by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7
August 21, 2009 was the last time the prestigious Elite 24 game took place in New York City. Anyone involved in that game, whether it be players, media, spectators, etc. will tell you that it was one of the most memorable summer grassroots games they’d ever experienced. It was a night full of surprises, adventures and a first of many kinds. It was the first and only Elite 24 game ever to have been played indoors. Additionally, it was the first and only Elite 24 game to experience a rain-delay and also the first and only to have a change of venue. It’s also the latest Elite 24 game to ever be played, starting almost a quarter to 10pm. And if you were at Gauchos Gym in the South Bronx that late humid summer night, you’ll remember that the talent on the floor and the amazing highlights that transpired over the next couple hours made it all worth it—just not to the reported hundreds of fans that stood outside the gym and were denied access after the building was over capacity with close to 2,000 fans packed inside a standing-room only gym that also had no air conditioner, and some of those fans even took to our comments section to express their disappointment in the game’s recap. Never had I seen people so eager to get inside to watch a high school game in my life.
Needless to say, it’s by far the most memorable summer game I’ve ever been to. A rising high school senior named Kyrie Irving showed glimpses of greatness, which have now become reality. A hungry Josh Selby converted a bunch of jaw-dropping dunks, including a tomahawk dunk (some say on Kendall Marshall, you be judge) that had the crowd going berserk, to the point where the game had to be stopped for a couple of minutes as everyone settled down. Harrison Barnes, Dion Waiters, Doron Lamb and Tobias Harris were also among those that foreshadowed their NBA potential.
For the seniors partaking in the event, this will officially be the last summer circuit game of their prep careers, and thus the game has a bit more of a significance to them than their underclass counterparts. But if you’re from New York City, then expectations are even much higher. That is the case of Isaiah Whitehead, who hails from the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. To add to the pressure, the last two years the game was played in NYC (2008 & 2009), hometown heroes Lance Stephenson and Doron Lamb took home MVP honors. Whitehead, now the star shooting guard at Lincoln HS, the same school that featured Stephenson, Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury, has known all about pressure and living up to expectations since the day it was known he’d attend the famed school. Therefore, going for MVP on Saturday to keep the NYC streak alive is nothing new and no pressure at all. “I’ve been going through pressure my whole life so it’s basically nothing,” says Whitehead, a top-30 recruit. “I’m just going to go out there and play the game and let it come to me. If I break a record or something like that, then I break a record.”
Asked if the hometown Brooklyn crowd would play a factor in his approach to the game, Whitehead added: “There’s going to be a lot of people there from Brooklyn so I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’m going to look to score. If my shot is falling then I’m going to keep shooting. I’m just going out there to compete and have fun.“
Even those that aren’t from Brooklyn are still aware of the rich basketball history that hails from the city and what the fans expect. Stanley Johnson, a Fullerton, California native who will play in the highly touted game for a second consecutive year, talks positive of Brooklyn’s basketball reputation on the West Coast. “Basketball-wise, I’ve heard it’s the best town,” admits the 6-7 uncommitted forward. “I’m a Cali kid and I’m proud of where I come from but I’m excited because I see all the YouTube videos and all that stuff. I’m excited because I’m the kind of player that likes when the crowd gets up and rowdy. I want to see the crowd come on the floor, you know, so I’m excited for Brooklyn.”
As for competing in what can be considered his last summer grassroots game ever, Johnson does acknowledge that it will play a factor in his approach. “My summer has been real serious for me, so this would be the icing on the cake,” he says. “I’ve played against these kids all year. Me being one of the veterans in this game, I think I kind of know what it takes to win the MVP. Aaron Gordon, he’s been calling me every week saying, ‘Yo, get that MVP.’ I came all the way from Cali, I might as well do something.”
Gordon, an incoming freshman at Arizona, won Co-MVP honors last year, and now Johnson has the opportunity to make it two-straight Cali MVPs. “I’m definitely going to be trying to get MVP, but no predictions or guarantees here,” says Johnson before cracking a smile.
Emmanuel Mudiay, a top-3 prospect in the class of 2014, says he doesn’t want to approach this game any different from the rest, despite being his last summer prep game. Yet, his focus will be just as high as it ever has been. “Every time you step out on the floor, whether it is a fun or boring game, you have to come out with a bang. Me, personally, I don’t care about rankings like that, but whoever is in front of me and guarding me, that’s who I’m gonna go at. I’m going to just play my game,” said Mudiay after Friday’s scrimmage, before giving a short message to hoop fans interested in watching. “Stay tuned; it’s going to be fun. It’s a basketball city. When I came here last year, I also did a park game. It was a crazy environment. The fans are crazy. They expect something so it would be fun to give them a show.”
All partaking players have a personal story as to how they came to know about the all-star game—some have been watching on television as far as six years ago. That is the case of Mater Dei’s Johnson, who watched on TV as a fellow California native put up a stat line that till this day has yet to be matched. “The first year that I remember watching it was 2007 when Brandon Jennings had 23 assists,” recalls Johnson. “I’ve been watching it ever since. I never thought I’d make it. It felt like the McDonald’s game before it happened.”
As a seventh grader, Whitehead sat on the bleachers of Rucker Park and watched his fellow Coney Island alum win MVP. “I used to watch the Elite 24 when I was younger and Lance [Stephenson] was in it,” says the 6-4 sharp shooter. “It’s definitely a privilege to be here. I saw it in person in Lance’s last year. It was great. The crowd was crazy. And Lance showed out, so I was happy. I always had a vision of myself being in it, but now I’m finally here. “
Eight of the 24 players invited have already given verbal commitments to high-major D1 programs across the nation: Chris Chiozza (Florida), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Dion Wiley (Maryland), Justin Jackson (North Carolina), Theo Pinson (North Carolina), Chris McCullough (Syracuse), Romelo Trimble (Maryland), and Joel Berry (North Carolina).
If this year’s game is anywhere close to how the last Elite 24 game that took place in Gotham was, it should be a memorable one. And this year’s roster only validates those chances.
The game is scheduled for Saturday, August 14 at 7p EST at Brooklyn’s Tobacco Warehouse and will air live on ESPNU. Below is a quick run down of each player and full rosters.
Chris Chiozza: Crafty guard that utilizes his lightning-quick speed and explosiveness to create space for himself offensively, as well as break the defense and create for others.
Justise Winslow: Athletic wing with the ability to beat you inside or outside.
Thon Maker: An Impressively athletic center for his size and moves well around the rim. Defensive presence is enough alter opponents’ plays.
Isaiah Whitehead: When he’s feeling it, he can shoot the lights out. This summer showed much more aggressiveness while attacking the rim, finishing strong on either side.
D’Angelo Russell: Has consistently proven that he can sink very tough contested shots, with his smooth step-backs and fadeaway jumpers. He’s also crafty enough to find his way to the rim and finish in traffic.
Malik Newman: Explosive combo guard that score in bunches and in all types of ways. Some regard him as the best pure scorer in the country despite only being a junior.
Goodluck Okonoboh: Highly regarded for his shot-blocking abilities and quick bounces off the ground.
Ivan Rabb: Terrific athlete that translates to quick moves around the rim and impressive motor on both ends.
Tyus Jones: Not the most athletic guy on the floor, but probably the most efficient player out there. He can give you a double-double on his worst day and possesses an impeccable court vision and overall feel for the game.
Myles Turner: Big that runs the floor well and whose offensive game extends out to midrange.
Dion Wiley: Great shooter that can also take you off the dribble.
Justin Jackson: Always plays at a smooth pace, never overzealous or trying to do too much and holds among the most effective short jumpers and midrange game in the country.
Emmanuel Mudiay: Known as the top combo guard in the nation, when he’s feeling it he can sink it with the best of them, but if not he can always use his explosiveness and craftiness to finish at the rim, which seems to come naturally to him.
Theo Pinson: Has a knack for scoring, whether it is finding a way to finish tough lay ups at the rim or extending out to midrange and sinking jumpers.
Stanley Johnson: Uses his sturdy physique to overpower his opponents and create space, leading to some easy baskets. Also possesses a very respectable jumper.
Devin Booker: Can sink jumpers from any spot and any angle.
Cheick Diallo: A double-double machine whose stock has risen sharply in the past few months.
Chris McCullough: Athletic forward with lots of upside, quick first step and a soft touch.
Rashad Vaughn: Regarded as the top shooting guard in the country with very deep range.
Kelly Oubre: As versatile as it gets and has emerged as one of the most complete players around.
Romelo Trimble: Another combo guard with range.
Joel Berry: Crafty point guard that always does a great job controlling the tempo of the game and much rather play the role of a pure one guard but can score in bunches when needed.
Stephen Zimmerman: He doesn’t have the appearance of a baller, but then his athleticism and skills just sneak up on you. He can hit it from the perimeter and can also finish around the rim. It’s scary to think that his game is still in the development stages.