COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – In the stands at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on Friday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski chatted with Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim about jumping a charter flight to Las Vegas. Kentucky’s John Calipari traded laughs with Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie just a few months after their national title game match-up. Indiana’s Tom Crean jotted down diagrams in his reporter’s notebook as he chatted Xs and Os with former UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
Nearly all of college basketball’s boldface names – coaches of 11 of the past 12 national titles – made their way to Colorado Springs to scout the largest concentration of elite American high school talent in recent memory. Overall, 32 of the country’s top players in the classes of 2015 and '16 gathered to tryout for the USA Basketball Men’s Under-17 World Championship team that will play in Dubai next month.
“It’s almost, in some respects, a groundbreaking day,” said Krzyzewski, head coach of the senior team. “It’s new. It’s historic. When have we done this? That’s the kind of thing you like to see USA Basketball be a part of.”
While that may sound like hyperbole, consider that just a decade ago USA Basketball couldn't consistently recruit the country’s top young players. While USA Basketball struggled in international competitions – sixth place in the FIBA World Championships in 2002 and a bronze at the 2004 Olympics – it also failed to connect with elite prospects at the high school level. Al Jefferson, Greg Oden and other stars from that era routinely passed on chances to play for USA Basketball in favor of sneaker-sponsored events.
But a confluence of factors – from managing director Jerry Colangelo’s leadership to LeBron James’ presence on the national team to the tireless work of a former software engineer from Lockheed Martin – have made USA Basketball the summer’s definitive destination for high school recruits. “It’s an honor to be here,” said Josh Jackson, a guard who is ranked No. 1 overall in Rivals’ 2016 rankings. “Who doesn’t want to be here?”
The first step toward a credibility change for USA basketball was the so-called Redeem-Team winning the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For high schoolers, seeing James, Kobe Bryant
and Carmelo Anthony play together in their primes made USA Basketball chic again. Peek at the 2004 Olympic roster and chuckle at such immortals as Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury playing for Team USA.
As part of its task to restore its international reputation, USA basketball also needed momentum among elite young players. A change in the international tournament structure in 2009 helped solidify that.
That year, the U16 World Championships debuted, followed by the first U17 World Championships in 2010. USA Basketball began recruiting players earlier to try out for a team involved with international competition. Prior to that, invitations to prominent players in that age group may have only been to a training camp instead of actual international ball. Players often opted for AAU. “We couldn’t get the best players,” said Boeheim, an assistant on the senior national team who has been involved with USA Basketball for more than 20 years. “It wasn’t [the players’] priority.”
But the opportunity to build relationships with young stars on the U16 team changed that. Soon enough, a pipeline to the senior national team was born Young stars like Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond from that 2009 team now project as players for the senior national team, which will play in next month's FIBA World Cup in Spain.
The man essentially in charge of building those relationships is B.J. Johnson
, who has led recruiting since 2009 and is the assistant director of the men’s national team. Johnson walked on at Villanova
from 1999-2002 and graduated with an engineering degree that got him a lucrative job at Lockheed Martin. But he wasn’t satisfied crunching numbers. He now hopscotches the country to scout and connect with the best players at high school tournaments, AAU events and talent camps. He offers evaluations, and then a diverse panel of coaches and USA Basketball administrators issue invitations to form a pool of players for international competitions.
USA Basketball was a hard sell at first, as Johnson recalls phoning then-high school star Jon Scheyer on one of his first recruiting calls, and Scheyer hanging up on him. (Scheyer, now a Duke assistant, doesn’t recall doing this, but admits with a laugh that Johnson reminds him of it often.)
Johnson has given USA Basketball a tangible face, someone kids identify with the program. The proof is in the talent, as USA Basketball officials said no players they wanted at the high school level turned them down. Even as recently as the mid-2000s, players like Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant rejected opportunities to play for the U18 and U19 teams. But the presence of elite recruits in Colorado like promising power forward Harry Giles (No. 2 overall in Rivals’ 2016 rankings), high-level guard Tyus Battle (No. 25 in 2016) and power forward Henry Ellenson (No. 17 in 2015) are evidence of USA Basketball’s effectiveness.
“B.J. is out there all the time,” Krzyzewski said. “He develops relationships. They’ve done a fabulous job. I think that college coaches now are telling recruits, this is the best thing that you can do.”
Johnson’s emergence as a hot commodity in the basketball world speaks volumes to the evolution of USA Basketball. He’s developed such strong relationships with the country’s best players and their families that he says five NBA teams have attempted to hire him for front-office positions. He’s turned them all down, as he wants to see his USA Basketball responsibilities through until at least the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I was tempted, but having to leave these guys would have been hard,” he said. “The easy part for my job is that (the players) can trust me. I’m not trying to sell them anything or get them to come to a school. We’re just providing an experience.”
The craftiest thing USA Basketball did to ensure top players would commit to that experience was include AAU coaches on U16-U17 coach Don Showalter’s staff. After years of losing players to prominent AAU programs, USA Basketball was savvy enough to invite those coaches to be part of the USA basketball action. Cory Alexander from Nike’s Team Takeover and L.J. Goolsby from Under Armour’s KC Run GMC both serve as assistants on the staff of Showalter, who is the head coach of Iowa
City (Iowa) High School. “USA Basketball has included the grassroots coaches, which is important because those guys are part of our culture,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They’ve just been inclusive.”
Nike sponsors USA Basketball, which prompted Sonny Vaccaro, a retired sneaker executive, to accuse the organization of being biased toward coaches and players affiliated with Nike schools. Through careful hiring and having its own recruiter, USA Basketball has quieted those criticisms. And Vaccaro grudgingly admits the USA basketball camps have passed over the shoe companies.
“They’ve achieved what they finally wanted to achieve, they control the summer,” he said. “They are where they always wanted to be.”
For college coaches, there has been an added benefit to USA Basketball’s emergence – better opportunities to evaluate recruits. Not all summer basketball events and coaches are improvisational and undisciplined, as they have often been stereotyped. For every coach wearing a Bluetooth and a sweat suit on the sidelines, there’s a future Hall of Famer like Gary McKnight of California’s Mater Dei High having kids cut backdoor and stressing fundamentals. But summer basketball has earned its shaky reputation.
One of the most egregious offenses of summer tournaments is that directors often ask coaches to pay hundreds of dollars to purchase packets of information on players that are often filled with inaccuracies and are generally useless. Before coming to Colorado, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon jokingly texted USA Basketball national team director Sean Ford, “How much are you guys charging for the packets?”
At the event, rosters are free. And along with them comes the chance for a coach to see everything he needs to evaluate a prospect, from intricate drills to full-court pick-up. To Malik Newman, the top-ranked guard in the 2015 class, the experience at USA Basketball is radically different than AAU tournaments.
“In AAU, I’m the best player on my team and I may be the best player from the other team, too,” he said. “I can take breaks and things like that. Here, everyone is equal [so] you can’t take any plays off. That’s what makes the camp so special.”
The coaches came away unanimously impressed with the U-17 tryout as an evaluation event. Michigan State
coach Tom Izzo , taking note of the more balanced level of competition, said that the day before he’d watched six AAU games in Las Vegas, and four of them were decided by more than 40 points. Indiana’s Crean called the event in Colorado Springs “one of the most productive days you can spend” on the recruiting trail.
When USA Basketball opens up its new training facility in Arizona – expected to happen in about two years thanks to Colangelo’s relentless fundraising – Krzyzewski hinted the organization could play an expanded role in hosting and running summer recruiting events. Krzyzewski suggested the new facility host an event for one of the open college basketball recruiting periods in July, offering top coaching and the best competition.
“Maybe that’s where some of this summer basketball goes,” Krzyzewski said. “It could be, and it should be. I’m not saying to take over the whole summer. It could be that in one particular five-day period everything is done there.”
Nearing the 10-year anniversary of its embarrassing bronze medal performance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, so much has changed for USA Basketball. And as the organization gathers more momentum among top recruits, its influence will only continue to grow.
“Basketball to me is at the strongest point it has been in this country for a long time,” Boeheim said. “I’ve never been happier or prouder of where USA Basketball is right now.”