Rising stars – some with posse in tow – jet set from one exotic location to another as coaches, scouts and exuberant fans alike follow their every move. Well, without LeBron James on the scene things might not be quite so extravagant but the entire summer circuit is still a site to behold.
What begins in early April culminates in late July and early August and there are plenty of surprises along the way. After spending countless hours traveling and evaluating, it is always fun to take a few weeks off, look back at the summer that was and reflect on all of the sights, sounds and events that made the 2003 AAU and summer camp circuit.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
It only makes sense that I start out with some background regarding this year's tour stops. Things got rolling with a Late April flight to Las Vegas for Dana and David Pump's Easter Tournament. May's destinations included the Jayhawk Invitational in Lawrence, the St. Louis Eagles Invitational – in of all places St. Louis -- and the Nike Memorial Day Classic in Bloomington, IN.
During June things tend to slow down a little, but there was still time to hit Wichita, KS for Wichita State team camp and Colorado Springs, CO for the USA Basketball Developmental Festival. After getting some "rest", it was time for the always hectic open evaluation period of July.
This year's stops included Indianapolis for the Nike All-American Camp, Denton, TX for the Great American Shootout and Kansas City twice for Jerry Mullen's tournament and the Price Chopper Invitational. Most importantly there was the annual stop in Las Vegas for the greatest spectacle in all of high school athletics - the Las Vegas Big Time.
From a scouting perspective, the best events were USA Basketball and the Great American Shootout. At USA Basketball, there are only 48 of the top players in the country, plenty of games and relaxed atmosphere which allows for in depth evaluating. The Great American Shootout is probably the best kept secret in America and features seven talent loaded courts within a 100 yards of each other.
From a fun standpoint, it doesn't get better than the Big Time. As long and hot as the days are in Las Vegas, the nights can be downright steamy and this year was particularly special for this writer as it was my last as a single man. Not only that, a slew of friends made their way out to Vegas for a truly memorable tournament and Bachelor Party.
THE FAB FIVE
In trying to determine my player of the summer, I ran into several roadblocks. Ultimately, I couldn't pick just one and decided to name my all summer first team of rising seniors.
PG Shaun Livingston - The slender 6-6 wunderkind from Peoria clearly established himself as the top play maker in the land. He possesses passing instincts from another world and his added scoring tools and athleticism left onlookers drooling all summer long.
WG Joe Crawford - Easily one of the most entertaining and demonstrative athletes on the summer circuit, the 6-4 Detroit native proved he was so much more than an athlete. He shoots with confidence from deep, plays defense, finds teammates and gets to the rack where he smashes home emphatic slams.
WF Marvin Williams - Big Marv marches to the beat of his own drummer and is a refreshing change on the summer circuit. Devoid of ego but replete with all around game, he just goes out there and sticks it to whoever gets in his way and is all smiles off the court even if he loses cool points here and there for yanking his trunks up into his armpits a la Steve Urkel.
BF Al Jefferson - He's strong, mean and nasty. Unlike so many of today's hip hop urban baller he does his work with moxy, skill and old school funk on the low box. At 6-8 and 265 pounds or so, this man child can also face you up and drill a 17 footer in your grill if you give him room and was as feared a competitor as there was on the summer circuit.
C Dwight Howard - He'll be a BF on the next level which will most likely be the NBA after he is drafted in the top three – if not number one - in the 2004 draft, but I had to slot him here to get him on the team. He's long, athletic, finishes with both hands, fundamentally sound and seems to only get better. Not many would argue Dwight's claim to the number one spot in the class of 2004.
TEAM OF THE SUMMER
Wow, what a tough choice. The New York Gauchos won three major tournament titles and Pump ‘N Run book-ended their circuit run with championship trophies at the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions and the Best of Summer. But I have to give the nod to the Atlanta Celtics.
Did they win every tournament they played in like expected? No. Still this is summer hoops and nobody wins everything. Plus it isn't like they threw up all over themselves either. Credentials like making the finals of Gibbons, final four at the Three Stripes and Best of Summer, champions of the Rose City Showcase and the Atlanta Basketball Classic are impressive enough. However, it was their performance in a championship run at the Big Time which cements them as the team of the summer in my mind.
As the most heavily scrutinized AAU team since the Myron Piggie era KC 76'ers, the Celtics led by their big three of Dwight Howard, Randolph Morris and Josh Smith not only lived up to the hype, they did it in ridiculously entertaining fashion. Playing to packed crowds, the Celts sent everybody home happy with their high flying style of basketball and blowout win after blowout win under the hottest white of lights.
WHO'S SHOOTING, MADE YOU LOOK
Shooters are, and will always remain, a premium in the game of basketball. Here's five guys that stood out for me.
Bryce Taylor - Arguably the premier shooter in all the land, the 6-4 Taylor developed from a guy who was strictly a catch and shoot type into to a do not let him shoot at any cost types. If he cocks and fires, defenders might as well head the other way because he is stripping the net.
A.J. Price - Like any New York PG, Price is a flashy ball handler and passer but his three point stroke really sets him apart from other PG's.
Chamberlain Oguchi - A true Texas gunslinger, it can get downright silly when the 6-4 Oguchi has his jump shot rolling.
A.J. Abrams - The first member of the Class of 2005 to make our list, the diminutive Abrams is a lights out shooter, especially from the wing. He's already committed to hometown Texas.
Josh Shipp - Another L.A. area product, Shipp has a picture perfect stroke and spent all summer making defenders pay for giving him the slightest look from deep.
Hopefully none of the guys who make this list ever end up in prison, because things won't go well for them as much as they like to drop dimes.
Sebastian Telfair - Yep, he is finally a senior and he is still a masterful passer. Bassy's ball handling wizardry and everything else that comes along with it will be missed on the circuit.
Jordan Farmar - UCLA bound PG doesn't look the part but he sure as heck plays it. Careless at times, he picks it up when it counts and wills his way into the lane where he finds teammates for easy buckets.
Shaun Livingston - It isn't just hyperbole, the kid passes like the Magic man.
Ron Steele - The ‘Bama commitment isn't overly flashy, he just gets the job done and puts his teammates in position to make things happen.
Trent Meachum - That's right, this underrated PG from Champaign, IL is as good a passer as there is in the high school ranks. He isn't flashy, he's just a leader in every sense.
THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES
Of course, I've got to show a little love to the high risers. These are the guys that not only throw down nasty flushes but they do it with some pizzazz in ways you usually only see in video games. J.R. Smith - The explosive Smith is a leaper supreme at 6-5 and fears no man when attacking the rim. He's got a flair for the dramatic and always seems to hang in the air and elevate that extra inch he needs to in order to embarrass some cat standing in his way.
Josh Smith - The 6-9 Smith probably established himself as the premier dunker in the high school ranks. Not only does he jump out of the gym, but he takes off from a long way outside the rim. To truly understand how sick he can be, you need to find a tape of his fully extended windmill from a good foot outside of the lane in Las Vegas.
Brandon Rush - This 6-6 long armed athletic freak absolutely loves to cram at any opportunity and is a whiz when it comes to finishing alley oops. Not only that, he likes to entertain the crowd. From tomahawks to 360's to between the legs, this human pogo does it all with ease.
Sean Morris - The smallest of the bunch at only 5-10 – and that could be generous - Morris deserves some serious credit for his aerial antics. It is impressive enough when a smurf like Morris smashes home a tip dunk among the trees, but it is downright obscene when he catches an errant shot, spins 180 degrees and tosses home a tip jam with two hands backwards like he did in Vegas.
Marquise Gray - This 6-7 beast from F-L-I-N-T isn't quite as flashy as the rest of the gang but he sure is entertaining. Each and every time he bangs one home he does his best to tear the rim from the backboard. Even better - and the reason he makes this list - Gray gives a Moses Scurry like primal howl to make sure everybody in the gym knows that somebody just got ruined.
THE BOMB SQUAD
Each and every one of these kids has a quick trigger finger and they aren't shy about letting it fly from anywhere on the court.
Dupree Fletcher - A six foot scoring machine from Milwaukee, Fletcher is pretty much guaranteed to shoot it each and every time he touches it.
DeMarcus Nelson - The Duke bound wing loves to let it fly, but for the most part he is smart with all of his shots. He's only 6-2, but very powerful and bullies his way into the lane for hard earned buckets.
Louis Williams - A member of the Class of 2005, Williams is perhaps the ultimate gunner on the high school level. Sure he hits lots of acrobatic shots and draws the oohs and ahhs, but that is to be expected when your shots have the degree of difficulty that his do. Is it too early to call him DaJuan Wagner the 2nd?
J.R. Smith - He took 30 plus shots in a game at USA Basketball. Need I say more? He's awfully good, but he can be awfully shy about sharing the rock with his teammates from time to time.
Andre McGee - He can be a terrific outside shooter when he is on, but even the most frigid of cold streaks don't slow this 5-10 gunner from the class of 2005. He'll be 40 or 50 points waiting to happen by the time he graduates high school not only because he can fill it up, but because he is willing to take the shots.
A FEW MORE LISTS
Ok, I am almost done here but I have a few more lists I'd like to get to.
SMOOTH CRIMINALS - BEST DEFENDERS
Corey Brewer - Smooth 6-7 wing can shut down positions 1-4 and only adds to his exceptional offensive package with his defensive prowess.
Steven Hill - A human eraser at almost seven feet tall Hill spent the summer blocking almost everything in sight.
Lyndale Burleson - This Seattle native is a pit bull on the point and when he sinks in his claws it is a struggle for ball handlers to even get past half court.
Dwight Howard - It shouldn't surprise that this all around stud is a terrific post defender.
Lorenzo Mata - This 6-9 product from Los Angeles is perhaps the only defender in the country who stepped up to the challenge and gave the vaunted Celtics all they could want and more.
DESERVING OF A LITTLE MORE INK
Lamar Roberson - Another underrated wing, the 6-7 Roberson handles, shoots and has the athleticism and length you love on the wing. He'll make a lot of noise in Cali after moving from Louisiana.
Al Horford - Just watch, the 6-9 Horford will be one of the best post players the college game has to offer three years down the road.
Randolph Morris- Sure it is hard to call him underrated considering all the hype he got along with the Celtics, but he really is. Fundamentally sound 17 year old post players are so hard to come by and he is as good as it gets.
Channing Toney - A 6-4 guard from Georgia, Toney is solid in every aspect of the game and spends his time on the court making things happen. More refreshing is that he could care less about rankings.
FINALLY, THE TRASH TALKERS
Dorrell Wright - To be a truly elite trash talker you have to not only be able to run lip with the best of them, you need the requisite facial expressions and comments to the crowd. Wright has the entire package and brings the smack on an elite high major level.
Kyle Lowry - He just missed the gunner list but fits in nicely on the smack list. It is actually tough to tell who he is talking to at times, but his mouth is in constant motion and this emotional PG from the city of Brotherly Love lets everybody know what is on his mind.
Shawne Williams - A 6-8 wing from Memphis, Williams could have made quite a few of these lists but his understanding of the fine art of free throw line jibba jabbing places him on the smack list. Interestingly enough, opponents seem to enjoy most of the noise he has to offer when he is flapping his gums as is evidenced by their chuckling. He's also plenty of fun to rap with off the court.
Arron Afflalo - Afflalo is pretty well built for a shooting guard and has the toughness to back up his smack talk. You won't see many sissies from Compton and Afflalo is anything but soft. More importantly, the yapping stops as soon as the game ends and he looks to respected, if not well liked, by many of his peers.
Kool Aid - That's right, Kool Aid. For those that don't know Kool Aid is the coach for the California based Inland squad and the undeniable king of running smack. He racks up technical fouls by the case load and nobody is safe from his razor sharp tongue. He is certainly over the top, but there is absolutely no denying the fact that he is one of the single most entertaining and passionate characters in grassroots basketball.