SUWANEE, Ga. — It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, the first exhibition game of the four-day Under Armour Association Finals, and a modest crowd has gathered at Court No. 5.
Almost every player who isn’t scheduled to play in one of the six other early games is standing along the west baseline, thumbs gripping backpack straps; on the opposite side, metal bleachers and folding chairs bear an equally interested cluster of college coaches. Assistants from Indiana, Virginia, and Connecticut. South Carolina’s Frank Martin. North Carolina’s Roy Williams.
Warming up, 17-year-old Seventh Woods wears a black tee shirt over his No. 3, almost as if he’s trying to hide from the attention. But even the 6-foot-2 guard’s casual layup drills display that flash-bulb first step, the sort of freakish athleticism that draws eyes. Besides, after winning gold as the youngest member of USA Basketball’s national team, an ESPN SportsCenter Top Play dunk that bested a LeBron James jam, and a YouTube mixtape that boasts 13 million views and counting, people know his face.
All that was back in 2013. Since then, a broken wrist hampered his sophomore season at the Hammond School (Columbia, S.C.) and scrubbed most of his 2014 AAU summer. He remains a five-star prospect, but his Rivals.com ranking slipped from No. 12 overall in the class of 2016 to No. 25. And a fickle public began to move on. Strangers are no longer asking him to take photos with their newborns at away games.
“It’s kind of died down,” says Woods, the sixth child in the Woods family (he’s named after the seventh day of creation from the Book of Genesis). “When I came back from my injury, I was sort of out of sight, out of mind. And I wasn’t trying to make highlights. I was just trying to play great basketball.”
He says he still feels pressure from fans expecting to see gravity defied, the acrobatics, reverse dunks and two-handed put-backs from the 14-year-old kid in the mixtape. Woods already has offers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Clemson and Wichita State and says Florida and Georgetown have come after him hard.
In reality, scoring probably isn’t even the best part of his game — it certainly doesn’t seem to be the most natural to him. From the point, Woods displays an almost panoramic vision of the court. When he opens this game with a laser no-look bounce pass from the point to a teammate who drains a jumper from the wing, the gallery’s disappointment is almost palpable. He obliges on the second possession, dribbling straight through two defenders for a seemingly easy lay-in.
“Sometimes we have to tell him not to be so selfless,” says Woods’s AAU coach Daryl Jarvis. “We have to remind him: You have the ability to take over. But sometimes we get caught standing around watching. Sometimes we ask him to do more than he really needs to do.”
The precariousness of that balance — between Woods’s instinct to assist and his obligation to take command — becomes apparent as a close game draws down to the wire. He stumbles trying to dribble through a double team as the shot clock expires. Drives the hoop only to loose the ball in an out-of-control spin move. Then at the other end, he soars in to block a go-ahead layup from behind. Woods has also said that his perimeter defense is among the qualities in his game that often gets overlooked.
Woods’s Carolina Wolves are down 62-60 with 22.2 seconds remaining. The on-looking players are now packed three deep beyond the baseline, tip-toeing and leaning left and right to get a better view. More coaches have taken note as well.
Woods inbounds the ball, dribbles hard against the press to the top of the key, where he tries to post up against a double team. He trips and loses the ball. The ref whistles a foul. There are 2.3 seconds on the clock. Woods will get three free throws. A chance to win the game.
His first shot clanks off the front of the rim. Woods shakes his head.
The second shot rims in and out. He slaps his hands in disgust.
The third shot bounces off the rim and hits the backboard, but one of Woods’s teammates darts into the lane and leaps over his blocker to tip the ball and bank it in for the buzzer-beating basket. Carolina’s bench rushes the court, the entire team swarming the unlikely hero who tied the game at 62.
Except for Woods. He stands alone at the free-throw line and stares down at the paint. His coach tells him to shake it off — big-time players like him are going to make big-time plays, and there will be plenty more to make in this tournament.
“I know I’m a better player than I show sometimes,” Woods will say later. “As long as I keep putting the work in, I don’t think the attention will ever go away. I’m already a great player, and I can only get better.”
But as the refs tip the ball to begin overtime, the crowd around Court. No. 5 has thinned noticeably. The players and coaches have moved on to other courts, where other big-time prospects are making big-time plays.