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Ebbs and flows in the recruiting rankings are commonplace, especially this time of year.

High school prospects are obviously unfinished talents. Most get better — to varying degrees — at this stage in their young careers. Some see their development stagnate or even regress.

A rare few in every recruiting class enjoy a meteoric rise in the national rankings during their final summer of travel ball. Even by that standard, Dereck Lively II is an outlier.

When 247Sports updated its 2022 rankings last week to preview the July evaluation period, Lively — a long, tall, versatile center from Pennsylvania — went from No. 42 on the list to No. 3.

A rise of 39 spots is certainly not unheard of, but it becomes increasingly difficult for on-the-rise prospects to jump established players the higher they move in the rankings.

Simply put, it’s extremely rare to see someone jump from outside five-star range to No. 3 in the country. It’s also rare to find a prospect like Lively — one who has the size, skills and natural tools that seem perfectly suited for the way the game is trending — in any class.

“Our entire team has been able to evaluate Dereck in person this spring, and everybody is in agreement — that kid is an elite talent,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “And not only is he already a great player, but that kid has a tremendous amount of upside that he’s yet to tap into. He’s really just starting to scratch the surface with how good he can possibly be.”

Branham is one of a handful of analysts who work together to come up with the 247Sports rankings. With the latest update, only two players — Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates — were placed ahead of Lively.

That’s elite company, seeing as how Duren could be ranked as the No. 1 player in the 2021 if he reclassifies — which he’s expected to do — and Bates, until this summer, had long been seen as the No. 1 prospect in all of high school basketball, regardless of class.

These are two players that have been on the national scene for years — even though they’re both only 17 — while Lively’s rise is more of a recent phenomenon.

This time last year, Lively was the No. 40 overall prospect in the 2022 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Highly touted, but far from can’t-miss NBA prospect territory.

But, obviously, talent evaluators at that time saw something in Lively’s game.

Those closest to him saw even more.

Rob Brown, the program director for Nike’s Team Final, which Lively has been with since the summer after his seventh-grade year, said the rising star has taken a series of would-be setbacks and turned them to his advantage, all while remaining patient for his time in the spotlight.

When Lively first joined the Team Final program, he was about 6-3 or 6-4 and primarily a shot-blocking specialist. But he had a great feel for the game even then — his mother was a 1,000-point scorer at Penn State and taught her son how to play coming up — and he ran the floor well for a player of his size and age. There was certainly promise there.

Early in his freshman year at Westtown School (Pa.), Lively broke his foot. He obviously couldn’t run and jump, but he could shoot. And he did plenty of that. Brown said Lively concentrated on his form shooting while sidelined that season, putting up shots from the free-throw line and even extending out to the three-point line, without jumping.

By the time summer came around, he was healed and had grown to about 6-9, 6-10. He could do all of the athletic post-player things he had done before. And now he could shoot the ball, too.

“And at that point, it was like, ‘Man, this guy could be pretty good,’” Brown said.

Rise in the 2022 rankings

Lively stayed healthy after that, but — like every player in his 2022 class — the COVID-19 pandemic halted his recruiting process and chances for national exposure.

The shutdown began late in his sophomore year of high school, completely wiped out his 2020 summer schedule, and the continued restrictions affected his junior season at Westtown.

“I knew this spring and summer that it was going to be an explosion for him, as far as the exposure and notoriety that he gained,” Brown told the Herald-Leader. “He was anxious to get out on the floor and prove himself. Right before COVID shut things down, he got invited to a USA camp that was in Atlanta — right before the Final Four. And I thought that would have been something that opened up people’s eyes. But then COVID shut that down, and we were just like, ‘Dereck, be patient, man. It’s coming. It’s coming.’”

Lively made an immediate mark on the grassroots circuit in the spring, teaming up with Duren to create a formidable and versatile post duo for Team Final, which has become the buzz program of the grassroots circuit going into the summer. Bates also joined the squad for a few weeks, and — even though Bates is returning to his former team for this month’s Nike events — Team Final is seen as a favorite to win the Peach Jam Finals a couple of weeks from now.

A big reason for that is Lively, who — despite playing alongside Duren and several other high-major recruits — has proven himself to be an elite talent. In fact, playing so well with all of those other star players has helped his reputation even more.

“One thing that I really like about Dereck is he’s very comfortable with himself,” Branham said. “He’s very comfortable playing with Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates — he doesn’t need the spotlight. He’s going to fulfill his role and just do what he does and let the game come to him, while also making his impact — whether it be rim protecting, rebounding or something else.

“He fits what the NBA is looking for with his size, length, mobility and athleticism. He’s highly intelligent. He can anchor a defense — he’s a great rim protector. He can stretch the floor and make shots from three. He can score it in the post. He just does everything that you want in a long-term big man prospect.”

Branham said that everyone who has a say in the 247Sports rankings was in agreement with the decision to boost Lively so far up the list. He added that — when you talk to those who have coached Lively and played with and against him this summer — there might be room for even more movement.

“They think he has a chance at being in the conversation with Jalen and Emoni. He’s that type of prospect,” he said. “He’s one of those guys that we just believe in.”

Recruiting Dereck Lively

The rise in the rankings has coincided with a major change in Lively’s actual recruitment.

North Carolina extended a scholarship offer late in his junior year, and Duke and Kentucky both followed with offers last month. All three of those schools hosted him for official visits in June, and coaches from all three programs will be jockeying for position on the sidelines at Nike events over the next three weekends, which will mark college coaches’ first chance in two years to see Lively in person with Team Final.

Brown acknowledged that Lively is getting the reputation as a do-whatever-the-coaches-say player — and that is certainly a good thing, especially with him trending toward a blue-blood school that will be packed with talent — but the Team Final director also said that his coaches aren’t actively trying to make Lively a complementary piece.

“The coaches don’t try to slow him up,” he said. “But he is an ultimate teammate. He does what he’s supposed to do on the court. I would like for him to go a little bit outside of himself sometimes. But he’s just a consummate teammate. He’s like, ‘Well, if a shooter’s open, I’m gonna get him the ball.’ And we’ll say, ‘You could have turned and dunked on a couple guys.’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know, but he was open.’

“He’s a really good teammate. None of our coaches tell him that he should be passing the ball more or anything like that. It’s just the way that he plays and what makes him special. He’s a real coachable kid. And he just wants to win. He values winning over anything.”

A few months ago, some who follow Kentucky basketball and were following Lively’s recruitment drew Willie Cauley-Stein comparisons.

Branham said that Lively, who has now grown to about 7-2, has similar size and athletic ability as Cauley-Stein, though the analyst said the UK recruiting target “definitely” has the upper hand offensively over the former Kentucky standout.

Brown hesitated to compare Lively to any other players directly, but he did willingly bring up the name of another former Wildcat.

“I know he watches Anthony Davis and models his game after Anthony Davis,” he said. “But Anthony was a guard when he was young and just grew. But some of the talents and skills are a little similar.

“Dereck plays like an elite-level garbage man. Putback dunks, drop-offs — anything around the rim, he’s tipping in, dunking back in. Obviously, his shot-blocking and rebounding prowess is impressive, as well. But when he gets out on the floor, I mean, if you’re an opposing big …”

Brown paused, the tone of his voice making it clear how much of a challenge it is for other post players to keep up with Lively facing the basket or in the open court.

Branham said he expects Lively’s recruitment to come down to the three blue-bloods he’s already visited — Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina — with Penn State, where his mom was a star player and now works in the athletics department, also in the mix as a dark-horse candidate. (Florida State, Michigan and Southern Cal are also on his list). There are no Crystal Ball predictions on his 247Sports page yet.

Brown told the Herald-Leader that Lively “spoke very highly” of the Kentucky visit and particularly liked the way John Calipari ran the program. Calipari, who stayed busy hosting visits throughout June, made a point to travel to New Jersey to see Lively play with his high school team during one of the limited evaluation windows last month.

Any final decision on Lively’s recruitment is likely at least a few months away, but it’s clear that Kentucky has positioned itself well for the player who could ultimately be the top college basketball prospect in the 2022 class, especially if Duren moves to 2021 and Bates goes straight to the pros, as expected.

Where does Lively go from here on the court? There’s seemingly no ceiling there.

When it was posited to Brown that trying to get a player to “come out of himself” — i.e. be a little less unselfish — was probably the best problem to have when coaching young talent, the grassroots basketball veteran agreed.

“Yeah,” Brown said. “But when he does, watch out. He’s going to be really, really special.”

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