Nation’s Top High School Players Enjoy Challenge of Playing Against Each Other at USA Training Camp
More than 50 players from the USA Basketball Junior National Team pool gathered in the Twin Cities over Final Four weekend.
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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — While the best teams in men’s college basketball descended on Minneapolis this past weekend for the NCAA Final Four, some of the top high school talent in the country gathered together not far from U.S. Bank Stadium.
Fifty-five high school boys’ basketball players took part in the USA Basketball Junior National Team’s April training camp over the weekend at Jefferson Recreation Center in the suburb of Bloomington. Top players from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 classes teamed up together to scrimmage international competition from the NBA Academy.
“It’s an honor to come out here and to represent our country, to play against some of the best talent in the world and in the country,” said Isaiah Jackson (SPIRE Academy, Ohio/Waterford, Mich.), a 6-foot-8 power forward in the 2020 class.
After two training sessions Friday, Jackson and the rest of the USA Basketball players rotated between several courts at the recreation center on Saturday. Each game lasted just 15 minutes, which gave players the opportunity to see a wide range of competition throughout the day.
That included four teams from the NBA Academy, which brought its players to the Twin Cities for the Final Four weekend from Africa, China, South America and elsewhere.
“I think it’s a very positive day for both groups,” said Don Showalter, USA Basketball Youth & Sport Development coach director. “This is one of four Junior National Team training camps we have. We’re trying to get some evaluation, but it’s also just how these kids can play with other good players, and then how they can play against players internationally.”
That was part of the challenge for the U.S. players on Saturday: learning to share the ball with other highly-touted athletes. Some of the most notable recruits in the country were on hand for the training camp, including 7-foot center Evan Mobley (Rancho Christian H.S./Temecula, Calif.), regarded by many as the No. 1 overall recruit for the class of 2020.
Mobley and the rest of the players in the gym were used to being the star player on their respective high school or AAU teams, so facing off against — and teaming up with — elite competition was a welcomed challenge.
“It’s a great opportunity. I get to play with the top players,” said Mobley, who is from Temecula, California. “It makes you compete even harder. You’re not used to playing this many good guys, so you have to value every single possession and take everything seriously.”
The game of basketball continues to grow as an international sport, but some of the styles of play on display Saturday varied from country to country. Many of the American players noted that their international competition played a slightly more deliberate brand of basketball than they were accustomed to.
Showalter believes facing different styles of play can only help the kids from USA Basketball.
“They have to learn how to be great teammates,” Showalter said. “They have to learn how to play with really good players. I think by doing that for a weekend, they kind of understand what it takes for them to make their game go up a level.”
Players came from all over the country to attend the camp, but one of the notable names Saturday was Minnesota native Jalen Suggs (St. Paul, Minn.), a 6-foot-4, 17 year old point guard from Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Academy who is rated as a top-15 recruit in the 2020 class.
Suggs got to play host a bit as the hometown kid during the Final Four weekend. He also welcomed the opportunity to play against so much high-end talent in his own backyard.
“It was extremely fun being able to play against this competition,” Suggs said. “Competition is something that I really love. Playing against these guys, against the (NBA) Academy players was a great time, a great learning experience. I’m going to take it and use it to better my game.”
Making the weekend extra special was a trip to the Final Four, where the USA Basketball and NBA Academy players got to take in the semifinals festivities at U.S. Bank Stadium. They were there to see Virginia pull out a close win against Auburn and watched as Texas Tech advanced to its first national championship game with a convincing victory over Michigan State.
Of course, the players are students of the game, so they used their trip to the Final Four as an opportunity to learn from college basketball’s top programs.
“All these teams are nitty gritty. They’re tough. They had to fight to get here,” Suggs said. “Just being able to see them play, spend time with my brothers will be a good time.”
While the USA classes of 2021 and 2022 athletes scrimmaged on Sunday at The Courts at Mayo Clinic Square, home of the WNBA Minnesota Lynx and the NBA Timberwolves, the 2020 class also got to play on the same U.S. Bank Stadium Final Four court where they watched the semifinal games on Saturday. Surely, many of them were envisioning what it might be like to play on that stage in just a few short years.
“I think it adds another level of excitement,” Showalter said. “It’s not just a training camp. It’s an event. That event is the Final Four, which is the epitome of March Madness. It’s really neat for the kids.”