Brandon Jennings Invitational

by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7

Since launching its basketball division in 2008, Under Amour has gone from being just another new brand in the sport to one of the most visible, recognized and active names in the world of high school basketball. UA has also taken a piece of the pie at the college ranks and even recently formed a new partnership with the NBA. At the prep level, 37 of the top high school basketball programs currently don Under Armour uniforms and footwear. The logo isn’t just visible on teams. Some of the top events in the high school circuit, such as the City of Palms Classic, NBPA Camp, Elite 24, I-95 Challenge and UA Best of the Best are also sponsored by the Baltimore-based company.

But last year a new event was introduced that may very well be on its way to joining the list of most prestigious showcases in the season calendar. On a freezing January weekend in Milwaukee, WI eight of the top teams in the nation converged for the inaugural Brandon Jennings Invitational. The Milwaukee Bucks star, who became the first Under Armour basketball endorser in 2008, was known in his prep days for being one of the most exciting players around, with his lavish moves and winner mentality.

The games turned out to be a success and included a thrilling last second shot in overtime by NYC’s Boys & Girls over Florida’s Winter Park, who featured Austin Rivers’ event-high 35 points, in a game that would get televised nationally on Fox Sports Net. The Invitational, which seemingly surpassed the gym’s crowd capacity last year, is expected to return this weekend with match-ups that are touted to be as competitive as it can get.

“The whole point of it is to create a buzz of what Under Armour basketball is about at the high school level,” says Ted Gladue, Under Armour’s Senior Manager of Sports Marketing. “I think last year was a fantastic year one. I think we built a lot of equity that we can feed of. Essentially, just bringing our best high school basketball programs in a space where we can showcase a lot of our product and footwear mainly, but built something pretty special where teams would want to be with us. And this is our gift back sort to speak. When they leave Milwaukee, we want them to know what Under Armour basketball is all about and how progressive and innovative we are, and leave there with a notion that Under Armour basketball is for real and we’re here.”

Basketball is only a fraction of what this event is all about. The players will partake in a variety of activities that will lead up to the main event on Saturday. Most teams are expected to arrive by Thursday night. The next morning, all teams will get a chance to get some practice in and run-throughs. Then, legendary Maryland head basketball coach Gary Williams will address the participants about how to mentally approach the game of basketball as a player. Gladue points out that the Under Armour “Are You From Here?” national campaign is not quite in the literal sense but about being in that right mindset. And that’s exactly what Williams will look to preach to the kids—the definition of hard work, character, integrity, and being a good teammate, among other things.

In addition to Williams, UA is planning a workshop where the kids will learn about managing their brand, specifically in terms of social media and how they should portray themselves on and off the court. The players will also learn some of the fundamentals of personal finance. All participants will end Friday with a night out to Dave & Buster’s.

This year, the event expanded to 10 teams. Considering the rapid pace at which UA has been growing in the prep scene and the amount of nationally ranked programs that are now under the company, it has become quite a challenge for the brand to select which teams are to participate in the annual showcase.

“It’s difficult because we’re growing so quickly. Last year, we had about eight teams out of like 20 high schools. Now we have about 35. Chester High School, who we just signed, they’re number 10 in the country right now, so it’s been difficult keeping up with the additions and timing the events,” says Gladue. “As we grow and slow off, the selection process won’t be as difficult in the future. We have ten of the top schools in the country playing in this thing. It’s going to be fun.”

As for the guy who is the name behind the event, Under Armour says there couldn’t have been a more perfect individual to spearhead the efforts. “He’s great. He’s still young and so he’s excited about this stuff. Last year, he sat there the whole time and hung out with the kids,” says Gladue about Jennings, who unfortunately won’t be able to attend this year due to the tightly compressed NBA season schedule. But that hasn’t stopped Jennings from actively including himself behind the scenes. “He’s involved on the little things that you may not think he would be, like approving the program cover. He just enjoys knowing what’s up and we just keep him in the loop on everything,” Gladue adds. “Brandon has done a welcome message for the kids in a video that he put together himself and will be attached as much as he can.”

The match-ups are beyond promising. With the tip-off scheduled for 12:30pm, Melrose of Memphis, TN will take on St. Frances Academy of Baltimore, MD. Melrose features Markel Crawford, a 6-3 junior point guard who already has offers from an array of SEC schools, and one that made a name for himself last summer in the AAU circuit after traveling nationally with YOMCA. He’s known for his tenacious style of play on both ends of the floor and ability to knock down shots from beyond the perimeter as well as a dangerous mid-ranger shooter. He’s fearless when attacking the rim and proven a knack for finishing strong in all types of ways. St. Frances has a stud of its own. DaQuan Cook, a senior that has signed to play at UNLV in the fall, can play either guard positions. He’s athletic, possesses good court vision, can put up points in a hurry, and is just a great all-round performer. He returns to St. Frances for his senior season after starring last season at Digital Harbor, where he averaged 21 points, 7 rebounds and 6 rebounds, while leading his team to the Class 2A state championship.

The second game will see Lone Peak from Highland, Utah and Lincoln out of Brooklyn, New York square off. Peak comes off a second place finish at the Beach Ball Classic in South Carolina just last week. They have made it to the State’s 5A title game the past three years and even won it all in 2011.  Their key player is Nick Emery, a junior point guard that has verbally committed to BYU. He average 21.6 points, and close to 4 rebounds, 4 assists and over 2 steals per game as a sophomore last year—earning him All-State player honors.

Lincoln, who has produced NBA players Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson over the years, has a new Coney Island prodigy on the rise. Sophomore Isaiah Whitehead, who’s already drawing comparison to his predecessors, averaged over 13 points and 5 rebounds over the regular season last year as a freshman. He’s an extremely confident and aggressive guard that can knock it down from distance, or with his array of moves off the dribble he can slash to the hole and finish with the best of them. Lincoln were the runner-ups in NYC’s public school league last year.

Slated to take the court next will be Lake Central of St. John, IN and Menomonee Falls of Wisconsin. Lake Central features the son of the top pick in 1994 NBA Draft and former Milwaukee Bucks star Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson. Robinson III (left) averaged 22.1 points, seven rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals last season as a junior. The 6-6 wing will be attending Michigan in the fall and is expected to go head-to-head with another national renowned 6-6 wing, who’ll be starring for the Tar Heels next season.

The fourth game of the day will feature Roman Catholic out of Philadelphia, PA against the tourney host Marquette University HS. Roman features Shep Garner, a 6-2 combo guard that has drawn national notoriety despite only having a year of high school under his belt, can sink jumpers from way beyond the arc and in bunches. The very athletic guard is impressively explosive off the dribble and can create shots for himself from just about anywhere on the floor. Marquette has some talent of its own as well.

The fifth and final game will be televised nationally on Fox Sports Net on tape-delay and will feature Price from Los Angeles, CA and Patterson out of East Baltimore. Price is led by Skylar Spencer, a 6-9 center signed to hoop at San Diego State in the fall. The 6-9 big man is as athletic as you’ll find for someone his size at this level. For Paterson, they feature non other than one of the most talked about juniors in the country. Aquille Carr, standing at only 5-7, is most often noted for being offered a $750,000 contract last summer to play pro ball for Lottomatica Virtus Roma—the same club where Jennings once played before joining the League. Carr aka “The Crime Stopper” averaged 31.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.5 steals last season as a sophomore, while leading Patterson to a 25-2 record and the school’s first city championship since 1976.

As for Under Armour, they’ll continue enjoying their climb in the game of basketball by staying involved at the grassroots level with events like the one taking place this weekend at Marquette University High School. “Here we are, three and half years in. We’re in it now. I think we’ve proven ourselves from a service and product standpoint—the way we cater to these programs, people know and see how we treat people,” says Gladue. “I don’t think its anymore of a selling point now, it’s just about making sure people are representing our brand well. That’s the number one component for my group and myself.  Lets make sure people represent us well. Our product speaks for itself. I don’t think it’s about selling it per say but you’re still competing with brands that have been around for a while.”

Tune in to SLAMonline this Saturday, as we’ll have live coverage of all scheduled games.