HIGH POINT, N.C. – On the surface, Jaylen Hoard is quite an eerie enigma.
A 6-foot-8, 185-pound southpaw wing who renders defenders obsolete with his ability to maneuver into the lane, threads the needle through passing lanes that the average player would assume were closed, knocks down the perimeter jump shot with marksman-like accuracy and, at just 17, has significant buzz from reputable NBA Draft experts.
And, yet, Hoard’s got none of the intangibles that tend to accompany a player with “next big thing” hype.
His Twitter handle doesn’t start with “TheREAL”, he has yet to amass 500 followers, he’s not releasing cool graphics on social media displaying his top 15 schools and, on the court, he prefers a system to a one-man hostile takeover.
All this begs a legitimate question: Where does this kid come from?
“I’m from France,” Hoard said matter-of-factly. “Everything about basketball over here is different so I’m figuring it all out now. I’m getting more familiar with the American style of play.”
Gives a whole new meaning to the cliché sports phrase “the best player you’ve never heard of.”
That could all change Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU) when Hoard suits up for the Under Armour Elite 24 at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 2.
“I’m excited,” Hoard said. “Just to get a chance to play against a lot of the players that I followed. I’ve played against American players before, but not on this level. It will be a good experience for me.”
The last time Hoard suited up in Brooklyn, he took home MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic International Game last April, which, according to his father, Antwon, prompted the desire to move to the U.S.
“That’s what wet his beak to get over here,” Antwon said. “He’d always followed the big time players that were his age over here. He wanted to test his game against the best.”
Antwon’s more than 20-year friendship with Wesleyan Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.) coach Keith Gatlin, from their professional playing days in France, ultimately landed Hoard a spot in the Trojan basketball army.
“I just felt like it was time to come over here and compete against the best,” Hoard said. “A lot of people know me for basketball in France, but I want to make it over here. This is where all the talent is so I want to prove myself.”
Hoard has certainly got the pedigree.
Antwon played at Murray State from 1992-94 before beginning a long professional career overseas, and his mother Katia starred at Washington from 1992-95. She is the all-time assists leader for the Huskies.
Last month at the FIBA U17 World Championships in Spain, Hoard averaged 22.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
“I really wanted to play against the U.S. team in that tournament, but we lost to Lithuania before we could get to them,” Hoard said. “But that was a great experience for me. I feel like I proved a lot there. The biggest thing for me is I’m always trying to get better.”
His progression as a rising junior is mind-boggling; especially considering the fact that Hoard missed two full years of basketball from ages 13-15.
“He had a foot fracture and tried to come back from that after six months and ended up injuring the other foot,” Antwon said. “He was out for two full seasons with no basketball. It’s surprising to me that he was still able to develop the way that he has. He’s still got a lot to learn about basketball over here.”
The biggest transition?
Embracing his role as a star.
“Over there they want talented players to just blend in, but he’s not the regular 17-year-old kid,” Gatlin said. “We’re basically re-programming him to stay aggressive and assertive at all times. When that clicks, watch out.”
That much was evident earlier this week at Wesleyan Christian’s open run.
Hoard’s team had just lost a game to seven and while Hoard was getting water Gatlin told him, in no uncertain terms, that his team “wouldn’t lose if you’d be assertive and create for yourself and your teammates.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you that,” Gatlin barked.
First play of the next game he broke down his defender on back-to-back plays and threw seemingly effortless look-away passes to teammates for easy scores. A couple of plays later, he darted down to the other end and erased a dunk attempt and, to win the game, he, again, blew past his defender and laid it in over a 6-9 forward.
“There’s no question that he’s got the talent,” Gatlin said. “He’s got the potential to be one of the best players to ever come through here.”
High praise from a coach who’s guided countless players to Division I colleges, including 2016’s No. 1 overall player Harry Giles III, now a freshman at Duke.
Still, Hoard said his main focus is to simplify his approach, and to “remember that it’s just basketball.”
“For me this biggest part is getting the mental part of the game over here down,” Hoard said. “The game is faster and the players are more athletic, but I can handle that. Playing in the Elite 24 will help, working every day with my teammates will help; I’ll get it. The basketball part will be OK, it’s more about learning things about game situations. It’ll be fun though; I’m looking forward to the hard work.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY