Two-Year Commitment Challenges Preps to Improve, Strive for Gold
June 1, 2013 • Colorado Springs, Colo.
Spending the weekend at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Springs, Colo., are 30 of the nation’s top players age 16-and-younger. They’re all members of the 2013-14 USA Basketball Men’s Developmental National Team, from which the 12-member 2013 USA U16 National Team will be selected. The USA Developmental National Team is a two-year program that not only focuses on winning gold medals at the FIBA Americas U16 Championship and FIBA U17 World Championship, it’s about developing players who will represent USA Basketball at the highest level both on and off the court.
First launched in 2009 and featuring the likes of 2013 NBA All-Rookies Bradley Beal, André Drummond and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as well as Quinn Cook, James McAdoo, Marquis Teague and Tony Wroten, the 2009-10 USA Developmental National Team compiled an overall record of 13-0 and captured golds at the 2009 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and 2010 FIBA U17 World Championship.
The next group of DNT members were equally impressive – they also went undefeated in 2011 and 2012, capturing both gold medals in the process – and included Joel Berry, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Ohafor, Jabari Parker and Justice Winslow.
That’s a prestigious legacy to live up to, a fact not lost on the current crop of young prep stars.
“It proves that being here is something special, and you can be special one day,” said 6’5” guard Tyus Battle (Gill St. Bernard’s School / Edison, N.J.). “Those guys who made it to the NBA, they’re pretty good players in the NBA, so it proves that these kids are good out here.”
One common thread running through the USA Developmental National Team over the past four summers, aside from undefeated records and string of gold medals, is USA head coach Don Showalter, who has led the program since its inception in 2009. Showalter, head coach at Iowa City High School (Iowa), returned for another two-year stint at the head of the USA Developmental National Team in 2013-14.
Showalter begins each practice or game-day shoot-around with a team meeting that sometimes includes film of the previous day’s practice, or video from USA National Team camps and competitions, an outline of what practice will be like that day and team announcements. Perhaps most important in his overview about what he expects from the athletes each day is a quick shot of wisdom that Showalter has dubbed “mind candy.”
Showalter doesn’t just read his mind candy aloud; he calls upon the players for their take on the daily thought. What does it mean to them? How can it help them in life?
“I like it a lot,” said 6’1” guard Derrick Thornton (Simi Valley, Calif.), who transferred to play at Nevada’s Findlay Prep in the fall. “It gives us some extra pointers on what he wants to see. I think it helps a lot just to know what he wants to see in all of us when we play out here.”
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And each day at the end of practice or after a game, Showalter brings it up again as a reminder that USA Basketball isn’t just about playing a game. It’s about getting better on and off the court. It’s about young men learning life lessons they hopefully will take with them as they move forward in their careers.
Showalter’s ‘mind candy’ makes a lasting impression. In fact, when USA Basketball Tweeted the second session’s ‘mind candy,’ the first person to reTweet was Berry, who wrote, “My favorite one!” and followed that up with, “I miss hearing them before every practice.”
What was Berry’s favorite mind candy? “Three things about success: it does not happen in a vacuum, it takes time; it is hard.”
Mustapha Heron, a 6’4” guard from Wilbraham & Monson Academy (Conn.) said he has been learning a lot.
“(We’ve learned) a lot of different things that I have never heard before,” said Heron. “How he breaks down a lot of stuff, secrets to success, how to compete, definitely communication, body language and being vocal. If I get down on myself, then so do my teammates, so I have to be a leader and stay positive.”
And Henry Ellenson, a 6’9” forward/center from Rice Lake High School (Wis.) recalls, “One of the things was about being successful. It does take more than one person to be successful. There are your parents helping you, your teammates. So, that’s one thing I’ve learned from that.”
On the court, athletes are going up against tougher competition than they usually see on the same court at one time. And it’s making them better players in the process.
“It’s great. I’m playing against the best kids in the country, so you have to compete everyday,” stated Battle. “There are lots of defenses, it’s not as easy to get to the basket like you do in high school ball, so it’s good. I’ve been coming on better as we go on. I’m getting used to it, getting more comfortable. I have to play my game more, but I think I’m coming along well.”
“It’s great. There’s a lot of competitiveness,” added Heron. “Everybody out here is good. They’re talented. They all do one thing well, and they stick to what they do.”
Off the court, the athletes are getting to know each other and enjoying the overall experience of living at the USOTC.
“I like it a lot,” said Thornton. “Everyone up here is really nice, it’s really fun living with the guys. So, it’s cool.”
And of course, there’s the cafeteria that caters to Olympic-sized appetites.
“All you can eat food, I like that,” joked the 250-pound Ellenson.
It’s not lost on any of them, however, that there are 12 tickets up for grabs to Uruguay and a chance to represent the United States at the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship June 11-15 in Maldonado.
“I just really want to be out here to be the best point I could be,” recalled Thornton on what he’s trying to do to stand out. “Because all these kids can score, so I want to fill my role as a point guard. I want to show my defense, talk, be a leader, lead positively. So, that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”
“I’m trying to be as good of a leader as I can,” added Heron. “Be a hustle guy and knock down open shots when I get them.”
Ellenson has been trying to show that he can play outside as well as inside – a trait of international big men that he picked up on while watching last summer’s Olympics.
“I saw a little bit last year during the Olympics, and I know I’m good at stretching out floors, so yeah (I’m trying to show I can do that),” Ellenson said. “I’ve always been a 3-point shooter, because I’ve always played with my (two older) brothers and that was the only way I could score. They were bigger than me, but not anymore.
“It’s for sure more competitive than last time (at the October 2012 mini-camp),” he noted. “Guys are really trying to get one of those 12 spots. I have gotten better, because you never really get to play with guys this size and this talent at home. So, it’s nice.”
In the end, no matter who gets selected, all 30 of these athletes will have improved their game, made lasting friendships and will return in the fall for the annual USA Developmental National Team mini-camp ready to begin battling for a spot on the 2014 USA U17 World Championship Team.
“I love everything about the training camp so far,” said Thornton. “I’m learning a lot of things playing with these great players. I’m just trying to show my talent. It helps a lot to come out against these good guys. I’ve never gotten to play with all these guys before, all this talent at all positions. It helps me a lot for being a point guard.”
“There are a lot of great guys, a lot of great coaches, a lot of help in my development,” said Heron. “I think my defense has gotten better. My on-ball defense, I could work on my help-side defense, but my on-ball defense has gotten better.
“Build relationships with guys, definitely build relationships with coaches,” added Heron on what he’s hoping to gain from this experience. “Everybody, the staff, trainers, and just have fun.”
Aside from the competition, Ellenson is enjoying the experience, “It’s a privilege to be out here, so I just want to take it all in.”
Battle believes the USA Basketball Developmental National Team Committee is looking for, “leadership, defense and somebody who goes after it every time they step on the court.” If he doesn’t make the final 12-member team, however, Battle knows, “It’s a good way to highlight your flaws so you can get better and next time you come back, you can improve on it.”
And that’s one of the principal lessons all 30 of these guys can take away: learning from mistakes and coming back a stronger, more complete player for the next camp.