Fresh report from the LeBron James Skills Academy

If you’re visiting Akron, and you tell someone who’s from Akron that you’re glad to be in Akron, the person who’s from Akron will look at you like there’s something wrong with your brain.

This happened to me a few times over the weekend.

It’s true that Akron, Ohio is not exactly a cultural mecca, nor is it known for great weather or great food or beautiful women or — up until a few years ago — much of anything beyond tires. Now, of course, it’s known for tires, an unexpectedly great, neo-traditional two-man blues/rock band that makes strange but entertaining videos, and one really good basketball player. I was there partially to see that one basketball player, and being back in a town where I probably spent too much time following that player while he was still in high school gave me a chance to see a lot of people I’d met back then and hadn’t seen much since. This was cool, as was finally finding my way to Swensons, the old-school drive-in with the dope burgers and milkshakes where I actually went for dinner on Saturday and lunch again on Sunday. If they had one of these in State College I would eat there twice a week, every week. It’s still no In-N-Out, but I am not mad at Swensons.

What was I talking about?

Yeah, so, actually, I was in Akron for the LeBron James Skills Academy, the four-day camp that essentially replaced the Nike All-American Camp as the showcase Swoosh summer high school event. As you should know by now, Nike, Reebok and adidas all flipped the grassroots script this summer, with Nike’s long-running A-A Camp in Indianapolis and Sonny Vaccaro’s signature ABCD Camp going the way of the dodo bird and intelligent, commercially viable hip-hop. I cannot specifically compare Nike’s new version with its old version, because I never actually made it out to Indy for the old All-American Camp; I was always happily immersed in the loosely organized chaos of ABCD, both because its New Jersey location made it easier to get to from NYC, and because it usually had the best kids.

This year, at least, Nike snatched that crown hands down.

LeBron Camp, held at the University of Akron’s Rhodes Arena, was the culmination of the other by-position Skills Academies — Steve Nash had the pg’s, Kobe had the twos, Vince had the wings and Amare worked the bigs — that Nike ran at various spots the week before. Most of the 80 kids who were at those four camps made it out to Akron for this one, and based on a very unscientific per-capita system I just made up in my head, it’s difficult to imagine a higher concentration of prep talent in one place — and that’s not even counting when LeBron was on the floor.

I’ll go ahead and beat haters to the punch and get the d*ck-riding out of the way now: It would’ve been easy for Bron to make a cameo or two, say a few words, blah blah blah. Instead, he spent pretty much the whole damn day in the gym on Saturday and the afternoon and evening on Sunday, watching and playing. It was only a little bit crazy to see him take the court during the Saturday dinner break, running alongside the college counselor/campers who were in town for the weekend. It was only a little bit crazy because, in most cases, Bron’s only a year or two older than most of these guys, and given the caliber of player in attendance — guys like UNC’s Ty Lawson, Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, Michigan State’s Drew Neitzel, Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds, Marquette’s Wes Matthews, Memphis’ Chris Douglas Roberts and Stanford’s Lopez twins, Brook and Robin — it’s not like a lot of these dudes won’t be in the League with him in another year or two anyway.

But then you pull back a second and remember that every one of these very good college players is wearing LeBron James’ name or logo on their jerseys, shorts, socks and shoes, and you wonder how much of a head trip it must be. As it was, Bron took these runs dead serious, yapping non-stop on both ends, and subliminally alterering calls and the scoreboard on more than one occasion, especially when he kept his team on for seven or eight straight during the winners-stays, game-to-7 runs on Saturday afternoon. With the camp being closed to the public and most of the media types not bothering to stick around when the high school kids weren’t running (and some not bothering to do anything other than schmooze with the big-name D1 coaches, thus missing most of the relevant reasons for going to Akron in the first place), it was a pretty intimate setting to watch some of the best returning college players in the nation running alongside one of the two or three best basketball players on the planet. This was cool.

(Speaking of big-name coaches, the talent concentration wasn’t only limited to the courts. While most mid- and low-majors didn’t bother sending a coach, the who’s who of D1 sideline egos were out in force in Akron in all their polo-and-khaki, offseason-tan glory. At any given point on Saturday or Sunday, you could see all of these guys in your field of vision: Mike Krzsssskehdknki, Bill Donovan, Jim Calhoun, Thad Matta, Rick Barnes, Bob Huggins, Bill Self, Tubby Smth, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Ben Howland, Bruce Pearl, Rick Pitino and John Thompson III. Holla.)

But again, it was only a little bit crazy — what was completely f*cking loony was seeing LeBron keep his gear on when the high school kids came back from dinner and start running in one of those games. Again, most of the best high school players in the country were here, and some of these kids are as big and strong and athletic as we’ve come to expect from modern-day 11th and 12-grade hoop phenoms. But still, the man-among-boys factor was in full effect. Credit most of these kids for not looking too shook by sharing a court with the King — even if they were scheduled to line up for pictures and autographs with him the next morning.

And these kids? Tempting as it was to forget, what with Bron running sh*t and all these dope college kids going head-to-head, the high schoolers were the reason I went out to Akron in the first place. Thankfully, they did not disappoint. The schedule saw some introductory workouts on Friday afternoon, with the real work getting underway Saturday morning. On both weekend days, the schedule was essentially the same: Morning sessions that worked on position skills, “combo ” work (pairing bigs and littles) that focused running and defending a million variations of the pick and roll, and in general a lot of bread-and-butter repetition of half-court skills that figure to serve these kids well at the next level(s). The instructors were a mix of former college coaches and random names like Craig Ehlo (looking pretty much exactly as he did when Jordan dropped that dagger over him damn near 20 years ago), Jay Bilas (who I sadly did not have a chance to ask if Josh Smith’s 16 points, 9 boards and 3 blocks last season constituted a “bust”) and Rick Brunson, who is finally retired from his well-traveled playing days and, even after just half a season as a player development coach with the Nuggets, seems poised to become a very well-respected NBA or college assistant very soon.

The games took place in the afternoons and evenings: Two sessions each night on Friday and Saturday, four games per session, meaning each of the eight camp teams played a scrimmage on Friday, twice a day on the weekend and once more on Monday afternoon. No all-star games, no playoff format, just runs that were meant to stress team play, running real offenses and staying away from the isolation/showtime vibe that often defines these sorts of camps. That, and the aforementioned concentration of talent, made it a little harder for some kids to stand out like they might have in other formats, but it’s probably also healthier for these kids’ games.

And about that talent concentration: About all you need to know is that one camp squad, Syracuse (each of the eight teams was named for a prominent Nike program), featured all-everything Philly guard Tyreke Evans and all-everything Louisiana big man Greg Monroe (pictured) each of whom is or has been ranked as the No. 1 player in the class of 2008 in the past two years — and they didn’t dominate. That’s because the Arizona lineup featured athletic SoCal two guard Demar DeRozan and raw shot-blocking machine John Riek from Long Island (by way of Sudan), and because the Kentucky squad teamed the deceptively low-key forward Al-Farouq Aminu from Georgia and the beastly Samardo Samuels from Jersey, and Duke ran out the loaded lineup of smooth Jersey guard Dexter Strickland, smooth Kentucky wing Scotty Hopson, and relentless NYC wing Lance Stephenson, and… you get the point. Truthfully, it was hard to watch a game and find a single kid who didn’t belong on the court, and while that made it a bit harder for kids to stand out, the good ones, as always, found a way.

Who was really, really good? Well, I tried to pay attention, and despite the temporary food coma brought on by my Sunday lunch of Swensons’ cheesburg with everything, extra-well-done fried zucchini and life-affirming 32 oz. banana milkshake, I did ok. Here, in no particular order, you go…

John Riek: As mentioned, raw is the first, second and third words that come to mind when watching the Sudanese kid whose age (16? 19?) and eligibility (he’s listed as 2009, though there were rumors of a reclassification to 2010) were the subject of much sideline discussion. Here’s what we know for sure: Listed at 6-11, Riek appears to own the wing-span of a 747 — my man is f*cking long. He’s slender, too, but not anorexically skinny, and if he can add some lower-body strength (not easy when your waist is five feet off the ground) and improve on his footwork, it’s gonna be trouble. Raw as he is, you can already see a basic understanding of what he’s supposed to do with the ball when he gets it in the post; he’s not strong enough yet to actually do it much of the time, especially against high-level comp, and there was no shortage of 6-7 kids smacking the ball out of his hands when he brought it down to gather himself under the rim. But assuming he gets comfortable in the States (he apparently just arrived in January), two years of decent high school coaching and another year or two in college, watch out.

Greg Monroe: This weekend was my first time seeing one of our 2006 PUNKS cover boys in person, and my first impression was “young David Robinson.” Like the late 80s/early 90s version of D-Rob, the 6-10 Monroe is slender but strong and more versatile than the younger members of our readership probably remember. But the more I watch Monroe, the more I settled on this comparison: Al Harrington. That may seem underwhelming, considering Al has been a very good pro but not that dominant, All-Star type a lot of people thought he might be. I’m not sure how good Monroe will be in 10 years, but right now, his size, athleticism and inside-out game remind me of Al’s. In one string of three straight possessions on Sunday, he had a driving dunk (and 1), led a three-on-one break that ended with a nice look-away dime, and came back with another drive and slam from the wing. He’s, like, good and stuff.

Mike Harthun: The second banana on Kyle Singler’s state-title-winning South Medford (OR) High squad, Harthun showed why he’ll generate plenty of attention on his own next season now that Singler’s in Durham. The 6-2 point doesn’t have Singler’s superstar potential, but he’s a smooth, confident player with a nice shot and nice handle who should have no trouble in the Pac-10 when he joins Washington State in 2008.

Matt Humphrey: First time I saw this kid Saturday, the 6-4 Chicago wing’s pure lefty stroke caught my eye. He caught it a few more times on Sunday, more than once reconfirming what a good shooter he is, and showing some athleticism to go with it. Big Ten programs have a line on this Windy City standout, but for readers who can connect a few dots, seeing Humphrey land at Oregon this time next year should not surprise. Worldwide, baby.

Luke Loucks: Watching that loaded Syracuse roster on Saturday, a Nike PR homie joked that with all the big-name talent on that squad, no one would be putting the name “Luke Loucks” on the dry-erase board where media members requested interviews. He was right — I didn’t — but I sure as hell paid attention to him. This 6-3 combo guard is committed to Florida State, and that and his pale skin are probably what prompted the “Bobby Sura” comment from some guy sitting behind me. But he also appears to share Sura’s all-around game: Better-than-expected athleticism, nice stroke, handles, you name it. From now on, I’m gonna call him “Sheek Loucks.” Play wit it!

Demar DeRozan: My man Rob Harrington at PrepStars points out that if taking more than two dribbles at a time were illegal, DeRozan might be the best player in the ’08 class. Ok, so his handle still needs some work, but the 6-5 wing from the City of Compton has pretty much everything else: hops, quickness, and an ever improving outside stroke. The fact that he’s obviously working a lot on his game bodes well for USC — if he keeps this up, maybe OJ will even stick around for his sophomore year.

Tony Woods: Admittedly, this 6-9, 235-pound junior from Georgia didn’t catch my eye more than once or twice on the weekend, but when he did, it was usually because he was trying to tear a rim off a backboard. You heard it here: Tony Woods is good at dunking.

Demarcus Cousins: Even surrounded by this much talent, no-joke post moves from a high school kid will get your attention, and that’s what Cousins did better than almost anyone else at camp. The 6-10 Alabama native is also just a junior, meaning he’s got two years to hone that low-post game, not to mention his better-than-average range. You’ve been warned.

Ferrakohn Hall: Hustle plays will help you stand out, too, and this Memphis product, another ’09 standout, made enough of them to earn a mention here.

Brad Tinsley: Another Oregon kid. Shooter. Money.

Xavier Henry: Yet another 2009 standout, Henry goes 6-6. He’s from Oklahoma. He does all the things required of a very good high school basketball player. I think you will be hearing more from him before too long.

Tyreke Evans: You will definitely be hearing more from ‘Reke soon, perhaps in his own words, perhaps in a monthly basketball magazine with which you may be familiar. For now, know that he’s had a great summer so far, doing pretty much anything he wants to whenever he wants to, despite playing most of the summer so far with a bad back. He didn’t look hurt in Akron, picking his spots offensively and still getting to the rim with ease, and showing great hands and instincts on D. Reports of his demise — mostly by the same scouting services who hyped him so much in the first place before deciding he wasn’t living up to their expectations — have been greatly f*cking exaggerated. Tyreke is aight.

Ralph Sampson: Yes, as in “Jr.” something that’s obvious as soon as you see his face. He’s not quite as thin as his dad was, and he’s probably not gonna dominate in college like his dad did at UVA, but the 6-11 Georgia product figures to be a pretty good college player.

Dexter Strickland: You know how some guys just have that look on their face where they really don’t look cocky, but just so self-assured that you know they know they’re good? Strickland is like that. The 6-3 guard from St. Pat’s in Jersey just plays with that smooth confidence that only comes when you have a lot of game. And he does.

Lance Stephenson: The ’09 combo guard still goes to the basket harder and stronger than just about anyone. He still gets frustrated easily, too, but that doesn’t keep him from being one of the best players on floor every time he’s on the floor.

I could go on, but I think writing this post is giving me carpal tunnel, so I’ll sum up: 1) The new-look Nike Camp seems to be an improvement on the old version, with fewer kids being a case of less is more, since most of the kids who didn’t make the were theoretically the lower-level kids anyway; 2) the ’08 and ’09 classes (not to mention ’10 and ’11 — I forgot to shout-out sophomore-to-be Jeremy Tyler of San Diego and freshman-to-be LaQuinton Ross of Mississippi, neither of whom embarrassed themselves and both of whom might be battling for SLAM covers in about four years) look to be in very good shape; 3) if you’re gonna put LeBron James’ name on something, it had better not suck. And the inaugural LeBron James Skills Academy definitely did not suck.