EMERSON, Ga. — About a three-hour drive from where hundreds of fans crammed into a tiny Peach Jam gym to watch 14-year-old Bronny James, Salpointe Catholic High’s Evan Nelson was balling on a 129,000-square-foot maplewood floor.
His Powerhouse Hoops club lost 60-57 to the Illinois Wolves in Friday’s Under Armour Finals despite 21 points from Nelson. But he said he loved every minute of the tournament experience.
“It’s the best,” Nelson said. “Playing in front of all these coaches from, shoot, everywhere probably. Hundreds of games and you’ve got the good environment and good competition. You can’t really ask for more.”
Even if you can barely make out your backboard from one of 23 others inside the massive LakePoint Champions Center, a 170,000-square foot building that is set up for 12 basketball courts this weekend.
Powerhouse big man Osasere Ighodaro said games are more fun that way.
“I’d rather play in a setting like this,” said Ighodaro, a UA recruiting target from Phoenix Desert Vista. “I just like the openness and it’s intense.
“I don’t know how to describe it but I just like it better.”
A similarly vast environment is also enveloping the Adidas Summer Championships in the Birmingham, Alabama, area. The Hoover Metropolitan Complex is set up with 11 courts, including a marquee court in the center that features added bleacher seating.
There’s a minor dose of extra confusion there, too. Tipoff times are listed in Eastern Time when they’re actually played in Central Time — effectively meaning they begin an hour later than stated. Not all teams play where they were listed as playing.
On Saturday morning, the D1 Minnesota U16 team played on Court 11, where the D1 Minnesota U17 team was listed as playing. One fan complained that he arrived at 8 a.m. to see a player on a Team Loaded that never showed up.
This was despite the fact, that at any given time, a Team Loaded of some sort is likely to pop up.
In the 17U division, there is a Team Loaded DC, Team Loaded NC and Team Loaded VA. In 16U, there’s Team Loaded 704 Griggs, Team Loaded 704 Red, Team Loaded DC, Team Loaded NC and Team Loaded VA. And, for those following the 15U circuit, there’s another Team Loaded NC and Team Loaded VA.
That’s the sort of thing that can make it fun, but also tiring. Players typically play twice every day at times that can range from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; they’re being evaluated by college coaches who are shuttling back and forth throughout the Southeast.
Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar spent Thursday in Emerson, where he watched Nelson and his Powerhouse team play. Nelson has official visits scheduled for Rice, Pepperdine and Harvard so far.
Then on Friday morning, Romar popped up in North Augusta, South Carolina, to watch a Vegas Elite-Team Why Not game that was, well, full of Division I prospects from the West.
There are Team Loadeds everywhere, even when they aren’t an actual Team Loaded.
“The only issue right now is there’s too many events,” said Romar, who served as UA’s associate head coach in 2017-18. “It’s hard to get to see everybody. Everybody’s so spread out and if you do see someone maybe you don’t get to see them more than once. And when you don’t get to see them more than once, sometimes it’s hard.”
Many coaches, including UA’s Sean Miller, spend the majority of their time at the Peach Jam, the championship event of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League circuit.
The UA staff typically recruits heavily from Nike-sponsored teams, so Miller and assistants Jack Murphy and Justin Gainey have been a constant presence at Peach Jam. Another assistant, Danny Peters, was spotted Saturday at the Adidas Summer Championships in Alabama.
Not only did the Peach Jam attract a number of other high-profile coaches such as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Oregon’s Dana Altman and virtually everyone from the Pac-12 but even the coaches on the floor contained a few big basketball names.
Team CP3 was led by CP3 himself, with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul ducking into Court 6 side door on Wednesday night before few could notice. Lakers star LeBron James has been known to show up for many of Bronny’s games.
Basically, anybody who is anybody in American basketball might show up at any given time.
“It’s the greatest tournament of the summer,” says five-star 2021 guard Devin Askew, a UA target from Mater Dei High School who is playing for Team Why Not in the Peach Jam. “Everyone wants to play in it and not everyone makes it. It’s the best teams on the Nike circuit, and the Nike circuit is the best circuit. That’s for sure. You get a great game every game.”
Because teams have to qualify for the Peach Jam via other EYBL events, only the top 24 are on hand for Peach Jam, meaning some top prospects on Nike-sponsored teams aren’t there. That gives it a distinctly more exclusive feel than other elite events such as 1,229-team Las Vegas Classic that Hal Pastner ran last summer even though it, too, included top Nike-sponsored clubs.
“It’s not big in size, but it’s big in stature,” said Pastner, the father of Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner, a former UA player and coach. “You get so many great players. The future, the elite. The highest level.
“The EYBL and Peach Jam is a league paralleling the NCAA and NBA.
“That’s what makes it so unique. There’s nothing like this. It’s a genius idea. Genius.”
But the Peach Jam, and the two other elite events in the Southeast this weekend, are also fleeting. Recommendations from the NCAA’s commission on college basketball, formed in the wake of the federal investigation, led to changes in the recruiting calendar that left this weekend as the only one in which college coaches could watch club ball.
The NCAA has instead instituted high school camps that were played last month, and is running upcoming individual regional camps, such as one to be held at Grand Canyon. But several Division I prospects, including Nelson and Ighodaro, say they aren’t playing in the NCAA regional camps, making this weekend effectively the last of their offseasons.
“I’m done until school season,” Ighodaro said.
For some, there’s a hint of sadness that comes with that fact.
The NCAA regional camps will still offer opportunity and competition, and an upcoming USA Basketball Junior camp will offer 73 top-tier recruits more face time with high-major college coaches.
But it will be different. Even for a guy like five-star Las Vegas area guard Jaden Hardy, a UA target who will play in a CP3 guard camp later this month.
“I wish there was another weekend of this kind of stuff,” Hardy said after playing for Vegas Elite in a Peach Jam game. “It’s really fun.”