A weekend of drills and scrimmages for elite preps

BEAVERTON, Oregon -- Thousands upon thousands of young boys across this country shoot basketballs in their backyards every day, dreaming of becoming the next Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

This past weekend, in the northwest corner of Oregon, 21 of them got one step closer to making that dream come true, when Nike hosted 21 of the top male high school basketball players in the country for a three-day clinic dubbed the Nike Skills Academy.

"The premise is to get our best young kids, high school All-Americans, working out, and not just running up and down," camp director Kevin Eastman said. "We want to bring teaching and drilling into the equation."

Now in its third year of existence, the Skills Academy already counts current NBAers Andrew Bynum (Lakers), Andray Blatche (Wizards) and Louis Williams (76ers) among its alumni, along with college standouts Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina), Julian Wright (Kansas), Richard Hendrix (Alabama) and Chris Douglas-Roberts (Memphis).

I was lucky enough to be allowed to watch.

Things got under way in the afternoon with a tour of Nike World Headquarters, which is a sprawling 176-acre campus that is immaculately maintained. There are 17 buildings on campus, each named after an athlete who has been important to Nike's growth over the years. It's weird, and fun, to see road signs directing you to go left for Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm and Ken Griffey, or right for Pete Sampras, Jerry Rice and Tiger Woods.

After an early dinner, the first workout was held Saturday evening at the Bo Jackson Sports and Fitness Center, with 17 players present (four didn't arrive until Sunday morning). The 18 rising seniors and three juniors -- handpicked by Nike scouts amongst a group of approximately 50 candidates -- are in the inline box to the right.

The man in charge is Eastman, a former college head coach at UNC-Wilmington and Washington State and a former assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. Eastman is now Nike's national director of youth basketball. He had several assistant coaches helping him, including John Carroll (former Celtics assistant and interim head coach), former UCLA coach Steve Lavin (now an ESPN TV analyst) and former NBA player Craig Ehlo.

Outfitted in blue-and-white reversible uniforms and brand-new sneakers (which they couldn't keep), the players were put through the first of five extremely intense workouts. It began with some serious stretching exercises and ballhandling drills, followed by some other drills and then scrimmaging at the end. And I have to admit, I spent most of the time just trying to figure out who the players were -- I'd already heard of most of them but didn't know their faces, and there were no numbers or names on their jerseys.

One thing's for sure, there was no wasted time during these workouts. They went from one drill to the next seamlessly, with no extended water breaks. The kids clearly were working hard and showed a lot of enthusiasm, clapping their hands often.

One player stood out to me that first night: Chris Wright, who already has committed to Dayton. He wasn't one of the most highly touted kids at the Skills Academy, but watching him do one particular shooting drill, in which the players pump-faked and took one dribble before releasing their jump shot, you could clearly see the intensity in his eyes.

Towards the end of the second 15-minute scrimmage, the play was getting rather sloppy. Eastman chided the players in their final huddle of the night.

"We could get this game in Mississippi, we could get this game in New Jersey, we could get this game in Tennessee," Eastman said. "Come on, let's get better tomorrow."

With that, the team boarded the bus back to their hotel, where a bunch of pizzas soon were delivered. There was also a room set up so the players could hang out and play video games, but they didn't have much time to do so -- lights out was at 11 p.m. sharp. And they had a long two days ahead of them.

The first of two workouts on Sunday started at 9:30 a.m. But even before the workout began, most of the players were working on specific shots or drills. No one was horsing around.

Lavin opened things up by giving the guys a brief talk about the importance of listening and staying hungry. Then they did some stretching and ballhandling drills again, before receiving instruction on the main subject of the morning workout: the pick-and-roll. It was very detail-oriented. Eastman lectured to them about the offensive end, telling the big men things like sprint to set the pick and make sure you establish a strong base, and telling the guards how to create a good angle. Later, Carroll gave the group some tips on defending the pick-and-roll, like trapping the ballhandler after he comes around the pick.

When the players tried out these pick-and-roll techniques, Jerryd Bayless was particularly impressive. He made a terrific spin move off one pick-and-roll, delivered a couple of excellent passes and showed great range on his jump shot. Plus, he showed some explosive leaping ability on several dunks over the course of the three days.

Bayless was very businesslike when I talked to him.

"I love this," he said. "The best players in the country are here, and the intensity level is a lot higher here than when I'm working out back at home."

Most of the rest of the workout was devoted to shooting drills, using different cuts to get open. Kalin Lucas stood out in these drills. Lucas, who already has committed to Michigan State, showed great footwork, always squaring up to the basket, always on balance. He may play the point, but he'll be a big-time scorer, too.

Former NBA coach John Lucas, whose son Jai was participating in the clinic, also was there. He talked to the players at the end of the workout. He stressed the importance of what they'd been taught earlier.

"Why do you see the pick-and-roll so much in the NBA? Because guards don't want to defend the pick-and-roll," Lucas said. "They don't wanna get hit! It's the one play in basketball you can't stop."

After the morning workout, the players were ushered into a presentation about the Jordan brand at Nike. They got to see prototypes of new shoes and gave Nike some feedback on them. After that, they headed back to the hotel for lunch and a couple hours of rest.

The players were back at the Bo Jackson Center for a second workout at 5 p.m. They warmed up with some intense passing and layup and shooting drills, during which the ball was not supposed to hit the ground nor touch anything but the net on shots, too. Coaches also used large grey oars to try to block their shots. Not your typical everyday drills.

For the final 30 minutes or so, the players scrimmaged again -- and the quality of play was very high, much better than the night before. I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching high school kids.

A few players stood out. Derrick Rose, one of the highest-rated players in the camp, showed he had an extra gear that most other players don't have when he raced past everyone a couple times on fast breaks. Durrell Summers, who's also going to Michigan State (lucky Tom Izzo), struggled with his shot during the drills but showed a knack for finishing on the fast break. And Gani Lawal, headed to Georgia Tech, displayed great energy, especially on the defensive end.

The most impressive shooter, by far, was 6-8 Kyle Singler, who seemed to bury about 85 percent of his jumpers in drills and almost as many in the scrimmages. He reminded me a lot of Mike Dunleavy Jr. He also had a smile on his face for practically the entire three days. He smiled when he was running, he smiled when he was shooting, he even smiled when a coach blocked his shot during a drill or another player beat him to the basketball.

"This is a blast," Singler told me. "Getting to play with all these great players, I've never done anything else like this."

However, at least one person wasn't too thrilled with the players at the end of Sunday's scrimmages -- John Lucas.

"You guys are out of shape," Lucas said in a low, hoarse voice at the end. "You should be working out six hours a day. You're breakin' down after two days. You've got to work on your conditioning."

With that, the players headed back to the hotel, then to dinner at a local restaurant down the street from the hotel before bedtime.

Monday began with what Eastman called a "truth meeting," something he added to the Skills Academy for the first time this year. The players were asked to be honest about how often they work on their games, and they heard people like John Lucas and Craig Ehlo talk about how hard they had to work to get where they got.

"Great players have to be honest with themselves," Eastman said. "It's very important."

Their first workout of the day was at 11 a.m. The focus again was on shooting drills and on how to play defense against screens and in transition. And the players continued to impress. In a three-on-three drill, Derrick Rose made a terrific spin move and jumper over his defender, who happened to be Memphis Grizzlies guard Damon Stoudamire (who is still recovering from season-ending knee surgery). Jai Lucas, John Lucas' son, was very hot from the perimeter.

It was definitely harder for the big men to shine over the course of the three days, because they didn't handle the ball as much in the scrimmages, but 6-9 power forward Kevin Love, who's been rated by some as the second-best player in the class of 2007 behind O.J. Mayo, was impressive in the post. He's a bruiser with a nice touch on his shot.

He also sounded like an NBA veteran when I talked to him.

"We've got to catch up with the European players," Love said. "You saw what happened in the Olympics. We've got the athleticism, but we need to focus more on the fundamentals, which is why this camp is great."

In between workouts on the last day, the players had individual meetings with a coach who was specifically assigned to evaluate them over the course of the three days. They also had individual photo shoots before the final workout commenced at 5:45 p.m.

In that workout, with a bunch of parents and family on hand, the highlight definitely was the extended scrimmage period at the end. If you just walked in the gym for the first time, you'd have thought this was a college all-star game. The players were definitely trying to use some of the sophisticated tips on things like the pick-and-roll that they'd been taught over the course of the camp. And they were still going extremely hard, even after an exhausting three days.

The player I continued to be impressed with most was Chris Wright. He wasn't the best player in the camp, but he definitely seemed to be the player working the hardest. And I wasn't alone in my assessment.

"In terms of improvement, there's definitely been one player that's stood out, and that's Chris Wright," Eastman told me. "Chris Wright is what this camp is all about."

Wright has played mostly in the post in high school, but he knows he'll play the three in college and beyond, so he specifically asked if he could work out on the perimeter during the Skills Academy. And he can definitely play the three. He has incredible athleticism -- he had a couple of jaw-dropping dunks, including one follow-up jam off a rebound -- and showed the ability to handle the ball and knock down the perimeter shot.

From talking to Wright, you could tell the camp had a huge impact on him, too.

"You come here, and you realize you're not working as hard as you should be," Wright said. "I've never imagined working that hard. I'm going home to work out six days a week. I want to be the last one to leave the gym."

At the conclusion of the final workout, Eastman had a message for the players.

"It's the end of the workout, but it should be the beginning of a new commitment," Eastman said. "Help us spread the word that it's OK to work out and drill. Let us be the catalysts."

Eastman definitely has a bunch of new disciples, one in particular.

"Coming here, just seeing this place, makes you want to work harder," said Wright. "To maybe get your own building some day."

You know what? One of these kids just might.

Kieran Darcy is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.