Since 2002, these eyes have locked in on the Nike Hoop Jamboree every June in St. Louis and frankly, there isn't a national camp we look forward to more each year than the Jamboree. The event has served as a national launching pad for some pretty good careers and provided its share of special moments.
Way back when, before Greg Oden had been anointed the No. 1 pick in any draft he was eligible for, there was a tall kid from Indianapolis who hadn't made the big splash. The gentle giant took center stage against Tyler Hansbrough and Vernon "Big Ticket" Macklin.
After four days in camp, Oden had taken on all comers. He made short work of the best underclassmen the USA had to offer.
Stevie Wonder could have told you the best big man prospect in the nation was none other than Mr. Oden himself. The only measure of success anyone at the camp registered with a 3-on-3 title Hansbrough captured against Oden's team in a classic.
Back in 2002, a pair of pre-high schoolers ascended on camp. Demond Carter was fresh off an MVP performance in the Louisiana state championship as an 8th grader! He would have been the top point guard in attendance had a rising 8th grader named O.J. Mayo not shown up for his national debut.
Spencer Hawes, a year older than Cole Aldrich, left observers guessing if he was right handed or a lefty. Aldrich, then a relatively unheralded rising sophomore, stood his ground in the post. The only fair method to determine whose week was more impressive would have been a thumb war. By the way, Derrick Rose just happened to be the most complete guard that week.
Camps often are guard dominated but the Hoop Jamboree has a knack for putting the big dogs in the spotlight. Kosta Koufos was the main man in 2004 and finished as the week's top player. That same year Samardo Samuels barely cracked the Top 10 and Delvon Roe, then a decent baseball prospect, played well enough to be considered a Top 25 camper.
While Nick Calathes and Kalin Lucas went back and forth jockeying for position on the point guard list, Xavier Henry, then a freshman in the making, snuck in and stole the show from the wing position.
Last year, rising freshman Jeremy Tyler had an early line for best of show. Ganon Baker, one of America's foremost authorities on conditioning and individual improvement, couldn't believe his eyes when Tyler started collecting buckets against him in a drill. During the same sequence 3 other campers weren't able to get a shot off; Tyler bested them all and he hadn't scored a bucket in high school at that point.
Tyler's weeklong equal was DeMarcus Cousins. The aircraft carrier from Alabama was dominant. He used the Hoop Jam as a warm-up for the all-american camp three weeks later.
Finally, we leave you with a story of competition. Before Nike disbanded the All-American Camp in favor of the LeBron James Skills Academy, a handful of prospects would be promoted from the Hoop Jamboree. The kids were told in advance that a strong performance in the "minor league" could lead to the "major league" call-up for all-american camp.
Greg Paulus was a camper intent on receiving a promotion. For three days he went out with the same approach and winning mentality. Paulus, nervous that no one noticed him finally mustered up the courage and asked, "What are my chances?"
"Greg, you're on the bubble," one scout told him. Bubble? What bubble? Paulus had clearly punched his ticket two days ago. The only quantifiable thing left to measure was his heart and telling a little fib could be the only course of action.
In the camp's final session Greg Paulus was diving on the floor, hustling and playing so hard that at halftime the right thing to do was walk over and tell him to relax before he hurt himself. His bubble had no chance of bursting.