Lucas' combine evaluates eighth-graders

HOUSTON -- Pity the poor kid who couldn't dribble consistently with his off hand. Or behind his back. Or bend and touch the small orange cones while keeping the ball going.

He heard it loud and clear from the raspy voice of Prince Kinlock, the drill sergeant of dribbling at the International Middle School Basketball Combine at the University of Houston, held May 16-17.

"A lot of players, a lot of parents, can't deal with my intensity," Kinlock said during a break, no apology in his measured tone. "If they stay around for an hour, they'll see how fast the kids develop."

Summer officially arrived last weekend in Houston, at least when it comes to youth basketball. Local hoop icon John Lucas and his staff hosted the second annual two-day tutorial. Seventy-two kids participated, almost all eighth-graders. Nearly half traveled from out of state, and about 60 percent of the Texas kids were from the Houston area.

Summer ball usually consists of teams put together with local or regional high school players (or younger kids), scrimmaging a couple of times per week between tournaments or other competitions. Lucas said he wants to provide sophisticated instruction in fundamentals for pre-high schoolers who probably want to pursue basketball beyond their upcoming high school experience.

"We do things they are going to need to become pro players," said Lucas, who played in the NBA for 14 seasons ending in 1990 and later coached three NBA teams.

The first four hours contained half-court drills dealing with such nuances as the pick-and-roll, spacing on the court, and how to properly shoot a floater and a runner. Some of the stations featured creative contraptions such as chairs positioned to prevent players from driving closer than five feet from the hoop and a machine called "The Gun" that appeared to come straight out of the arcade games at the county fair. It shot balls back to the player like a pitching machine and, combined with a huge net extending high above the basket, forced the shooter to loft shots at least 6 feet above the rim.

And there were stations devoted to conditioning; at one, players did sit-ups while holding basketballs that were smaller but heavier than usual.

"There's nothing else like this at the eighth-grade level," Lucas said.

While the main purpose was to provide a select group of players with instruction, there was still the see-and-be-seen aspect of summer ball. Lucas brought a team of talent evaluators to provide post-combine assessments for both the players and their parents.

David Lowry traveled from the Cincinnati area with eighth-grade son Stedman, headed next fall to Lakota East High (Liberty Township, Ohio), with the knowledge that this was another showcase event in the effort to eventually earn a basketball scholarship.

"That's why we do it," he said. The Lowrys have purchased a motor home for following Stedman and his sixth-grade brother, Dylan, in their summer hoop travels.

The kids were divided into eight nine-man groups, each containing players of various heights (five kids were 5-foot-5 or shorter; 10 were 6-5 or taller), and they paraded through the eight work stations. Afterward, the groups became teams and played against each other for the rest of Saturday into Sunday. The games were divided into four-minute increments, eliminating the possibility of some players receiving significantly more playing time than others.

Lucas brought in coaches from junior colleges to fill out his teaching staff (after starting with some of his regulars, like Kinlock) and to coach the games. Last year, he enlisted the services of NCAA Division I assistant coaches. Afterward, eighth-graders were making verbal commitments.

"That's not what the concept of it was," Lucas said.

What was included in Lucas' intent was frank player evaluation, presented directly to each player in front of the other participants and parents.

Drew Kelley drove in from northwest Houston with his son, 6-6 Andrew. He said he was impressed with the evaluation phase that wrapped up the weekend.

"They talked in candor; it was a reality check," Kelley said. "It was pretty positive. It was neat."

Kelley asked a question after guest evaluator Van Coleman spoke to the parents, repeating the message that others also gave the players: emphasizing skill development, getting into shape and attention to schoolwork. The question was whether an unspoken portion of his message was that these kids have reached the point where they need to specialize in a sport. Andrew Kelley, who is scheduled to attend Klein (Texas) High, combines basketball with baseball, swimming, tennis and hockey.

Coleman said no, unless the player happens to be LeBron.

"He stressed education; I love that," Kelley said. In the case of Andrew, who happens to have an 85 mph fastball in baseball, he said the family is prepared to "let the chips fall where they may and let his body decide. If he grows to be 6-8, basketball might be his sport."

The hours of the combine -- 1 p.m. Saturday to 2 p.m. Sunday -- were designed to accommodate people traveling from across the country without missing work or school. Lucas said participants came from 38 states.

Jada Turner set her alarm for 4:30 a.m. in Indianapolis so she and her son, 5-8 Zavier Turner, could catch a flight to reach Houston late that morning. They reached their hotel in time to catch the hot breakfast.

She said Zavier has been attending basketball camps since the fourth grade. "He loves it," Jada said. "He's the type you have to tell him, 'It's over. Time to rest.' It's just in him."

Zavier is scheduled to enroll next fall at Pike High (Indianapolis). He came to Houston as part of a national team coached by O.J. Matthews, a Virginia-based coach who is also involved with the D.C. Assault and the local Diaper Dans. Some of the other players Matthews brought were 5-6 Shai Shai Matthews of Staunton, Va., 6-8 Tyrek Coger of Raleigh, N.C., and 6-8 Austin Colbert of Chesapeake, Va.

Matthews said he appreciated the evaluations for the eighth-graders, but can't see going any younger with player evaluations.

"Seventh grade on down, they still don't even like girls yet," he said.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.