COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Watching the high school athletes play basketball at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs can take your breath away.
At 6,000 feet above sea level – 6,035 feet to be exact, as a Snapchat filter shows and an Uber driver was quick to specify – the elevation presented a challenge for the 86 athletes who traveled from across the nation to participate in the USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team Minicamp in Colorado Springs.
For those who are visiting for the first time, it took some adjustment – not that they had much time during the three-day event.
“(Friday) was hard,” said 14-year-old freshman De’Vontes Cobb on Saturday. Phoenix, where he plays for powerhouse Shadow Mountain High School, is a little more than 1,000 feet above sea level. “I’m adjusting to it here and there.”
Those who had been here before knew to prepare, but that doesn’t make it much easier.
The No. 2 player in USA TODAY’s Chosen 25 for 2020, San Joaquin Memorial (Fresno) guard Jalen Green, was at the same facility in June for the U17 camp. Where he lives is just 174 feet above sea level.
“You gotta work on your breathing, control your breathing, things like that,” he said. “I conditioned a lot, I prepared for it.”
It’s impossible to prepare for some things, as five-star senior guard D.J. Carton discovered. His hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa, sits 571 feet above sea level.
“I actually have asthma too,” he said. “It’s hard, but I came here to push to the limits and see how far I can go.”
Don’t worry – as of Sunday afternoon, the final day, he hadn’t needed to pull out his inhaler.
It’s quite a difference from home, where these players are acclimated to the culture and used to dominating on the court.
But against elite talent, even when they get acclimated to the thin air, success doesn’t come easy at the USA Basketball minicamp.
Tamin Lipsey is a 15-year-old national track star who has developed into a basketball star at Ames (Iowa).
As one of the 30 freshman at the camp, he’s held to a high regard in his hometown. But against those just as good in Colorado Springs, it forces him to remain humble.
“All these guys can play,” Lipsey said “You just gotta separate yourself by the little things like passing, defense, communication.”
DeMari Henderson, a 15-year-old from Sanford (Fla.), relayed similar lessons he was taking from camp.
“It’s kind of weird,” he said, referring to the fact that this weekend, he was not one of the undisputed best players on the court. But not being in control forced him to learn how to move without the ball and work with teammates better.
The bulk of the classes of 2021 and 2022 played together while the 16 year-olds in the class joined the older groups, 2019 and 2020 students, in a separate gym.
Carton, entering his final season of high school basketball for Bettendorf, has discovered different parts of his game that need improvement at minicamp and at the U-18 trials.
“It’s good because I get to see my strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Really, it’s just pushing me and seeing what level I can get to next.”
The talent is making top players find creative ways to make an impact.
For instance, Matthew Hurt, the No. 7 2019 Chosen 25 power forward, has received an offer from almost every big-time college program, but he can’t touch the ball every time down the court when he’s surrounded by other five-star athletes.
“There’s like 45 other talented players,” Hurt said. “I have to find myself a way to score, make plays for my teammates, just try to make them better so I can take that back to my city.”