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Oregon-bound 7-footer Kel'el Ware, nation's No. 10 prospect, continues to turn heads at  Nike Hoop Summit

McDonald's All-American Nick Smith Jr., Ware's North Little Rock (Ark.) teammate, says Ware 'can be the No. 1 pick in the draft, easy'

PORTLAND, Ore. — Kel'el Ware admittedly didn't know anything about the state of Oregon before his first visit. When he spent time at the University of Oregon, and got to know the school he ended up committing to in September, he walked away with a clear impression.

"Here it's peaceful," Ware said, "and green, obviously."

Since then, he's only continued to make a name for himself. After leading North Little Rock (Ark.) to a AAA 6A state championship in March, the 7-foot, 210-pound consensus five-star center turned heads at the McDonald's All-American Game in late March.

Last week, it was Ware's turn to make the impression on the state of Oregon at the invite-only Nike Hoop Summit, which included practices in front of scouts at the Portland Trail Blazers facility all week and Friday's showcase in the Moda Center.

He had 11 points and 12 rebounds — the game's only double-double — in Team USA's 102-80 win and gave Oregon fans plenty to look forward to in the invite-only game that pits the top prospects in the United States against future college and professional standouts from around the world. 

The 7-foot, 210-pound center rose up recruiting rankings to become ESPN's No. 16 prospect in the country, No. 10 according to 247 Sports, an ascent that has vaulted him to similar heights as Nick Smith Jr., the 6-4 Arkansas commit and No. 6 prospect in the nation.  

As Ware's name has crept up 2023 NBA Draft boards in recent weeks — in one mock as high as No. 8 in one — Smith Jr. has been by Ware's side as a teammate, both at North Little Rock (Ark.) and traveling in recent weeks from one showcase event to another.

He's run a wildly effective high pick-and-roll for Ware, who says he enjoys playing with Smith Jr. because he gets him open looks. 

Smith Jr. has long been confident in Ware's potential.

"It’s been crazy," Smith Jr. said. "I tell Lelly all the time ‘you can be the No. 1 pick in the draft, easy.' That just comes with him just wanting to be that, get in the gym consistently, work on his game. If he continues with that process, goes harder. Each and every night, there’s no question where I think he should be at."

Ware said he's felt the added attention of showcase events and says he's taking a one-day-at-a-time approach to playing under a spotlight as he prepares to head to Oregon.

He checks in at 210 pounds now, and hopes to add around 25 pounds to his frame. He said he wants to improve his strength, shooting and how and when he puts the ball on the floor. 

"I’ve gotten a lot, I’ve heard a lot for people, but there’s always room to improve," Ware said.

Still, his slender build hasn't stop him from asserting himself down low. 

It didn't stop him from scoring on the likes of Duke-bound Dereck Lively II in USA Basketball practice this week at the Portland Trail Blazers facility.

Those in Arkansas are more familiar with his capabilities. Ware garnered headlined when he posted a triple-double with 18 blocks — 21 rebounds, 15 points and 18 blocks — with North Little Rock (Ark.) in a win over Maumelle High School (Ark.).

But full impact "snuck up on" Duke-bound guard Dariq Whitehead, the five-star guard, McDonald's All-American Game and GEICO Nationals MVP, who said he'd known of Ware, but that he now seen Ware's full abilities on the court playing together over the past several weeks.

"Dude a unicorn," Whitehead said. "We did measurements, and his length … it’s rare you see that. It’s crazy. You don’t see that really. You wouldn’t think he’s playing with that much force and power on the court, but he really does. He definitely left a great impression on me."

Ware's commitment to Oregon withstood a reported two-year, $900,000 offer to play with Overtime Elite, a professional development league for NBA hopefuls that was founded as an alternative to the college route and pays players potentially lucrative contracts.

His relationship with Dana Altman and the Oregon coaching staff is what drove him to commit to play in Eugene over the likes of Arkansas, where Smith Jr. is a part of the nation's No. 2 class, and many other blue chip programs.

He enters a 2022 class that includes 6-3 point guard Dior Johnson from Southern California Prep Academy, a fellow five-star.

Here are some highlights from Ware (No. 78) playing in the Nike Hoop Summit scrimmage on Thursday:

(Photo by Tommy Land)