by Lang Whitaker

ATLANTA — I came to the ATL to see some of the greatest amateur hoops players in America square off. And I’m not talking about the Final Four.

Actually, I did come to Atlanta for the Final Four. And while I was down here, our friends at adidas gave SLAM an exclusive invite to come and check out the first-ever adidas Nations grassroots event.

By way of explanation, adidas Nations is a new program they just announced in the last few weeks. According to adidas, the whole thing is “designed to emphasize and focus on adidas’ core belief that real success in the game of basketball comes with playing in a team.” So, teams of the best players from the Class of 08 and 09 have been assembled around the world (in the U.S., China, Europe, Latin America). They’ll train in their respective countries, then meet up in New Orleans in August to square off against each other.

Team USA’s first practice was this morning in the ATL, and I was invited to sit in and watch. I’m not really a high school hoops afficionado, but even I knew a lot of the names involved: Lance Stephenson, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, Tyreke Evans, Kenny Boynton, Renardo Sidney…basically a who’s who of American underclassmen.

The adidas Nations was the sole reason I found myself waking up at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday. Well, that and a phone call from Atlanta Hawks beat writer Sekou “Tubby” Smith, who wanted to go sniff these kids out with me.

We rolled out to the campus of Emory University, where we found them all on the court, divided into four teams. Longtime NBA coach Paul Silas was running things, putting the guys through drills and making them learn various offensive sets. (While I was there, they spent a lot of time working on the basic 1-4 set that almost every NBA team uses.) Silas had them going half-speed in four different groups, first alone and then against defenses.

We hung around for about an hour, and a couple of kids jumped out at me:

• I’d never seen Lance Stephenson play in person, but man was he impressive. First of all, he’s huge, much thicker than he was a over a year ago when SLAM did that huge feature on him. He was playing the 2 all morning, and he was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. And this was against the best high schoolers in the country. I shudder to think about what he must be like against regular high school kids. During one five-on-five drill, a big man from Lance’s team was loafing down the court and his man got an easy dunk. Lance pulled the sleepy defender aside and read him the riot act. “You’ve got to play harder, man!” His ability to start up, get to full speed and then stop on a dime was crazy.

• I was also impressed by Larry Drew, the son of Hawks assistant coach Larry Drew. Drew is a 6-1 PG from Taft out in Cali, and he had a really nice handle and nose for the ball. You know, a coach’s kid. More than once he broke ankles out there.

• Renardo Sidney and Tyreke Evans weren’t there. We were told Tyreke was on his way down from his home in Philly but was battling travel problems. (Our man Ryan Jones can apparently back Tyreke’s story up — Ryan, care to comment?)

• Jeff Withey, a seven-footer out of San Diego, was impressively huge and had a couple of nice dunks. He also drilled some poor kid in the nose with an errant elbow, and we quickly found ourselves a bleeder.

• Emmanuel Negedu, a 6-7, 230 pound swingman from Indiana (by way of Nigeria), was strong out there. He was tossing guys around and dunking all over the place.

• Jrue Holiday also surprised me. He was going up against Lance pretty regularly in the morning session and doing a better job than anyone else at sticking with him.

The whole point of this weekend’s camp was getting these guys together and giving them a chance to not only play together, but also get coached by Paul Silas, who was busting his butt out there, running all over the place and sweating like Patrick Ewing. Silas ran the kids through a few drills, but he mostly had them trying to understand why they were setting picks or the purpose of the point guard waiting for the power forward to get up the floor.

By 11:00, they were breaking for lunch and to take some afternoon naps, then they were meeting back up this afternoon for another run. You’ll surely hear more about all this as the big championship draws closer. Pretty cool way to make all these kids swallow some fundamentals, whether they like it or not.