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Featherston From The Tournament Of Champions!

by Al Featherston
I prepared myself for this weekend's Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions by
re-watching (for maybe the 10th time) the 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams."

Before I set out to see as many young basketball players as possible in two
and a half days, I wanted to ground myself in the story of William Gates and
Arthur Agee, the two young Chicago prospects that filmmakers Steve James,
Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert followed for four years in the late 1980s
and early 1990s. Watching their incredible story reinforced two important
points that we often forget:

-- One, is the understanding that there is a very fine line between success
on one side and mediocrity and/or outright failure on the other. Gates and Agee could stand for Wayne McCoy, Dinky Proctor, Curtis Hunter, Ronnie
Fields or a thousand other kids - including Duke's own Shavlik Randolph -
that were once touted for greatness, yet somehow fell short.

-- Two, is the recognition that these "prospects" are human beings with
lives away from the court. They may have all the skill in the world, but
they could still be betrayed by their bodies (as happened to Gates) or by
academic problems or the distraction of a drug-addicted father (both of
which plagued Agee). These kids may have a friend or a
brother undermining the real coaching they are getting. They may have
fathers or friends feeding what's probably an overblown ego. They may have
family problems - in one sequence of "Hoop Dreams" we see Gates play poorly
in a playoff game and later learn that his girlfriend is that very night
giving birth to their daughter - and is angry at him for not being there.

They may even be shot dead in the streets -- as almost happened to Agee
and did happen to a great prospect named Ben Wilson.

How can anybody watch a few AAU games and predict which shining star is
going to turn out to be Aubrey Sherrod and which is going to become Michael
Jordan? Fact: Coming out of the summer camp circuit in 1980, Sherrod and
Jordan were rated dead even in most recruiting surveys. So were Crawford
Palmer and Christian Laettner after their play in the summer of 1987, when
Duke landed both big men. A decade later, Chris Burgess was rated just ahead

of future teammate Elton Brand by most gurus.

To predict the future accurately for these kids, we'd have to look beyond
their games and see their characters, the whole lives ... and their luck.
That's not nearly as easy as measuring the accuracy of their jump shots or
the height of their vertical leap.

All of those musings came back to me Saturday morning, when I found myself
in the middle of "Hoop Dreams II".

I had a promising agenda lined up when I arrived at the Smith Center in
time for the 10 a.m. games. But it seemed to be "Disappointment Saturday"
tend to think of my life in ESPN promotional terms these days). I learned
that Duke-bound Jamal Boykin, Miami-bound Edwin Rios and N.C. State-bound
Courtney Fells were all no-shows. And while Wake Forest target Jerry Smith
was on hand, he was in street clothes, wearing a black bandana, nursing a
bruised butt, and not playing.

With no idea what to watch, I latched onto a knot of pro scouts who were
anxious to see a team called Blessed INJ. The team was loaded with Division
1-A prospects, including 6-6 point guard Marques Johnson of Ft. Wayne,
Indiana (a major target for N.C. State); 7-foot, 270-pound Clarence
Holloway, who has signed with Louisville, but will probably attend prep
school next season; 6-9 Richard Semrau, who has already committed to
Illinois and 6-11, 260-pound Phillip Jones of Philadelphia.

However, the real lure for the pro scouts is 7-0 Kyle Luckett of Ft. Wayne,
Ind., who is pretty much the mystery man in this year's NBA draft. The pros
like Luckett's lithe body and his agility, but they don't like the fact that
he's played less than 10 high school games ... in his career.

They all wanted to see Luckett and Blessed win Saturday morning to clinch a
spot in Saturday night's playoffs against Spiece Heat and seven-footer Greg
Oden, the No. 1 player in high school basketball.

"Luckett could make himself a lot of money today," one scout said -
I took to mean that an impressive performance against Oden would go a long
way to guarantee the mystery man a draft spot.

But just before tipoff, Dave Telep - one of the best informed of the
recruiting gurus - came by and suggested that we watch No. 21 for the
opposing team, Jackson MBA Black.

"He's my eighth-grader," Telep said, pointing out that No. 21 Renardo
Sidney was listed as the Class of 2009.

You have to understand how unusual that is. Out of the 600-plus players in
the Gibbons 17-and-under field, only one other player from that class was
listed - and just a handful from the Class of 2008. Sidney, who actually is
finishing his eighth grade year this week, still has four more years of high
school before him.

He was, I suddenly realized, a few months younger that Gates and Agree
before the three filmmakers began following their prep careers.

As the game began, it soon became obvious that Sidney was no ordinary
eighth-grader. He had a long lean body - listed at 6-8, 205 pounds - that
reminded one veteran pro scout of former Mississippi product Travis Outlaw.
He displayed real guard skills - the ability to handle under pressure,
distribute and shoot from long range with deadly accuracy.

It wasn't long before it was obvious that Sidney was the best player on the
court - far better than Blessed's one pro and four Division 1 prospects. As
it began to look like he might single-handedly generate the upset, I turned
to one of the scouts who was drooling over the kid and said, "If they win,
you won't get to see Luckett go up against Oden."

He just laughed and said, "Screw Luckett ... I just want to see more of
this eighth-grader."

As it turned out, Sidney's team did upset Luckett's team - on a fluke
play - but thanks to another fluke, Blessed managed to win its pool. It
turned out that the Jackson team forfeited its Friday night game when the
team bus suffered a breakdown and failed to arrive in time for a game it
would have surely won.

Instead, Blessed got to go up against Spiece Heat and the pro scouts got to
see Luckett go up against Oden ... to his misfortune.

Let's just say he LOST a lot of money Saturday night.

As it was, none of Blessed's three big men could operate against the
long-armed Indiana kid. Oden blocked or altered six shots in the first three
minutes. Blessed didn't get a field goal until Oden finally took a blow with
his team up 30-1 ... that's right 30-1.

I didn't think I'd get another look at Sidney, whose tournament was
supposed to be over, but Sunday morning when I showed up at Cameron to watch
the Playaz team with Duke-recruit Gerald Henderson and UNC recruit Wayne
Ellington match up with a strong team from Illinois, I learned I was in

An extra game was scheduled for Sunday morning after the Playaz played the
Wolves. Some behind-the-scenes maneuvering went on to set up a game in
Cameron for Duke recruiting target Lance Thomas. At first, his New Heights
team was slated to play the Belmont Shore team that was supposed to feature

But with Boykin not here this weekend, so somebody decided to give Sidney's
Jackson, Mississippi, team a chance to play a third game in the tournament.

The whole situation gave me chills. Approximately 65 years ago, when Durham
High School was in the middle of its historic 71-game winning streak, Duke
University scheduled a national high school basketball tournament in
brand-new Cameron Indoor Stadium to showcase the great Durham High team.
Opponents from all over the country were invited to attend, including a
small school from just outside Jackson, Mississippi. Apparently, the
Mississippi team endured some incredible hardships to get to Durham, then
won the hearts of the Durham fans with a heroic performance than came within
a single shot of snapping Durham High's three-year winning streak.

Now here I was on a warm May morning, sitting with about three dozen other
fans to watch another team from Jackson, Mississippi, which struggled to
reach Durham, play in Cameron.

They won my heart ... at least Sidney did. If anything, he was better than
the day before. He opened with a smooth, easy 3-pointer and added some
slashing shots through traffic in the lane that were simply dazzling. When
New Heights pressed, he single-handedly dribbled through the full-court

By my count, he finished with 26 points, hitting 10 of 15 field goals. He
only had two assists, but he might have had 10 if his teammates could have
made a few shots. They didn't - which is one reason Lance Thomas was able to
help New Heights win the game. The "eighth-grader" wasn't perfect by any
means - he made some bad decisions with the ball and fatigue clearly
bothered him late in both halves.

Still, his play was an astonishing revelation.

I sought out his father, Renardo Sidney Sr., who coached the Jackson team,
and asked him about his son.

"I started working with him in the sixth grade," the elder Sidney said.
"That's when we started working with him in the gym, running hills ..."

He told me that his son is actually a bit older than most eighth graders -
he turned 15 last December. That would mean he'll be 19 by the time he
graduates from high school.

Does that diminish the excitement Sidney's play created this weekend?

Well, there are two ways to look at it. I asked a number of recruiting
writers how they would rate Sidney if he were a rising senior - in the class
with Oden, Henderson, Ellington, Scheyer and the rest. It was pretty well
unanimous - a 6-8 guard with his combination or skills and athleticism? -
Sidney would be a top 10 prospect in the Class of 2006.

As it is, he's clearly - far and away - the best player in the Class of

But that doesn't mean he'll be the best play in the class when 2009 gets

That's where we need Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert - to
follow Sidney's next four years and see where it leads him. If he handles
himself well and continues to improve, it could easily lead him to LeBron
James status. Or he could morph into Sebastian Telfair, the classic case of
a star who is identified early, but never gets any better (as a ninth
grader, Telfair was clearly the best player in his class ... by his senior
year, he wasn't one of the 10 best players in his class).

I'd love to see the filmmakers follow Sidney through the AAU quagmire. I
want to see if he gets a big head. I want to see if his father guides him
wisely or becomes a delusional, manipulative Svengali, leeching onto his son
's talent and twisting it for his own ends. I want to see if the kid
(supposedly a good student at the moment) continues to work in the
classroom. I want to see him go through the recruiting process and maybe get
to the point where he has to decide - college or pro?

Of course, that's selfish of me to want to know so much. I'll just have to
be content to follow Sidney for the next four years and see how he turns


Many of the recruiting gurus know their business. Some of them don't.

Case in point: While watching Sidney play Saturday morning at the Smith
Center, I was talking to a pro scout who used to coach college basketball in
the ACC. A very well-known national recruiting writer (I'd rather not name
him, except to say he's not based in North Carolina) came by ranting about
how overrated Greg Oden was.

"All he does is stay under the basket," the writer said. "He's
just a big
guy who hangs out in the lane and never goes out on the perimeter."

The pro scout - who a year ago told me that if Oden could have turned pro
before the 2004 draft, he would have been picked ahead of Dwight Howard -
just smiled and reminded the writer that he once touted Dajaun Wagner as the
best pro prospect in the draft.

"Wagner got hurt," was his sour reply.

"Anybody who ranks high school talent and doesn't have Greg Oden No. 1
doesn't know his business," the scout told me after the recruiting writer
wandered away. "He's great because he does stay under the basket. He's a
center ... he's not trying to be a 7-foot small forward."

I got to see Oden play three times over the weekend and even though he
scored maybe 20 points total, he was far and away the most impressive
prospect I saw (and that includes Sidney).
The first night, against a team from Massachusetts, Oden simply took away a
semi-circular zone from 15-feet in and prevented anybody from scoring in
that area. That allowed his teammates in the Spiece Heat team to attack the
passing lanes with impunity.

At one point, the Massachusetts team was trying to run a high-low post,
but Oden was single-handedly defending both big men. He played behind the
high-post big man, but with his long arms and agility, he prevented that man
from making an entry pass to the low-post player. Once, when Oden was down
low, the high point player tried to shoot from just inside the top of the
key. Oden - a good 6-7 feet away - went straight up and blocked the shot at
the top of its arch.

The next evening against a 7-1, 260-pound center from Texas, Oden started
out playing behind his man. But the big Texas center used his bulk to power
two baskets up and in. Oden switched tactics and began to front his
opponent. On three successive plays, he forced turnovers - twice
intercepting lobs and finally forcing a lob attempt that was so high that it
sailed out of bounds.

Later that night, Oden's team faced off against Blessed and its three
players 6-11 or above. In the first six minutes of the game, he either
blocked or altered six shots inside and prevented all three big men from
scoring. In fact, Spiece Heat didn't give up a field goal until moments
after Oden took a rest with his team up 30-1.

But for all my admiration of Oden's game, I really don't know the kid. I
don't know his character. I don't know his work ethic. I don't know the
pressures that are dragging at him. I do know that every pro scout I talk to
says that barring an NBA age limit, Oden will be the No. 1 pick in the 2006
NBA draft.

Oden's response?

"I'm not that good," he said.

A reporter asked Oden what he thought about the proposed NBA age limit.

"If I had to comment, I'd have to be against it," Oden said. "What
if a
high school player is good enough to go to the pros? He should have that

Naturally, somebody pointed out that Oden is the prime exhibit of a prep
player ready for the NBA.

"I don't think so," he said. "I don't think it applies to me.
I'm not
ready. I have a lot that I have to work on. I've got to work on my shooting.
I've got to work on my dribbling. I've got to work on my body."

Those words sound very good, but is he for real?

The trouble is that I don't know. But I will say this - his game appears
to echo his humility off the court. There's no posturing ... no
trash-talking ... no unnecessary flamboyance in Oden's game. He just plays
defense, he rebounds and if Daequan Cook, Eric Gordon or Mike Conley get
tired of shooting, he'll make a post move from time to time. But if the
shots don't come, he doesn't pout or complain.

Occasionally, Oden will loaf going from defense to offense, but he's
never slow to make the transition the other way. In fact, he acknowledges
that one of the weaknesses he has to work on is to become more assertive at
the offensive end.

"I know what I want to do," Oden said. "I want to go to college.
I can
polish my game there and eventually I'll be ready for the NBA."

Oden said Saturday that he's still looking at four schools - Ohio State
(where Cook has already committed), Wake Forest, Michigan State and Indiana.
He said that he and his best friend Conley, a 6-2 point guard rated in the
top 25 nationally, would probably go to the same school.

That's interesting because Conley said Saturday that he's down to two
schools - Ohio State and Wake Forest. Gossip has Ohio State in the lead, but
Conley and Oden will wait to see what kind of sanctions the Buckeyes draw
for their latest NCAA violations.


Sit through one session of a tournament such as the Gibbons' TOC and you'll
be amazed how many good basketball players there are - not just the top 25
vying for a spot on the McDonald's All-American, but literally dozens and
maybe hundreds more.

Picking out the winners from the chaff is not easy. I posted a study on the
DBR last spring that noted that just over one-third of the McDonald's
All-Americans eventually become first-round NBA draft picks. But not even
all of those succeed. In the spring of 2001, three high school players went
at the top of the draft. Of those three, it's fairly safe to call No. 1
Kwame Brown a huge flop; No. 2 Tyson Chandler a disappointment, while No. 4
Eddy Curry is finally, in his fourth season, emerging as a serviceable pro
big man.

Look at the pro draft list for the last few years and you'll shake your
head in wonder. Darko Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony - and both of them,
plus Chris Bosh ahead of Dewayne Wade? Joe Smith five places ahead of Kevin
Garnett? Dajuan Wagner and seven other players ahead of Amare Stoudemire ...
yeah, I know, Wagner got hurt.

If it's that hard for the pros - with all their resources - to project
these kids, what chance do Bob Gibbons, Dave Telep and their compatriots

At least when I watch these games, I know what I don't know. If you want an
in-depth evaluation of Gerald Henderson or Wayne Ellington or Lance Thomas,
go somewhere else. But I will pass one a few things I saw and heard at the
tournament of champions.

-- Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington are very good prospects. Where they
rank in the senior class, I have no idea. Henderson appears to be the
slightly better athlete - he's bigger (a solid 6-6, 220) and more explosive
off the floor. Ellington is just a touch smaller (an inch shorter and 20
pounds lighter) and maybe a hair quicker. He appears to be a better
ballhandler and is clearly a better shooter.

During his quarterfinal game against Illinois, Ellington started cold,
missing seven of his first nine shots. But he hit his last two to end the
half, then hit back-to-back 3s off the dribble to open the second. When he
hit four more in a row during a two-minute spurt, Illinois coach Troy
Johnson turned to his assistant and said with wonder in his voice, "That kid
can shoot the shit out of the ball."

Henderson and Ellington are "best friends" and plan on staying that way
when they attend Duke and UNC, respectively.

"I think it's real odd," Henderson admitted. "Two schools that hate
other ... we're going to have some good battles."

He just laughed at an Ellington quote after he committed to Duke, when his
friend said, "He better hope I don't go to Carolina."

"He's always good for one of those comments," Henderson said. "I
listen and laugh. I'm not going to get into that. Let me just say, the
future looks bright for both of us."

That's hard to argue.

-- There seems to be some dispute as to whether Lance Thomas, a very
skilled 6-7 swingman from St. Benedict's High in New Jersey, has an offer
from Duke or not.

Someone who should know told me that Thomas has had a firm offer from Duke
for a long time. But Thomas told me Sunday morning that Duke hasn't offered
yet ... although he doesn't think that will be a problem.

He's not ready to commit anyway. He hasn't even trimmed what he called a
long list down to the finalists. Wake Forest (which has offered), Duke and
UNC (which have not) are the three ACC schools he is considering. He hopes
to make a decision before the November signing period.

-- Wake Forest appears to be recruiting every point guard in the country.
Mike Conley, the prep teammate of Oden, appears to be at the top of the
list, but while he is supposedly leaning toward Ohio State, he has the
Buckeyes and Deacs in his final two. D.J. Augustin from New Orleans, who is
rated higher (but doesn't have a 7-foot buddy attached at the hip), has a
final three of LSU (the favorite), Texas and Wake Forest. Javaris
Crittenton, a big, strong 6-5 playmaker from Atlanta, has Wake Forest at the
top of a list that also includes Georgia Tech and Florida.

Crittenton was outplayed Saturday by Will Walker, a 6-1 playmaker from
Bolingbrook, Ill., who also excelled against the Playaz Sunday at Cameron.
He's smaller, but lightning fast and a far better shooter than Crittenton.
Let me qualify the last statement - Walker was a MUCH better shooter than
Crittenton this weekend and the recruiting writers I respect say that this
weekend was no aberration.

Wake Forest is on Walker's list, but N.C. State is pushing harder. In fact,
Walker said that N.C. State and Ohio State were his two favorites right now.
And his teammate on the Wolves, 6-6 Devan Bawkinkel (who shot almost as well
as Ellington), is also very interested in N.C. State, along with Georgetown,
Michigan State, DePaul and Miami.

Jerry Smith, a highly touted combo guard from Milwaukee, said he's down to
three schools - Wake Forest, Wisconsin and Louisville. He told a reporter
from Winston-Salem that Wake Forest is probably the favorite right now and
he's almost ready to decide, except he's being pressured to visit Tennessee
(Smith played prep ball with the son of new Vol coach Bruce Pearl).

"I don't know whether I should waste their time or not," he said.

-- Taylor King, the 6-7 rising junior from Santa Ana, Calif., confirmed
that he has withdrawn his early commitment to UCLA, but said he's still
considering the Bruins.

"Nothing bad happened ... I just decided to take my time and take some time
to think," he said.

He is looking at a number of East Coast schools, including Villanova, North
Carolina and Duke.

"Not to knock the basketball on the West Coast, but what I see on TV is
every time a team like Duke or UNC get the ball, they run with it," he said.
"I like that style of ball."

Don't look for King to make a decision anytime soon. Having jumped too
early once, he plans to wait for the process to play itself out.