Leonard Provo diligently researched and observed players for 15 months for his AAU basketball team.
And by all accounts, the time and effort spent has seemed to work out to near perfection.
Provo’s 16U Alabama Challenge squad ranks amongst the nation’s elite, the team secured a spot in one of the most premiere prep tournaments and players have managed to check their egos at the door for the greater good.
“This particular group has been exceptional,” said Provo, who’s been coaching AAU basketball for eight years. “They’ve really stepped in and did what they’ve been asked to do. … I couldn’t have asked for a better group of players to coach.”
Since last March, Provo has been piecing together his current group with one goal in mind — to gain admittance into Nike’s coveted Peach Jam.
“For us to get an invite to this tournament is huge,” he said. “We’re the first Nike team from this state in four years to play in it. That means we’re considered to be one of the top 16 teams in the nation. … You got teams sponsored by Penny Hardaway (former NBA all-star) that didn’t make it.”
Starting Tuesday, Alabama Challenge will play its first game of pool play in Peach Jam — an invitation only hoops tournament that spotlights the best Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) squads from around the country. NBA stars like LeBron James and Chris Paul each have teams participating in this year’s event in South Carolina.
Provo didn’t have to venture far to fill out the bulk of his team because half of the 12-man roster resides in the Capital City. Local standouts Jacob Winston (St. Jude), Jaylen McCoy (East Memorial), Tommy Burton (St. Jude), Brandon Austin (G.W. Carver), Josh Thomas (Montgomery Academy) and Joe Struggs (G.W. Carver) are all members.
“The previous teams that made it had many players from out of state,” Provo said. “We’re doing this with about six players from right here in Montgomery. So, for these kids to compete with all-star teams from different states, or states that have more basketball resources is huge.
“You could see the talent in Montgomery. I thought if I started putting pieces around them, then they would get even better. The 2015 (recruiting) class is strong here.”
Alabama Challenge — which does consist of players from Birmingham, Florida and Mississippi — isn’t just loaded with talent, it’s bolstered with athletes from local winning programs. Both East Memorial and St. Jude won state crowns during the 2012-13 season, while Carver captured it all last season.
It just strengthens the argument that Montgomery has fully transformed into a basketball driven city. No longer does football reign supreme like in neighboring counties Autauga and Elmore.
“This gives us an opportunity to go out and represent the state, showing everyone that Alabama just isn’t a football state,” said Burton, a 6-foot-8 forward. “We got good basketball players in this region. We just got to go up there and show them what we can do.”
For Burton, McCoy and Winston, the time with Alabama Challenge has offered the trio a chance to run up and down the court together again. As bright-eyed freshmen in 2011, they led East Memorial to the school’s first AISA semifinal berth. Burton and Winston eventually transferred after the season.
“It’s been fun playing with him again,” Winston said.
McCoy has enjoyed the moment, too.
“Those are my brothers,” said the shifty point guard, who was voted AISA All-Metro Player of the Year. “I’m glad to be playing back with them and having fun.”
Peach Jam has been certified for college coaches to attend. With most high-profile programs looking to get a jump on recruiting classes, players are certainly aiming to make a big splash in hopes of raising their respective stock by summer’s end.
Burton could perhaps be the most sought after of the six. The lanky athletic forward has already drawn considerable interest from just about every SEC program, while Big Ten heavy hitters Michigan State and Indiana recently joined in the chase.
Provo hopes immaturity doesn’t rear its ugly head during the tournament.
“That’s my biggest fear,” the head coach said of players trying to showboat for recruiters. “When you try to showcase yourself, you can look bad in doing that. I just don’t want them to go out there and start playing individual ball because they see coaches.”
The reward of a potential stellar showing at the tournament could be endless for area hoopsters.
“The entire state would reap the rewards if we can get a top five finish,” Provo said. “That means Alabama is now one the map. The panhandle of Florida is now on the map. Eastern Mississippi is now on the map. It would do so much good for everyone involved.”