adidas Nations Recap

By Tony Williams

South Orange, NJ – This past weekend adidas held its 2nd Annual Nation Camp at Seton Hall University. It featured 15 of the top players each from the 2009 and 2010 classes, respectively. These players were hand-picked by an adidas panel that was lead by adidas Sports Marketing Manager of College/Grassroots Basketball Daren Kalish.

They ranked the ballers in terms of consensus national rankings, interviews with AAU and college coaches, the ballers’ academia, as well as extensive checks into the players’ characters, to come up with what they thought was the right mixture of young men who’ll proudly represent adidas. As soon as I opened the doors to Walsh Gym, Kalish immediately met me and enthusiastically broke down what it means to be a part of the adidas Nation and the message they wanted to convey.

“It’s not just basketball. It’s a basketball camp and we’re here right now to do basketball but we’re also here to culminate an event, where national teams from across the world participate to play each other,” he said. “Other countries are doing the adidas Nation like we’re doing here: with a combination of an ex-NBA coach and Athletes’ Performance doing workouts, working with nutritionists and raising their talents — with it all coming to a head in Dallas, August 7th-12th, when all the teams play each other. Then the ’09 team will be playing in Africa, while the 2010 team will be in Brazil.”

Kalish also squashed misgivings anyone might’ve had about adding an Alpha-Dog like a Lance Stephenson to a camp that is about promoting teamwork, selflessness, and not singling out one star over the others. Stephenson wasn’t able to participate this weekend due to his Lincoln High competing in the New York State playoffs but he had more than one staunch supporter who was willing to speak on his behalf.

“It’s funny because he’s adapted to this easily,” said St. Patrick’s star and UNC-bound Dexter Strickland. “We room together and play in the same backcourt together but we’ve never had any friction like people thought we’d have, since we’re both good scorers.”

“One of the things people miss in this whole process is that these are all really great guys,” added Kalish. “For example, people want to believe Lance and Dexter would be rivals. But they’re actually good friends and they share the ball and play well off each other, which outsiders wouldn’t think would happen. But that’s the great thing about this program because we’re promoting sharing and putting team over self. Lance had no problems buying into this camp and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Kalish then added that these guys, for all their rising stock, want to learn and get better, especially when there’s a time when they might get “humbled” by seniors the caliber of a “Tyreke Evans or a Jrue Holiday.” Plus, he added, that the players are really responding well to giving back to communities and realizing “what they have, how good they have it, and how good it feels to give back and working on being better people.”

When the camp commenced, the ballers were in the capable hands of former New Jersey Nets and Memphis assistant coach Ed Schilling. It was over the next two hours where Schilling put them through a rigorous workout and ran them through NBA-style drills. And no one was safe from the torment. It didn’t matter if you were a 6’9 widebody like Josh Smith because Schilling had you doing crossover drills. Or if you were a 5’11 waterbug like Peyton Siva because you were doing big man low post drills. Or a lefty like Tony Wroten, Jr. because you were doing righty drills. Schilling’s philosophy was that to be a complete ball player you have to master all phases of offense and not just improve on your strengths. Although offense was the main focus in individual and half-court drills, Schilling also emphasized defense, as he focused on closing out on a shooter and working on stopping the screen and roll.

Naturally, the ballers were more amped to learn offensive nuances but they also all put forth the effort on the defensive end, as Memphis native point guard Joe Jackson could attest.

“Man, I had to get my sleep-on after that first day,” he laughed. “I ain’t ever
been that tired. It’s actual work out there. That man [Schilling] is working us! But it’s worth it because we feel it’s going to get us to where we all wanna be.”

2009 Class Roster: Peyton Siva; GJ Vilarino; Dexter Strickland; Lance Stephenson, who was scheduled to appear but Lincoln had a playoff game, Sunday, in upstate NY; Dominic Cheek; Shawn Williams, II; Noel Johnson; Jerry Brown; Christian Watford; Reeves Nelson; Tyler Griffey; Stephen Van Treese; Derrick Favors; Daniel Orton; Erik Murphy, who was missing due to prior commitment…2010 Class Roster: Joe Jackson; Ray McCallum; Trae Golden; Brandon Knight; Trey Zeigler; Tony Wroten, Jr.; Jason Morris; LaQuinton Ross, who didn’t play due to injury; Dwayne Polee, II; Jared Sullinger; Julian Washburn; Tristan Thompson, who was absent due to prior commitment; Josh Smith; Evan Anderson., who didn’t play due to injury.

– Kalish on how he’s managed to get all these guys under one roof, regardless of customary sneaker affiliation: “We’re here to help the best players. And a guy like Dexter, who traditionally does work with NIKE, is able to work with us because it’s about helping out these guys. We don’t discourage our athletes from going to other camps, so hopefully those other brands won’t either.”

– Kristen Wise, US Basketball PR Manager adidas Sport Performance, on their mission to get the ballers to realize that there’s more to life than being basketball stars: “This camp is great because we want to show them that it’s not always about them, that the world is bigger than them, and that they should play a role in helping others and being great people.”

– They were stationed at Seton Hall University but the ballers weren’t the only ones to benefit from the camp. Although March hasn’t been a great month for Pirates coach Bobby Gonzalez [a crushing season finale loss to Rutgers, all the hysterics on the sidelines when times get tough, and next year’s one-game suspension in their opening BIG East game for his berating the refs after a BIG East tourney loss] things may pick up. Since the players were the ones to come to the campus on their own volition, it’s considered an “unofficial visit”, so Coach Gonzo basically had his pick of the litter, as each player paid a visit to his plush office. Gonzo, however, paid special attention behind his iron curtain – about a good 15 minutes — to a local stud who plays in Jersey City. I’d mention the baller by name but it’s fun being “cheeky.”

– Seattle native Wroten, Jr., all 14 years of age, was smooth and very coachable. Although a young buck, his on-court demeanor is anything but adolescent. “It’s not all about you,” he said when asked what’s the main thing he’s learned from adidas Nation? Adding, “It’s about the other guy next to you. People are always watching us, so when they see someone doing the right thing the rest fall in line. It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s doing the right things and buying in, so should I.’” He also has bravado, which is needed when you’re usually the youngest cat on the court, and isn’t afraid to play with the upperclassmen: “Being a top freshman I’m always at camps and playing against older guys and at a faster speed. But I’ve always played against older guys back home in Seattle…it’s funny how we don’t get the publicity like ballers in other cities. It’s because we’re all the way over there and not like a New York. But nobody over there [Seattle] is scared of anybody. We can bring it, too. Guys like me, [fellow Seattle-area phenom] Peyton [Siva]. Whoever.” By the way, if Wroten, Jr’s. swagger seems reminiscent of a certain New York baller it’s because he’s a cousin of Mr. Chip On His Shoulder, Nate Robinson. Wroten, Jr. was especially interested in learning how to run a pro-style offense, which routinely has three or four options per play. “It’s great, you know, because we’re learning plays and fundamentals that the pros use. Sure, it could be boring to keep doing fundamentals but you know these are things they’re [NBAers] really working on and this is the way Coach is showing us because we all want to make the League.” By the way, this should make Coach Gonzo smile: Wroten, Jr. is seriously considering The Hall. “I like Coach and plus it’s near New York City and I’d love to play out East.” He was also considering St. John’s but the Johnnies have pretty much been taken off his wish list.

– Siva is tops on many schools’ wish list, most notably Kansas, Arizona, and the Washington schools [Washington State and U-Dub] but it’s a good bet that he dons the Cardinal Red of Louisville, as they’ve been pursuing him the most. When asked if that rumor is true, Siva slyly smiles and says, “they’re in it”, noting how strong they already are and will be even stronger when they add St. Benedict’s big man Samardo Samuels in the fall.

– By the way, my new MAIN MAN, Francis Williams scoffed at me when I told Siva that “Seattle basketball is back on the map.” He looked at me, then Siva, and said, “Back? Where’d we go? I didn’t know we left.” He let me off the hook for the slight and was a great source to come to this weekend for all things Seattle. Williams is a 30+-year Seattle resident, a one-time radio voice for the Sonics, and currently works for the Sonics and Storm in Basketball Outreach Community Relations. It’s killing me to read about the Sonics situation, so I can’t even imagine what it’s doing to die-hards like Williams. Hang in there, all my newfound Seattleites friends.

– Schilling played with Ron Harper at Miami of Ohio and was third all-time in assists upon his graduation. He still has game, as his dribbling exhibitions during water breaks showed. I didn’t attend the Bill Walton School of Hyperbole, so trust when I say Schilling has a handle so sick that it was easily the best I saw all camp and is absolutely better than most prospects in the country today. “Did I?!” exclaimed point guard Brandon Knight, when I asked if he noticed how nice Schilling’s handle was? “I was getting pointers from him all weekend. It was sick seeing him doing stuff like between his legs with two balls at a time or behind his back with two balls.”

– The players were treated to an evening at Dave & Buster’s in Times Square, Saturday night…Incidentally, one guy nearly missed all the fun, as Jackson fell asleep on the bus ride from the Elizabeth, NJ hotel to NYC. He basically said his mind told him to get up but his body had other ideas, saying, “I had to get that sleep, man. I was dying,” he sheepishly said, taking playful ribbing from yours truly and Christian Watford. Jackson had the last laugh, however, because it looks like his ’10 class will be heading to Brazil, while Watford’s upperclassmen may be heading to Africa. “Hey, Africa is fun, too,” quipped Jackson, teasing Watford because he’s really anxious to see the Brazilian landscape and the rest of the beautiful, um, “scenery.”

– Speaking of the ladies, on a more serious note, adidas will be starting a Girls Grassroots Basketball program next year and are earnestly looking for sponsors to help get out the word. The man in charge of running this program is John E. Phillips, III, aka “Pops.” Coach Phillips is looking to tap into a rich base of talented and intelligent women ballers. “People don’t know because the media doesn’t give us the same type of love,” he lamented. “Seriously, when the boys had their McDonald’s All-American game they got a full page of recap, while the girls’ game got this much space [holding his thumb and pointer finger about an inch apart]. We need to get the media coverage to match the passion these girls and fans have for girl’s and women’s basketball because it’s out there. The WNBA is great and a wonderful thing but we need even more exposure. Someone to back us like Oprah. Seriously, you think Oprah wouldn’t back this if word got out to her? This is a great cause because basketball is a springboard for greater things in life. This game can open up doors that otherwise wouldn’t be open to all girls. Not just women of color but realistically it would especially open up doors for our ladies.” Here’s hoping Coach Phillips’s dream is soon realized. And here’s hoping SLAM and our millions of fans/readers/Linkstigators can do our parts, too.

– Final note: a special thanks to everyone at adidas for the total access and hospitality, specifically the energetic and candid Kalish and the wonderfully talented Wise; to Coach Schilling for taking time to chat me up between and after workouts [he actually kind of remembered me when, as a youngin’, I weaseled my way into the Nets locker room, thanks to a buddy who ran the equipment room]; to Sports Illustrated columnist Kevin Armstrong for allowing me to bum a ride to lunch and enjoy his company; and to longtime friend/colleague Adam Zagoria for his time and knowledge. But a special appreciation for the ballers, who are every bit the fine, young men whose shoulders upon which the adidas Nation is resting…I’ve had the pleasure of going to a few high school camps over the years and the adidas Nation was very organized, had a great flow, and the message was simple: “You’re Here To Work!” And it didn’t matter if the camp was held in front of a sellout crowd or in front of the [maybe] 100 spectators total there really were in attendance all weekend. This classy camp was for the benefit of the athletes and not to put on a show of how bombastic blue-chippers can be. It was simply a fundamental camp where egos where checked at the door and coaches were encouraging yet demanding. No eggshells, no verbal bouquets, and no hemming and hawing from the ballers. It was rather refreshing.