Commentary

Hoop Group Elite Camp a showcase for mid-major talent

Originally Published: July 9, 2008
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPN.com

EWING, N.J. -- Rob Kennedy arrived at a crossroads last fall. Perplexed about how he should rebrand the Hoop Group's image, he took a leap of faith.

He needed to bundle several of the events, camps and tournaments as the nation's premier comprehensive basketball organization and event operator.

"It was pointed out we were fragmented," Kennedy said. "We had all these events and camps, but no one knew they were all connected and conducted by the same company and same people.

"We were operating with 14 different logos for all our events, and it was impossible to go on like this."

Enter the summer Hoop Group Elite Camp, which concluded Tuesday at The College of New Jersey. Exit the Eastern Invitational, which in recruiting circles was a household name for nearly five decades.

"Only the name changed, not the quality of our work or the results," Kennedy, who previously coached in college, said.

At times, the national camps, conducted by sneaker giants Nike, Adidas and Reebok, steal the spotlight. But that does not deter the Hoop Group Elite.

[+] EnlargeJason Thompson
AP Photo/Mike GrollLottery pick Jason Thompson is among the sleepers who participated in past HoopGroup events.
More than 750 campers -- ranging from 14 to 18 years old, from 26 states and nine foreign countries -- stocked the camp. The camp has groomed some of the game's elite throughout the years -- among them, Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Luol Deng, Ron Artest and Michael Beasley. More than 200 college representatives attended the camp. Most of them work for low- to mid-majors trying to find the next Jason Thompson, who was a camper five years ago.

Thompson, a relatively unknown New Jersey high school player, was taken 12th overall by the Sacramento Kings in last month's NBA draft. He attended the camp and eventually signed with Rider University, a mid-major program in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

"You'll find entire staffs here," Hoop Group talent evaluator Steve Keller said. "They'll spend three days here. There's no sense going to the major camps. It's likely they can't get those players, and most of the mid-majors are here."

The camp also unearths gems for several Division II and III programs and junior colleges.

"There are at least 200 to 300 players who can play at some school at Division I," said Danny Nee, who previously coached at Ohio, Nebraska, Duquesne and Robert Morris. "If you add up Division II schools and junior colleges, maybe better than half the camp will get some sort of scholarship."

Mike Gillian, who coaches at Longwood University, a Division I independent from Virginia, has found success at the camp.

"We've signed at least one player from this camp over the last five years," Gillian, who previously was an assistant at George Mason, said. "There's a lot of good players that don't make the major camps (Nike or Reebok) but are good Division I players."

Rakeem Christmas, a 6-foot-9 rising sophomore from North Catholic (Philadelphia), boosted his stock.

"There were a lot of talented players here," said Christmas, who favors Memphis and Florida early in his recruitment. "You can't take any days off; it's about hard work."

Kennedy continues to tweak the format, emphasizing the fundamentals and "sweatshops." These extra sessions help players fine-tune techniques and introduce them to finer, often-overlooked points of the game.

"Sweatshops are like going for extra help after school," Kennedy said. "Once players are done with their games, sweatshops are optional. But if you think about it, you can't get an education on basketball like this too many places. The coaches want to impart their wisdom, and they have gone over well.

"There's a little here for everyone."

The Hoop Group Elite Camp will run another session July 28-31, and several of the elite players are expected to attend.

Simply the best

The Hoop Group Elite staff selected its top 20 all-stars based on the players' performances.

"I've told high-level players, 'Don't expect to come here and expect to make the all-star game,'" Kennedy said. "If you don't make it, it's not an indictment of your game, but just a snapshot of what happened over 72 hours."

Among the all-stars:

Post graduates: 6-6 Mike Burwell, South Kent (Conn.); 6-1 Clayton Sterling, Boys and Girls (Brooklyn, N.Y.); 6-7 Chris Cantino, Northeast Prep (Philadelphia).

Class of 2009: 6-2 Devon Saddler, Aberdeen (Md.); 6-5 Dalton Pepper, Pennsbury (Fairless Hills, Pa.); 6-7 Khalil Murphy, Apex Academy (Cherry Hill, N.J.); 6-1 Antoine Allen, Notre Dame Prep (Fitchburg, Mass.); 6-3 Khalif Wyatt, Norristown (Pa.); 6-5 Ed Waite, Pine Crest (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.); 6-10 Mouphtaou Yarou, Massanutten (Va.); 6-1 Justin Crosgile, DePaul (Wayne, N.J.); 6-4 William Adams, Imhotep Charter (Philadelphia); 6-8 Daryl McCoy, Hartford (Conn.); 6-1 Ameer Weeks, Lincoln Park (Ill.); 6-5 Lasan Kromah, Eleanor Roosevelt (Greenbelt, Md.); 6-6 Mike McFadden, Technology (Newark, N.J.); 6-7 Jamee Jackson, St. Anthony's (Jersey City, N.J.).

2010: 6-1 Kyrie Irving, St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.); 6-6 Kyle Marshall, Flanagan (Pembroke Pines, Fla.); 5-10 Rakeem Brookins, Roman Catholic (Philadelphia). Sophomore: 6-9 Rakeem Christmas, North Catholic (Philadelphia).

Gator country

Junior Will Sheehey might have been one of five Floridians at Hoop Group Elite, but he quickly made an impression. Originally slated to play in a lower division based on his skill level, the slender 6-5 Sheehey was bumped up to the top level after careful evaluation.

"I didn't know much about the camp, but since I was attending the Syracuse (University) camp, I thought it was a good idea to stay around to see how the players from New York City, Philadelphia, Washington and New Jersey compare."

Sheehey, who averaged 17 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists as a sophomore at South Fork High in Stuart, Fla., is gaining valuable insight during his introduction to the East Coast style.

He felt the Syracuse camp was stocked with athletic shooters, but the Hoop Group had "plenty of individual play."

"I'm used to Florida's style, which is down and dirty. Coaches stress tough man defense, and the teams that are successful can defend full court by pressing and trapping."

Sheehey, one of five returning starters at South Fork, saw limited action as a freshman, but a coaching change before the 2007-08 season boosted his playing time. South Fork, which went 13-11 but lost to District 14-5A champ Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.), features an up-tempo offense.

Sheehey thrived with the faster pace, garnering all-district and area honors. He's already hearing from academic-oriented schools such as Cornell, Lehigh, Yale, Boston University, Stanford, Stetson and Florida Atlantic.

Sheehey may sport an A average but gets his basketball prowess from his father, Mike, who starred at St. Bonaventure in the mid-1980s. His uncle, Tom, was a McDonald's All-American in 1983 and started four years at Virginia before embarking on a long, successful career in Spain.

Much like his father, Sheehey can shoot the 3 (43 percent accuracy as a sophomore), score in transition and defend.

"My dad says I need to add some, hit the weights and own 3-pointers like layups," he said.

He'll conclude the summer playing for the Florida Rams' under-17 travel team in Las Vegas later this month at the Adidas tournament.

Christopher Lawlor is a senior writer covering high school sports for ESPN.com. He has covered high schools for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.

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