L.A.'s Drew League heats up
LOS ANGELES -- Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley had only briefly stepped outside the compact gymnasium at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park in Florence to tend to the concession stand -- tacos were selling like hotcakes -- when he heard an unmistakable roar from the crowd and immediately knew he missed something big.
At the time, there were under two minutes remaining in the game deemed Sunday's main attraction -- defending champion L.A. Unified versus Problems. L.A. Unified, a team captained by former NBA point guards Bobby Brown and Marcus Williams, led by just two over Problems, a squad featuring no current NBA players, in a back-and-forth game.
Denver Nuggets first-round selection Jordan Hamilton, logging his first action of the summer for L.A. Unified, came over to help out a beaten teammate on the low block and was able swat away the potential game-tying layup a millisecond before it hit the backboard.
"I heard it," a still-excited Smiley said a couple of hours afterward, during the final game of the day at the Drew. "I didn't see it.
"But I heard the gym erupt and I knew it was a game-changer, so I poked my head back in and watched the rest."
The rest went like this: Buoyed by Hamilton's block, his team scored the final eight points to secure a 96-86 victory over Problems and just about clinch a playoff spot with one game remaining in the regular season.
The Compton Dominguez product also threw down a dunk at the buzzer for extra emphasis, pleasing the crowd of 500 or so. L.A. Unified, which had lost its past two games, started the game on a roll but trailed at the start of the fast-paced fourth quarter, in which they outscored Problems 26-15.
"It was a lot of stuff going up and down, up and down," said Hamilton, the 26th overall pick out of Texas in June. "We've gotta come out and keep our feet on the pedal."
For the most part, Hamilton did so Sunday, although he was shuffling in and out of the game with his brother, former Miami forward Gary Hamilton, and ex-Cal State Fullerton forward Scott Cutley.
The 6-7, 220-pound Hamilton said he was still out of shape after not playing in any sort of refereed environment for three weeks, but he finished his 2011 Drew debut with an impressive line of 20 points, seven rebounds and three steals -- plus the fateful block.
Sunday's leading scorer was Williams, the former UConn guard and first-round pick of the New Jersey Nets. The league's reigning MVP had 30 points, five rebounds and six assists for L.A. Unified.
As for Problems, former USC forward Davon Jefferson was playing his first game of the summer after returning late from France, where he played last season, and he made quite the impact for a smaller squad that had trouble scoring in the key without him.
"We were supposed to win that game," said Jefferson, a Lynwood High graduate who averaged 12 points in his lone season at USC in 2007-08. "But we had too many turnovers at the end, and we stopped moving and playing together. It was my first time playing with everybody, so we've gotta get used to playing with each other.
"But we've got a good team and good players and we should have won that game."
Problems, with a 6-3 record, still sits pretty for playoff contention with the regular season ending a week from Sunday. Problems plays division-leading K&E Bulls next week in a matchup of the Drew League's two best non-NBA squads.
King holds court
Sunday's Drew League festivities -- featuring regularly scheduled games with Detroit Pistons forward Austin Daye, Washington Wizards guard Nick Young and a few other NBAers -- were decidedly more low-key than Saturday's, when Miami Heat forward LeBron James made a surprise appearance at Washington Park for guest coach Baron Davis and the 8-2 Cheaters II squad.
James, an Ohio native, had 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists playing alongside Long Beach State guard and reigning Big West Player of the Year Casper Ware Jr.
During James' game, the doors to the gym had to be closed to keep fans from blocking the exits, per police orders. And, according to Smiley, more than 100 people stood outside the doors hoping to hear the action from the outside.
Witnesses said the atmosphere was even crazier than when Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant played at the Drew earlier this summer. Smiley said he was pleasantly surprised by how hard James played.
"People told me they thought he was playing like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals," Smiley said. "He was in his defensive stance, he went after the ball, he argued with the refs and everything. He was really in tune with the game."
Five of the top 20 scorers in the NBA last season have now appeared at the Drew this summer: Durant, James, Russell Westbrook, Danny Granger and Michael Beasley. A number of other big-time names have dropped by, too, from Andre Miller to Trevor Ariza to weekly attendees like Dorell Wright and DeMar DeRozan.
But James' appearance sparked talk that even more NBA players could come in for the league's last regular-season games next Saturday and Sunday. The consensus is that more surprises may be in order.
"Pretty soon here ... you're gonna have a lot of guys from the NBA start playing," said former NBA swingman Ricky Davis, who made his first 2011 Drew appearance Sunday for team NWA. "It's going to be even more big names coming in real soon."