CHICAGO -- It was a big weekend. Saturday, with an entire nation at their back, the U.S. took a sad but wholly deserved loss to Ghana. Sunday, England divided itself between the twin complexes of inferiority and victimhood thanks to a 4-1 beating from the hated Germans. In my town, there were summer festivals and a gigantic culinary street party and beautiful weather and the Cubs playing the White Sox.
Me? I was in the middle of a gym watching basketball camp. And I couldn't have been happier.
It was my good fortune to attend the Nike Skills Camp at Attack Athletics on Chicago's west side this past weekend. To be more accurate, I attended a group of camps, each hosted respectively by Deron Williams, Amar'e Stoudamire, Paul Pierce and Kevin Durant. Each camp was based on position -- point guards with Williams, forwards with Stoudamire, "wings" with Pierce and Durant -- and hosted 20 of the best high school and college players at differing times.
The result was thrilling. There are a couple of reasons. The first? This non-recruiting reporter, someone who relies on the power of the Internet to view each year's incoming talent, got to see some of the better 2011 and 2012 recruits in the country, up close and personal.
The second? This college basketball fan, someone currently living through the offseason's brutal hoops drought, got to see some of college basketball's best players -- Nolan Smith, Jacob Pullen, Marcus Morris, Demetri McCamey, LaceDarius Dunn, and so on -- compete against each other in a closed setting. It was completely and totally awesome.
I'll have at least a couple of posts on the camps in the coming days, but for now let's empty the notebook of things I saw and heard at Attack during the two open media days. To the bullet points!
Five on five? Awesome. Saturday was the final day of the Williams-Stoudamire camps, which for the college guys meant one thing: Two courts, four teams, 5-on-5 with point guards and forwards combined. From a fan's perspective, this was the highlight of the camps. The lineups for one of the games will pretty much sum this up. One team featured McCamey, Pullen, Butler guard Shelvin Mack, Alabama forward JayMychal Green, and highly ranked Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter versus Smith, Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, Georgia forward Trey Thompkins, South Florida forward Gus Gilchrist, and Dayton senior Chris Wright.
The other court had McCamey teaming up with Morris, Penn State guard Talor Battle and Washington guard Isaiah Thomas. You get the point. It was, essentially, a college basketball all-star game -- two all-star games, actually -- played out only for the benefit of the players themselves, their camp coaches, the NBA scouts in the audience, and yours truly. (And Nike, too, I guess, which was unsurprisingly ubiquitous in the gym.) Pretty sweet, right?
Forget positions! Let them play! OK, I'll be quiet. Like I said, that was the last day of camp, and it stood in pretty stark contrast to the first day for the college campers at the Pierce/Durant wing camps on Sunday. Those players -- the rosters of which you can find here and here -- did lots of perimeter scoring drills, practiced a variety of catch-and-shoot options, and spent most of their time dodging chairs rather than defenders. The closest the camp got to actual competition was 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 drills to end the night, during which players weren't allowed to dribble more than once each during a possession. It was first-day-of-camp stuff. For someone hoping the coaches would unleash 20 of sport's best young wings in a full-on, 5-on-5 competition irrespective of position -- think about how great that game would have been -- it was slightly disappointing.
Enes Kanter is big, that's for sure. There were just a few incoming freshmen at the camps. One was Harrison Barnes; for more, read here. Another was Ohio State recruit Jared Sullinger (for more, check back Tuesday). Perhaps the most mysterious of any of the newcomers was Kentucky recruit Enes Kanter, who should start immediately for a Wildcat team that lost five players to the first round of the NBA draft Thursday night.
So can Kanter play? (Canter-he play? Sorry.) At the risk of making too much of a small sample size, yeah, he can, but he also needs work. Kanter noticeably struggled against some of the more experienced big men in his 5-on-5 work Saturday. His fundamentals around the basket are a bit unpolished, and he didn't attack the basket in the same way as, say, DeMarcus Cousins. But while Kanter lacks Cousins' intuitive talent, he is likewise a big, strong guy, with an impressively muscular frame. He won't set the world on fire -- or maybe he will; again, sample size -- but he should be fine.
Talk about unfair. One of the whimsical highlights of Sunday's camps was Durant's high school session. Durant was actively coaching and demonstrating with campers. Then, in a two-on-two drill, Durant decided to go through all the same repetitions as the campers, which meant that Kevin Durant, NBA All-Star and the youngest scoring champion in the history of the league, was playing (and playing hard) against a bunch of high school kids. These were talented high-schoolers, to be sure, but high-schoolers all the same. Durant was as effortlessly dominant as you'd assume. For their part, the kids didn't seem to mind; they were smiling and high-fiving throughout. I suppose I would be, too.
About those high schoolers. There was a wide smattering of ESPNU 100 players at the camps on Saturday and Sunday, and the highest-ranked recruits in the building showed why. There were a couple of especially impressive players, though. One was 6-foot-1 shooting guard Myles Davis. (I wasn't the only one who thought so.) Davis' name is pretty great, but it's not nearly as smooth as his jumper -- Davis was the best shooter at Sunday's wing camp, the rare high school kid who in his textbook mechanics and lightning-quick release looks like he's been shooting professionally for years.
Saturday's standout might have been Indiana native Cody Zeller, who at 6-foot-9 showed off both inside strength and touch from the perimeter. Between camps, AAU games, and recruiting, Zeller is in the middle of a whirlwind summer; he told me he hadn't been home more than "three or four days" in the entire month of June. Zeller has seen the recruiting process up close and personal before -- older brothers Tyler (North Carolina) and Luke (Notre Dame) were both highly rated recruits in their own right. It's possible he's the best of the three.
There's actually coaching, too. I was interested in the value of such camps -- beyond the chance to get your game in front of NBA scouts, why do players choose to come to camp rather than working out on their own? The answer is three-fold: One, the NBA thing. Two, the chance to play against some of the best players in the country in a controlled setting. And three, the coaching.
The NBA guys were hit or miss as far as coaching was concerned. Deron Williams was often quiet on the sideline, though he was clearly involved, while Stoudamire wasn't present at his last day of camp. Pierce and Durant were both much more involved.
But the real coaching lessons came from the Nike staff itself. One telling instance happened Sunday night, when one college hoopster executed a flare screen to perfection before nailing his open 3 from the corner. It was a demonstration of what the camp had been working on all day; the shooter drew applause for his efforts, for putting into practice what the camp had afforded him. But as he was basking in the praise, one coach yelled at him -- "Did you pass that to yourself too? Then thank your teammate!"
It was a miniature moment, but it was emblematic of a larger point. Sure, the summer camp circuit seems sketchy. It was hard to ignore the fact that the biggest chunk of the audience consisted of NBA scouts. But when players tell you that above all they come to camp to learn, they seem sincere. And even in a short, folding-chair heavy session, you can see what they mean.