Long before they were Olympians

Our analysts look back at what members of USA Basketball were like in HS

Updated: August 10, 2012, 4:38 PM ET
By RecruitingNation | ESPN.com

Before they were Olympians making a run at a gold medal, prior to their great careers in the NBA (we're anticipating that of Anthony Davis) and even before they flourished on the college basketball scene (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tyson Chandler not withstanding) the members of the USA Basketball team stood out in high school, but not all of them received the same amount of hype.

Our analysts share their memories of covering the high school days of the players who now share the hardwood in London.

Kobe Bryant

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyForeshadowing? Did Kobe Bryant know he was going to be part of USA Basketball at some point in his career when he took this photo as a senior in high school?
Reggie Rankin: As a young assistant coach, I happened to be sitting beside a man I believed was also coaching at the time at the ABCD Camp in New Jersey. The man was telling me about how his son was considering going from high school straight to the NBA. We talked about other high school players; finally I said 'who is your son,' and he said 'Kobe Bryant.' I sat next to and spoke with Jelly Bean Bryant, Kobe's dad, for about 20 minutes and didn't know it. The rest is NBA future Hall of Fame history.

Joel Francisco: Back in the day, Sonny Vacarro was the director of the renowned ABCD Camp, and that was the first venue where I saw the wiry 6-foot-5ish junior Kobe Bryant. He had that prototypical wing-type/big guard frame and a considerable amount of bounce as well. His style of play flourished in the camp setting, where he slashed his way to the rim for numerous highlight reel dunks and popped in a number of jump shots as well. While his fellow classmate and rival at the time, Tim Thomas, displayed glimpses of his immense talent at the camp, Bryant exhibited the "killer instinct" each and every time outand we know how that so-called rivalry has come to fruition.

John Stovall: Bryant had the killer instinct even in high school. I remember him practicing for a postseason all-star game that was held at the Palace in Michigan after his senior season. The teams were practicing 3-on-3 drills and Kobe went up and dunked on the then-No. 2 player in the country, Tim Thomas. It was like he was saying "just so you know ... I am No. 1 and you are No. 2!"

Tyson Chandler

Francisco: Pat Barrett, head coach of the Southern California All-Stars club program at the time, gave me a call and said he had the "next great one" out of Southern California -- that being 6-foot-8 eighth-grader Tyson Chandler. The next day I drove out to Rolling Hills Prep, where the So-Cal All Stars were playing, and witnessed Chandler's act. The long and slender 5-man was catching lobs (reversed dunked one of them) and blocked a plethora of shots in the paint. His offensive game hasn't changed much since then, but he obviously matured into a dominating defensive force in the NBA.

Dave Telep: He was pretty much considered a prodigy as a high school player. One of his best moments was a championship at the Boo Williams event, where he was named MVP. Kids couldn't do anything around the rim with him on the floor. He was so big that he looked menacing, and kids were intimidated and scared of him. He didn't say much and was pretty guarded with the media. It's great to see his success and value come to fruition in the NBA. There was so much pressure on him in high school that he didn't look like he was always having fun. He's so much more comfortable in his own skin now than he was then.

Anthony Davis

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Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images High school wasn't that long ago for Anthony Davis, who led Kentucky to a national title this year and was drafted No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Hornets. Can he add a gold medal to his list of accolades?
Telep: Think about this timeline. In May 2010, Anthony Davis was not on a single national top 100 list, and if anyone says they had him on one, it's time for a polygraph. My first viewing of him was that month. Never in my life had I seen a guy play for the first time as a junior and thought he was the nation's best prospect. Walking out of the gym that day, I turned to a friend and said, "I think I just saw the best prospect in the nation." He told me not to get too excited. He was wrong. In three months, Davis leaped from obscurity in Chicago to offers from Kentucky, Syracuse and Ohio State. None of the head coaches who offered him saw him until going into July before his senior season.

In an era of highlight tapes and cameraphones, it's silly to think the best play Davis made in high school was never captured on video. Each year at the McDonald's All-American Game, there's a closed-door scrimmage for family, committee members and NBA brass. While I can't re-enact the exact play, my best recollection is that he got an offensive rebound, went behind his back to avoid dribbling out of bounds and dunked in traffic with his left hand. It was a jaw-dropper. I had never seen a kid Davis' size finish a play like that. It might be the best play no one will ever see. Hopefully, one day a Zapruder-type film will pop up.

Stovall: Prior to his senior year, Davis was playing in the Boo Williams Invitational. At that time, no one outside of Chicago really knew who he was. A member of his Mean Streets travel team came to me and said "I'm not sure, but I think we may have found something special." I rushed over to the court and 30 seconds after I arrived, he got injured. One month later, he played at the Spiece Run N' Slam in Fort Wayne and blew up. The rest is history.

Paul Biancardi: The first time I watched him play was in June of the summer before his senior year at Pangos All-American Camp in Long Beach, Calif. He was so thin, yet skilled, that he immediately stood out among the group. At times he was just trying to survive through the physicality of the games, but clearly after that weekend, we all knew he would ascend to the top of the class.

Kevin Durant
Telep: His recruitment got heated as Texas and North Carolina emerged as the teams to beat. Durant played at Oak Hill with Ty Lawson as a junior and then polished off a storied career at Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.). He's had great games in the NBA and at Texas, but anyone who saw his D.C. Blue Devils in 2002 against Darrell Arthur's Team Texas would never forget the ridiculous shooting exhibition he concocted. The first time I saw Durant in high school came in Lewes, Del., where he had to duck to get into the gym and was so skinny you could see right through him. The big-salaried major college assistant sitting next to me made a quick evaluation that has stuck with Durant. "Damn, he's skinny."

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Steve Boyle\ESPN RISE MagazineKevin Durant was MVP of the 2006 McDonald's All-American Game and led Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) to a No. 2 ranking that season.

Biancardi: In March 2006 at Coolidge High School's gym in Washington, D.C., I was recruiting as the head coach at Wright State University among a standing-room-only crowd to watch one of greatest high school games I had seen in a long time, between two powerhouse programs in Oak Hill Academy and Montrose Christian. Montrose was down by 11 points in the fourth quarter and made a furious comeback to win 74-72 with a last-second tip-in by Adrian Bowie. In a game with many stars, I remember witnessing an incredible performance by Durant who had 31 points. Watching him score the ball with a fluid nature by way of jumpers, drives and post moves was amazing. It was easy to see that he would only be at Texas for one season after that night.

James Harden
Francisco: James Harden, who laced them up at Artesia High in Lakewood, Calif., was a late-blooming point forward who didn't hit his stride until the summer prior to his junior season. Fellow SoCal natives Taylor King (Mater Dei) and Chace Stanback (Fairfax) were well-known commodities in recruiting circles early on, but Harden was a relative unknown. King was headed to Duke; Stanback to UCLA. Harden, on the other hand, had signed with Arizona State (high school coach Scott Pera was hired by Herb Sendek) after receiving modest interest from many elite-level programs.

But while King and Stanback struggled during their freshman seasons in college, Harden went on to become an all-conference performer as a frosh and later bagged the Pac-10 POY Award as a sophomore before declaring for the NBA. A few years later, Harden is a budding star, while King transferred multiple times during his college stint and Stanback just finished his senior season at UNLV -- hoping to play professionally somewhere down the road.

Telep: As soon as Herb Sendek took over at Arizona State, his top target was a late-blooming guard named Russell Westbrook. Once UCLA figured out how good Westbrook was, the Sun Devils were toast. A year later, Sendek returned to California, and armed with the help of Scott Pera, Harden's high school coach-turned-ASU assistant, he landed one of the top players in ASU history.

Andre Iguodala
Telep: This might be hard to believe given his ascension and NBA career, but as a high school player he wasn't offered a scholarship by his in-state school, Illinois. Each time the Illini went to watch Iggy in high school, he couldn't score, and I mean he didn't break 10 points. He was always a good-looking athlete but lacked the requisite perimeter skills. It wasn't until the summer of his senior year when everything came together for him. It was the AAU Nationals that put him on the national map for good as a top-30 player. He was not named a McDonald's All-American.

LeBron James

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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesCan LeBron James win a second gold medal this week?
Biancardi: As an assistant coach at Ohio State, I watched LeBron James play as a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio. After just one evaluation, it was easy to see he had the makings of a Division I player. He stood just over 6-2 and possessed a slight frame, but his skills and feel for the flow of the game were evident. Scoring was his forte, but what was even more impressive is that James contributed in other ways on the floor. His desire to rebound and ability to distribute the ball stood out at a young age. I remember his unselfishness and passing abilities. He was quick to find an open teammate or drive the ball, draw a crowd of defenders and then deliver an assist. He could also certainly lead a transition break or finish one.

His team won the Division III state championship as a freshman, and his performances were eye-catching, which led us to invite him down to campus. His coach at that time was Keith Dambroth, who now is the successful head coach at Akron. He brought up James, and we showed him our facilities and had a brief discussion. I remember his big smile and being impressed with how polite and respectful he was. After his sophomore year, his team repeated as state champions and he was named Ohio's Mr. Basketball and selected all-first team by USA Today, becoming the first sophomore ever to do either. Shortly after his sophomore season, I ran into a friend of mine, longtime NBA scout Kenny Williamson (now the assistant GM of the Memphis Grizzlies), who told me "Save the postage and gas -- he is going right to the league."

Telep: Following LeBron's sophomore season, he went to USA Basketball, where the best player going into camp was Carmelo Anthony. I remember them playing against each other and getting along really well. Their teams played for the title, but Melo had to leave a day early for summer school classes. LeBron dominated the championship game, rallying his team from down 10 points at the half to a double-digit win, and he had a triple-double. That was the first time they ever wore the USA uniform together.

Francisco: During the April evaluation period in 2000, I received a phone call from longtime friend and scouting guru Frank Burlison. He said he was conversing with some NBA types earlier in the day and they were buzzing about a 6-foot-6 ultratalented ninth-grader out of Akron, Ohio. His name? Well, you know. We made our way up the 405 freeway to witness James' act as he was suiting up for the Oakland Soldiers, a renowned club team from northern California. From the moment the ball was tipped, James put his stamp on a number of possessions at both ends of the floor. Believe it or not, James was a rather sleek wing-type back in the day who had very long arms, catapultlike explosiveness and an uncanny ability to find teammates a la Magic Johnson.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Tom Pidgeon/Getty ImagesLeBron James is one of three members on the USA Basketball team to not play in college.
Reggie Rankin: As a college assistant coach, I watched LeBron James in numerous AAU/travel team events. He was a man among boys, and there were more pro scouts than college coaches at his games. After one of James' elite performances, an NBA scout stood up in front of about 10 marquee college coaches and said. "Quit wasting your phone calls, mail and travel budget on James. He ain't never ever, ever going to college."

Telep: Yes, LeBron James was a superhuman in high school. He's the greatest high school player since Kobe Bryant, but that doesn't explain James' stature. LeBron was the ringmaster of a traveling circus the final two years of his high school career. His impact on the grassroots game was undeniable. In my opinion, James single-handedly altered the landscape of high school basketball. He made high school basketball the business that it is today. ESPN brought in Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale to broadcast one of his high school games. Routinely, 10,000 people a night would watch him play in high school as his team created a circus-like atmosphere.

There are a few moments that stand out. He showed up but didn't play at ABCD Camp as a senior; he was injured. That same year James attended Nike Camp as a spectator. To the best of my knowledge, he's the only person to ever attend those two camps the same year. Adidas created the first "King James" T-shirt, which he wore at a special press conference as a senior at ABCD. Two years before, James stroked a jump shot over Lenny Cooke at ABCD, which is one of the biggest shots in grassroots history. He also tangled with Carmelo Anthony when LeBron was a junior. But my favorite story about LeBron is when his high school team received a police escort from its hotel to the Slam Dunk to the Beach. It was December, at the beach in Lewes, Del. The whole town came that night.

Stovall: I could talk about this guy forever. I first saw him in May as a 6-1 eighth grader and thought he was very good and a high-major prospect. In October, I was talking to his high school coach, Keith Dambrot, and through the conversation I asked him where he is planning on playing LeBron (I am figuring the 1 or the 2). Dambrot says "We are going to play him all over. On the perimeter and in the post." I said "In the post?!? How tall is LeBron now?" He says to me, "6-4, almost 6-5." At that point I figured he was going to be something special. I still didn't know how special.

Kevin Love

Biancardi: I had a chance to coach him at the ABCD adidas camp when he was entering his senior year. At most all-star camps players usually don't give it their best effort, especially in drills. However, Love was dialed in as I worked in a pick-and-roll/pop station teaching how to defend the action. He was alert and vocal, jumping out on ball screens and when he was on the help side, he was in the lane looking to help his teammates. Love demonstrated his ability to communicate, score and rebound the ball in games and drills, which made him special.

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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKevin Love continues to impress at every level.
Telep: We were down at the City of Palms one Christmas. I'd been charting Love, and things were really going well for him one night. That night Kevin Love had 32 rebounds in a 32-minute high school game. In my 16 years on the job, it was the single best rebounding performance I'd ever seen. The official stats guy had Love with 26. No way -- 32. Amazing.

Stovall: Love was one of the best high school players I had seen in my time doing this. It is not surprising at all that he has had this much success. If you are talented, it will can take you a long way!

Chris Paul

Telep: Prior to CP3's senior season, he attended the USA Basketball Developmental Festival. Paul's team won in the gold medal game and you couldn't picture a happier kid. He took a photo with his medal and he was beaming. Who knew? CP3's trying for his second Olympic gold medal. That equals the number of years he played on varsity in high school. CP3 was relegated to JV as his brother CJ occupied the starting point guard slot ahead of him. Two years of varsity, two on JV and one shiny gold medal at the USA Hoops Festival.

Stovall: He is the best pure PG I have ever seen in high school (Tyus Jones is a close second). As a junior going into his senior year, his matchup with Andrew Lavender in the AAU National Championship was classic.

Russell Westbrook

Francisco: Russell Westbrook brings true meaning to the term late bloomer. He was only 5-foot-9 as a high school junior, and believe it or not, he didn't start dunking until a growth spurt during his senior season. Most recruiting sites didn't even have Westbrook in their top 100 until after his senior campaign. To further support that notion, heading into his senior year, he was only a third-team selection in the Long Beach Press-Telegram Best in the West voting. However, during his senior season he exploded, which translated into a late offer from UCLA, and the rest is history.

Telep: The year before Westbrook blew up at Leuzinger High School, Dorell Wright did the same thing. Both came out of nowhere to become NBA players. It's not like these guys were hiding; they're from Los Angeles. They bloomed late, real late. Westbrook visited Kent State during his senior season, and Jimmy Christian almost had him in the MAC. Herb Sendek tried to recruit him hard in back-to-back years for Arizona State. But Ben Howland pulled it off with a late offer.

Deron Williams

Biancardi: When coaching at Ohio State, we had to game plan for Williams twice a year and in the Big Ten tournament. You were never going to take the ball out of his hands because he played low, in control and used his strong body well. He could go where he wanted on the floor and score or create at will. His drives were effective -- not due to blow-by speed -- but his strong, low-to-the-ground style made him hard to guard. He would back down and discard smaller guards by shooting over them or driving to the basket and being physical. Against like-size defenders, he used a change of speed to shake free of them. Overall, his basketball IQ, strong body and skills could beat almost any defense. Without question, Williams was one of the more difficult matchups at point guard in the country at that time and he continues to be a problem for opponents in the NBA as an all-league guard and Olympic team member.

Francisco: Williams was highly underrated coming out of high school. Many scouts and college coaches felt the "then-chunky point guard" did not possess the necessary quickness or speed to deal with the high-level defensive pressure he would face in college. However, I remember him putting on a dominating display of lead guard intangibles at the Double Pump Three Stripes Tournament in July. He delivered pinpoint passes, dropped in some 3s, and even hammered in some dunks in traffic. Scouting is not an exact science, but Bill Self (while at Illinois) and renowned scout Frank Burlison knew the immense potential of Williams.

Telep: Williams was the No. 2-ranked point guard in Illinois' recruiting class behid Dee Brown. A stellar staff at Illinois, including Bill Self, Billy Gillispie and Norm Roberts, put the duo together. Brown was selfless, big on winning and wanted to play with Williams, which eventually laid the foundation for a Final Four backcourt. During Williams' rookie year with the Utah Jazz, I went to a game in Indianapolis and saw he and his mother after the game. "Still think Deron's the No. 55 recruit in the country now, Dave?" What do you say to that?