The USA Basketball U-19 team spent a weekend in June practicing at the Verizon Center before heading to Prague for the FIBA U-19 World Championship. They had 2 nights of scrimmaging and 1 day of practice to prepare for the best teenagers in the world. They have a top-notch coaching staff, some famous spectators, and full media coverage from only 1 college basketball website. Jon Teitel witnessed all the action up close and personal and shares the sights/sounds/scouting reports.
Thursday, June 20th
I showed up to the Verizon Center at 7PM to pick up my press pass but none of the security guards knew what to do. A woman walked in a couple of minutes later looking for her husband. I introduced myself and she said her name was Christine Donovan (wife of team USA head coach Billy Donovan). We finally found a guard to escort us down to the Wizards practice court. There were several spectators in attendance, including former NBA lottery pick Harvey Grant who was there to watch his son Jerami. I also met Coach Donovan’s father Bill Sr. (one of the leading scorers in Boston College history), who was sitting courtside talking to Coach Donovan’s former player (and current Wizard) Bradley Beal. Team USA was scrimmaging against a local summer league team and was using some non-NCAA rules in order to prepare for the international competition (four 10-minute quarters, a 24-second shot-clock, etc.). Coach Donovan took his job very seriously. He was calling out signals from the bench, teaching the offense on the fly when necessary, and yelling at his team to keep hustling on the full-court press. He is not a dictator: at the end of practice he carried his own USA backpack himself rather than make the water-boy follow him around with it. The refs were taking it seriously too. When have you ever seen a ref call an offensive foul during a SCRIMMAGE!? Team USA was great in transition and their athleticism is unmatched, but they got beat on drives into the lane and on the defensive boards all night long. The full-court press was a sight to behold, they forced several 10-second calls which made the coaching staff ecstatic.
Friday, June 21st
The team used special FIBA-approved basketballs because that is what they will be using at the World Championships in Prague. Tonight’s opponents were a mix of local college players from George Washington, Virginia, and Loyola. Sadly, there was not a Joe Harris sighting because he is recovering from an injury. Team USA forward Mike Tobey and assistant coach Tony Bennett got a very warm welcome from the Virginia players on the opposing team, even Bennett’s kids got some hugs. The pregame layup line quickly turned into a dunk contest – Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Smart were throwing it down pretty hard, while Aaron Gordon was dunking his own alley-oops off of the back wall, the side wall, and any other hard surface he could find. The full-court press helped team USA get off to a dominant start, but their interior defense was still lacking and they gave up a lot of open three-point shots. I got to sit courtside next to a Division One ref who told me what he looks for during a game.
After the 3rd quarter Donovan started coaching up his troops by running different offensive and defensive sets. He emphasized that he did not mind if they gave up long jump shots, but they could not allow their opponents to make threes or layups. Then he had the team practice switching on defense while communicating. He said, “We are kidding ourselves if we want to win the gold medal” with this kind of effort on pick and roll coverage. He was unhappy that they could not keep the other team out of the lane due to an abundance of “spectating”, and he urged them to box out better. The big men were doing a great job of picking and rolling to the basket but did not grab a bunch of offensive rebounds. Donovan concluded the scrimmage by saying, “We are going to watch some film and take some responsibility.” Afterwards it turned into a shooting exhibition – Beal was draining threes in street clothes while Coach Bennett’s wife Laurel was making jumpers from the free throw line. On my way out of the Verizon Center I heard a loud noise coming from the main arena – turns out that it was a rehearsal for that weekend’s Bruno Mars concert.
Saturday, June 22nd
Since the team was just going to do an hour-long practice before heading to the airport there was a very small number of spectators…namely me! I have been fortunate enough to attend more sporting events than I could ever hope to remember, but I have never been the only outsider watching a team prepare for a World Championship. Now I know the true definition of “exclusive access”. The team started out with three-man full-court drills, then focused on boxing out during four-on-four drills. Donovan reminded his team, “This is a grind, so let’s start rehearsing good habits: let’s pay the price right now.” After that pep talk everyone started to get active/vocal. They spent four minutes going non-stop in a “scramble situation” with a four-on-four break going against transition defense, then practiced pressing after made baskets. It was easy to tell how serious the players were about their final practice stateside – after only 30 minutes both Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon had busted lips. Coach Bennett told the team about the scouting report he received during dinner with two of his player the previous night: “Team USA has unbelievable talent but we thought they would play harder.” He used this as constructive criticism: “Wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy.” Assistant coach Shaka Smart reminded the team to move onto the next play rather than complain about the previous play. Donovan told the team to play hard, stay focused, and get off good shots during crunch time. They concluded practice with five-on-five drills that featured both teams diving to the floor for loose balls, then had a lengthy discussion about the long travel day ahead of them.
Here are my individual assessments on each of the 12 players who participated:
Michael Frazier (Florida)
The only player who gets to work with Coach Donovan year-round in Gainesville, he has a nice shooting stroke and is good at sharingthe ball. He needs a little work on his handle after losing control of his dribble once or twice, but he has a vertical leap that leads to big dunks. He knocked down three straight three-point shots on the final day that got the entire team psyched, so if he gets on a streak he can be dangerous.
Aaron Gordon (Arizona)
He was a good fit for the full-court press: hustling on defense withquick hands to force a deflection and then finding the open man for a layup. He attempted and missed two one-handed alley-oop dunks: if he misses one in an actual game he might not get the chance to attempt another before being sent to the bench. There are times to dispute a foul call with the ref and there are times not to – Gordon has to learn that a scrimmage falls in the latter category. Day two showcased his all-around game despite a broken shoe. He made a jumper, a reverse dunk, and had a pair of blocks. He has every shot in the book: a tip dunk, a windmill layup, a runner in the lane, and even a shot over the backboard that did not count! He had some problems making an entry pass into the post and guarding bigger offensive players down low, but his overall talent is undeniable and I think he is going to be a star in Tucson from game one.
Jerami Grant (Syracuse)
This was a homecoming for Grant, who went to HS at DeMatha and has been quoted as saying, “I’m a Bullet/Wizard for life.” He ran the floor very well on the first day and made a couple of open jumpers. Day two was another story: he shot an airball, missed a layup, and got stripped by a defender. He bounced back well on day three but ended up having to miss the World Championship due to mono.
Montrezl Harrell (Louisville)
The last time we saw him was when he winning a national title in April, and he picked up right where he left off: finishing at the rim, knocking down free throws, and making several great plays on defense. The last thing anyone would want to do after flying to DC from training camp in Colorado is have a Thursday night practice, but Harrell had a great attitude and always seemed to be in the right spot on both ends of the court. He did not catch every pass cleanly or make all his jumpers, but he is strong inside with both hands and is a great on-ball defender. When his teammates missed a shot he was often there for the follow, and was one of the most vocal players on the court. He will probably start for Coach Pitino in the fall and help lead the defending champs by example.
Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young HS)
When you stand 6’5” in the 7th grade you have a pretty good idea that you should start focusing on basketball. When you can dominate Enes Kanter in a scrimmage and announce that you will probably attend the same college as fellow uber-prospect Tyus Jones, you will have recruiters focusing on everything you say and do. He has enormous legs that allow him to do work down low on the block. He was very active inside with a variety of low-post moves and had no problem getting to the rim to dunk the ball hard (even on alley-oop passes). He is still a bit raw but has good hands and will make one college program very lucky once he decides where he wants to play.
Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette)
The contest for best hair was over as soon as he walked into the gym. This guy was a stat machine last year and showed no signs of slowing down despite the increased talent level surrounding him. He reminded his taller teammates that they could knock free throws off of the rim per international rules. He controlled the transition game on day one: driving and dishing, stealing the ball on one end and finishing with his left hand, and even reaching into his bag of tricks for a Euro-step layup. He makes hard cuts on offense and rebounds extremely well for a 6’3” guard. He blocked a shot or two and proved that he can defend either guards or forwards if necessary. He used a nice crossover move to drive into the lane and demonstrated a solid all-around game: put him on your radar now.
Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)
It did not take long to discover the best player on the floor. He will probably run the show as the starting point guard because he is great at sharing the ball. Far from being a traditional playmaker, he also had a great alley-oop dunk in transition. He steals the ball more than anyone else and is quick enough to get to the rim for dunks and layups. Clutch shooting is also part of his resume: he made a shot in the lane to beat the buzzer at the end of one quarter. Any doubts I had about a freshman gaining All-American accolades are all gone. He is a legitimate star and is a strong contender to repeat as Big 12 POY.
Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee)
Weighing in at 250 pounds, he had the best post moves of anyone on the team and can dunk the ball with ease. He is an outstanding rebounder (even in traffic) who will stick with it even if he misses a shot. After a defensive rebound he can run out in transition and finish with either hand. On day three he took it up a notch: a put-back, a super-quick spin move, and even a lefty kiss off the glass. He is going to be a double-double machine next season who will own the paint in the SEC.
Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke)
Anyone can start 33 of 36 games as a freshman and make the Elite 8, but not everyone can get cussed out by Lil Wayne while beating defending-champion Kentucky. He had a bandaged wrist to start the weekend and I caught him wincing a bit after one ferocious dunk. After someone pushed him during a drive to the hoop, he fell to the floor and then went to the bench before coming back in for a nice layup. It was obvious that he was not 100%, so I will withhold judgment until he is fully healed.
Mike Tobey (Virginia)
He made progress throughout his freshman year, culminating in a 15-PT performance in an NIT quarterfinal loss to Iowa. As the tallest member of team USA he will be counted on to mix things up in the paint, and he got off to a good start with a trio of Thursday dunks (including the poster of the weekend). He is still raw, evidenced by some free throw misses and a shot-clock violation, but he hits the boards hard and has a very nice touch around the rim.
Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington)
A 4.0 GPA at Findlay Prep shows that he will always be one of the smartest players on the court, and winning the three-point contest at the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game shows that you better guard him behind the arc. He got off to a rough start: tripping once, losing his dribble, and seeming a step slow on defense. Occasionally he forced the issue inside and got blocked by larger defenders, but he was able to knock down a few threes during the weekend and even threw down a dunk on a fast break.
Justise Winslow (St. Johns HS)
I knew very little about him prior to seeing him in person, but I have no doubt that he is one of the most athletic recruits in the Class of 2014. As the only player on the team who was born in 1996, he showed his youth at time by committing some silly fouls on defense, but he had several huge dunks on the offensive end. His learning curve was pretty quick, as he even knocked a FT off the rim (which is legal under international rules). He is still deciding on where to go to college, but I think he will be one of the most electric dunkers in the NCAA while still a teenager.