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C. JEMAL HORTON COLUMN: Becoming NBA pick, Moore Jr. will make his biggest mark yet on Cabarrus County

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Cox Mill's Wendell Moore Jr. (0) enjoys the game's closing moments during second round playoff action on Thursday night at Cox Mill High School. The Chargers defeated the Spiders 81-66.

Wendell Moore Jr. flashes a smile during his high school days at Cox Mill. He is expected to be a first-round NBA draft pick Thursday.

CONCORD – Wendell Moore Jr. has this thing about making Cabarrus County basketball history.

You saw it when he made a pair of trips overseas and won two gold medals for the United States – before he turned 17.

You saw it in 2019, his senior season at Cox Mill High School, when he scored more points than any public-school player at a school in Cabarrus County ever has.

And you saw it when he became the first player with Cabarrus County ties to be chosen for the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Game.

Now comes this, the gold standard for basketball players: Whenever it is that the former Duke standout’s name is called over the loudspeakers in New York’s Barclays Center Thursday night, he’ll become the first Cabarrus County player ever to be chosen in the NBA Draft.

The latter accomplishment still is what’s so amazing to me, and it will be Moore’s greatest feat yet in a career riddled with achievements.

Astonished

When I first arrived at the Independent Tribune as sports editor late in 2014, one of the earliest stories I did was about former Central Cabarrus star Ish Smith, who at the time was a guard for the Philadelphia 76ers – although it was just another stop on his NBA-record 12-team journey through the league that currently has him with the Washington Wizards.

During an interview, Smith’s former coach with the Vikings, Scott Brewer, told me that no other Cabarrus County athlete had ever played a regular-season game in the NBA.

I didn’t know Brewer at the time. I soon came to find out that Brewer – who also coached at Concord and Mount Pleasant – is one of the most brilliant basketball minds this county has ever seen and a true Cabarrus hoops historian, and I now consider him a friend. But if I’m honest, at the time, I just didn’t believe him.

Even as an outsider, but as a bit of a basketball head, I knew former N.C. State guard Ishua Benjamin was from here. I knew Benjamin’s fellow Concord High School legend Dee Bost grew up here. I didn’t know exactly where former Cannon School product Jarell Eddie was from, as Cannon draws students from multiple cities and counties, but I knew he played high school ball here.

I figured this county had produced too many good players for Smith to have been the ONLY one to play in The League.

But after some research, I learned Brewer was right. Benjamin, after being named Mr. Basketball in North Carolina (at least Moore doesn’t hold THAT record) and having a strong career for the Wolfpack, wasn’t drafted. Still, he made money off his skills in Europe.

Bost, after an All-SEC career at Mississippi State, played in some pre-season games in the NBA and even made what was then the D-League All-Star Game, but he failed to see action in The Show during the regular season before he returned to a decorated career overseas.

Eddie, ever the fighter, eventually battled his way onto the NBA courts but in 2018 returned to a career in Europe, where he is – by all accounts – productive and happy.

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Wendell Moore Jr. goes to the hoop during a college game for Duke.

And since then, two more young talents from Cabarrus County have reached the NBA – former Concord player Ty-Shon Alexander (Phoenix) and former Northwest Cabarrus Trojan Rayjon Tucker (Utah, Philadelphia, Denver and Milwaukee).

Again, neither was drafted.

Other players with local ties have participated in NBA summer leagues and been invited to training camps – Cox Mill grad Matt Morgan (now in France) and former Northwest Cabarrus and Concord Academy star Codi Miller McIntyre (Spain) are a few. Another ex-Northwest star, Ameer Jackson, has been amazing in Libya this season.

And you can't talk about local basketball without mentioning ex-Concord Spiders standout Connor Burchfield, who gained national recognition for his 3-point shooting prowess while in college at William & Mary (50.7% for his career) and spent time in the D-League. 

And still, no Cabarrus kid has ever been talked about with the world watching on draft night.

But Moore is about to break the Cabarrus Curse.

Making it count

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This past season, Moore had one of the best campaigns in the ACC.

I’m not just saying that because he’s a local kid who handles his business in the classroom (a two-time All-ACC Academic Team selection) and on the court (second-team All-ACC).

He was really, really good.

Heck, for at least part of the season, Moore was considered a bona fide candidate for ACC Player of the Year.

Why?

He was the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award winner. He posted only the fifth triple-double in Duke history when he had 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a game against Army. And he was one of just two players nationally — and the only one from a Power 5 league — to shoot at least 50% from the floor and 40% from the 3-point line while averaging at least five rebounds and four assists per game

Moore had considered going to the NBA after his sophomore season, but his father, Wendell Sr., told me his son wanted to return to Duke to have a shot at playing in the NCAA tournament.

He did even better, helping the Blue Devils reach the Final Four, where they lost to rival North Carolina in the national semifinal game.

Well before he enrolled at Duke, Moore had planned to go there with the intention of leaving school early and entering the draft, just like many celebrated players before him. He said then-Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told him he was good enough.

But that didn’t happen right away.

Instead, Moore watched other players come through, spend a year on campus, and then hear their names called on draft night: classmates Vernon Carey Jr. and Cassius Stanley, and Jalen Johnson a season later.

Moore wasn’t going to let anything stop him this year, and his game – and physique – showed it.

Always a broad-shouldered, long-armed player, Moore added muscle to his frame, which made him even more of a threat as he drove and finished in the paint, coupled with feline quickness while defending smaller guards. When necessary, he was the Blue Devils’ primary ball handler on offense and displayed a strong combination of playmaking and decision-making.

His progress was noticeable. He began to resemble the star we got so accustomed to seeing when he played in historically packed Cabarrus County gyms and led Cox Mill to back-to-back state titles.

Here’s what www.nba.com wrote about the 6-foot-5, 217-pound Moore for his draft profile: “Playing a complementary role over his first two seasons under head coach Mike Krzyzewski but struggling to score efficiently, (Moore) figured a lot out at once this season. Averaging 13.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.4 steals over 34 minutes per game, the junior’s rise as an efficient scorer and secondary ball handler played an important part in Duke’s run to the Final Four.

“Finishing as the Blue Devils’ second-leading scorer and most productive passer, Moore split time on and off the ball as the rudder of an explosive, young starting lineup. Making huge strides as a shooter both off the catch and off the dribble, his growth as a perimeter threat opened up his floor game allowing him to attack the rim opportunistically and use his vision and unselfishness as a passer more frequently. He was an efficient jack-of-all-trades from the perimeter this season showing a degree of aggressiveness he lacked early in his collegiate career.”

As such, it’s almost a certainty that Moore will be chosen by an NBA team Thursday night. He wasn’t one of the players selected to attend the draft in the Barclays Center, but when he hears his name called, he’ll walk proudly into Cabarrus County history, nonetheless.

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Wendell Moore has been training in Miami in preparation for the NBA draft.

As of Tuesday, Moore was projected to be chosen late in the first round. But according to his agent, Duke graduate Josh Hairston of LIFT Sports Management, Moore could go even higher.

“I think it can vary,” said Hairston, whose agency also represents Moore’s Duke teammate Paolo Banchero. “I think it also depends on a couple of things. One of them is it just depends on who else is available at the time. With the draft, things can change drastically if one person falls where they weren’t expected to be. As his agent, along with the other guys that I work with, (we) have done a really good job of laying foundations at every pick – all the way from No. 8 to No. 30.

“Right now, we’re hearing all good things, where we’re pretty confident that he will be a first-round guy,” Hairston continued. “Wendell is a first-round talent, so I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll be a first-round draft pick, and I think the teams that have seen him and brought him in for workouts feel the same way.”

Moore has spent the past few months in Miami working with renowned trainer Stanley Remy, whose clients have included the likes of former NBA superstar Dwyane Wade as well as current players Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Tyler Herro, Paul George, John Wall and Khris Middleton. But Moore plans to return to the area to watch the draft live with family and friends.

I hate that Moore won’t get the cool experience of the Chosen Ones who’ll attend the draft in New York and walk on stage to shake NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s hand. But in so many ways, Moore being right here is just what makes sense.

Right here is where he began to make all those dreams become a reality. Right here is where we began to see the marvel that is Wendell Moore Jr. Right here is where he began to leave his name all over the Cabarrus County record books.

And right here is where he’ll do it again, one more monumental time.

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