BELMAR, N.J. – Scottie Lewis was already dissatisfied with how his spring was going on the Under Armour circuit, then came trials for the Under-18 National Team in Colorado Springs.
“Going into USA Basketball, I wasn’t feeling too hot, wasn’t feeling too confident after the first two sessions of the UA circuit,” said Lewis after dropping 28 points for Team Rio, which made a cameo at the Jersey Shore Basketball League on Tuesday evening. “I figured if I could make the team, I could prove myself and get that confidence booster.”
USA Basketball’s junior national-team program is dominant globally, but the system by which these teams are picked is imperfect. Take this particular U-18 team for example. On May 30, 33 of the top high-school players in the nation between the 2018 and 2019 classes gathered in Colorado Springs, the goal being to get those 33 down to 12 before traveling to Canada for the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship, which acts as qualifying for next summer’s U-19 World Cup.
Two cuts were to be made, one from 33 to 18, and another from 18 to 12. On the morning of June 3, after five practice sessions at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, all 33 guys were brought to what Lewis said is referred to as “the gold room” for the first cut. If your name is not called, you didn’t make the cut. You are given your passport back and a plane ticket home.
Lewis and Ranney classmate Bryan Antoine flew home later that day.
“When they sat us down and called the players they wanted to keep, and we weren’t one of them, I put my head down,” Lewis said. “What I really wanted to do was storm out of the room and get home.”
“I would say it was a little life check,” said Antoine, who, like Lewis, is a consensus five-star recruit in the 2019 class. “The thing they emphasized is the amount of top NBA guys who were once cut from a USA team. After I got cut, they told me what I could do to improve, so I just wanted to take what they said and put it to get use.”
When Lewis got off the plane that night, he knew exactly where he was going next. Upon arrival at Newark Airport, an Uber pointed towards home found its way to Colts Neck and the home of Team Rio founder Brian Klatsky. From there, the gym he generally works out is five minutes away. By the time Lewis got over there, it was already 11:30 p.m.
“We got shots up until probably 2:30 a.m.,” Lewis said. “Just shooting, shooting, pushing myself to exhaustion.”
“Actions speak louder than words, and I think Scottie was always someone who was always in the gym,” said Mike Rice, the former Rutgers head coach, now the coach of Team Rio’s primary Under Armour-backed 17-under team. “His urgency and how we went about training, seeking out better players, seeking out college players, pros. Bryan is certainly living in the gym, so this has been one of those things where they got refocused and they’ve responded very well.
“I just think these guys are learning they have to fight for every inch, even though you may be the more talented or the higher-rated player. You can’t take plays off, and just because you’re there doesn’t mean you’re going to stay there. Slowly but surely, they’re learning that aspect of grassroots basketball.”
Credit to Lewis. He took what he considered to be a bad spring, capped by the USA Basketball disappointment, head on, and came out the other side better for it. He and Antoine both put together strong showings at the NBPA’s Top 100 event in mid-June, then rolled that into last weekend’s Under Armour Association stop in Atlanta with Team Rio.
The rest of the month on the grassroots scene will be busy for both kids, most of their action happening in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The UAA Championships starting July 25 in Vegas, Under Armour’s crown-jewel grassroots event, is another high-profile opportunity to prove that the spring was a mere aberration.
There is also the small matter looming of picking a college. Lewis and Antoine will go down as the most heavily-hyped recruits in the history of the Shore Conference, and the schools in the mix for their services reflect that.
Antoine lists a final five of Florida, Duke, Villanova, Kentucky and Kansas. He has fall official visits set for all of them, except the Jayhawks at the moment. Lewis has yet to set any of his five officials, but his final seven includes Villanova, St. John’s, Kentucky, Duke, Florida, Harvard and Stanford.
“One thing they are used to is the recruiting process, because they’ve been recruited since they stepped on a high school floor,” Rice said. “They’ve handled that pretty well. I think the stress is more from the social media.
“You’ve got fan bases DM’ing them more so than actual college coaches. They’re young. It’s easy to get caught up and lose focus once in a while.”