Playoffs on the line in Drew League regular season finale

LOS ANGELES -- On the final day of the 2011 Drew League regular season in South L.A. on Sunday, the focus was again on the NBA players who suited up in front of a packed house and, this time, attempted to qualify for the playoffs.

But, with no superstars in attendance, it was a different feel than normal. The best games on this day were between teams with good chemistry, not the teams with the best players. Sure, Washington Wizards guard Nick Young scored 60 points, a 2011 Drew League high -- but his team, Young Grangers, lost and he missed out on the playoffs.

Meanwhile, team K&E Bulls played without a single NBA player and won, securing a No. 1 overall seed for next weekend’s festivities.

“Yes, I’m in the NBA, and some of these guys aren’t,” said Sacramento Kings and Da Fam guard Pooh Jeter, who secured a 82-78 victory for his squad with solid play Sunday. “But, at the same time, they’re trying to crack us and we’re trying to crack them and let them know why we are where we’re at.

“Some of them don’t have the opportunity, you know. It’s all about the opportunity.”

The Drew League, being a pro-am, doesn’t give anybody an opportunity to make money to play basketball, as the NBA obviously does. But, for many, it provides another opportunity, the chance to blur the line between NBA’er and non-NBA’er in a 5-on-5 setting and test guys like Jeter and his teammate Sunday, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Samardo Samuels.

“We’re all hoopers,” said Samuels, playing in his second Drew game Sunday. “Some guys are NBA players -- some guys are not. But, this summer, with the lockout and all that, is giving guys more of an opportunity to go against each other and prove that they belong in the NBA.

“That’s fun, and I like that. You definitely get a chance to prove yourself.”

Samuels, an East Coast transplant, provides an interesting perspective who, as a high-schooler, was rated among the highest prospects in the land before heading to Louisville for college. While at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, he played at Rucker Park and many other highly-rated pro-ams up and down the coast.

He says the Drew measures up to all of them. Jeter, a Gardena native, says the beauty of it is in the competition -- in the constant possibility that the line might be blurred and an NBA player tested.

“I don’t care if it’s [Baron Davis] out here -- somebody’s gonna go hard because maybe they’ve been waiting on this for a while,” he said Sunday. “They’ll be watching us on TV and being like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to play against such and such in the Drew League this summer.' It’s not jealousy, it’s competition.

“And once you show them why you’re in the league -- how you get there -- then it’s just respect.”

Respect is shown in different ways, but it’s there. Non-NBA’ers respect NBA’ers by giving them their best efforts and challenging them to the best of their abilities. And NBA’ers, looking to stay in shape during the lockout many expect to last into the season, don’t take many plays off, for fear of being embarrassed by a relative no-name in the age of social media.

Jeter, who spent the 2010-2011 season with the Kings after three years in the Euroleague, knows all about that. A June dunk by 6-2 street-baller Tim Trew over his body still has people talking at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park in Florence-Graham, where the Drew games are played.

And, with his European experience, he also understands what may happen this fall, when leagues like the Drew close up shop for the year. With the NBA lockout still a gigantic question mark, many of these players could be going head-to-head in some European country come October or November.

“The league is first priority, of course,” said guard Marcus Banks, a 2003 first-round selection of the Boston Celtics who has been with six NBA teams in his eight-year career. “But I’m sure every guy in there is thinking about going overseas and playing over there until the lockout ends.

“But, other than that, the only thing I can continue to do is just work out every day and stay in shape and keep my mind right, and that’s what I do at the Drew.”

Bulls take No. 1 seed

At the end of three quarters in the other hotly-contested game of the day, Problems led the K&E Bulls by a score of 65-61. Former Cal State Fullerton swingman Gerard Anderson, an explosive dunker, was doing a lot of the scoring for a Problems team that was welcoming former D-Leaguer Mike Efevberha to its squad for the first time.

By the time four minutes were left in the fourth, the Bulls had caught up, and, with two minutes to go, they had taken a six-point lead, 82-76. Anderson hit a dramatic 3-pointer to halve the margin but couldn’t hit another after a turnover, and the Bulls took the 90-82 win and a No. 1 seed in their half of the playoff bracket.

They’ll lead off the first round Friday at 6:30 p.m. against a still-to-be-determined team.

“It was a playoff atmosphere in there,” said Bulls guard Deon Tresvant, Cal State Northridge’s leading scorer for two seasons from 2007-2009 who has not played professionally since he left the Matadors. “We were losing late -- they made a run -- so we had to make a run and come back, and eventually we did that and we put it out.

Anderson, Problems’ leading scorer Sunday, said chemistry was an issue for his squad.

“This team probably has four or five dudes, if even that many, who’ve been here since day one,” said Anderson, who spent last season with three different National Basketball Development League teams. “That team’s been together all year.”

Not just all year, according to Tresvant. Many of the K&E Bulls’ players, like ex-Cal State L.A. guard Eric Flournoy and ex-Florida International guard Dejon Prejean, have played together since they were kids. That’s why, in a league full of more talented players, the Bulls lost only two of 11 regular season games.

“We don’t have any pros, or any trades, or anything like that,” Tresvant said. “We pretty much kept our same team throughout the season. And you can see it. There’s a difference.”

The path to success in the Drew League goes like this: find a couple NBA-caliber players and surround them with teammates they are both familiar and comfortable with. Keep the roster intact throughout the 11-week Drew season. That’s what most of the top teams have done this summer, like Hank’s Blazers,”which features Detroit’s Austin Daye and Denver’s Kenneth Faried, and C.O.A, which features Banks and Los Angeles Clippers forward Craig Smith.

Those two teams lost a combined three of 22 games. Team Go H.A.M., which shuffled in and out stars like Kevin Durant and Derrick Williams but couldn’t find continuity, lost four games on its own.

“You have to,” said Banks, who is now a free agent after a five-year, $21 million contract expired this offseason. “If you think about it, if you’ve got one NBA star on your team and you don’t know the other four guys on the floor, it’s like, ‘I don’t have confidence in them yet.’

“But I know these guys. I know where they’re at at all times, I know what they’re capable of, and they know exactly what I’m gonna do on the floor and what I’m not gonna do.”

NBA players who suited up on the final day of the regular season included Smith, Young and Denver Nuggets’ first-round selection Jordan Hamilton. Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan also showed up but did not play.