Can Brad Stevens Put the Celtics Together Again?



It’s Saturday night in Las Vegas, and the NBA Summer League is in full tilt. There’s none of the pomp of the regular season—that’s the appeal of this brief showcase—but the Thomas & Mack Center, on the UNLV campus, is still packed with well-known faces. Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is standing at the entrance. Former All-Star and current Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd patrols the baseline. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is courtside.

The pavilion’s setup is so intimate—it’s essentially a high school gym decked out with a pair of HD video boards—that the only thing separating the coaches and scouts from the fanboys and autograph hounds is a thin line of police tape, cordoning off a small section of reserved seats.

Summer League is a chance for NBA teams to evaluate young talent, and on the court tonight are the Celtics’ rookies, second-year hopefuls, and undrafted free agents. There’s just one twist: This ragtag group of inexperienced unknowns might as well be Boston’s 2015–2016 opening-night roster. Three years removed from the Big Three era—Ray Allen departed in 2012, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013, Rajon Rondo last year—the Celtics have the fewest marquee players of any major Boston sports franchise. None, in fact. Instead, the most recognizable Celtics brand name is, on this Saturday night, sitting in the lightly policed VIP section with his son. Four rows up, seated amid the easily identifiable NBA professionals talking on their phones and taking notes in their team-issued polo shirts, the man and his son are recognizable only for their utter banality: The boy is decked out in Boston green and white, glued to his team at the edge of his seat, while his father tries to strike up a conversation with a man sitting beside him.

The pair’s presence seems so out of place that it catches the attention of an usher, who approaches the dad and asks to see his team credentials. The father doesn’t seem surprised. He calmly lifts the plastic tag at the end of his lanyard to show the usher: “Brad Stevens. Boston Celtics.”

It’s hard to imagine Doc Rivers or Phil Jackson or even Golden State’s Steve Kerr getting carded at an NBA venue—and certainly not without a flash of annoyance or fluster of indignity. But Stevens takes it as a matter of course. Not getting recognized happens to him almost every day, and not just on the road. It happens when he’s boarding a plane at Logan, out with his family near their home in Wellesley, even grabbing a bite around the Garden smack in the middle of Celts-crazy Boston. Rare is the day that passes without the slender, 6-foot-1 coach going unrecognized. “I don’t think I’m overly recognizable,” he’ll say, running his hand over his clean-shaven cheekbones.

This could be a problem. If the ushers don’t recognize your head coach—the man team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has handpicked to whittle a band of young unknowns into NBA playoff contenders—then it’s a good bet he’s not famous enough to put on the cover of the media guide. And if not Brad Stevens, then who?

It’s not just Stevens’s face that blends into the scenery. His whole approach to coaching is based on deflecting attention. He hardly ever yells at his players, doesn’t stomp and carry on from the sideline. The only time he talks about himself is when he’s assuming blame for the mistakes and subpar play of his crew of misfits. It’s precisely the meek and humble demeanor you’d expect of a former Division III point guard and coach from a tiny private college in Indiana dropped into a locker room of NBA-size egos. “In college, you’re coaching young men who haven’t accomplished anything, and they have to adapt to you, mostly,” says Stevens’s friend Mike Krzyzewski, the iconic Coach K who has won five NCAA championships at Duke, and guided two pro-stocked U.S. national teams to Olympic gold. “Professional athletes are men—that’s what they do. If you’re smart, you’ll adapt to them.”

So far, Stevens’s adaptation has yielded a combined 99 regular-season losses in two years. To be sure, this Celtics team is a rebuild. Everybody understands this. And everyone acknowledges that in the midst of the carnage, Stevens has been able to carve out a few symbolic victories. Last year, he engineered a late-season hot streak—overcoming a flurry of personnel shifts, including Rondo’s departure, by deploying his tireless preparation and vast basketball IQ—and led the Celtics on a spirited 20–11 run to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was impressive, but only to a point. If there was any faint hope that Stevens’s shoddy Celtics could compete with playoff-caliber NBA talent, it was wiped out when LeBron James and the actual stars of the Cleveland Cavaliers dispensed with Boston in four straight games and sent them home.

As Stevens leans back into his seat in Vegas, he’s looking at a bench of players who cannot win it all. If Boston is ever going to regain a legitimate place at the playoff-season party, it’s going to need superstars—and a coach who can command and control them. Young players eager to make their mark on the league, at bargain-basement prices? Mid-level talent looking to impress a true contender and jockey for a trade? These are the guys who will play their hearts out for Brad Stevens—which makes Ainge a genius and Stevens the perfect man for the moment. But what’s the long-term play? Teams tend to take on the personalities of their leaders. Phil Jackson was the mystic Zen master. Pat Riley was the firebrand; Gregg Popovich, the grizzled yeoman. Can Stevens’s everyman routine provide the energy it’s going to take to win banner number 18? Or is he just a stunt driver, taking the bumps and keeping the seat warm while Ainge pieces together a championship machine—and then hires a bigger name to drive it across the finish line?

Talk to Stevens now, and you’ll hear platitudes about selflessness and team play. It wasn’t always that way. In his childhood imagination, Stevens was the one with the ball as the game clock expired at Assembly Hall, home of coach Bob Knight’s Indiana University Hoosiers. In the floodlights of his parents’ suburban Indiana driveway, he’d coordinate daylong pickup games with neighborhood kids. In the unfinished part of his parents’ basement, the only child dribbled around chairs while watching worn-out videos of IU games. He wasn’t dreaming of exerting his egoless mentorship from the sideline. The young Brad Stevens had his heart set on basketball stardom.

Read the rest at Boston magazine


One Square Mile: Dixie Speedway


In the pits, 73-year-old Nancy Roland, poker visor down and a Marlboro Light dangling from her lips, pushes an ice scraper across the hood of the race car, sweeping off chunks of orange clay. Thirteen-year-old Will Roland steps out from behind the trailer, zipping up his black-and-red fire suit. He slips on his helmet and climbs behind the wheel of the number 22 Roland Tire Crate Late Model. The engine roars to life—400 horsepower rattling 2,300 pounds of car and 95 pounds of driver. Mark Roland, Will’s father and crew chief, leans in to shout a few words of advice before sending his son onto the oval alongside men twice and even three times his age. Will raced quarter midgets—essentially souped up go-karts—from age five, but this is his first full year in late model, on the dirt where speeds approach 100 miles per hour. As the cars rev their engines for the qualifier, the PA booms: Wheel to wheel. Hub to hub. Doorpost to doorpost. Here we go! Will pulls away early, but he falters on the penultimate lap, coming in loose and high to turn two, leaving an opening for the surging number 87 to attempt a pass. The two cars come within inches of contact as they accelerate into the straightaway. Will holds him off, barely. Pacing at the fence, Nancy pulls a fresh cigarette from her red fanny pack. She remembers the wreck at Rome that retired her son, Will’s father. That nightmare recedes as her grandson takes the checkered flag. “He won! He won!” Back in the pits, Will removes his helmet and climbs out of the car, stepping over the glittering decal for Roland Tire, the family business back in Jasper that is his birthright should his NASCAR dreams fail to materialize. He needs to tell his dad that the track is getting slick and that they might want to attach the spoiler to the car before the next race. But not before getting a congratulatory kiss from his biggest fan.

This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine. 

One Square Mile: Frolona Farm


Josh Davis is a farmer. His life is moving things from place to place: Hay from field to barn. Feed from barn to pasture. Cattle and hogs from pasture to slaughter to CSA or wholesale. This morning his maroon Dodge Ram crunches up the steep gravel drive, carrying his 15-month-old daughter, Ona—bleary blue eyes, tousled blonde hair, and one orange moccasin missing from a plump foot—to the remote white clapboard farmhouse with the tin roof where his sister waits to babysit. His wife is out of town on business, leaving Davis to tend to the livestock and the land. Davis’s great-great-great-grandfather, a subsistence farmer, won claim to this clay in the Creek Land Lottery in the 1830s. His descendants built the house in 1890. Davis’s childhood bedroom was upstairs, with a picture window overlooking 1,500 verdant acres specked with timber, pigs, and cows. All he saw back then was emptiness. “I left immediately after high school with no intention of ever coming back,” he says. He fled to college, got an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Louisville, but became disillusioned with academia. Got a marketing job that he lost in the Great Recession, and reluctantly came home in 2009. He found local markets hungry for grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. He discovered a tether he didn’t realize was there. “There’s something about being here and working this land,” he says, walking among the herd of cows who’ve come lowing for food. “Besides, if it’s not me, no one else will do this.” As soon as Ona is old enough, she’ll be bouncing beside him in the farm truck, bounding over this red earth, calling pigs and feeding cattle. “I don’t see how she couldn’t get a love for this place,” he says, knowing full well that when the time comes, she’ll move wherever she wants.

This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine.


Female Drivers Changed The Fortunes of One Racing Company


Pippa Mann grew up trying to fit into a world that wasn’t made with her in mind. The racing karts she first revved up at age 12 were considered boys’ toys, and the garages, pits and tracks she frequented as a teen in Britain and Italy had been informal fraternities for generations. In 2009, the 26-year-old Mann crossed over to the U.S. to race Indy Lights, a feeder series to IndyCar, whose most coveted prize — the Borg-Warner Trophy, given to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 — is topped by a sterling silver sculpture of a naked man.

And through it all, as Mann strapped on her helmet and climbed behind the wheel, she, like almost all female drivers, was wearing an off-the-rack racing suit that was designed for a man. “I’m a slightly different body shape than most of the other drivers,” she quips. “As a female driver, I have struggled to find suits that fit me throughout my career. Most of the time, I just wore bigger suits.”

Even in the cramped cockpit of an open-wheel race car, Mann learned to steer and shift in the extra padding, and throughout her amateur days and early professional career, a slightly baggy look was a small sacrifice for the safety of a flame-retardant uniform. But in Indy, a league in which companies invest tens of thousands of dollars to put their names on cars and suits, appearances were at a premium. So before her first year in Indy Lights, her team sent her measurements to a company for a custom-made firesuit, which didn’t fit at all. “It was tight in all the wrong places,” she says. “I wasn’t comfortable driving in it.”

They tried again with the same company, this time sending Mann in for a personal fitting — a man wielding the tape measure — and the result was even worse. “It was back to off-the-rack,” she says.

Two years later, having graduated to IndyCar, Mann and her team, Conquest Racing, were scurrying for sponsorships to back the driver’s first ride in the Indy 500. Even though everything was being thrown together in the weeks leading up to the Memorial Day weekend event — as is typical for smaller teams — Conquest didn’t want Mann’s first step onto the sport’s grandest stage to appear haphazard, for both her sake and that of the sponsors. Rather than patching the logos slapdash onto her uniform, Conquest sent the suit to Hinchman Racing Uniforms, a small local shop that had been doing Conquest’s embroidering. When Mann came in to try on the suit, Hinchman’s owner, Nancy Sullivan Chumbley, noticed that the garment hung awkwardly from Mann’s broad shoulders down her athletic 5-foot-5 frame, and offered to tailor it for her.

Hinchman is an old name in Indianapolis racing wear, dating back to the 1920s — so old that, by 2011, it had been practically forgotten. Mann had certainly never heard of the company. It was days away from the biggest race of her life, and given her previous experience with tailor-made suits, she was plenty skeptical. But, as a woman, Chumbley seemed to understand the issues that Mann was bemoaning. Chumbley was willing to work with her, talked things out rather than just relied on the rigid inches of a tape measure, and seemed motivated to find something that fit and looked good, something they both could be proud of. Mann agreed to let Hinchman make the suit.

Days later, despite starting second-to-last in the 33-car field and having mechanical problems with her onboard hydration system during the race, Mann crossed the Brickyard finish line in 20th place, third among Indy rookies. Back in the pits, she climbed out of the cockpit wearing a form-fitting, lightweight, black-and-white firesuit with her name stitched into the belt and the double-checkered-flag logo of Hinchman on the collar. “It was the best suit I’d ever had,” Mann says.

Read the rest at

Forever Bluegrass

20080809_untitled_43448Day 1: Raccoon Mountain

Afternoon shadows stretch across the mountain campgrounds high above the Tennessee River, less than 10 miles west of Chattanooga, when Steve Maxwell emerges from his RV. His graying black hair is still matted down by last night’s ball cap, his mustache uncombed. He squints without his glasses. On the table against the brown and beigeToyota Dolphin, a grimy propane camping stove fires a skillet piled with salted country ham and diced potatoes. Half a dozen biscuits are browning in the toaster oven. Breakfast at 2 p.m. on a Thursday.

If this feast seems like a little much for one 66-year-old man and his girlfriend, Jean, it is. Jean cooks plenty for the campers in the neighboring lots and for any passersby who are feeling peckish after lunch or simply can’t muster the resolve to pass up a warm ham biscuit. And for those who linger for more than a minute beneath the Dolphin’s makeshift tarp awning, Steve will climb inside and return with a Ball jar and a grin that is short one tooth.

“Smoothest you’ll ever taste,” he says.

Maxwell takes a pull to help jump-start the day. He was up until dawn lugging his bass fiddle from camp to camp, joining in to play and sing bluegrass around the fire. He’s known some of the musicians for decades; others he met just last night. But it’s hard to find a stranger at the Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival, where every corner of Raccoon Mountain echoes with the same string-and-descant music and every camper and truck — with license plates from Tennessee to Missouri to California — is plastered with the same white sticker reading Forever Bluegrass beside the silhouette of a man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle.

The sticker on the Dolphin’s rear bumper is practically worn into the chrome. Maxwell first met Boxcar playing the dance halls and fiddler conventions in and around Chattanooga in the late 1960s. Twenty-five years Maxwell’s elder, Boxcar was something of a role model, who loved his cold cans of Pabst almost as much as slapping his pawn-shop bass, “Ole Yeller.” To know Boxcar was to know his three daughters — Inez, Ruth and Cindy — who, even as grade-schoolers, tagged along to every show. Maxwell was especially fond of Cindy.

“She had that long curly blond hair and she was always dancing and grinning at us,” says Maxwell. “I’d say she was flirting, but she wasn’t quite old enough to flirt.”

Just about everyone on this mountain has a Cindy Pinion story. Maxwell has several, but his most mythologized is set in the late 1990s, after Boxcar had died: Maxwell was leaving a late-night picking session at Inez’s house in Flintstone, Ga., down in the valley below Lookout Mountain. Maxwell had left his instrument case at home, so he set his 1950 Kay bass in the back of his pickup and headed home. After turning off of gravel onto the main road, he hit a bump, and caught air. He heard a crash like an empty piano crate being dropped from four stories up, and looked in the rearview to see shards of his bass fiddle scatter across the pavement in the red brake-light glow. He got out to find his precious Kay in dozens of pieces. Disgusted, he threw a couple of the larger chunks in the truck bed and drove off, abandoning the rest.

Once Maxwell got home, he was paralyzed with anger. But his girlfriend at the time called the Pinions. Cindy and Inez grabbed flashlights and trudged through clay mud up to their ankles as they scoured the roadside and gathered every splinter of the old bass. They collected the pieces Maxwell had picked up and shipped a box full of kindling to an Atlanta craftsman.

“That’s just bluegrass people,” Maxwell says today. “That kindness is just such a pervasive thing … you don’t think about it it’s so common.”

Maxwell tosses a paper plate of biscuit crumbs into the trash and climbs back into the Dolphin. He returns with the 1950 plywood Kay bass fiddle, intact, standing strong, a good foot taller and a few inches wider than its owner — and with a worn finish and a few chips in the varnish, in just as good a shape.

A cool summer breeze sweeps across the grounds, carrying the cries of a mandolin and the pings of a banjo from a nearby campsite. Maxwell puts on his ratty brown Boxcar Festival ball cap, cradles the old Kay, and sets off to find the source.

Read the rest at

Down & Away: Leo Mazzone might be the best pitching coach in major league history—and no one will hire him.

It’s the top of the first inning, and Leo Mazzone is already rocking.

Each croak of the springs in Mazzone’s brown leather recliner is punctuated by a knock in the wooden frame, like an old screen door blowing open and shut.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Watching the Braves play the Marlins on the 60-inch flat-screen in the den of his home on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, Mazzone isn’t conscious of the nervous back-and-forth tick that became his accidental trademark during four decades in the dugout. He is focused instead on the mound and Miami right-hander Tom Koehler, who leans in against Atlanta leadoff man Jace Peterson.

First pitch: Fastball down and away. Called strike one.

“Perfect pitch,” says Mazzone. “Aimed for the catcher’s crotch, and he got it there.”

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Fastball at the knees. Strike two.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Curveball inside. Ball one.

The pace of the rocking quickens. Creak-clack-creak-clack-creak-clack. The old pitching coach has spotted something. “Changed his arm slot,” he says. “Tried to overpower him.”

If there is one thing about the game today that will wear out Mazzone’s lounger, it’s the increased emphasis on power in pitching. He’s worked with 12-year-olds, who compete against the radar gun as much as the batter, and tried to get through to high school and college hurlers who’ve been taught that a scholarship or professional contract depends more on M-P-H than E-R-A. In the pros, speed is fetishized by teams and fans alike, the reading on each pitch displayed right alongside the score in the corner of the TV, a CG flame occasionally flaring up when a fastball reaches the high-90s or low-100s.

It makes for great entertainment, sure, but Mazzone says it also leads to pitchers becoming erratic and missing location. More importantly, their release is not as smooth, increasing the risk of arm injury. Mazzone believes the modern game’s infatuation with velocity is one of, if not the primary reason for the recent plague of Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgeries. “Now everybody seems to be getting a pass on all the sore arms,” he says. “I don’t get it. If we’d have had all the breakdowns that are happening now, there would have been a lot of pitching coaches fired.”

Mazzone held that job for more than 27 years, including almost 18 in the big leagues. He attributes his longevity to the success of the pitchers who were indoctrinated with his unorthodox philosophy of actually throwing more often between starts but with decreased intensity, concentrating, instead, on the feel and location of their pitches, controlling the lower outside part of the strike zone — down and away, down and away. The results are well known: In Mazzone’s 15-plus seasons with Atlanta, his staffs led the Braves to 14 straight division championships, combining for four individual ERA titles, nine individual 20-win seasons, six Cy Young Awards, and eventually, three plaques in Cooperstown. Less heralded is the number of careers that were salvaged under Mazzone’s watch and his reputation for taking care of his players — especially the starters, who rarely missed a turn. “Sure he had great pitchers,” says Steve Phillips, who was an executive for the rival New York Mets in the 1990s and early-2000s. “But he kept them on the field. He kept them healthy.” In almost two decades as major league pitching coach, Mazzone only had two starters, John Smoltz and Mike Hampton, play a full season under him and succumb to Tommy John, and they were both approaching their mid-30s.

These days, news of season-ending elbow surgeries is almost a weekly rite (through April there had already been 11 such announcements), and it’s not uncommon for a kid to go under the knife twice before he leaves his 20s. Today’s answer to this scourge is strict innings limits and pitch counts, even shutting down a perfectly healthy starter midseason — things Mazzone believes actually hurt more than help. “It’s pathetic,” he says. “An insult to my intelligence. A pitcher’s greatest teacher is innings pitched.”

This isn’t idle sniping from the rocking chair. Mazzone has made it clear to anyone who’ll listen that he’d love to be back on the bench or advising or even just visit spring camp and help straighten these organizations out. In 2010, he was on Sirius XM lobbying for pitching coach openings with both the Yankees and Mets. After the 2013 season, when Philadelphia’s Rich Dubee was fired, Mazzone took to Twitter: @Phillies I would be very interested in being your pitching coach. #championshipball.

The phone hasn’t rung. This is the eighth season since Baltimore fired Mazzone in 2007 that he watched Opening Day from his den. And here he is today, a 66-year-old man creak-clacking himself into a frenzy, imagining what advice he’d give Tom Kohler once he retired the side and got back to the bench.

After the Braves set down the Marlins in the bottom of the first, the rocking suddenly stops. “I’m pretty much done with this game,” Mazzone says, as he clicks the channel to cable news. These days he rarely sits through an entire game, unless it’s Opening Day, the playoffs, or maybe a marquee pitching matchup. “When you’ve watched from the dugout for 42 years,” he says, “TV is just not the same.”

Read the rest at

The magic and motivation of top receiver recruit Kyle Davis from No. 10 Archer

Kyle Davis (Photo: 247 Sports)

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — With more than 6,000 rabid Georgia football fans in attendance on Saturday night, with the eyes of the nation tuned in through ESPN2, you would have thought the No. 10 Archer Tigers (2-0) would have been able to find a uniform to fit its star wide receiver.

And yet, with the spotlight as bright as it gets on sleepy Lawrenceville, 30 miles outside of Atlanta, there was 6-foot-1, 218-pound senior Kyle Davis’s red-and-white No. 11 stretching only halfway down his midsection, revealing a strikingly sculpted stomach.

Archer athletic director Tim Watkins offered this defense of his school and its student-athlete: “If I had abs like that, I wouldn’t even wear a shirt.”

Between his exhibitionist tendencies and his recent commitment to and de-commitment from South Carolina, Davis might come off as a stereotypical look-at-me receiver. But, believe it or not, that’s where the flash of the country’s top-ranked wideout recruit seems to end.

Sure, Davis obliged the national television audience with a pair of SportsCenter grabs for 40-plus yards apiece in the Tigers’ 26-10 drubbing of fellow regional power Peachtree Ridge in the GEICO ESPN High School Kickoff. Despite facing off against Peachtree Ridge’s three-star tandem of defensive backs, Ray Buchanan Jr. (committed to Arkansas) and Chad Clay (University of Georgia), Davis caught seven passes for gaudy 104 total yards. He also returned kickoffs and punts, and even lined up at tailback for a couple of carries.

But his coach, Andy Dyer, insists that it’s what Davis does away from the cameras that makes him a special player. It’s the work in the weight room (not just those chiseled abs); on the practice field, focusing on blocking and footwork as well as highlight-reel hands; and in the film room, absorbing routes and opposing coverages.

“As a player, you can never stop learning,” says Dyer. “He’s got a real hunger to learn.”

There is also a selflessness that’s on full display for anyone who cares to look away from the ball. During the game against Peachtree Ridge, Davis never took a play off, running his routes at full speed and hitting his blocks. And when a teammate scored or made a play, be it a game-breaker or just a solid routine tackle, Davis sprinted to be the first there to congratulate him. When asked where this work ethic and maturity comes from, Davis pointed to his parents. His father is a former college track star and current middle-school principal in Chattanooga who sees him every weekend. Davis lives near Archer High School with his mother, who has inflammation of the spine and has been confined to a wheelchair since Davis was 3 years old. With the community’s help, she still manages to make it to almost every game to watch her son play.

“She’s my inspiration,” said Davis. “She’s the strongest person I know.”

Perhaps it was his youthful dreams of making it to the NFL to take care of his family that led to his hasty commitment to South Carolina before his junior year in 2014, a decision he said he made without considering the bigger college picture, particularly academics. He said he wants to major in sports medicine — not because of personal experience with the trainer on the sideline, but because of growing up accompanying his mother to weekly physical therapy sessions.

“I always thought the way they were helping her was really cool,” he said. “Now I really want to help people.”

The Gamecocks are still on the table, Davis said — along with just about every other college with a football program. As a sophomore, his first year as a full-time receiver, the former quarterback and running back caught 11 touchdowns. Last year, he pulled in nine TDs and tallied 1,184 yards receiving while helping Archer to an 11-win, Class AAAAAA state runner-up finish. ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said that while there are players who can run a straight line faster than Davis — ranked No. 31 in the latest ESPN 300 — few possess his size, strength, and assortment of tools. “Davis is a difference maker,” said Luginbill. “The complete package.”

The schools Davis has been most frequently associated with are SEC rivals Georgia, Auburn, and Tennessee. But, mindful of jumping to decision again, he says he has not made up his mind, and probably will not do so until shortly before he announces on Oct. 23, Archer’s homecoming.

If the weight of that decision is wearing on the 17-year-old, it doesn’t show on the field even as rumors swirled in the last month that he was a silent commitment to Georgia. For those grasping for hints, he was wearing Georgia gloves Saturday night, although Georgia and Archer do have the same colors.

During warmups on Saturday, Davis was shouting and dancing, setting a loose tempo for is teammates before the TV cameras descended. During the game, he practically skipped to his position, bobbing his head to the pep-band brass-and-thump even as he stood in formation.

He said it hasn’t yet kicked in that this is his last year of high school, his last season on this turf, in those locker rooms, and in this ill-fitting red-and-white uniform.

This article appeared on 

Focusing on his game, Thon Maker is bulking up and looking forward to his strong future

SUWANEE Ga.—Over the past year, five-star phenom Thon Maker has bulked up. He started lifting weights five days a week, began eating seven meals a day, and gradually bumped the scale beneath his already imposing 7-foot-1 frame from a wiry 191 pounds to solid 218.

And yet, over the past month and a half, Maker has been playing as though a huge weight has been taken off his suddenly broad shoulders.

Last week, Maker averaged a double-double (16.5 points, 11.8 rebounds) while powering his Canada Elite team into the championship game of the Under Armour Association 17U Finals in Suwanee, Ga.  A week prior, he led all players at the Under Armour All-American Camp in Charlotte by pulling down 12.5 boards and blocking 2.2 shots per game.

This reign of domination started back in June, when Maker garnered MVP honors at the NBPA 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va. It was also at this event that the native of South Sudan announced that he had scrapped his plan to reclassify and try to graduate high school in December so as to be eligible for college in the second semester of next season. Has the decision to play out his senior year at Ontario’s Orangeville Prep affected the big man’s game?

“Definitely,” says Maker. “Now I really get to focus on the game itself.”

So why the sudden 180? Why risk injury, jeopardizing almost certain rewards in college and the pros? Was there concern over the waning interest from scouts after a lackluster junior year at Orangeville? Or perhaps Maker preferred to be the centerpiece of a recruiting class as opposed to a late addition coming in midway through the season.

Maker’s guardian, Ed Smith, says that his ward’s decision to stay in the Class of 2016 was three-fold. First, it relieves the senior of the burden of crashing out a year’s worth of schoolwork in one semester. “I think he was saddled with a lot of academic pressure,” says Smith. “He could’ve finished over the summer or he could’ve finished in the fall and went to college. He got his core work done. Now there’s just a few things he needs to do and he can stretch that out into his senior year.”

Canadian superstar recruit (by way of Sudan) Thon Maker may be on the verge of shaking up the 2015 rankings as he considers reclassification — Louisville Courier-Journal

Second, the postponement of graduation gives Maker time to get used to playing in his new body. Despite pressure from scouts and coaches to quickly add mass to reinforce a gangly body, Maker and Smith chose a more deliberate path.

“We did it the way we wanted,” says Maker. “People wanted us to bulk up straight away and get to playing. That would’ve resulted in injuries and bad plays. We took our time. We didn’t worry about others critiquing that I’m too skinny.”

Packing on 27 pounds of lean muscle to his bones has taken Maker from Manute Bol to more of a Kevin Garnett-style power forward that is now much more of a force closer to the basket, bullying his way to rebounds and blocked shots. Add that to Maker’s already formidable defense and perimeter skills—including ball-handling ability and an outside jump shot that is practically unheard of for a big man—and it’s easy to see why Maker is a Top 10 prospect (No. 8 by, No. 9 by, with offers from the NCAA elite, including Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisville.

The third, and perhaps most important consequence of Maker’s decision is that it will enable him to play his entire senior season at Orangeville with his younger brother, 6-foot-11 junior Matur. The two boys fled civil war in South Sudan together and were taken in as refugees in Australia when Maker was 5. There they grew up playing soccer and basketball until Smith discovered the elder Maker and brought him to the U.S. to play basketball five years ago. Smith eventually brought Matur halfway through Maker’s freshman year.

“When Matur joined him, it changed everything,” says Smith. “All of a sudden there was laughter coming from downstairs. They were cutting up and carrying on. It’s just fun. They love each other a lot.”

The bond is obvious. Matur, who plays on the 16U Canada Elite, is front and center at each of his brother’s AAU games, and vice versa. Next year at Orangeville will be their first chance to play on the same team. It may also be their last—while Matur is a four-star prospect in his own right, drawing early interest from some of the same schools as his brother, there is no guarantee that they will attend the same school.

Maker says the benefit of playing with his brother is more than just sentimental.

“I can’t wait for the season to kick off and play with my brother,” says Maker. “Just competing with him in practice—watching us both get better. We’re both physically bigger and mentally stronger, more knowledgeable of the game. It makes it that much better for us to come at each other.”

This article appeared on 

Motivated as an underdog, Markelle Fultz embraces being overlooked

SUWANEE, Ga.—Spectators at this past weekend’s Under Armor Association AAU Circuit Finals might have had a little trouble locating five-star prospect Markelle Fultz. He was listed on the roster as No. 15 for the DC Blue Devils 17-and-under team. That number was nowhere to be found on the court. “They lost my jersey,” said Fultz nonchalantly warming up in an ill-fitting No. 11.

With dozens of college coaches and scouts sitting in the bleachers and standing along the sidelines eyeballing prospective recruits, any other incoming high-school senior would have been alarmed by the sudden blurring of identity.

Fultz, however, seemed unfazed. He is used to being overlooked.

A little more than a year ago, Fultz was a sophomore playing for powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School (Hyattsville, Md.) on the junior-varsity team. And his AAU Blue Devils weren’t yet affiliated with a major shoe company.

“I think I was always a very talented player,” Fultz said through a mouthful of braces. “I wasn’t always on the best teams, but I always pushed myself to be a better player. What happened to me was I finally got the right opportunity.”

That opportunity was a guest shot on the DC Premiere squad for the Las Vegas Fab 48 tournament last July. Playing a year up in age, Fultz powered the team to the championship. That led to an invitation to John Lucas’s Midwest showcase for underclassmen in Louisville, where Fultz continued to impress. Last year, he averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 boards per game as a junior on DeMatha’s varsity team.

Rather than try to slip that underdog tag in light of his newfound success, Fultz wears it proudly. “When I got my chance, I was filled up with anger for everybody overlooking me,” said Fultz. “I just took advantage—played very well, did very well against nationally ranked players.”

Fultz is now fielding offers from more than 20 colleges, including Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, and Louisville. And he has kept close tabs on his own rankings among the national class of 2016, which currently sits at 21st on and 23rd

“On the court I try not to think about the rankings,” said Fultz. “But off the court, I look at it a lot, just trying to see my position and see what I have to do to get better. And to see who is in front of me.”

That sort of frankness with the press—Fultz recently told The Sporting News that Kentucky was no longer his dream school because he “didn’t know (he) was going to be this good,” and The Washington Post that he’d like to be a college one-and-done—may come off as simultaneously naïve and a little bit cocky. But Fultz’s play on the hardwood displays the humbleness more befitting his backstory.

Before tip-off, he goes out of his way to bump the fists of each opponent, and he’s always there to pick a fouled teammate off the floor. A lanky 6-foot-4, he doesn’t show the explosive athleticism of some of his peers, instead sort of gliding up and down the court. He’s a quiet stalwart on defense, and his jump shot is a living sculpture.

Fultz’s height enables him to play all five positions in high school, and he says his body still hasn’t grown into his size-16 feet. But even as someone else’s No. 11 jersey hung loosely from his shoulders, the role of overachiever seemed to fit Fultz perfectly.

“My mindset is to always play like I’m not known,” he said. “I just act like there’s nobody in the stands, nobody watching me.”

That isn’t a hard scenario for Fultz to imagine.

This article appeared on 

Seventh Woods keeps showing his game has more than just a mixtape

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 ESPNSportsCenter 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 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.

This article appeared on