by Aggrey Sam
Sorry for dragging it out over the course of the month, but there was so much good basketball when I was at adidas Nations, I know my grassroots true hoop fiends will appreciate it. As SLAM’s “high school guy,” I paid more attention to the American kids in New Orleans, but there were definitely some standout international kids present, too.
Joseph Touomou, who coached the African squad—along with Babacar Sy, a Houston Rockets scout and the coach of Cali’s Stoneridge Prep—talked to me for a minute about the impact of bringing his young charges to the states for such an event.
“It’s a unique experience—almost overwhelming—to bring kids from the Third World to a gym like this, with people who understand and can teach them the game,” said Touomou, himself a native of Cameroon and who Big East fans probably remember as AI’s defensive-minded backup at Georgetown. “It’s enlightened them, made them hungrier.”
“One kid was telling me that ‘If these are the best, then we’re not far from it.’ There’s kind of a sentiment that, ‘We belong, too,’” he continued. “I keep telling them that it’s great to dream, but that’s not enough. A lot of them started late, but they understand they have a long way to go.”
That might be true, but a lot of them are closer to their dream they can even imagine. Anyway, here’s my take on some of the top prospects from overseas:
Serge Ibaka, 6-8 power forward, Congo: Perhaps the most NBA-ready prospect in New Orleans, Ibaka, who already plays pro ball for a junior team in Europe and is considering putting his name in the 2008 NBA Draft (thanks for the info, Lang), is a powerful and explosive athlete who mainly does his damage around the rim. A force on both ends, he’s an intimidating defender and rebounder who finishes everything around the rim, has efficient post moves and gets out in transition very well.
Kenny Kadji, 6-11 center, Cameroon/IMG Academy (FL): Somewhat of a ringer (the Florida commitment plays AAU and high school ball in the States), Kadji’s performance in New Orleans illuminated his skills away from the basket. Playing with teammates his size or bigger, Kadji showed off his range and ballhandling ability, in addition to his power game, back-to-the-basket moves and athleticism.
Mohamed Koita, 6-1 combo guard, Senegal: A former track star in France, Koita (who has only been playing basketball for a few years), may have been the quickest player at the event. While he’s not a polished floor general or much of an outside threat yet, his game-changing speed, ability to pressure the ball on D and crazy bunnies.
Seidou Ngoya, 6-2 combo guard, Senegal: Ngoya isn’t a true point and at first struggled with handling the ball against pressure D, but as the games continued, the rock-solid athlete got increasingly more comfortable and began to assert himself. His strong drives to the rack, unselfishness and physical nature on D led one scout to say, “He wouldn’t be a star, but he could play for a high-major school right now.”
Eabubakar Zaki, 7-1 center, Niger: While Ibaka’s raw athleticism and pro-type physique led onlookers to crown him as the Team Africa’s best prospect, I personally believe Zaki has more long-term potential—and is more skilled right now. The long seven-footer plays with bounce, is a shot-blocking and rebounding force, has a mean jumphook, shoots the 15-footer with consistency, finishes strong and even showed off a stroke out to 3-point range and a decent handle for his size.
Team Asia Pacific:
Brendon Lane, 6-8 power forward, Rocklin (CA): To be honest, I’m still not really sure what Lane’s connection to Asia is (investigative journalism at its finest), but he’s a skilled four-man who can shoot the ball, put it on the floor and crash the boards. And it’s not like college coaches don’t know who he is, either, as he’s getting looks from a whole bunch of high-majors on the West Coast and beyond.
Ater Mojak, 6-10 power forward, Sudan/Australia: A Baylor commitment (shout out to assistant coach Jerome Tang, one of the most tireless recruiters in the biz), the rail-thin Mojak’s game still needs some polish, but his potential is off the charts. He handles the ball like a wing, shoots it pretty consistently out to 3-point range and uses his length and athleticism to finish strong, rebound and block shots.
Fernando Raposo, 6-7 power forward, Portugal/France: I didn’t get to see too much of the European team, but Raposo stood out to me with his versatility. Possessing a solid frame, he handled the rock fluidly, played above the rim, showed off decent range and was more hard-nosed than the stereotypical Euro.
Team Latin America:
Ruben Cotto, 6-0 combo guard, Puerto Rico: Although he had a tendency to get a little wild as far as shot selection, Cotto was one of the more explosive guards at the event. A high-energy player who was just as intense with his pressure D as on his fearless drives to the rack, he was at his best in transition, but also looked good as a playmaker.
Lucas Faggiano, 6-2 combo guard, Argentina: Unlike a lot of the kids at this affair, Faggiano didn’t jump out of the gym or out-quick the opposition, but he was one of the most savvy players at the event. Like his countryman Manu Ginobili, he used an array of fakes, an accurate jumper, deceptive quickness, keen court vision and a knack for making intangible plays to get the job done.
Thiago Matis, 6-9 power forward, Brazil: Long and athletic, Matis was a force around the bucket, even with his slender build. An effective deterrent to opposing shooters and able to utilize his hops to snatch boards, he also possesses decent ball skills, which provided him the opportunity to make some big-time finishes.
Dago Pena, 6-7 combo forward, Dominican Republic/Charlotte (FL): Like Kadji, his AAU teammate from the African team, Pena is another known commodity in the U.S., who is getting recruited by a variety of college hoops programs. A solidly-built wing with good ball skills, the Dominican is an explosive athlete who can get extremely hot from long range, causing mismatches for whoever’s checking him.
The adidas Basketball Experience also featured some of the top college ballplayers in the nation working as camp counselors, getting in some high-level workouts in the daytime and organized runs at night. I got at former SLAM Diary keeper Kevin Love, a freshman at UCLA, about his experience, as well as the upcoming season.
“Definitely playing ball with top competition is always a plus, but we get to have a little culture here, too,” said the slimmer-looking Love, who told me he’s down to a svelte 250. “I like that we have to adapt to the NBA playing style in the games here. It’s a good opportunity to prove ourselves to scouts.”
“I didn’t get to really bring out my wing stuff in high school, but I’ve been really working on my perimeter game,” he continued. “Right now, I’m just focused on winning a Pac-10 chip. All the individual goals come after that.
While all the college players in New Orleans are known commodities on the NCAA scene, I’m gonna focus on 10 ballers who impressed me the most:
DJ Augustin, 6-0 sophomore point guard, Texas: In my opinion, the New Orleans native was the best player on the floor. Penetrates against anyone, hits open shots, impeccable decision-making, solid defender, unselfish—can anyone say 2008 lottery pick?
Darren Collison, 6-0 junior point guard, UCLA: After taking over for the departed Jordan Farmar and leading the Bruins back to the Final Four last season without a hitch, much is expected of lightning-quick Collison. While I didn’t get a vast improvement in his J (what I consider the weakest aspect of his game; to be fair, he didn’t take many), he looked very under control, disruptive on D, distributed well and got to the bucket to finish with ease.
Shaun Dumas, 5-11 junior point guard, Xavier (La.): The surprise of the runs, Dumas, an NAIA All-American as a sophomore, was the second-best point guard/native of Big Easy out there. The quickest player on the court, a intense full-court defender and a supreme set-up man, don’t be surprised if you hear more about him in the near future (like in an upcoming issue of the mag).
Gary Forbes, 6-5 senior wing, UMass: I, for one, wasn’t surprised to see that the NYC native has been doing his thing for the Panamanian National Team in the FIBA tourney, mostly because of how he balled in New Orleans. An aggressive slasher on offense and a tough finisher, his improved J bodes well for his senior year in the A-10.
Eric Gordon, 6-3 freshman wing, Indiana: My early favorite for the top freshman in the college ranks this season (along with Mike Beasley), Gordon is an unstoppable scorer. Too strong and explosive going to the cup to handle, the fact that he has unlimited range is almost unfair.
Kevin Love, 6-9 freshman power forward, UCLA: He wasn’t lying when he said he’s been working on his outside game, as he buried treys and took opposing bigs off the dribble with ease. His beastliness in the post, however, was simply too much (with the lost weight, he’s much quicker off his feet) and when he was doubled, he passed out of the post like Duncan.
Ben McCauley, 6-8 junior power forward, NC State: Definitely not the flashiest guy out there (but probably the most faithful to his girl, as I caught him boo lovin’ on the phone in the hotel hallway, when most of his peers were enjoying a night on the French Quarter), McCauley was one of the most heady players. A skilled big with range and good court vision, he didn’t mind mixing it up on the interior and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Quincy Pondexter, 6-7 sophomore wing, Washington: I didn’t initially recognize Pondexter, as he appeared considerably stronger than his freshman year. But even with the body of a power forward, he’s kept his wing game—fluid swoops to the hoop, solid mid-range J and explosive in transition.
Derrick Rose, 6-4 freshman point guard, Memphis: Seeing him play against college comp for the first time, “Pooh,” like the aforementioned Gordon, simply had some stuff with him that nobody else did—an extra gear that just blows people away, uncanny body control and a crazy blend of power and hops. Unlike Gordon, whose J separates him from the crowd (one area Rose could use some work/confidence in), the Chicago phenom’s ridiculous handle and court vision set him apart.
Terrence Williams, 6-6 junior wing, Louisville: Me and one of my boys have a bet about who Rick Pitino’s next pro will be, Earl Clark or Williams (don’t say David Padgett or Tello Palacios unless they get through their senior years injury-free). No offense to the talented Clark, but let’s just say I’m pretty confident after seeing the supremely-athletic wing showcase a much-improved handle, mid-range game and trey ball—not to mention his jaw-dropping bounce and newfound takeover mentality.
I also had the chance to bust it up with Rasheed Hazzard, a Lakers scout and coach for the D-League’s L.A. Defenders, as well as the son of ex-pro Walt Hazzard, the former UCLA player and coach, about the benefit of scouting the event.
“In this setting, you get to see how they react over a couple of days, which is invaluable,” said Hazzard, who also worked with the college players at the event. “You get to see them when they’re fresh, when they’re fatigued and then you know how they’ll respond when they’re thrown into the fire.”
“The good thing about this is that it’s not strictly just observing. You get to show them things about what it takes to be at the next level and also get an early look at these guys,” he continued, as UMass’ Forbes came over to ask Hazzard if he could work with him on his J when we finished talking. “They’ve been real receptive to the teaching and knowledge being imparted. A lot of negative myths about kids these days are being dispelled—they’re eager learners, which is encouraging for American basketball.”
“From a scouting perspective, you don’t get a lot of live looks [of overseas prospects] against Americans,” Hazzard added about the international kids. “Before, it was more of a crapshoot.”
While the seeing top high school, international and college ballers hoop was fun for a hoops junkie like myself, my favorite parts of the trip had the least to do with high-level competition. In the midst of all the skill development and games, Peace Players International (formerly Playing For Peace) was busy training players. The staff on hand from PPI, an organization specializing in using basketball to bring peace and heal social divides in conflicted regions around the world—like Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Middle East—wasn’t helping the top-ranked prep ballplayers and elite overseas prospects learn anything that would benefit them on the court; rather, they made them play and learn to facilitate games for much younger kids.
On the last day of the event, PPI led the entire adidas Nations group down to the St. Bernard Recreation Center, in an area that clearly was still not close to recovering from Hurricane Katrina, to run a basketball clinic for the city’s youth.
While the PPI guys were disappointed by the lower than expected turnout of kids, seeing these elite players interact with the younger, less fortunate kids so enthusiastically was good to see—especially with stereotype of high school superstars as spoiled and egocentric.
“We approached this from kind of a different angle,” said Zach Leverenz, a PPI staffer who has been in New Orleans for months, doing research and spearheading the organization’s efforts to establish itself in the city. “What we wanted to do was to take our brand of basketball methodology and expose elite players to what we do, using basketball to teach things like leadership, conflict resolution and teamwork in general. Basically, we wanted to get back to the reasons to why these kids fell in love with game in the first place.”
“We really did see a progression within the players…the bottom line is they’re 16 years old and have been on the covers of magazines, so they’re susceptible to the commercialized brand of basketball,” added Leverenz, who played college hoops at D3 Dickinson College. “By time they got to clinic, they were having a great time, interacting with each other, so confident they would be able to coach and implement what they learned over the three days.”
“I remember when the point guard going to UCLA [Jerime Anderson from California] led a group of kids in a game of ‘Sit Down, Clown,’” he continued. “This 6-year-old girl with a learning disability won the game, and he turned to me and said, ‘I’m never gonna forget the look on that girl’s face.’”
“The whole thing was a success—to see them embrace the idea of teaching to kids and taking ownership of it—that just reaffirmed that this does work.”
While the high school kids were in the gym with the youngsters from the city, the college players left to take a walking tour of the neighborhood around the rec center to see the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Later, the high school players were taken to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and needless to say, they were shocked.
“Seeing the military police out there like that was crazy…we walked in a couple houses and you could just see all the wood…,” said Cali’s Jrue Holiday. “It felt like we were in another country.”
“That experience, to really see New Orleans, that was just sad,” added Lance Stephenson of Brooklyn. “I don’t know what I would do if that happened in New York.”
Shout out to all the kids, parents and coaches who made the trip, Peace Players International, Kristen Wise and the whole adidas staff, Ashante Simms and the people at Ochsner and last but definitely not least, my man Edward Sears. Mr. Sears is a lifelong New Orleans resident who I met when I walked around the neighborhood on my own. Born in the St. Bernard projects, he’s endured setback after setback since Katrina hit. For about two hours (I ended up missing the bus back to the hotel after the clinic; thanks for “rescuing” me, Zach and Matt) underneath a tree across from the abandoned housing complex, Mr. Sears, 59, told me about how the storm affected him personally and educated me about how the devastation went down, firsthand. Our convo was so personal and unrelated to hoops that I don’t think this is the proper forum to get into it, but like Khalid’s post from last week, hopefully this serves as a little reminder that a lot still needs to be done in the N.O.