, 2016 and even 2017.
Eric Bossi is the national basketball recruiting analyst for You can click here to follow him on Twitter.
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