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Top programs use holiday showcases to prepare for postseason

Westlake coach Hilda Hankerson has the two-time defending AAAAAAA champion, top-ranked Lady Lions participating in three national midseason showcases this season. (File photo)
Westlake coach Hilda Hankerson has the two-time defending AAAAAAA champion, top-ranked Lady Lions participating in three national midseason showcases this season. (File photo)

Being a perennial powerhouse has many perks, including a luxury most high school basketball programs don’t enjoy — getting to showcase your talents against the country’s best players during the holiday season at invitation-only showcase tournaments across the United States.

A number of Peach State programs are fortunate enough to have joined that club, and they’ve traveled the corners of the U.S., from Portland to Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., just to name a few.

A lot goes into competing in these showcases, according to coaches of three prominent programs in metro Atlanta that routinely participate in them: Grayson Rams boys basketball coach Geoffrey Pierce, Norcross Blue Devils boys basketball coach Jesse McMillan and Westlake Lady Lions basketball coach Hilda Hankerson.
First, to compete in a tournament or showcase the team has to be invited.

“Usually, they look at your roster,” said Pierce, whose Rams are currently AAAAAAA’s No. 1-ranked team. “If you have some players who have rank or notoriety attached to your team, it makes you more marketable.”

Or to put it another way, “you can’t be 2-12 and call up (a showcase) and ask to play,” Hankerson said. “They’ve already done their homework.”

The Rams have two next-level signees — 4-star guards Deivon Smith (Mississippi State) and Caleb Murphy (South Florida) — and class of 2020 commitment, 3-star forward Toneari Lane (Winthrop). Class of ’21 power forward Ian Schieffelin has reported scholarship offers from James Madison and Winthrop.

Grayson will play in two travel events during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the first Jan. 18 in the Flyin’ To The Hoop Invitational in Dayton, Ohio, then Jan. 20 in the Kevin Durant MLK Classic in Springfield, Va. Norcross, ranked No. 2 in AAAAAAA, also will be there.

Getting the entire team and staff to these events isn’t cheap, so in most cases a given event’s host foots some or all of the travel, board and meal expenses. Westlake’s Lady Lions will have all of their costs covered to play in this weekend’s Big West Shootout in Las Vegas. McMillan said in most situations the travel is covered, and the program is responsible for hotels or meals.

“Some events are different depending on sponsorship levels,” McMillan said. “But the with the ones we attend there’s usually some sort of stipend. Very rarely would a team travel and be responsible for all costs.”

Norcross has Class of ’20 4-star forwards — Josh Taylor, J.T. Thor and Kok Yat. Taylor  signed with Georgia. Three-star forward Quincy Ademokoya signed with Temple. In addition to the Kevin Durant Classic, Norcross played in The Les Schwab Invitational in Portland during the Christmas holidays and in the Cancer Research Classic in Wheeling, W.Va., on Jan. 4.

Norcross coach Jesse McMillan and AAAAAAA's No. 2-ranked Blue Devils have or will participate in showcases in Portland, Washington D.C. and West Virginia. (File photo)
Norcross coach Jesse McMillan and AAAAAAA's No. 2-ranked Blue Devils have or will participate in showcases in Portland, Washington D.C. and West Virginia. (File photo)

Traveling to different places is a good life experience with benefits that go beyond basketball. Pierce points out that, in some cases, kids are boarding a plane for the first time and learning their way around a hectic airport travel schedule. Once at their destination, if the schedule permits, there’s opportunities for sightseeing. Organizers of the Kevin Durant Classic have arranged a tour of the National Museum of African American Culture for Grayson, Norcross and other participating programs. McMillan noted shopping and eating at Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland as highlights. In March of 2018, the Lady Lions played in the Geico Nationals in New York and visited The National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

“It was kind of surreal,” Hankerson said. “The kids couldn’t imagine buildings once stood on those spots, and to read the names was unreal. It was an eye-opening experience for them.”

In December, Class AAAAAAA’s top-ranked, two-time defending state champion Westlake played in the Art Turner Memorial Tipoff in Fairfax, Va., and the Naples Holiday Shootout in Florida, in addition to their coming trip to Las Vegas. Westlake is led by class of 2021 5-star guard Raven Johnson, who holds more than a dozen Power 5 offers.

One aspect of traveling with high school athletes is that, at the end of the day, they’re teenagers who sometimes don’t use their best judgment. To account for that, coaches need contingency plans.

“We’ve done different things,” Pierce said. “I usually take the temperature of the group. If we’re a younger team, maybe there’s more protocol. We’ve taken the cellphones at the hotel in the past, but this year we’ve got a veteran group, so we just give them a curfew. We do some old-school stuff like, for example, putting a piece of tape on the door to know if they’ve opened it.”

The Grayson Rams, led by coach Geoffrey Pierce (center, kneeling) are ranked No. 1 in AAAAAAA and will play in the Flyin' To The Hoop Invitational in Dayton, Ohio, and the Kevin Durant MLK Classic in Washington D.C. over the Martin Luther King holiday. (File photo)
The Grayson Rams, led by coach Geoffrey Pierce (center, kneeling) are ranked No. 1 in AAAAAAA and will play in the Flyin' To The Hoop Invitational in Dayton, Ohio, and the Kevin Durant MLK Classic in Washington D.C. over the Martin Luther King holiday. (File photo)

Then of course, there’s the reason teams are there — to compete. While the sightseeing and maybe a meal at a nice restaurant is fun, the trip is centered around winning and learning basketball as a team. Like in the postseason, the travel and routines are different. Most fans, outside of maybe a few parents, don’t travel, giving the teams an us-against-the-world mentality. Scouting reports are scarce, forcing teams to use their practice sessions — times and locations are allotted by event organizers — to focus on themselves in most cases.

One benefit the traveling programs enjoy is building camaraderie in a way they otherwise couldn’t.

“We get to see our kids play against different styles of basketball we don’t see in Georgia and how they react in that situation,” McMillan said. “There’s a lot more peer-to-peer interaction and the players and coaches learn a lot more about each other because we’re together from breakfast until lights out. We’ve spent a lot of holidays together over the years.”

“When you’re traveling, the odds aren’t in your favor,” Pierce said. “You’re disrupted and you have to come together and that helps you to prepare mentally as a team, because anything can happen in the postseason. (These events) help you prepare for things that maybe you wouldn’t consider.”

Coaches send their teams to these events because they believe the experience can help them achieve the ultimate goal of a state championship.

“You don’t travel thousands of miles and put your team in that situation just to go have fun; we could do that here,” McMillan said.

“We view it as a business trip,” Pierce said. “The goal is to get better.”

Hankerson, who as an assistant on the 2019 USA Basketball Women’s U16 National Team, comes into these events already familiar with some of the talent her team will face. She said facing elite players is what it’s all about.

“Playing against some of the top players in the nation — not just the team — is the best part,” she said. “To see that type of competition, they look forward to it.”

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