by Aggrey Sam

Last week I returned from N’awlins, where I attended the adidas Basketball Experience, the culmination of adidas Nations, a five-month program that Lang first wrote about during the Final Four. Unlike Nike and Reebok, which held traditional camps during July (when college coaches and media galore could evaluate top prospects), adidas took a different approach.

They selected about 30 of the top rising seniors and juniors in the country (due to injuries and other commitments, 20 played in the N.O.; 10 in each class) and brought them together at four different stops: April in the ATL, May in Portland and June in San Fran and New Orleans, teams representing Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America also participated. This gave the handful of NBA scouts (who were primarily there to watch the college counselors hoop) in attendance a glimpse of their teams’ potential future draft picks, both domestic and imported.

A primary goal of Nations is to enforce a policy of structured team basketball, something a lot of the kids there haven’t had to think about, as they’ve been fully ensconced in the run-and-gun world of camps and AAU all summer, not to mention most, if not all of them are the man on their respective high school teams.

Every morning, the players, coaches and college counselors left the French Quarter (Bourbon Street is crazy) to go to the Alario Center, the Hornets’ former practice facility outside of the city. The players rotated through stations where they obviously work on skill development, but also learn about nutrition, the benefits of flexibility and cultures other than their own.

Paul Silas, former coach of the Hornets and NBA legend, is the official coach of the Nations U.S. team and basically oversaw all the basketball aspects of the event.

“This is really teaching these kids what professional basketball is all about. We’re introducing them to something that their peers normally learn two or three years down the road,” said the former NBA All-Star, who was more notable for being Bron’s first pro coach, to most of the kids.

“They’re absorbing everything and embracing it because we’re demanding it,” he continued. “They understand that they must play team basketball, that they must be more of a team player since the competition is stiffer on higher levels.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I have workouts for high school and college kids back in Philly, but I’m nowhere near as qualified or advanced as adidas’ cadre of renowned coaches and player development people, let alone former pros like Detlef Schrempf.

“I think it’s a great concept,” said Schrempf, who actually had adidas’ first international camp back in 1993. (Schrempf’s annual camps featured future NBA players like Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Mohammed Sene and Marko Jaric.)

“This camp isn’t just about individualism, the kids really learn something,” continued the first European to be named an NBA All-Star. “The cultural aspect is great.”

With the assorted hoops luminaries in attendance (not to mention pro scouts), the players’ enthusiasm in the drill work carries over to the games.

For the 2008 American team, Cali combo guard Jrue Holiday was on cruise control–and since he gives 100-percent effort every time out, that’s a good thing. The UCLA commit is strong as an ox, unselfish to a fault, gets to the rack and finishes at will and best of all, takes great pride in his D, which may be second to none among 08 guards. I would have loved to see him and SLAM Diary keeper Tyreke Evans go at it in drills, but unfortunately ‘Reke left after the first session of drill work (before my plane touched down in NOLA), due to a tweaked ankle he suffered the prior week.

Other ’08 kids who impressed me were GA wing Chris Singleton, future Cincy Bearcat Yancy Gates and 7-1 Ohio State commit BJ Mullens, three monster athletes, and versatile 6-9 power forwards Matt Simpkins of Cali and Nevada commit Luke Babbitt.

The headliner for the ’09 USA team was scoring machine Lance Stephenson. The Brooklyn native is clearly his squad’s go-to guy and is just too strong and too skilled to be contained. If his handle doesn’t get him by defenders and his power doesn’t get him through them, then his J and creativity get the job done. On top of that, he’s shown better playmaking ability and D than I’ve seen from him in the past.

Derrick Favors of the ATL, possibly the top big man in the class, was his usual solid self on the interior with shot-blocking, rebounding and finishing prowess. Dexter Strickland, a top-10 prospect out of St. Pat’s in Jersey, has been making a nice transition to the point guard spot after starting off slow at the event. The smooth guard’s cat-like quickness, defensive instincts and athleticism were on display.

Also, a trio of Southern wings, Texas’ Shawn Williams, GA’s Noel Johnson and ‘Bama’s Christian Watford (whose 6-year-old brother looks like he’s 10) showed more aspects of their games than I knew them to possess. The sharp-shooting Williams (who looked very good in the drills) showed he could also score in the post and play D. Johnson showed the potential to be an elite point producer in college, like his pop “Cheese,” who once led the NCAA in scoring. Watford showed he could step out to knock down treys and also get up high to finish in traffic.

Since the American teams have been working together on-and-off since the spring, they looked more cohesive than the other Nations teams. And even though I was more focused on the USA teams (in an effort to evaluate the American prospects, I didn’t see much of the European and Asian players, besides the drills), I was still impressed by a few international prospects.

Dago Pena of the Dominican Republic (he attends school in Florida and plays for a Florida-based AAU team), a polished 6-7 wing, was on fire in an early matchup with the ’09 USA team (aka the Juniors), in which he hit numerous treys, got to the rack to finish above the rim and controlled the boards. Pena’s teammate, Thiago Matis, is more raw, but his length and quickness gave the Juniors fits on the inside. With added strength and work on his ball skills, the 6-9 or so Brazilian should be a player.

I was already familiar with one player on the African team (coached by former Georgetown defensive stopper Joseph Touomou, one of my favorite Hoyas during the AI era, and Babacar Sy, who coaches prep powerhouse Stoneridge Prep in Cali), Kenny Kadji, a native of Cameroon who goes to school in Florida and is the aforementioned Pena’s AAU teammate. At 6-11 with a big body and surprising quickness and athleticism, Kadji is one of the most highly-coveted uncommitted players in his class. At Nations, with even taller post players on his team, Kadji showed off his ballhandling ability and range, as well as his power game.

A handful of his teammates really stood out to me and other observers. Eabubakar Zaki, a 7-1 center from Niger, ran the floor like a guard, finished strong consistently, showed off a beautiful jump hook and nice touch out to behind the arc and was a beast on the boards and on D. Serge Ibaka of the Congo, was a high-energy jumping jack who always played above the rim and was described by a scout as the most-NBA ready prospect in attendance, outside of the college kids. While Team Africa’s guards weren’t the most polished, 6-2 Seidou Ngoya, a native of Senegal, was a solid penetrator and athlete, as well as having excellent strength for a point, even though he clearly is more of a wing. Mohamed Koita, also of Senegal, was simply a blur and top-flight athlete.

Stay tuned for more from New Orleans, including a breakdown of the Nations tourney, which was held on the final day of the event, as well as more in-depth evaluations of top players at the event, a look at the college counselors’ workouts, a recap of a basketball clinic held by Peace Players International at a rec center in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and a tour of that neighborhood, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.