57 of the top high school sophomores, juniors and seniors were invited (see link for full breakdown) this time, even if a few players (like Marvin Bagley, Nazreon Reid, Kobi Simmons and Miles Bridges) declined to attend, and others (such as Harry Giles, Malik Monk and E.J. Montgomery) were forced to withdraw due to injury.
Still, the cream of the crop of high school basketball will be in Colorado Springs, with many likely future NBA draft picks included, some of whom are likely to be picked very high in future drafts.
They include the likes of Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, De'Aaron Fox, Terrance Ferguson, Marques Bolden, Wendell Carter, Mohamed Bamba, Michael Porter, Jordan Brown and others.
For some, such as Fultz, Isaac, Bolden and Bamba, this will be their very first time wearing a USA Basketball jersey, while for others, such as Tatum, Jackson or Ferguson this will be their fifth or even sixth visit to Colorado Springs.
The very talented group of players in attendance will be put through a barrage of drills, scrimmages, discussions and more over the course of four sessions in two days, led by head coach Don Showalter, who has been tasked with leading USA Basketball's youth teams since 2009, and has seven gold medals to his name and a sparkling undefeated record.
Showalter's assistant coaches are former NCAA Final Four MVP and NBA draft pick Miles Simon and Sharman White of Miller Grove high school in Georgia. The coaching staff is rounded out by court coaches Edward Francis (E1T1, Orlando), Eric Flannery (St. Edward high school, Ohio) and L.J. Goolsby (KC Run GMC, Kansas).
USA Basketball's goal is to begin to instill the fundamentals, habits and culture the program values in the country's most elite athletes, as well as evaluate a large group of players in one convenient setting.
Three events are coming up on USA Basketball's youth docket: the Nike Hoop Summit in April, the U18 FIBA Americas Championship in June (location unknown), and the U17 World Championship in July (to be held in Spain). The majority, if not all of the players who end up on the rosters of those teams will have gone through this mini-camp. At least, that's the goal.
A few early story lines to emerge:
Which point guard will separate himself from the loaded group of ball-handlers in the 2016 crop?
Recruiting analysts are calling this a banner year for point guards among this year's high school senior class. Depending on whose opinion you value, any of De'Aaron Fox, Frank Jackson, Markelle Fultz or Malik Monk could be considered the best point guard in this year's class. Unfortunately Dennis Smith tearing his ACL, Monk getting injured and Lonzo Ball not being invited may make this camp somewhat inconclusive in this regard. Regardless, an opportunity to watch the players who will be in attendance going head to head, as well against top-ranked 2017 point guards such as Trevon Duval, Troy Brown, Jaylen Hands, Jalek Felton (not to mentioned highly rated 2018s like Javonte Smart, Darius Garland and Tre Jones) will be both highly entertaining and extremely informative.
How are the Big Men Developing?
We all know that "big men take longer to develop," which is part of the reason why getting a chance to see the top power forward and center prospects matching up head to head once or twice a year in an incredibly demanding and competitive environment like USA Basketball's setup currently allows is extremely valuable. We'll get to see what type of physical and skill improvement these young players have (or haven't) made as they move along their development curve, which should give us a little more insight into their progression the next time we see them play as they grow into their frames and mature.
Newcomers such as Jarrett Allen, Marques Bolden, Omari Spellman and Mohamed Bamba get to mix in with younger USA veterans like Wendell Carter, Austin Wiley, Jalen Hill, Jordan Brown, Alex Reese, Connor Vanover and Brandon Johns.
Why did certain players decline their invites?
Another player who declined his invite is Marvin Bagley, who is considered by many to be the #1 player in the class of 2018 (sophomores), even though age-wise, he should be in the junior (2017) class. High school junior Charles O'Bannon also informed USA Basketball very early on that he's unable to attend.
High school senior point guard Kobi Simmons and sophomore big man Nazreon Reid are two other players who elected not to attend the camp for undisclosed reasons.
Reid's high school coach Dave Boff of Roselle Catholic, in response to inquiries about his player's withdrawal, had the following to say: Nazi was very excited for the opportunity to go to USA Basketball. This coming week he has a few tests and a project due Monday. He made the decision to put his academics first. He's disappointed, but I'm proud of him for prioritizing his academics. He looks forward to going back to USA this spring."
Attempts to reach Simmons for comment were unsuccessful.
Speaking broadly on the topic of players who decline invites to various training and mini-camps, USA Basketball National Team Director Sean Ford did not appear overly concerned about any given absence.
Unfortunately, kids have a lot of different commitments and things to focus on. From our standpoint, we don't spend much time figuring out why guys aren't here. If someone says he's not coming, you're never changing his mind in our experience. Maybe he is focused on recruiting, a school conflict, or his support group feels this is not the right place for him to be. Because of the deep player pool in the US, we are lucky that it's not something we have to spend time worrying about too much at this time.
Can USA Basketball's Dominance At the Junior National Team Level Continue?
USA Basketball hasn't lost a game at the U16, U17, U18 or U19 level in four years, with the last loss coming at the U19 World Championship in Riga in 2011, where the team, led by then-Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, finished in 5th place after losing to both Croatia and Russia.
With that said, three of the four teams have seen some very close calls in their last tournaments that make it difficult to presume that USA Basketball will continue to run through the competition without any challenges.
This summer, the U16 group fell behind by 20 points in the second quarter of the championship game against Canada, before rallying in the second half and winning 77-60.
At the U17 level, the US was caught in a real dogfight in the finals of the last U17 World Championship versus Australia, who hit a barrage of 3-pointers to keep the game close until the very end.
The American U18 national team is one group that hasn't had much adversity to overcome in recent years, with their last loss coming in the 2008 championship game to Argentina on their home floor. That US team roster looks extremely weak in retrospect, and was clearly a catalyst for the shakeup we've seen with the program's philosophy since.
At the U19 level, the US was fortunate to escape the World Championship in Crete this summer with the gold medal, having sported one of their youngest and most inexperienced teams in many years, led predominantly by the likes of high schoolers (and USAB veterans) Jalen Brunson, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum playing up one or two years compared with the competition. Croatia, similarly depleted by injuries and sneaker company drama, took the US to overtime, and even had a chance to win the game with five seconds left at the free throw line.
And we shouldn't forget about the Nike Hoop Summit, which the US roster has lost to the World Select team in three of the last four years. That may help explain why USA Basketball elected to bring its biggest contingent ever of high school seniors to this weekend's mini-camp, with 18 players invited.
All this is not lost on USA Basketball.
We really can't say we're dominating right now, Sean Ford told us. We need to continue to improve on our model, because it's clear that everyone else is upping their game. We had our closest games ever at the U16, U17, and U19 levels.
That's a little bit of our theme this weekend. Sometimes when you're on a roll, the people coming in next think its an automatic that they'll be just as successful, that they'll accomplish what the rest did. We need to keep getting better in order to earn it. We need to work at maintaining success. We are dominating in terms of our ability to field quality teams, but when push comes to shove, the wins haven't been as easy. These are things you need to pay attention to. B.J. Johnson and I are paying attention.
Sometimes games will be challenging. Not every player will shine this weekend. A player might have a bad session. How does he bounce back from that? Everyone can't look good every time out. That's what we'll be looking for. That's why we mix the older players in with the younger ones, because that's a great way for guys to get tested and see how much they need to improve on. It's hard to get better when you're the best player on the court all the time.
To develop the future Olympic and World Cup participants, we need to start here.
Stay tuned as we will provide a thorough overview of the mini-camp after it concludes, including interviews, measurements, scouting reports and more.