Elite 24: Players say playing the game outside takes them back to their roots

Elite 24: Players say playing the game outside takes them back to their roots

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Elite 24: Players say playing the game outside takes them back to their roots

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Dennis Smith Jr. said he honed his skills on an outside goal like the one he'll play at in the Elite 24. / Kelly Kline, Under Armour

Dennis Smith Jr. said he honed his skills on an outside goal like the one he’ll play at in the Elite 24. / Kelly Kline, Under Armour

Don’t get him wrong, Jaylen Brown thoroughly understands why you’re confused.

If his ultimate goal is to play in the NBA then how in the world has he already won, not one, but 17 NBA championship rings despite the fact that he’s headed into his senior year at Wheeler (Alpharetta, Ga.)?

“I even won one of them with a fadeaway shot over Kobe (Bryant) in triple overtime,” Brown said with a laugh. “I was playing with the Chicago Bulls that time.”

The Black Mamba fader facial isn’t as much of a reach; after all Brown, the top ranked wing in the ESPN 100, allegedly dunked on reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant at his skills camp earlier this summer, it’s the setting that prompts an immediate head-scratch reaction.

Two words: Driveway goal.

“I was in the seventh grade and my mom bought a goal, and I would have imaginary games out there against the best players in the NBA,” Brown said. “It was so fun! Playing outside was where I really built the foundation for my skills. It’s where a lot of us started.”

Brown and 23 of the country’s most elite hoopers will go back to those roots Saturday when they battle outside in the elements at Brooklyn Bridge Park (Brooklyn, N.Y.) for the Under Armour Elite 24 at 7 p.m. (ESPNU).

“The outside setting is where my love for the game started,” said Troy Brown, a point guard at Centennial (Las Vegas) who is ranked No. 2 overall in the ESPN 25. “I never had access to a gym when I was growing up so to be able to kinda come back to where it all started on such a big stage is really special for me.”

Grayson “The Professor” Boucher is a streetball legend who built his career breaking ankles on blacktops all over the world with the AND1 Mixtape Tour in the mid 2000s. Boucher agreed that playing outside is “one of the purest forms of hooping,” but added that playing outside in the Big Apple “is just another level.”

“These are some of the best fans in the world and they go hard at you if you don’t come correct,” said Boucher, now on the Ball Up Streetball Tour. “But they’re fair; if you do your thing they’ll let you know that too. The good thing is that everyone has a lot of experience with the outside game.”

As a sixth grader, Troy was typically reduced to being a sideline spectator on the blacktop at R.E. Tobler Elementary (Las Vegas) while the older guys duked it out for hours at a time.

“One day one of the guys twisted his ankle and they needed me to step in,” recalled Troy, one of only two rising sophomores invited to the UA Elite 24. “I was so excited!”

That exhilaration translated into an instant impact.

Down two, Troy came up with a steal and took it to the opposite end for a layup. Then on the next offensive possession, Troy drained a step-back jump shot to win the game.

“Everybody was like, ‘This kid’s nice!” Troy said. “It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence and it just grew from there. A lot of the skills I have now started there.”

Same for Dennis Smith Jr., the top point guard in the ESPN 60 who is known for, among many other things, his elite athleticism.

Smith honed his hops on the grass court at his grandmother’s house in rural Godwin, N.C., from the age of 4.

“That’s where I had my first dunk!” said Smith, who hails from Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville, N.C.). “I was about 8; I just got up and threw it down. Me and my cousins played on that court so much that we killed the grass and played on the dirt. I learned a lot out there. I know it made me a lot tougher. We did some big things out there on that court man!”

Ditto for past participants of the UA Elite 24.

Since its inception in 2006, 40 players from the game went on to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, 24 were selected in the lottery and three went on to be drafted No. 1overall.

“It’s great man!” said Washington Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall, who played in the Elite 24 in 2008. “I love playing in those types of environments. You bring the best 24 high school players, and you got to play at Rucker Park back then. It’s great!”

RELATED: A look back at John Wall in HS

Wall went on to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. Similar success from this year’s crop could make the trophy case just a little crowded with all of the imaginary titles from their adolescence.

“Hey that’s a good problem!” Jaylen said. “Everybody got that little imaginary game in coming up on the driveway goal; now we’re here. Everyone wanted to play in this game. It’s on TV and it’s outside where we all kinda earned our stripes; what could be better than that?”

Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY

 

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