If stretches of the basketball calendar were drugstores, the
summertime would be Schwab's. That's when the best high school
players in the nation come together at the top camps and
travel-team tournaments to be discovered, which these days means
a ticket straight to the NBA. (All others are relegated to Do Not
Pass Go, Go Directly to College status.) As kids from the tiniest
basketball backwaters get their chance to certify their talent
against big-city powers in the hoops version of American Idol,
the winners work their way into the consciousness of the
cognoscenti and begin to collect the trappings of stardom (an
incipient posse, breathless Internet postings, a diary turn in
Slam magazine) that will confirm their stature. After all, with
LeBron James already shod, drafted and signed, we can hardly be
expected to wait for him to play an NBA game before we check the
radar screen to see who's next.
The lesson of this summer is that basketball's future, like most
radar screens, is green. With three consensus Top 15
seniors-to-be strung like rare gems across the front line, an
outfit called the Atlanta Celtics slam-rocked and shamrocked the
travel-team circuit. Josh Smith, a small forward with the twin
advantages of being 6'10" and lefthanded, was all arms, legs and
energy at both ends of the floor, scoring with ease close in and
far out. Randolph Morris proved to be the rarest prospect of all,
a teenage 7-footer with a mature drop step and jump hook, as well
as a zeal for the throwback art of post play. Meanwhile 6'11"
Dwight Howard, an ambidextrous power forward with the court sense
of a point guard, turned out to be the revelation of the summer.
He's an early favorite to be the No. 1 pick if he elects to
bypass college and declare for next June's NBA draft, which he
seems almost certain to do. "What's so great is that last summer
Josh was Number 1 in his class," says Celtics founder and
director Wallace Prather Jr. "And my gut feeling is that in the
long run Randolph may be the best of them all."
Over the last two weeks of July the Celtics won 17 of 18 games.
They went 10-0 while blowing through a field of 128 to capture
the gemstone of summer tournaments, the Big Time in Las Vegas, as
Howard and Smith shared the MVP award. Then they ripped off
another seven victories at the Best of the Summer tournament in
Los Angeles before losing in the semifinals. University of
Connecticut assistant coach George Blaney, 63, spoke for many in
the horde that tracked the Celtics when he called them "the best
summer team I've ever seen."
Two of the past three No. 1 picks in the NBA draft have come
straight from high school, and last season the Phoenix Suns'
Amare Stoudemire, the No. 9 selection in 2002, became the first
player drafted out of high school to win the Rookie of the Year
award. Meanwhile commissioner David Stern recently conceded that
his efforts to introduce a rule that would keep teenagers out of
the league are "losing steam." The handful of washouts that
became cautionary tales about skipping college have been eclipsed
by the success stories of Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Kobe
Bryant. Even Rashard Lewis, the Houston high school player who
dissolved into tears at the 1998 NBA draft after not being chosen
until the second round, today has a seven-year, $60 million deal
with the Seattle SuperSonics. "You know how trends go," says
Prather. "I remember the days when every kid took five college
visits and signed late. Now you can't do anything but wish the
kids well [in the draft]."
Prather and his program can claim some of the credit for those
accelerated opportunities. In a world in which teams go by names
like Playaz and Skillz and Boyz, and some coaches sport rap
sheets (former Kansas City coach Myron Piggie is the most
egregious example, a convicted felon who has served time for drug
dealing and most recently for fraud arising from payments to his
"amateur" players that totaled tens of thousands of dollars), the
Atlanta team is simply the Celtics, old school down to the
shamrock on its logo. Prather and coach Karl McCray are career
professionals in the Bureau of Recreation in Atlanta, where the
Celtics began in 1990. While many participants in the Big Time
tournament quartered themselves amid the neon of the Las Vegas
Strip, the Celtics stayed in the low-wattage suburb of Henderson.
Each of the Celtics' three frontliners comes from a two-parent,
two-income home, and the Celtics' leaders know their place in the
big picture. "We speak when spoken to," says McCray. "Our goal is
to stay out and let parents make the decisions."
The Celtics program works because it's vertically integrated.
Boys join as early as third grade and may be placed on one of 20
teams that are sorted into various age groups. Over the past
dozen years the Celtics have produced five NBA players, including
Dion Glover, Donnell Harvey and Jumaine Jones. When in 1997
freshly hired Georgia State coach Lefty Driesell called his
longtime friend, Adidas czar Sonny Vaccaro, looking to join the
company's stable, Vaccaro turned him down, for he already had the
Celtics under contract and the Atlanta market wrapped up. "It's
like that scene from The Godfather," Vaccaro says, "when Tessio
said, 'Tell Mike it was only business.'"
By growing their own, the Celtics don't have to be as mercenary
as some of the recent teams that have shown up on the summer
circuit--assemblages like the EBO All-Stars, which featured
Carlos Boozer (from Juneau, Alaska), DeShawn Stevenson (Fresno,
Calif.) and Brett Nelson (St. Albans, W.Va.). Indeed not since
The Friends--the Detroit-based travel team that included Chris
Webber, Jalen Rose, Voshon Lenard and Howard Eisley--has one
summer team featured as much first-rate indigenous talent as the
Celtics. Howard and Smith even went to preschool together. (A
commemorative plaque may someday grace the wall of Lacy's
Preschool in College Park, Ga.) "Playing together brings out the
best in me and Josh and Randolph," says Howard, who wants to
improve what he calls the three S's--strength, shooting and
speed. "We're on the court competing for everybody's attention."
If Howard has the savvy of a point guard, it's because he was
one, even as a 6'2" eighth-grader. By the end of ninth grade he
stood four inches taller, yet he hadn't lost any of his dexterity
or court vision. "I thought maybe Dwight had a chance to be
six-foot-seven," says his father, Dwight Sr., a Georgia highway
patrolman who doubles as athletic director at his son's school,
Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. "Then all of a sudden he was
6'9". That made us rethink our plans."
Though in June he was voted the most promising prospect among the
invitees to the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp in Richmond,
young Dwight still wears braces, drops "Yes, sir" and "No, sir"
on strangers and frequently invokes the Lord. "When we're at
home, he'll empty the trash and feed the dog when it's his turn,"
his father says. "We've never had a problem with keeping him
humble. As parents, we know you have to stay on your kids. Your
child is your investment."
The Howards will no doubt soon meet other aspiring stakeholders.
A constant stream of shoe company reps, agents and agents'
runners are the reward for establishing yourself as a top
prospect. "You'd have to be a blind man not to see this kid as
potentially as good as anyone," says Vaccaro, the Adidas ABCD
Camp founder and Big Time tournament executive director, who has
hovered around high school basketball for nearly four decades.
"Dwight is the most versatile big man I've seen since I started
doing this, and that includes Alonzo [Mourning], Shawn Kemp and
Shaq. People talked about [Connecticut center Emeka] Okafor or
others being the Number 1 pick in next year's draft, but that's
over now. Dwight will be Number 1. I've never been so sure of
something, other than LeBron."
Adds an NBA scout, "Even if he doesn't grow another inch, he has
the size and athleticism to be the prototypical NBA power
forward." As the summer went on, Howard's ambidexterity turned as
many heads as his raw athleticism. He'd throw an outlet pass
lefthanded, shoot a free throw righthanded and block shots with
either hand. It's another knack that can be traced to eighth
grade, when he broke his left wrist and had to develop his off
Smith, a.k.a. J Smooth, was "my joy baby," recalls his mother,
Paulette, and his game usually matches that sobriquet. In Las
Vegas, during a matchup with New York's Westchester Hawks, he
flushed a dunk at one end, hustled back to pin a Westchester shot
against the backboard and, after scrambling to his feet, claimed
the rebound. Trailing the break that soon thundered off toward
the Celtics' basket, he took a short alley-oop back pass from
teammate Clifford Clinkscale for another dunk. The sequence
caused Indiana coach Mike Davis, to whom Smith has given a oral
commitment, to beam at the other coaches seated around him.
Of course, the Hoosiers, for whom former Celtics Jeff Newton and
A.J. Moye played last season, understand that their catch could
easily join Howard in the draft. "I think about it a lot," says
Smith, whose father, Walter, played briefly in the ABA. "It's
everybody's dream to be in the league, so how can you not?" After
two years at McEachern High in Powder Springs, Ga., he will spend
his senior year at Virginia's Oak Hill Academy, where he'll play
the three, his likely position in the pros, against a national
schedule of stout competition. (Howard and Morris play for
private schools in Georgia's smallest classification, and their
only challenge after the summer season ends will come when their
teams meet each other.) "Josh has natural leadership ability,"
says McCray. "He speaks up, he's emotional. The first couple of
years I coached him, I couldn't talk to him after a loss."
Adds Vaccaro, "Josh is going to be like Dominique Wilkins. He'll
be a big endorsement guy because of his flair."
If Howard is the spiritual one and Smith the most outgoing,
Morris, Prather says, is "the intellectual." He carries a 3.7
grade point average at Landmark Christian Academy in Fairburn,
Ga., and has exceeded 1,000 on his SATs. He's the most likely of
the three to go to college; the lucky school could be from among
Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Notre Dame,
Stanford and Georgia Tech, to which insiders give an edge because
his older brother, Jonathan, is a Yellow Jackets team manager.
Morris's studious bent applies to basketball as well; he breaks
down the games of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar when they appear on ESPN Classic. "He moves well,
and from what I hear, his work ethic is great," an NBA scout
says. "He's a smart kid and a nice kid, so you have to think
you're not going to have trouble teaching him."
"The way I look at it, not everybody can go to the league from
high school, so I'll try to take advantage, do a year or two in
college," Morris says. "I can take somebody off the dribble, but
I'm in my comfort zone in the post. If you play within your
strengths, you don't expose your weaknesses." Told that last
comment sounds like something a coach might have shared with him,
Morris demurs. "I just thought of it now," he says.
"Randolph's just an average teenager," says his mother, Patricia.
"He doesn't have unusual hobbies like snake farming. His father
and I believe he shouldn't just be physically ready for the NBA,
but emotionally and psychologically ready, too."
By the end of July, having spent 18 of 24 days on the road, the
Celtics were running on fumes. On the eve of the semifinal in Los
Angeles, Howard called his mom, Sheryl, in Atlanta to tell her,
"I just want to get back to my own bed." The next morning the
Celtics lost to a bunch that had been sleeping in their own beds
all week, Southern California-based Pump 'N' Run, a team whose
guards, UCLA-bound Jordan Farmar and Oregon recruit Bryce Taylor,
shrewdly kept the game from being decided in the frontcourt.
Only several hundred people showed up for that game, whereas a
few nights earlier more than 16,000 had filled the Staples Center
across town to watch LeBron James score 28 points in Magic
Johnson's charity exhibition game. But the system is always on
the lookout for the next sellers of shoes and minters of street
cred. That was clear from a scene in Las Vegas just before the
Big Time final tipped off, as Vaccaro approached two courtside
spectators, Sacramento Kings owners Gavin and Joe Maloof. "We're
changing the structure of the draft with this one game," he said.
A week later agent Jeff Schwartz could be seen chatting up
Prather and Smith's dad outside Loyola Marymount's Gersten
Pavilion, in the midst of the Best of Summer tournament.
All of which is a reminder that, of those S's that Dwight Howard
cites, he and his precocious fellow big men have already
demonstrated speed in abundance.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK BIG DECISIONS Weighing the choices top players face, Howard (12) figures to skip college, Morris (21) plans to enroll and Smith is up in the air.
COLOR PHOTO: GREGG BENSON TOWERS OF POWER Smith (42) wowed observers in Vegas with his flair, but Morris proved to be the rare find--a true post player.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER UNSTOPPABLE Whatever questions remained about Howard's small-school background were answered at ABCD Camp.
COLOR MAP: ILLUSTRATION BY SLIM FILMS ATLANTA
THE ROAD TO THE NBA
Dwight Howard (left) may have boosted himself to the top of the
NBA draft this summer, but it wasn't easy. From May 23 to Aug. 1,
starting from his home base in Atlanta, he logged more than
12,200 miles and played in 65 games at a total of eight camps and
1. MAY 23-25
Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions, Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
2. JUNE 13-15
Adidas Rose City Showcase, Portland
3. JUNE 17-22
NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp, Richmond
4. JUNE 27-29
Team Camp USA, Tallahassee, Fla.
5. JULY 7-11
Adidas ABCD Camp, Teaneck, N.J.
6. JULY 12-13
Three Stripes Classic, Neptune, N.J.
7. JULY 22-26
Adidas Big Time tournament, Las Vegas
8. JULY 27-31
Best of the Summer tournament, L.A.
"Playing together brings out the best in me, Josh and Randolph,"
says Howard. "We're out there COMPETING FOR EVERYONE'S ATTENTION."
Howard, an ambidextrous power forward with the court sense of a
point guard, turned out to be THE REVELATION OF THE SUMMER.