Curtis Wheeler still doesn’t think people appreciate Julian Phillips’ skill set as much as they should.
It’s hard to say a player like Phillips is under-appreciated when he’s the No. 30 player in his class according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings or when he has about 25 scholarship offers already in hand heading into his junior year summer — including offers from Indiana, Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Kansas and Texas Tech. But Wheeler thinks casual observers don’t fully understand just how versatile Phillips is.
He’s listed on 247’s website at 6-foot-8, 200 pounds, but according to his coach at Blythewood (S.C.) High School, Zeke Washington, he’s up to 6-9, but down to about 195. On both ends, he plays on the perimeter and in the post. Wheeler, who works with Phillips with the Spartanburg, SC, based Upward Stars on the summer travel circuit, sees in him the prototype of the modern player.
“I tell people that if you can’t see it, then it’s just not for you to see,” Wheeler said. “But if you watch him, you can tell he’s a perimeter player who has the ability to play inside. But if you’re lazy or don’t have that ability, you’ll pigeon-hole him that he’s a post player. People that know what they’re looking at know that he can be a perimeter player.”
Indiana, he said, is among the programs who can see that. The Hoosiers plan on running a four-out, one-in NBA-style offense under new head coach Mike Woodson, and according to Wheeler, they see Phillips being able to fill more than one of those four perimeter spots.
“They think he’s a big guard,” Wheeler said. “They think he has guard abilities and think when he’s in a situation to really play that position a lot more, he’ll flourish in that.”
Because of his height, length and athleticism, Phillips still gets a lot of work in the post on both ends. He’s an excellent shot blocker — Washington says he averaged about 2.0 blocks per game this season — and an exceptional rebounder. As a sophomore he recorded 14 double-doubles, and as a junior he recorded about 10 rebounds per game according to Washington. His long limbs give him the ability to rebound out of his area, and his leaping ability creates easy put-back dunks.
But he’s also strong ball-handler with both hands, and even though he’s right-handed, he’s probably stronger when driving to his left. And he can finish layups with both hands and through contact, so he’s a scoring weapon off the dribble.
“If you press up on him, he’s going by you,” Washington said. “You’ll never even see it. He catches the ball and gets downhill in a hurry and he attacks the basket. He came to us with pretty decent handles. It was just him adjusting from middle to high school basketball. He’s become more comfortable since we unleashed him. Now, we just let him play.”
He’s also becoming more confident shooting the ball outside. The 3-point shot has been his primary focus this year, and Washington said he made about 32 percent of his attempts from long range this season. According to Wheeler, Phillips recently made six of seven 3-point attempts in a tournament game with the Upward Stars.
“He works on that very, very well,” Washington said. “He’s really putting a lot of time on getting his 3-ball together. You can see that’s starting to pay dividends in some of his AAU games this year. He’s able to knock down some 3s. We’re counting on him, especially in transition, to really shoot the 3 for us this year.”
The next step for Phillips, Washington and Wheeler said, is developing a perimeter defensive game. At the moment, Wheeler said, Phillips usually defends longer forwards and wings who have inside-outside games like he does. However, they eventually want to get him to the point that he can take on smaller guards and ball handlers and be able to keep him in front of him so he can handle switches.
“That’s probably one of the last pieces,” Washington said. “He has to be able to guard multiple positions. That’s what we’re working on. His defense is getting better day-by-day. I think by the time he grows into somebody’s campus, he’ll be able to switch ball screens, blitz ball screens if that’s what he’s going to be able to do. He’s going to be able to guard many positions. That’s our goal.”
And Phillips’ coaches don’t think he’ll have any problem accomplishing that, because he possesses an intense internal drive that may be his strongest weapon as a player.
“He hates to lose,” Washington said. “Sometimes it’s hard to notice how great of a competitor he is because he’s so humble, and he doesn’t do the trash talking thing. But when he walked into the door as a freshman, he walked in ready to compete. Not everybody has that. People claim they have it, but not a lot of young kids have it. And I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”
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