LeBron, AD, Melo and more: Three decades of discoveries along basketball recruiting trail

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – On a Sunday in July 1991, I packed up my silver Pontiac Grand Am and pointed it west toward Indianapolis. Some people go to the mountains or the beach for vacation – I’m surely not going to save I’ve not done both – but on this occasion, I was going to spend my holiday at the Nike ABCD Camp.

The Pittsburgh Press, my employer at the time, had no interest covering summer basketball recruiting. This was common among newspapers then. There was no public internet, so obviously there were no websites there to cover it. For a young journalist wanting to become more involved in covering the sport, though, there was no other place to be. My wife was OK with me spending our money and my vacation time on this trip. She understood, and always has.

The Nike Camp then featured about 120 of the top prospects in high school basketball. There wasn’t much competition for those guys; no other shoe companies had yet begun sponsoring elite camps or tournaments. Among the elite prospects I saw that week were Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and future national champions Corliss Williamson and Tony Delk.

The fixation of so many regarding the summer can best be captured by a single word: sleaze. I’m not going to deny that as an issue, particularly not after what former Adidas representative T.J. Gassnola testified at trial last autumn.

Since that first trip to the Nike Camp, though – through 29 years that have taken me from Teaneck, N.J., to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Akron to Columbus to Cincinnati to Louisville to Memphis to Indianapolis to Spartanburg, S.C., to Orlando to Las Vegas to Los Angeles and to the town not far from where they play the Masters – for me it has been about discovering the next generation of basketball talent. I estimate I’ve seen close to 6,000 players during those summers.

Can I spot the flaws in the players with the grandest reputations? Can I see something special in a player who is widely overlooked? At the least, I can see where the baseline of a player’s talent rests as he enters Division I basketball and measure his improvement over the years.

These were my favorite “discoveries” from those journeys:

1. LeBron James

Where: ABCD Camp, Teaneck, N.J. 2001

If you’ve heard this before, I apologize, but I’ll never forget missing my chance to see LeBron before almost everyone. My wife and I were visiting family in Pittsburgh, and I had an afternoon hall pass to visit the Five-Star Camp at Robert Morris. Tom Konchalski, who has an eye for talent almost without peer, told me I had to see this sophomore-to-be named LeBron James. The problem: He wasn’t playing until the evening, and I was only free for the afternoon. I had to pass.

I finally saw him the next summer in 2001 at the ABCD Camp in New Jersey. By then he was well known in basketball circles. I watched him go up and down the court once or twice and immediately recognized I was observing the greatest prospect I’d ever seen, a frame of reference that included nearly every top high school player dating back to 1976. I wrote in Sporting News that it was like seeing “Magic Johnson’s head on Michael Jordan’s body” and compared the experience to those boomers who saw the Beatles for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show.

He hasn’t let me down.

2. Carmelo Anthony

Where: ABCD Camp, Teaneck, N.J. 2001

It seems now as if everyone knew Anthony was going to be spectacular, but there’s a reason he went to Syracuse for a year and not directly to the NBA. It’s not like he wasn’t a top prospect, but no one was suggesting he’d be an instant NCAA champion and eventual Hall of Famer.

When he arrived at ABCD, he didn’t even have as much renown as New York guard Lenny Cooke. They were matched against each other on the first day of the camp, and Anthony dominated. At least, that’s what I saw. There was no question in my mind who was the better player at that point.

Anthony, though, left almost immediately afterward for summer school at Oak Hill Academy. He wanted to be at camp for a day, if he could, but he could stay no longer.

I got the chance to interview him one-on-one before he departed. It was obvious he was special.

3. Greg Oden

Where: Big Time Tournament, Las Vegas 2002

I cannot remember whom to credit – it probably was John Groce, now head coach at Akron – but a college coach pointed me toward an auxiliary gym and told me to watch a young big man from Indiana. In fact, I did see Oden before he was genuinely discovered – because he had only just finished his eighth-grade year.

I wrote then that Oden was the game’s next great big man, a worthy successor to Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Walton and O’Neal. And he was for his one college season in 2006-07, when he delivered the most dominant NCAA championship game performance I’ve covered. Unfortunately, that was the last we all saw of the real Greg Oden. Injuries robbed us all, but especially Greg, of his best basketball.

4. Anthony Davis

Where: LeBron James Skills Academy, Akron 2010

I knew nothing of Davis when I showed up at LeBron’s camp on the campus of Akron University, and after watching him just a few times I began texting my friends Dave Telep and Evan Daniels, insisting he was the top player in the class. I’d never seen a player with better defensive instincts – not just in terms of defending the goal, but in managing pick-and-roll coverage.

For a reason I still cannot comprehend, I allowed a college coach to talk me out of my stance on Davis as the year’s best player and into believing it instead was Memphis wing Adonis Thomas. That will always stand as one of the two indefensible things I’ve written, the other being an errant evaluation of Tim Duncan in 1996 that I apologized for, in print, after watching him play in person.

I learned to always trust my own judgment in these matters.

5. Cameron Payne

Where: Nike Peach Jam, North Augusta, S.C. 2013

The player to watch on Memphis-based Team Penny that summer was Nick King, who went on to play moderately at Memphis and Alabama before finding his niche in one season at Middle Tennessee State. The player everyone missed was Payne, who was the team’s backup point guard.

I watched that team multiple times that week, and I called him a “PG steal.” However, none of the big-timers either read what I tweeted or took it seriously. It worked out fine for him. Payne was noticed by Steve Prohm at Murray State, and Payne scored 1,279 points in two college seasons, averaged 20.2 points in his sophomore season and wound up as a first-round draft choice.

6. Josh Pastner

Where: Nike All-American Camp, Indianapolis 1993

When I came across Josh, it was my fourth year of covering the Nike Camp, and he wasn’t like any other player I’d encountered. For instance: He wasn’t great. He wasn’t fast, tall, dynamic. What made Pastner stand out was he never left the gym.

Every other player would show up for games, play and then head back to the hotel to rest or goof around. Josh stayed in the gym, watching as if he were a college assistant coach looking for his next prospect. After about four days of this, I finally approached and asked this question: Who are you, and what is your deal?

Josh told me about the scouting service he, a high school athlete, was running. And about the AAU team he ran. And the AAU girls’ team he coached. Pastner became a walk-on at Arizona and was part of its 1997 NCAA championship team, then joined the Wildcats staff and worked himself up the right-hand man for two Hall of Fame coaches, Lute Olson at Arizona and John Calipari at Memphis.

Now at Georgia Tech, he’ll begin his second decade as a head coach this autumn.

7. Jess Settles

Where: Nike All-American Camp, Indianapolis 1992

It was only my second Nike Camp, but I knew enough to understand that not every prospect brought along his own cheering section. Several of Settles’ family members sat courtside at the IUPUI campus and applauded every significant play he made. There were many.

It also was obvious that no one in that year’s crop, or the year before, played as hard as Settles. I’m pretty sure no one has since. His energy was magnetic, and that’s exactly the player he remained for five years at Iowa. Settles wound up scoring 1,611 points and playing in the 1999 Sweet 16 against eventually NCAA title-winner Connecticut.

Now he frequently sits next to me on the Big Ten Network set.

I still tease him about his fan club.

8. Tyler Ulis

Where: The8, Las Vegas 2013

I’d seen Ulis briefly at the Peach Jam that summer and was intrigued, but it was in Las Vegas that I came to understand he was extraordinary. His command of the game was elite, his shooting range was exceptional and his ability to destabilize defenders with his quickness and body control was almost unparalleled.

It didn’t seem to matter that he was only slightly taller than me.

Most scouts had been rating him toward the back of the top 50. When Sporting News published rankings that summer, we had Ulis in the top 25. Two years later, as a sophomore at Kentucky, he made our All-America first team.

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9. Jay Williams

Where: Five-Star Camp, Pittsburgh 1998

Among the players I remember best from that Friday night All-Star game at Robert Morris’ Sewall Center were future NCAA champion Steve Blake of Maryland and future Texas forward Chris Ogden, now the head coach at UT-Arlington. But the best player in the gym was Williams, who committed to play at Duke not long after his outstanding week at camp.

It was interesting that some of the buzz at that camp was whether Williams was a true point guard, because his greatest skill was the ability to generate his own offense. At Duke, he eventually played in a hybrid role alongside Chris Duhon and not only helped the Blue Devils to an NCAA championship but also established himself as one of the college game’s best ever: a two-time consensus All-American, the NABC player of the year as a sophomore and the Naismith Award winner as a junior.

10. Joel Cornette

Where: Ohio Dominican tournament, Columbus 1997

I don’t remember the name of that tournament. I do remember that future UCLA Bruin Dan Gadzuric was among the featured attractions. I believe it was run by a man named Bobby Kortsen, who was heavily involved in the summer camp and tournament scene.

There was a team from Cincinnati at that event, and I can’t remember who the main attraction was, but the guy who kept catching my eye was Cornette. He stood 6-7 at the time, on the way to his junior season at St. Xavier High. He wasn’t a great shooter and did not play above the rim, but he understood every nuance to the game that might help make him a better player.

I loved his game so much I dragged my wife to one of his high school playoff games the following March. Then Joel grew to 6-10, which made him an attractive prospect for the coaches at Butler.

Cornette played for some of the program’s greatest teams, three of which made the NCAA Tournament and one that made the Sweet 16, in 2003. He eventually became a player agent, but three summers ago died suddenly of a heart ailment. His funeral was held at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse and attended by thousands.

Before Butler home games, they still play a video clip of Joel speaking at a news conference in 2003, following the Bulldogs’ upset of No. 4 seed Louisville in the second round.

“We are still here,” he says, to summarize his pride at Butler’s accomplishment.

I cry every time.

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