Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – After waking up at 5 a.m. in Manhattan and taking a 3-hour train ride down here to D.C., I’m ensconced at the Verizon Center for the 2008 USA U18 Men’s National Team Trials.
Here’s a quick overview of what I learned and saw from the morning session, with another one set for 5 o’clock.
WHO’S HERE: There are 18 players vying for 12 roster spots on the U18 team that will head to Formosa, Argentina later this month for the 2008 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. Among those 18, six are incoming college freshman and 12 are rising college seniors. Only four of the seniors have yet to pick a college (Lance Stephenson, Dominic Cheek, Ari Stewart and Ryan Kelly.)
WHO’S NOT: Rising senior and North Carolina commit Dexter Strickland of St. Patrick of Elizabeth (hamstring) and Virginia-bound Sylven Landesberg of Queens Holy Cross (ankle) were both on the initial roster, but are absent due to injury.
WHO’S WHO OF COACHES: The head coach for the team is Davidson’s Bob McKillop, a true taskmaster (more on that later), and his two top assistants are Anthony Grant of Virginia Commonwealth and John Thompson III of Georgetown. Other heavyweights in attendance and on the Collegiate Committee are Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Tubby Smith of Minnesota and Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski.
WHO PLAYED WELL SO FAR: Jerry Meyer of Rivals said to me when I arrived today, “If you were picking a starting five based on Tuesday, I would go Kemba Walker (point guard), Travis Releford (shooting guard), Dominic Cheek (small forward), Ryan Kelly (power forward) and JaMychal Green (center). Green is actually listed as a forward, but that’s a good start.
As for the early session Wednesday, Walker and Cheek both played great and seem locks to make the squad for Argentina. The UConn-bound Walker finished with 2 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 turns in a three-quarter scrimmage. Cheek has played very well despite a dislocated finger on his left hand. He is a long, athletic wing who can score off the bounce, and is also a strong shooter. (FYI, Cheek says he’ll cut down his infinitely long college list “down to 10” after his run with USA Basketball ends.)
“Cheek and Kelly are the best shooters,” Meyer said.
ACC IN THE HOUSE: The ACC leads the way with four players here, three North Carolina commits (DAvid and Travis Wear and Leslie McDonald) and one Duke (Mason Plumlee). The Big East has three, Kemba Walker (UConn), Maalik Wayns (Villanova) and Hollis Thompson (Georgetown).
THE LANCE FACTOR: As for the 6-5 Stephenson, he had a rough morning session before turning it around after a pep talk from McKillop. Stephenson pouted and openly criticized his teammates at times, and also forced the action to the hoop when he should’ve taken the open jumper.
McKillop talked in his ear at midcourt before the final quarter, and Lance turned around his play with a steal and layup, a post-up move and a driving lay-in in the final quarter, the only one won by his white team, 12-8.
“He needs to make the easy plays,” McKillop said. “He’s got remarkable athleticism, remarkable skill. Sometimes he tries to hit a home run. He had an open jump shot from 12 feet. Instead of taking the open jumper, he went into traffic and tried to make a play. He’s already got the play made, but a single would’ve been easier. He wanted to hit the home run.”
Still, Lance showed his usual knack for driving to the hoop and simply overpowering defenders on the way. He could be a big-time scorer if he can buy into the system on this team.
“It’s a lot different,” Lance said. “Everybody’s good here. Everybody’s playing hard. Everybody’s trying to make the team, so everybody’s trying to impress all the coaches. So everybody’s playing hard, even if they have to foul, they’re going to do it. So that’s why I think it’s tough for everyone here.”
He added: “It’s not all about sneaker camps or LeBron camp or any other camp. It’s more about playing for your country and doing something that’s really important for other people.”
TOUGH CHOICES: I had lunch with a few fellow scribes and we made a rough attempt at picking a team. Here’s one problem: Twins David and Travis Wear, both committed to North Carolina, are virtually indistinguishable in their play, so we think you either have to take both of them or neither. Hard to cut one brother and leave the other home. If the committee takes both, that may cost someone else a roster spot, like a Kenny Hall, the 6-8 center headed to Tennessee.
RUNNING THE POINT: The team only has three legitimate point guards in Walker, Villanova-bound Maalik Wayns and UCLA commit Malcolm Lee and Lee did not distinguish himself. Walker and Wayns seem almost automatic.
POTENTIAL CUTS: I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or cause any bad blood, but at this point these players appear like they could get the ax: Lee, Hall, F Reeves Nelson (injured and missed Wednesday morning), and G Matt Humphrey. That would leave two more players to be cut….Other candidates include Ari Stewart and Wesley Witherspoon. We hear there is a certain amount of politics involved, meaning Hollis Thompson is pretty safe because he committed to Georgetown but has yet to sign his LOI and so is Duke commit Mason Plumlee…because you gotta have a Duke guy. McKillop says they’ll cut it down to 14 players by tomorrow morning, then again to 12 on July 7.
(Photo courtesy Steven Maikoski, USA Basketball)
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.