Select company is best basketball on offer
Montgomery County AAU players earn stripes, set sights on future
The dog and pony show ends this day, with its biggest audience yet.
All eyes are on four side-by-side basketball courts at West Virginia University's Student Recreation Center, with VIPs patrolling courtside. T-shirts reading Duke, West Virginia, Florida, Villanova and Kentucky speak for themselves.
Some stalk the West Virginia Jam Fest AAU basketball tournament to watch one player. Others several hundred schools, in fact are there to take it all in, to find that diamond in the rough. This is why the Mid-Atlantic Selects U-17 team made the trip.
"Oh, there goes J.T.T.," says assistant coach Dave Parks, spotting Georgetown head coach John Thompson III.
The likes of Thompson III are drawn largely by the Selects' competition, high-profile prospects covering every corner of the country. More important to the group of rising seniors from Montgomery County are those hailing from the mid-majors and less-heralded Division I, II and III programs.
Today's names are the past, present and future stars of Montgomery County high school basketball.
Springbrook's Enerio Jones, Brandon Hedley and Jarid Watson are flanked by former Blue Devil and B-CC product Zaid Hearst, now a ballyhooed prospect at a Connecticut prep school.
Blake's Matt McGugan will be a three-year starter this winter, while Good Counsel's Matt McCarthy should shine in his first.
Selects newcomer Malcolm Miller of Gaithersburg has opened eyes in only his second week with Mid-Atlantic, while D-I recruits Taylor Abt (Georgetown Prep) and Ryan Frazier (formerly of Blake, now with Hearst at the Salisbury School) are nursing injuries and unable to play on day two of the three-day AAU showcase.
July 15 is the crucial one, additionally, as today marks the end of NCAA's "Live Period." After today, colleges will be unable officially to observe or talk to high schoolers until later on this summer.
Against higher-seeded Showtime Basketball (Ohio), the Selects aren't just playing to advance. Some scouts have now been at all three of their matchups thus far, while others are getting their first look making this a game of first, last or best impressions.
Yesterday was merely the appetizer.
They all want to play college basketball. Playing well now could be their ticket.
Nothing but nets
Both baselines are lined with, fittingly, Mid-Atlantic region schools. Navy, Holy Cross, Drexel, Virginia Commonwealth, St. Francis, Marist all D-I schools, all watching the Selects multiple times.
"New Hampshire's back," Parks says. "I think they're here to see Brandon."
It's a team of individuals, but it seems certain themes repeat themselves. One is slow starts, a bugaboo that reemerges for the third straight game in an early 11-2 deficit.
Another is Hedley being the momentum changer.
The undersized point guard has shot the lights out in previous games, but this time does what head coach James Lee has been harping on. His first touch is a beautiful bounce pass to Surrattsville (Prince George's County) swingman Raymond Baldwin the only Mid-Atlantic player with no Montgomery connection for an easy layup. He penetrates and hits Hearst for an open three, then shuffles to Miller for a two-hand jam, plus the foul.
"He finally threw it down earlier," Parks tells assistant coach Rodney Glasgow Sr., who was coaching the Selects' U-15 team in the Jam Fest's younger tournament.
"That's what we talkin' 'bout, Malcolm!" Glasgow screams.
Miller's growth is both rapid and undeniable. Tentative in his new digs earlier, that seems ancient history now, as he fights for a put-back and even forces a 20-footer delighting his coaches. In a later game, he'll explode for 25 points.
This is the Selects' defining game, turning a close game into a rout with everyone clicking. McCarthy is no longer hesitant either, leaking out for two layups, canning a long three and ball-faking a defender before nailing a mid-range deuce.
"All day, Matt," Glasgow calls. "I'm telling you, that's all day."
Chided for "bad body language" in earlier games, Jones runs the point masterfully, playing suffocating defense and hitting his patented mid-range floater time and again. Watson, implored to play more aggressively, ups his impact on both ends.
And Hearst is, well, Hearst (2.0). His defense is also noticeably better, including several deflections to quiet sarcastic "Olé!" jabs from staff demanding more from him.
A beautiful lead pass from McGugan to Hedley, his former Blake teammate, kicks the lead to 20. Their "swag" is still unassuming, a constant talking point addressed by Lee and assistant coach E.J. Jones, Enerio's father.
But the 65-36 victory is resounding.
Afterwards, scouts compare notes, pointing at Mid-Atlantic players. Three years of hard work have paid off.
"Our first graduating class of '09, when we had Jamal [Olasewere, now at Long Island University], we've grown so much since then," Lee says. "In the beginning, we had to make a name for ourselves, no one knew anything about us, and we just wanted to play the good teams so someone would see us. We weren't automatically getting invited to tournaments. ...
"Now, we've got 50 coaches at all our games. We have people coming just to see us."
The end of an era
Ultimately, the Jam Fest served one specific purpose for the Mid-Atlantic Selects. "We want to put our kids in college," Lee said before game one, "simple as that."
Consequently, grading their performance is difficult. None has signed or verbally committed to date.
The dichotomy between high school and AAU hoops is equally basic: The summer puts the individual over team success. Players are here to earn scholarships, not victories.
It's a mutual relationship, though.
Collectively, the Select U-17s had the club's best season yet. By beating the Hoop Heaven Heat (N.J.) before losing to the eventual champion New England Playaz, they finished eighth out of 136 teams in West Virginia. Their final national tournament, the AAU Super Showcase in Orlando, Fla., yielded an identical result.
That they played another tournament was testament to a brighter tomorrow.
"We won the Beast of the East at Albright College in Pennsylvania; they only invited eight teams who they felt were the best from Maryland, D.C. on up through New Jersey," Lee says. "Not just anybody could enter. They called us late and said, You had a good summer. We want you to end the [final] Live Period with us.'"
The bottom line spells another palpable win for Mid-Atlantic. Before the Jam Fest, only Hearst had Division I scholarships officially offered. By August, six Selects shared the distinction.
Most, and possibly all, of the Select U-17s will never play another AAU game. The grind is over until the winter, as nine of 10 players begin their final high school years.
For the organization, rest isn't an option.
"We'll keep on 'em because we're family," Lee says. "But this is only the beginning. We're building a legacy."
County can be special'
This may be the turning point. In two years, only Olasewere and 2010 Good Counsel graduate Rodney Glasgow Jr. set to begin his freshman season at Virginia Military Institute went from the Selects to Division-I.
"But you've got Taylor, Z and those guys in 2011, Ryan in 2012," Lee adds. "Coaches know we'll have a couple guys each year. That'll make it easier for the U-15s now, 'cause now, they already got guys watching them. If they showcase skills, they won't slip through the cracks."
The U-15 Selects also opened eyes this summer, going 4-1 at both the Jam Fest and the AAU Showcase a week later.
From a talent standpoint, the rising sophomores just might surpass their elders. Wheaton's Josh Hart started as a freshman, and Springbrook's Jalen Myree "would be one of the top players in the county at any other school," says Lee. Bullis mighty-mite Anthony Thompson, all 5-foot-6 of him, was named to the Jam Fest's All-Tournament Team.
But there's a bigger picture to look at. Traditionally, Mid-Atlantic's talent is situated almost exclusively down-county. Miller, a rare exception to that rule, went from scant recruiting attention to offers from VMI, Holy Cross (Mass.) and Youngstown State (Ohio) in just two weeks.
Promise exists throughout the county, Lee says, and maybe the U-17s' successes can galvanize a movement to welcome it.
The blueprint presents obstacles, though. Mid-Atlantic's coaching staff is woefully small, a group of six with mostly Silver Spring connections, hardly giving the club the manpower to scout local talent effectively.
A tacit tug-of-war marks the heart of the issue. The relationship between high school and AAU ball is controversial, and the latter has received much of the blame. An ESPN "Outside the Lines" exposé outlined a host of issues 10 years ago; players accepting money from college coaches and crooked agents, summer coaches dictating their futures in high school and beyond.
The entire system breeds selfishness, as described by NCAA coaching veteran Eddie Fogler.
"Certainly, there are some excellent AAU coaches who are in it for the right reasons, who want kids to get seen, viewed, and to pick the schools that are best for them," he said. "There are others, unfortunately there's a minority but, unfortunately perhaps, a strong group of those who have selfish motives involved."
Montgomery County basketball is not immune to AAU-related questions. Springbrook's three-year state title run included Selects past and present who were high school transfers Jeremy Williams (2009), Hearst and now Hedley.
That may blur the overwhelming benefits of mutually cooperative connections.
"It's a bad stereotype between AAU and high school, and it should never be that," Lee says. "Again, like, we don't get paid for this. We're no competition for any high school. We want high school coaches to build a relationship with us, so if they have any prospects that we don't know about bam, we can be that buffer that gets them exposed. ...
"Us coaches, the players, we've put the time in and we've done some good things. But we want other people to put the time in for us because we value their input."
Right now, the program has just three teams, including U-14s, and 30 players overall. Its target is to expand fivefold, starting with elementary schoolers, with two teams at every age group.
The Magnum opus? Nothing short of Manifest Destiny, and philanthropy coming full circle.
"So maybe we can get one team with D-I caliber guys every year, but then we can take those D-II and D-III guys and get them into college too," Lee concludes. "And then guys now like Z, Taylor, Jarid, all them guys then when they've graduated and gone onto bigger things, then they give back and coach the younger kids. We feel there's a strong enough foundation here, there's enough resources and good families, that Montgomery County can be special."
Mid-Atlantic Select U-17 Montgomery County player profiles
Lee says: "Agile; he's got a great skill set for a big man. He's the prototypical big man; not a grinder or a bruiser, but he just knows how to play, period."
Official offers: Wagner (N.Y.), Loyola, Rider (N.J.), Iona (N.Y.)
Salisbury School (Conn.)
Lee says: "Me and little Ry never have arguments. All we do is communicate and make adjustments, and that's why he's moving onto the next level. ... Tough kid, and plays hard at all times."
Official offers: Bucknell (Pa.), Dartmouth (N.H.)
Salisbury School (Conn.)
Lee says: "You remember what he used to be when he was at B-CC, Springbrook, and how much his game has progressed. He's pretty much mastered the offensive side of the ball."
Official offers: New Hampshire, St. Francis (Pa.), UMBC, Virginia Military Institute, Mount St. Mary's, Long Island, Loyola, Quinnipiac (N.Y.), California-Irvine, Liberty (Va.)
Lee says: "I think he showed a lot of schools what he can do. If we're against someone playing zone, he's in there. People think he's a shooter. But ... he has the instincts of a point guard."
Schools interested: Trinity (Conn.), Navy, Goldey-Beacom (Del.)
Lee says: "He's really good but it won't necessarily show up to the crowd. He has a beautiful jump shot, he's willing to run the team and out of our guards, E is probably our best defender."
Schools interested: Goldey-Beacom (Del.), Virginia State
Lee says: "He doesn't know how good he can be. He really could be a primetime player. Offen-sively, man, he has all the tools."
Schools interested: Catholic (D.C.), NYU, Merchant Marine Academy (N.Y.)
Lee: "If you sleep on him, he'll kill you. The thing I love is he don't mind scrapping in for rebounds, layups, whatever. He'll be a valuable piece wherever he goes."
Schools interested: Lebanon Valley (Pa.), Gettysburg (Pa.)
Lee: "It's really coming together for Malcolm. There's going to be a lot of eyes on him in Orlando, actually. Everyone that sees us is like, Who is this guy?'"
Official offers: Youngstown State (Ohio), Holy Cross (Mass.), Virginia Military Institute, St. Michaels (Vt.)
Lee: "His size and length are things college coaches love and can't teach. Coaches will come to see Z or Ryan and be like, Man, this kid runs the court, dunks, moves. ... He's going to develop more at the college level."
Official offers: Howard (D.C.), New Jersey Tech