by Aggrey Sam

Timely as ever, I’m back with more from my trip to New Orleans for the adidas Basketball Experience. On the last day of the event, a mini-tournament was held, pitting the six teams against each other. Not surprisingly, the two American squads ended up in the chip, but the USA Juniors, led by a dominant performance by Lance Stephenson, had to fend off a serious challenge by Team Africa to make it to the final game. Official stats weren’t kept for the tourney, as team-oriented hoops was the primary focus, but here are brief player evaluations of the American kids:

USA Seniors (2008):

Jerime Anderson, 6-2 point guard, Canyon (CA): The future UCLA Bruin is a solid, if mostly unspectacular true point who excels at doing the little things. Quicker and more athletic than he first appears, Anderson is a more than competent setup man, a determined defender and uses his strength and savvy to get by defenders.

Luke Babbitt, 6-8 combo forward, Galena (NV): Babbitt, the future heir to Nick Fazekas’ throne at Nevada, is as skilled a forward as there is in the ’08 class. A rugged rebounder with good post moves, he can also exploit opposing big men with his handle and deep range.

Yancy Gates, 6-9 power forward, Withrow (OH): A ridiculous athlete with tremendous power, Gates is capable of dominating the paint on both ends, with his work on the glass, shot-blocking ability and strong finishes. The Cincy commit also runs the floor like a guard, enabling him to wreak havoc on the rim in transition.

Jrue Holiday, 6-4 combo guard, Campbell Hall (CA): Arguably the best all-around perimeter player in the nation, Holiday’s understanding of the game, lockdown D and willingness to give all-out effort every time on the court made him stand out from the crowd. Headed to UCLA with his AAU teammate Anderson, Holiday showed the ability to dominate the action as a defender, playmaker and scorer.

Korie Lucious, 5-10 point guard, Pius X (WI): The source of much controversy on this very site (what up, Domo!), the Milwaukee resident and future Michigan State Spartan was both one of the quickest players and better shooters at the event. The small scoring point generally made good decisions, hit tough jumpers over defenders and proved himself to be a tough and savvy ballplayers.

BJ Mullens, 7-1 center, Canal Winchester (OH): While he won’t make Buckeyes fans forget Greg Oden as soon as he arrives in Columbus in a year, the Ohio State commit’s freakish athleticism for his size will at least conjure up some fond memories. Mullens attempted to dunk the ball every time he caught it around the basket, intimidated foes on D and with his speed in the open court, he’s a passing point guard’s dream.

Travis Releford, 6-5 wing, Bishop Miege (MO): Releford, a future Kansas Jayhawk, was one of the most fundamentally-sound players at the event. Content to be a glue guy, his smooth game, focus on D and eagerness to mix it up made him effective, even without being a big scorer.

Matt Simpkins, 6-9 combo forward, Berkeley (CA): Simpkins’ combination of post moves, tenacity on the boards, shooting touch and ball skills made him quietly one of the most effective players at Nations. The Cali native is, in my opinion, one of the more underrated players in the senior class.

Chris Singleton, 6-8 wing, Cherokee (GA): Yet another monster athlete, Singleton’s skill set for his size is top-notch. Able to knock down treys, handle the rock and finish with flair and authority, his versatility and length made him a constant mismatch.

USA Juniors (2009):

Jerry Brown, 6-6 wing, Sacred Heart (CA): Brown was one of the more unheralded kids at the event, but his toughness and hard slashes to the cup more than made up for any lack of prior hype. Eager to battle in the paint with his well-built frame, the Northern Cali resident (also an excellent student) contributed on the glass, strapped on defense and finished above the rim.

Derrick Favors, 6-9 power forward, South Atlanta (GA): Regarded as one of the top big men (if not the best) in his class, Favors’ rebounding prowess, game-changing ability on D and combination of fundamentals and athleticism on offense was impressive. While he’s definitely not a face-up post player yet, he showed signs of being able to step out and hit the Duncan (15-footer off the glass like Timmy), as well as being a factor in transition with his speed, sure hands and hops.

Tyler Griffey, 6-9 power forward, Lafayette (MO): An intriguing prospect because of his length and face-up skills, Griffey was somewhat up and down early on, but settled into a groove by stepping out to knock down deep jumpers. In addition, he ran the floor on the break and while he needs to get stronger, he didn’t shy away from going to war in the paint.

Noel Johnson, 6-6 wing, Fayetteville (GA): Johnson, Favors’ AAU teammate on the Atlanta Celtics, is a smooth, natural scorer with a polished mid-range game. His versatility was on display for most of the event (he missed the last day, as he had to return to GA for Advanced Placement classes in school), as he attacked the rim, hit from distance, finished on the inside and scored in transition.

Lance Stephenson, 6-5 combo guard, Lincoln (NY): Simply put, Lance was the most dominant scorer at the event. If he didn’t power through his man with his grown-man strength, he shook them with vicious handle or used his length to finish over them; and his rep for being trigger-happy looked more like a competitive spirit, as he was somewhat willing to create for his teammates when he ran the point.

Dexter Strickland, 6-3 combo guard, St. Patrick (NJ): Strickland, who teamed up with Villanova-bound point guard Corey Fisher in St. Pat’s backcourt last high school season, is still making the adjustment to running the show full-time, but seemingly grew more confident as Nations progressed. Already defensive-minded and a willing passer, the jet-quick athlete also showed improved decision-making and finishing ability.

Stephen Van Treese, 6-9 power forward, Lawrence North (IN): A fundamentally-sound post who hails from Greg Oden’s alma mater, Van Treese held his own on the inside and seemed to give maximum effort. Not flashy by any means, he provided a physical presence in the lane for the Juniors.

GJ Vilarino, 5-11 point guard, McKinney (TX): One of Billy Gillespie’s first commitments at Kentucky, the diminutive floor general used his quickness and aggressiveness to the best of his ability. While he sometimes struggled in the N.O., his unselfishness bodes well for the future.

Christian Watford, 6-8 wing, Hewitt-Trussville (AL): A smooth wing with excellent size for his position, Watford was one of the more versatile players at the event. With a good-looking outside stroke, a solid handle, tremendous length and athleticism, added strength should make this young man from ‘Bama a force to be reckoned with.

Shawn Williams, 6-6 wing, Duncanville (TX): Known for his wet J, Williams deserves props for his hustle, team play and willingness to get down and dirty. One of the more committed defenders on his squad, the Dallas-area native displayed nice post-up skills and rebounding ability, in addition to his ever-potent jumper.

Getting back to the event in general, one of the best parts about it—besides the actual ball, of course—was seeing how the kids interacted with each other. Prep hoops gets a (sometimes deserved) bad rep, but not only were these players buying into the team basketball concept, they had great attitudes, mingled and had fun with kids from other cultures on and off the court and gave great effort throughout, particularly during the skill development sessions.
“I liked this better than a lot of the camps I’ve been to because there was more individual attention and it was really the best players in the country,” said top Cali guard Jrue Holiday. “I feel like other players in the country who weren’t here really missed out because we’re getting taught the pro stuff now.”
NYC class of ’09 superstar Lance Stephenson expressed his respect for his peers in the U.S., as well as his opponents from overseas.
“I didn’t know my class was that good and spending time with them outside of playing ball was good because I didn’t really know a lot of them as people,” said the BK guard. “The foreign kids, it was real cool playing against them and practicing with them. I really think they work harder than us, so that’s gonna make me step my game up more when I go home.”

“I’m used to going to tournaments and people come out gunning for me,” he continued. “But when African and Asian kids know my name, like ‘You’re Lance?’ That’s crazy to me.”

From a parent perspective, the event was invaluable, too. Shawn Williams Sr., father of the Texas wing of the same name and coach of rising Dallas-area AAU power Texas Select, felt like the entire adidas Nations tour not only helped his son, but gave him some insight.

“What I found out is that almost every elite kid has a personal trainer,” said Williams, who also coaches rising Dallas-area AAU power Texas Select. “I learned a lot about professionalism and the business part of things.”

“This offers the opportunity to play with top kids and do one-on-one drills with them,” he continued. “At the first camp, he roomed with Lance [Stephenson] and he realized East Coast kids play a lot more basketball than we do in Texas, since we’re always gonna be more of a football state.”

“I just really enjoy the opportunity for him to meet top players from around the country and the world. The biggest thing is now I can see him becoming more mature and also I can compare notes with other parents I met.”

Look out for my take on the international kids and more from the N.O. soon.