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Hanging Out With Future NBA Superstars (and Steve Blake) at the Nike Hoop Summit

The Nike Hoop Summit is a staple of the NBA scouting calendar, a change to see the best high school-aged players in the world.
Cameron Browne/USA Basketball

I'm sitting on an unstable riser in the gym at Club Sport, which is a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Portland Trail Blazers practice facility in Tualatin, Oregon. Behind me, there is a mixed-gender pickup game going on. Human beings, all of them under six feet in height and sporting a menagerie of athleti-casual options, are jogging up and down the court and heaving up elbows-tucked jump shots at the rim.


This creates something of a contrast with what is happening in front of me, which is a group of enormous and expertly toned young men, all in USA Basketball uniforms, doodling around the court and taking jump shots. They're here for the the 24th Nike Hoop Summit. The yearly game, which has been played in Portland for the last eight years, is a staple of the NBA scouting calendar, a chance to see the best high school-aged players in the country.

This year's USA squad includes Seattle Wunderkind Michael Porter Jr., Brandon Roy's charge and the the number one high school player in the country, as well as springy, long-limbed stretch center/forward Mohamed Bamba, the more traditionally aligned big man Jaren Jackson, the Kentucky-bound big man Jarred Vanderbilt, and aggro-core big haired point guard Collin Sexton, soon to learn the ways of being irritating from Avery Johnson himself at Alabama. They will square off against a cohort of young international players—American-prep aligned Canadian ballhandlers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, R.J. Barrett and Lindell Wigginton, along with international club talents such as multi-tooled German big man Isaiah Hartenstein, his three-point shooting countryman Kostja Mushidi, oversized Lithuanian wing Tadas Sedekerskis, and colossal Brazilian Felipe Dos Anjos—before an audience of assembled media and NBA Scouts. Those people will spend a week watching both teams in several practice sessions, evaluating their NBA-grade gifts and flagging potential demerits.


Read More: Five Years, Three Colleges, and $150: David Nwaba's Winding Road to the NBA

As I sit with the pickup game squeaking and thudding away behind me, Team USA is doing a shooting drill in front of a bunch of reporters; the players' family members slowly trickle in and take seats around me. Some of them know each other a little, probably from the McDonald's game and other such events, and they catch up. Me and one of the dads, decked out in Michigan State gear, are sitting next to each other; we confirm that we are both a little worried about this rattling riser we're sitting on.

The practice begins with a shooting drill, and nearly all of the young men demonstrate the most beautiful and intricately constructed jump shots I've ever seen up close in my life, feet snapping into perfect 45 Degree angles at the drop of a pin, their arms forming perfect diamonds above their heads, satisfying "THUWSHES' coming off their hands.

Not four years previous, this was not as much the case. The 2012 game was dominated by the 55-ish-year-old Shabazz Muhammad, Dennis Schröder, and a young Andrew Wiggins. That is, a non-shooting wing, a non-shooting point guard, and a non-shooting fringe All-Star, all of whose inability to space the floor have, in their own unique ways, held them back in the NBA.

But these kids are living in a new basketball world order, where space and efficiency are king. They've grown up with knowledge that shooting will probably have to be at least faintly printed on their resumes if they're ever going to get that NBA meal ticket. And, as it happens, they have a performance at the Nike Hoop Summit to thank for that.


Twenty years ago this month, Dirk Nowitzki emerged from the shadows of Germany's Second Division Basketball league and introduced himself to the world in the fourth Nike Hoop Summit at the Alamo Stadium Gymnasium in San Antonio, Texas. Not a lot was known about Dirk in the United States. He was tall and skilled and thin, he was in the German Military, and he wasn't sure if he would play in Germany or the United States.

Dirk showed out in the game, cleaning up the boards, drawing 23 foul shots and making 19 of them—he was disappointed in his percentages, with good reason—and flashing unbelievable skill and picturesque shooting touch for a big man. He more or less singlehandedly won the game for the World Squad, which had been thoroughly outmatched in the history of the contest up to that point. Watch the young Sticky German take the ball out of the backcourt, evade a defender, drive the length of the floor, avoid taking a charge, and draw two foul shots, roughly as perfectly as an elite guard might:

Don Nelson, at the time basketball's foremost mad-genius coach, was instantly intrigued. Nelson, even then, was downright fetishistic about manipulating space by jamming unconventional skill sets into different positions, and Dirk represented the most extreme manifestation of his dreams thus far extant. He traded up to draft the young man and then did everything in his power to get him out of Germany and into the NBA as soon as possible.


At the time, and throughout Dirk's rough first year in the league, Dirk's outright bizarre collection of skills and his association with the ever-increasingly erratic and bloated Nelson made him hard to read; his origin story, in which he was literally trained in the ways of total basketball by an eccentric Bavarian sensei and had played little elite competition, sure made him seem like a draft wild card at the time. Surely, critics said, a seven-foot non-shot blocking three-point shooter couldn't be more useful to an NBA team than Michael Olowakandi. When the lottery balls settled, Olowokandi was drafted first overall, by the Clippers; the Bucks took Dirk ninth, then traded him to the Mavericks for the bulky big man Robert Traylor, who went sixth.

As it turned out, Dirk dominated the league for a decade and a half, won a championship and a Finals MVP, and worked in tandem with the emerging analytics movement to usher in the efficiency era. Nowitzki was not just the best player in a draft that produced two certain Hall of Famers in Vince Carter and Paul Pierce—three, if you count Bonzi Wells. He changed the way basketball is played forever.

"Every single one of these guys, all 12 guys, wanna be in the NBA," Miles Austin, the coach of the USA Team for the week, told me when I ask about the slow shift outside in the modern professional game. "Shooting is a big part of that league right now, and if you can't shoot, you better have some other speciality."


In this post-Dirk world, where space is king and efficiency is the purpose of offense, everyone in this gym is looking to flash three-point potential. Even the 6'11"-ish Bamba finds himself pulling up from past the edge in the practice.

"It's been a part of my game for a while now," he tells me after the game, "On this team, specifically, I didn't really get a chance to get out there. I've always had kinda like a good midrange shot. There was always something a little off about my mechanics, like it's more like a V instead of an L. My shooting coach has always been on me about it. I've always wanted to step out and shoot, I didn't want to be restricted to being a back to the basket big."

Jaren Jackson may not be a shooter, but that won't stop him from shooting in practice. Photo: Sam Forencich/USA Basketball.

Even Jaren Jackson Jr., a more traditional big man who dominated the boards and racked up some hot defensive plays in the game on Friday, heaves them up during practice. His shot isn't pretty, if I'm being honest. It isn't even, like, a shot, really. It was a big, weird, pushy heave that sailed through the air like a fat knuckleball. Once or twice, it even goes in. But as a prospect on the grind, he can only show off whatever he possibly can to try to increase his stock in 2017. That means he has to use whatever outside skill he could possibly conjure, even if that skill doesn't really exist. Jackson's father was a fine shooter in the NBA, and Jackson The Younger is still a kid. The point is to give the people watching something, however faint, to dream on.


I ask Bamba if the changing environment of the NBA affected how he approaches developing versatility in his game: "It does, but I don't try to, like, force it. I'm not gonna force myself to become a three-point shooter if it's just not there. I'm just trying to be the best version of myself. If three=point shooting is or is not a part of my game, then I can work on it or focus on other things.

"But," he adds, with a laugh, "Thank God it is."

The World Team, practicing two days earlier in the Portland Trail Blazers' Practice facility across the street, ran a much different set of practices than the Americans. While the American mostly rehearsed sets and went through those speculative shooting exhibitions, 7-Time World Coach Roy Rana, a Canadian who coaches in a stylish turtleneck and a sharp pair of horn-rimmed glasses, spends more time running persistent, aggressive defensive rotation drills, tearing around the horn, following the ball here and there, and yelling "BALL BALL BALL BALL" and "GAB GAB GAB GAB GAB" to communicate the movement of the ball.

Canadian Kentucky commit Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-foot, 6-inch ball handling guard with big, omni-opened eyes and a loud, easily recognizable voice, is notably good at all this chatting. All chatting, even. He talks on the court incessantly, during knee stretches, on defense, running around picks. While he and his teammates take practice shots, he is almost automatic in his kudos for every make his teammates manage. A real hot streak will produce one "Good shot" after another, each more heartfelt and supportive than the last.


He carries himself with a competitive neurosis that is striking even amongst his high-level basketball peers. During a scrimmage against his teammates he (clearly) fouled fellow Canadian wunderkind TJ Barrett, then stiffened up, bounced off the ground with four straight limbs like a cartoon, and came excruciatingly close to yelling at the assistant who was reffing. This was in a scrimmage.

Gilgeous-Alexander isn't perfect. His shot is a skidge slow and his release is low, and his drives to the rim need some work. Scouting websites will tell you not to get too enthusiastic, despite the fact that he is an honest to god 6'6" point guard. But how could any player with this level of competitive and collaborative spirit fail? Are the demands of the future really that exacting? Maybe all he needs is a year in John Calipari's finishing school. Or maybe these deficits are wired into him and will condemn him to a life playing basketball somewhere other than the NBA.

The world team on aggregate have less structured shots and rougher handles than their American counterparts. Somewhat ironically, AAU and High school and private coaching are ideal environments for the repetition and isolation that went into shaping Nowitzki's human flesh into pure basketball steel. This has disseminated throughout the American basketball population, but it doesn't always fit in the Europeans' more club-centric, team-coaching approach.


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a chatty fellow. Photo: Sam Forencich/USA Basketball.

But they're good at other things. Tadas Sedekerskis, a large ballhanding wing who has a real Danilo-Gallinari-Without-the-Cool-Hair vibe, had an entire gym full of jaded, crumbling, dusty ol' scouts gasping with a beautiful Eurostep in transition. Felipe Dos Anjos is a 7-3 Brazilian who is probably too skinny to post up, but he DID sink a really beautiful bank shot in practice.

Isaiah Hartenstein, a great big 7-1 German boy, was a real standout performer, a multi-faceted, skilled big man with a chunky, oddball shot, as well as some really impressive drive moves and a real feel for the game. It will not take long for someone to compare him to Dirk. I spoke to him after the game and he kind of beat up on himself for not making his foul shots. The mantle of competition is heavy on his shoulders already. I leave hoping that he will bear the weight with grace.

And there's T.J. Barrett, who you have already met as someone fouled by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Barrett is a 16-year old Canadian who was the youngest player at the whole event, and he is an entirely different species of beast from his peers. His jumper isn't there, at least not yet, and especially amongst his peers on the World team, his passing still leaves something to be desired. But the young left-handed guard's approach to scoring at the rim is absolutely startling, streaked with a genius that can take your breath away when seen in isolation.


In the three practices where I watched Barrett, I never saw him drive to the rim, in a drill or a scrimmage or or game, without taking the opportunity to practice some fussy body-twist, hand approach, or rotation to create space at the rim. He was so good at controlling his body and making separation in the air that I worried that he might fall into Derrick Rose's habit of foul aversion. Could dock his true shooting percentage; people care about that.

And so, even in the face of this 16-year-old's undeniable physical genius, I found myself fretting at his modern NBA fit. Even a few days of superficial scouting turns you into a maniac, hunting and picking away at human beings for whatever flaws you can extract, enhancing and enhancing them again to see their specific striations. I don't know how people live this way. Or I do: I saw Andrew Wiggins dominate at this thing twice, and his mere excellence in the NBA has only disappointed me since.

On Thursday afternoon, the day before the game proper, the US team squared off against a squad composed of local ex-college players. These games are often the weird basketball highlight of the week, a showdown between young players placed in the economic position of needing to treat this scrimmage like a life and death concern, and a group of dudes on the outer-outer edges of high level hoops who are just there to put up points on Future NBA Players and get a good run in. One team is under some of the most severe pressure they've ever been under in their lives; the other could honestly give a fuck. It's amusing.


This year, there was a twist. Recently retired 14-year NBA point guard and Three-Separate-Occasion Portland Trail Blazer Steve Blake was in attendance to show these young'uns a thing or two about what a lifetime grinding against the world's greatest basketball players can teach about the mystic arts of basketball.

Collin Sexton is, frankly, a complete madman. Photo: Sam Forencich/USA Basketball.

Blake was guarded by Collin Sexton, a 6-3 point guard and Alabama commit who is, frankly, a complete madman. Sexton is a lethal basket-attacker with a shaky but operable jump shot and a giant fucking pile of hair perched on top of his head. He doesn't talk quite as much as Gilgeous-Alexander, his Canadian counterpart, but he DOES sort of wander around the court, juicing himself up with self-talk, throwing three point signs when appropriate, indulging in both personal celebration and flagellation with abandon.

All of which is to say that he is deeply un-Buddhist, and his emotions are loudly living and sleeping and shitting in the driver's seat of his mental hot rod. In the actual game, he ALMOST got a tech, which is practically unheard of in a game that pretends to the FIBA/International Sporting Complex Spirit of International Goodwill, after he picked up the dead ball off the floor, jammed it into Hartenstein's chest and talked some shit with abandon. He will be a truly irritating NBA player in the near future.

Sexton was clearly looking forward to matching up with Blake, and was eager to give his all to the task of breaking his spirit. But Blake, having learned equanimity in his old age, seemed uninterested in humoring Sexton's NBA thirsty ambitions, and seemed more interested in providing functional ball handling and distribution for his squad of 25-year-old post-college warriors.

Up close, you can see the world of difference between Blake, with 20 years of high level hoops under his belt, and the youths who were kicking his team's ass around him. His eyes were almost completely unconcerned with the task that was in front of him, be it driving or dishing or whatever, and were instead in a state of perma-movement, constantly scanning the open floor for any open teammate he might find and concealing his true intention from his defender.

Blake's athleticism is fucked, and his jumper is… suboptimal, especially when stacked up against the fine tuned American Robots, and yet he was exercising a sphere of control over the game every time he has the ball in his hands. He even managed to execute a perfectly timed out-of-bounds jump pass without diving into any of the pale sportswriters camped out on the baseline. His flying ass passed like three feet in front of my face.

Blake wasn't the best player on the court—Porter Jr. is very good, even if he is a little dull— but he was clearly the one who was most in control of his idiom, and unmistakably the one who seemed most bored by the mere act of being excellent at basketball. This quality, a seed from his nature that grew over the course of years in the league, got him through a lengthy tour in the NBA. He stuck around long after his meager athleticism had drained out of him, for that reason and that reason only. Against players whose athleticism was topped up to the point of sloshing sloppily over the brim, Blake's equanimity stood out all the more.

In watching him, I wondered who in the room would find themselves preparing for the draft, swimming upstream against the problems that everyone scouting them that already noticed. Which of them would land in the league, young broken and incomplete, and then go on to find in themselves the unlikely thing that would give them the life they've already worked so hard to achieve? And would they also live that close to the Blazer practice facility?