GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Tracy McGrady hadn't played organized basketball in months. He hadn't so much as shown his face at a basketball camp since he burst onto the scene at the Adidas ABCD camp in 1996.
Both of those streaks came to a screeching halt on a steamy Sunday at the eighth annual Adidas Nations camp at the massive Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove, California.
"It’s good to come back and reminisce a little bit," McGrady told Bleacher Report.
The seven-time All-NBA performer and two-time scoring champ looked about as rusty as you might expect a 35-year-old coming off a stint pitching in the Independent League would. His shot was off, and he labored getting up and down the court.
There were flashes of the old T-Mac from time to time, though: The missile passes through traffic, the sneaky spin moves baseline, the acrobatic layups dripping in English. Any kid who grew up in the 2000s, like most of those on hand at the camp, would've reveled in the fits and spurts of nostalgia.
But McGrady came to Orange County not so much to rekindle cherished childhood memories as to talk to more than 100 of the top high school prospects in the world and the 30 college players who spent the weekend as counselors and competitors.
"Today, a guy like Tracy McGrady has a lot of wisdom and a lot of knowledge that he can share with the kids, actually coming of age in this kind of environment when he was in high school," said Jeff Robbins, Adidas' sports marketing manager for U.S. basketball.
The grassroots hoops scene has shifted dramatically since T-Mac's teenage days.
For one, international basketball has grown in size and scope as a source of talent for the NBA. The Association featured a record 92 international players from 39 different countries on opening-night rosters in 2013-14. Of the 60 picks in the 2014 NBA draft, 13 were plucked from overseas, including Dante Exum, who first registered on American radars at Adidas Nations.
"He was here two years, then he went from high school to the pros, so he’s also—I don’t want to say my idol—but someone that I see doing things," said Jonah Bolden, a former teammate of Exum's at Adidas Nations.
Exum is hardly the first international alum from this camp to have his name called on draft day. Serge Ibaka starred at the very first Adidas Nations camp in 2007, back when it was held in New Orleans. Ibaka's efforts there caught the attention of more than a few pro scouts. The then-Seattle SuperSonics subsequently took the Congolese-born forward with the 24th overall pick in 2008.
Fellow Thunder big man Steven Adams followed in Ibaka's footsteps with an explosive performance of his own at the camp in 2011. Two years and a season at Pittsburgh later, Adams found himself in the lottery.
"Seven years ago, when we wanted to do something different, we came up with this Adidas Nations idea of doing more skills and bringing in international players together," said Jim Gatto, the director of global sports marketing at Adidas and one of the founders of the Nations event.
Since then, Adidas has played a pivotal part in the expansion of the global hoops prospect pipeline. This year's field at Adidas Nations featured four international teams—All-Star-style squads from Africa and Latin America put together by Babacar Sy and Walter Roese, respectively; and clubs from Asia Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand) and Europe—along with four American rosters named after some of the brand's biggest endorsers.
"I think it gives great exposure," said Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who was a counselor at an Adidas camp during his days at Villanova. "But now that the game’s grown globally, it shows how big and global the games are now."
The domestic squads weren't entirely without international representation, either. Thon Maker, a member of Team Lillard, was born in Sudan, moved to Australia when he was five and arrived stateside in 2011.
Maker was one of the unmistakable stars of the camp. The rail-thin 17-year-old showed off the unique combination of size (7'1") and perimeter skills that's made him a YouTube sensation while leading Team Lillard through an undefeated run to the championship.
All on a tweaked ankle, no less.
"My ankle injury, I suffered a little bit in Milwaukee, but I’ve been playing through it," Maker said. "Overall, this is a learning camp and they’re teaching us a lot. There’s a lot of great people here. You’ve got NBA personnel also, so it’s been great."
Maker was also a member of just the second American team to ever appear at Adidas' Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy, earlier this summer. There, scouts got a closer and more complete look at Maker, who currently lives in Martinsville, Virginia, with his coach and legal guardian, Edward Smith.
Nowadays, it's rare to see scouts and front-office folks from the NBA ogling teenage prospects in the summer, particularly stateside—and for good reason. The NBA's institution of the "one-and-done" rule in 2006 brought with it a ban on team officials and agents appearing at high school gyms, attending AAU tournaments or interacting with prep players.
Adidas Nations stands as one of the few exceptions to this rule, at least as far as scout observation is concerned. The brand's official partnership with the NBA, which runs through April 2017, affords Adidas the leeway to allow NBA front-office types to frequent Nations and the Eurocamp.
That opening of an otherwise closed window clearly has its benefits for the Association. "It gives us a chance to look at guys that, during the course of the year, due to NBA rules, we’re not allowed to see," said one NBA scout. "It gives us a head start as far as building a book on these various prospects as well as just the high school guys that we can’t see. It kind of gives us a sneak preview of some of the work that some of the college guys have done for the upcoming year."
Not that the involvement of scouts is without its challenges. The overlapping of high school and college games during the first three days of the camp can make it difficult for scouts to evaluate all of the prospects they want to see.
"That being said, I know Adidas has a ton of programming going on throughout the whole week and that we’re just a small part of a bigger picture they’re trying to put on here," added the scout.
Indeed, allowing NBA scouts in the building to watch some of the top high school and college talent is largely ancillary to the enrichment of the players themselves. Still, there's a clear benefit to the players of having those prying eyes tracking their every move.
Low- and mid-major collegians like Rhode Island's E.C. Matthews, Louisiana-Lafayette's Shawn Long and Memphis' Austin Nichols get to compete against big-school risers like Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski, UCLA's Norman Powell and Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, with all involved hoping to boost their respective draft stocks. For the high school standouts, it's an opportunity to make names for themselves among those who might determine the course of their futures some day.
"I definitely want to make a career out of this, but then again, you can’t put too much thought into that," said Chase Jeter, a Duke commit for the Class of 2015, when asked about performing in front of NBA eyes. "You’ve got to just continue to play your game."
Added Stanley Johnson, who was a camper at Adidas Nations in high school and served as a counselor this year before heading out to Arizona for his freshman year: "They’re kind of like college coaches almost when I was in high school, when I wasn’t able to talk to the college coaches. It’s kind of just play your game and hopefully they like you."
To be sure, the scouts weren't the only pro personnel in attendance. A slew of NBA coaches, including Toronto Raptors assistant Bill Bayno, were on hand to oversee the college teams and teach the campers the finer points of the game that they'll need to know at the next levels.
"It’s big to see that, you know, we work harder than they do in high school, and how focused you have to be and how committed you have to be to be a pro," said Bayno, who's in charge of hiring coaches, teaching counselors and organizing the college teams. "It’s a tremendous opportunity for them. And we’re tough on them."
This wasn't your run-of-the-mill AAU tournament, where traveling teams from all over the country meet to compete in a ragged basketball environment. Instead, the high schoolers were put through organized drills, rotated from station to station and taught NBA terminology.
"We’ve really reorganized our approach to summer basketball," said Chris Grancio, the general manager of Adidas Basketball, "with the idea of really trying to make sure that we create great learning experiences for the players, that we create great environments to play high-level basketball, and we really keep the kids engaged and learning."
That education extended well beyond the court at Adidas Nations. The brand brought in a series of speakers to teach the campers about different aspects of the NBA lifestyle. This year's lineup included a discussion of front-office expectations with an assistant general manager from the Charlotte Hornets, a media training session with Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher and talks with the NBA veterans who came through each day.
In addition, the campers and counselors were all put through the same battery of Basic Athletic Measurement tests that they'll see at the NBA's annual draft combine in Chicago and given access to trainers and nutritionists to help them fine-tune their physical approaches. This year, Adidas introduced a partnership with Peak Performance Project (P3) to provide in-depth biometric analysis for the attendees.
These are all important draws for a camp that, at its base, is meant to pitch the Adidas brand to basketball's next generation. "The fact that these kids come every year and trust us as a brand to help them get better at basketball, we owe it back to those kids to figure out ways to improve the event and improve their experience," added Robbins.
As crucial as these factors are to making the camp what Grancio describes as "the best basketball event in the world," the core of Adidas Nations was and is still all about hoops. It's about some of the top prep prospects measuring themselves against one another in head-to-head competition. It's about college kids (and soon-to-be draftees) battling on the court, improving themselves and their draft prospects in the process.
And when the pros lace them up, it's about showing out against some of the best players in the world. On Saturday, the counselors had the opportunity to do that with Kyle Lowry and Arron Afflalo in uniform before peppering them with questions in a postgame chat. On Sunday, Afflalo jumped back in opposite McGrady.
"You play against college guys and you’re a pro, they want to prove themselves," said Afflalo. "They always give you effort."
Said Stanley Johnson, who went toe-to-toe against Afflalo one day and McGrady the next: "It’s just amazing, man. I grew up watching T-Mac. I was in awe of the way he played. It’s awesome playing against them."
Johnson figures to follow in their footsteps before too long. He's already worked out with James Harden and starred in L.A.'s Drew League. He has been pegged as one of the top 10 prospects in the 2015 NBA draft by Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman.
In a few years' time, Johnson could be the next Afflalo or McGrady. He could be the one coming back to Adidas Nations to share his wisdom with the best and brightest youngsters from across the country and around the world.
And to take them to school on the court, too.
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