Pittsburgh Hoops Renaissance
Building a fresh hoops culture from the ground-up.
by Alan Paul
Pittsburgh is anything but a hoops hotbed. For years, in fact, my hometown has been more of a hoops wasteland. The lack of elite prospects in Western Pennsylvania makes the job that Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon have done to turn Pitt into a perennial top 10 team all the more impressive; they’ve had to work hard to put their teams together. Now there’s some reason to think their job may be getting a little easier.
Part of the reason for that is in fact the success of Pitt basketball, which has helped raise the sport’s profile in the city. DeJuan Blair was the team’s first homegrown star in 20 years. And his high school teammate D.J. Kennedy has been a two-year started at St. John’s.
But you’ve probably never heard of another real driving force behind what I hope is a budding hoops renaissance in Pittsburgh: Daryn Freedman, who two years ago brought the venerable Hoop Mountain National Exposure Basketball Camps to town and also began running the Basketball Stars of America AAU program.
Freedman, a disciple of John Calipari’s, spent nine years as a Division 1 Assistant at UMass, University of Memphis, Northeastern and Duquesne, and four years working in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. Now he is back in Pittsburgh running camps and building the city’s grassroots AAU program, which had been seriously lacking. His NCAA experience also provides him with a network of college basketball coaches around the country, giving his players a higher recruiting visibility as well as access to better instruction.
SLAM: How are you feeling about the progress of basketball in Pittsburgh?
Daryn Freedman: Pittsburgh is heading in the right direction. I put together college coaches from around the country and worked with them on these programs. We started small a few years ago and it got bigger and bigger. Now we have about 800 kids from 8 to 17 playing AAU for us, so I hope that it will continue to grow and improve over the next several years as the kids get older and move up through the program.
SLAM: How big of an impact do you think DeJuan Blair has had?
DF: It has not been overwhelming because one guy can only do so much. But I think his success has generated more excitement. The success of the entire Pitt program has done that, really. It makes it an easier sell.
SLAM: What has been the biggest issue holding back the growth of Pittsburgh hoops?
DF: The kids just needed more direction. Once there were good coaches coaching and kids started getting the basics down right at an early age, we were good to go. It grows on itself as the younger kids move through the program.
SLAM: How big of a problem is the popularity of football around Western Pennsylvania? I always said any big kid with athletic ability has a helmet strapped on in the crib.
DF: It’s a big issue. There’s constant fight against that. I’m not telling kids not to play football but at a certain point it’s hard to develop if you’re not playing a lot of hours of basketball. We’ve created significantly more year-round basketball players. We have a good group of them now, which really didn’t exist before and it’s not all an inner city thing, either; we have some really good players coming from suburban schools as well. Kids are really working on their skills doing training and working hard to get better in every area.
SLAM: Are you working outside of Pittsburgh at all?
DF: We’re trying to get it going in Erie as well, where we are currently working with about 90 Kids. If you think Pittsburgh was behind the curve, you should see Erie. But there is talent there as well.
SLAM: What are you focusing on now?
DF: The big thing is trying to get these kids seen by college coaches, to get their names out there so it’s not just the top two or three kids getting seen. It’s getting better at the top but it’s also getting a lot deeper. We’re now going nine or 10 deep in each high school class.
That there has never been a dominant Boys AAU program in the Pittsburgh area until BSA came. In the AAU District National Qualifier Tournament last weekend, BSA swept the 14U, 15U, 16U and 17U Boys Championships. They also won or placed in the 9U, 10U, 11U and 12U Boys Championships. BSA also won the 15U Girls Championship and were in the finals in three others.
SLAM: Which class is the most promising?
DF: The best class right now is the junior class, with Tom Droney from Sewickley Academy leading the way. He is a 6-6 point combo guard who can really score, has good grades and is a tough kid with a good head on his shoulders. He could choose where he wants to go; he has been offered by over 20 high major programs. Pitt, Notre Dame and Davidson, which has made a huge push, telling him he could be the next Stephen Curry, have been the leaders but Virginia, B.C. and a few others have come on strong lately as well.
Other top juniors: Nate Perry, 6-3 guard from Hempfield High School (Greensburg, PA), who just committed to Coastal Carolina; Evan Pierce, 6-3 guard from Mount Lebanon High School—Mid to High Major D1 Recruitment; Jerome Barnes, 6-4 wing from Shady Side Academy—Mid Major D1 recruitment; Billy Luther 6-8 forward and Tim Donegan, 6-7 forward, both from Hampton High School (Allison Park, PA)—Mid Major D1 Recruitment; and three centers who are all being recruited form mid to high majors: 6-9 Deion Turman from Mt. Lebanon HS, 6-8 Peter Schramm from Sewickley Academy and 6-9 Brian Holsinger from Central Cambria HS (Ebensburg, PA).
The sophomore class is still developing, but the freshman class is a very, very strong group, with a few kids who could really emerge over the next couple of years. Brian Steele of Hampton High is probably the best right now. He is a 6-4 PG who could be 7-0 and has a lot of potential as well as a lot to work on.