Commentary

NBAPA Top 100 camp teaching hoops and life skills

Updated: June 22, 2009, 1:29 PM ET
By Chris Lawlor | ESPNRISE.com

Tyler Thornton is looking for a new challenge this summer.

Tyler Thornton
James Quinn for ESPN RISETyler Thornton has committed to Duke.

Final examinations at Gonzaga College High (Washington, D.C.) finished a month ago. Since then, the Duke-bound Thornton has endured six workouts per week. At times, the drills are repetitive, monotonous and even mundane. This weekend, though, it's finally time for some fun.

And Thornton won't travel far to attend summer school on the hardwood.

Thornton, a 6-foot-2 point guard, is getting a tough test at the 17th NBA Players' Association Top 100 Camp, which started Wednesday at the University of Virginia's state-of-the-art Paul Jones Arena.

"This [camp] is one of the top camps all summer," said Thornton, who averaged 14.4 points, six assists and three steals as a junior for Gonzaga, which finished No. 10 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50. "Anyone who aspires to play in the NBA and wants to find out what responsibility that comes with it will listen."

Thornton is one of 100 of the nation's most promising players in the classes of 2010 and 2011 who have gathered for the four day camp.

The camp was created by the NBAPA -- the labor institution which represents the interest of the players -- with former players Tim McCormick, Roy Hinson, Purvis Short and George Johnson at the forefront. Over the years, the NBAPA has poured millions into the camps to insure younger players are guided on and off the court.

"The greatest thing I take from camp is the relationships built over the years," said McCormick, the camp's director. "I see the players again down the line, whether it's in college or the NBA."

Some of the NBA's top players have sharpened their skills at the Top 100 Camp, including Shane Battier, Dwight Howard, Emeka Okafor, Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis and Jermaine O'Neal.

Unlike many other major basketball camps, the games aren't the main attraction. The budding stars will receive an education on several life issues that could impact their lives.

"The high school all-star today gets the same attention as an NBA All-Star of 10 years ago," McCormick said of the recent surge of grassroots basketball. "The scrutiny I even dealt with is different. Think of it -- even a great like Oscar Robertson didn't see this kind of attention."

The camp also differs from other major basketball camps because players are not invited based on their shoe affiliation, but simply on talent.

For four days, it's an intense crash course on etiquette, career education, health education, drug use and abuse, standardized college-board review class, drinking and driving, and lectures featuring present and former NBA players and coaches. Skill development and team play is also emphasized.

At least 25 current and former NBA stars work at or visit the camp to advise campers on how they can make their basketball goals a reality by teaching NBA moves and training techniques. The Top 100 Camp utilizes experts in a variety of fields to help lay a solid foundation for success both on and off the court.

Campers and their parents arrived Wednesday morning, with the camp concluding Saturday evening with the camp championship game and awards ceremony.

Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) forward Tristan Thompson, attending his second camp, says group discussions following the lectures provide some of the best insights.

"You learn how to deal with situations that arise off the court," said Thompson (from Toronto, Ontario), who will play for the Canadian U-19 team at the World Championship next month in New Zealand. "Former players tell their stories and you listen. It's different from when your coach talks to you. I know it's not fair to say this, but that's reality."

Suffice it to say this is not your typical camp.

"All these players are highly talented, but they'll have roadblocks and obstacles," McCormick said. "We're here to advise how to avoid situations like peer pressure, girls and if you father a child. We talk about it all."

Earlier this month, 6-9 forward James Johnson was the talk of the Pangos Camp in California. Johnson, who sat out last season after transferring from Lethbridge Collegiate Institute in Alberta, Canada, is looking to establish himself before starting school at Elsinore (Wildomar, Calif.).

Johnson, an athletic, versatile power forward, has drawn interest from Virginia, San Diego State, San Diego, Texas and Arizona. But he knows a good showing will boost his standing with recruiters.

"I need to see quality live competition," said Johnson, who attended Morse High San Diego as a junior but did not play under transfer guidelines. "If I succeed here, that's good for my confidence and game."

Others see value in the off-the-court lessons.

"The camp is eye-opening, especially after certain lecturers from former [NBA] players who have gone through tough times, maybe spent millions of dollars and now are on the rebound," said Paul Biancardi, ESPN's national recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc., who has also served as a coach at the Top 100 camp.

Harrison Barnes, the nation's top-rated rising senior from Ames (Iowa), will attend the Amare Stoudemire Skills Academy in Phoenix next week, and then it's off to the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio in early July. But he circled the dates for the Top 100.

"It's a unique camp," he said. "Here you are taught values to be used in life."

The players aren't the only ones hoping to glean knowledge.

Steve Turner, head coach at Gonzaga College High, is one of 10 high school coaches working the camp.

"Anytime you have a chance to coach the best players and learn from NBA players and coaches, you can't help but feel this is a special and enhancing experience," he said.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
Ronnie FloresHarrison Barnes in the top-ranked prospect in ESPNU 100.

"I'm really interested in the lectures. I'm hoping players get the most out of the week and what is being said."

Turner, along with high-profile coaches such as Pat Clatchey of Mount St. Joseph (Baltimore), Mike Jones of DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.), Alan Stein of Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) and Michael Peck of Findlay Prep, will join forces with 13 NBA players who are interested in coaching. NBA players such as Jarvis Hayes, Donyell Marshall, Lindsey Hunter, Kevin Ollie, Michael Ruffin, Anthony Johnson and Bobby Jackson will partner with high school coaches on the 10 teams that play in the round-robin format.

At the heart of the camp is McCormick, a 10-year NBA veteran turned motivational speaker and broadcaster, most recently for the Big Ten Network.

"Our core values haven't changed: high character, developing skills and education," he said. "The evolution of the camp has been remarkable; we've changed, but not the message."

Additionally, parents benefit from the camp experience. McCormick says about 60 parents "will receive a parallel education about peer pressure, recruiting and setting goals."

"You have no idea the positive feedback we've received from the parents," McCormick said. "Sometimes this whole process is too much. We have psychologists here and help parents set guidelines on proper nutrition and groupie issues. It's very consuming."

Before the games begin, the top prospects receive big lessons from authorities both on and off the court.

"We want to see the players through their journey. Complacency might be their biggest opponent on the floor, and we're there to support them and their parents," McCormick said.

Here's a closer look at the players in attendance.

2010: Harrison Barnes, Ames (Iowa)
Tristan Thompson, Findlay Prep
Jared Sullinger, Northland (Columbus, Ohio)
Jereme Richmond, Waukegan (Ill.)

2011: C.J. Barksdale, George Washington (Danville, Va.)
Michael Gilchrist, St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.)

Austin Rivers, Winter Park (Fla.)

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball, and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, for which he ran the Gatorade national Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.