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June 28, 2007

Kobe Bryant Skills Academy Report I

Santa Ana, CA -- After competing at the NBAPA Camp or U.S. Youth Development Festival, many of the nation's top prospects headed to one of the four NIKE Skills Academies before leaving for the early July shoe-sponsored events. Top two-guard prospects headed to Southern California to compete at the Kobe Bryant Skills Academy.

Nineteen talented "two guards" ventured to Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California this week to get their first taste of this year's revamped summer basketball events. The Kobe Bryant Skill Academy and this summer's upcoming events are designed to emphasize skill development and the fundamentals of the game instead of having the nation's future college and NBA standouts participate in what some considered, in recent years, nothing more than glorified pick-up games at the three traditional shoe camps.

Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers' perennial all-star and the player many consider the best in the world, was able to demonstrate to the 19 campers some on-court moves that stressed versatility as a two-guard, but he did not partake in any scrimmages or one-on-one's with the players. Amid the rampant rumors and speculation of him being traded from the Lakers or the Lakers trading for another big-name player, the 1996 consensus All-American from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania was able to provide the players with a candid 45-minute talk on Monday where he discussed what it takes to be successful at the two position. He was also able to sign autographs and pose for pictures back at the players' hotel on Wednesday afternoon.

The campers enjoyed the autograph session with Bryant, but what they didn't seem to enjoy was the first workout and drill session on Monday. According to the camp coaches, the players were surprised on how thorough and tough it was to complete and that's a complete turnaround from what we've seen in recent years during the summer when players often waltzed through those types of activities before scrimmages. The main aspects of the game the players seemed to be working on during Wednesday's skill development session were versatility and efficiency. Bryant and the coaching staff stressed to the campers that it's important to eliminate wasted motions and that standing in the corner waiting for an open shot is not how to play the position.

On the court, the player that impressed onlookers the most during the first two days of camp was Tyreke Evans, the 6-foot-4, 204-pound 2008 prospect from American Christian in Aston, Pennsylvania. Evans was Student Sports' National Freshman of the Year in 2005 and the national sophomore of the year in 2006, but his recruiting stock fell somewhat after a junior campaign in which he did not receive as many honors on a local or national level. He is making a case to reclaim his spot as the top off-guard and top overall player in the Class of 2008 with a smooth overall game that shows very few weaknesses. Evans' skills seem to come effortless to him and at times this makes it seem as if he's not playing up to his vast potential. Evans' court demeanor can easily be mistaken for aloofness but it shouldn't necessarily be viewed that way according to a player with NBA experience who was viewing Wednesday's action.

"I remember guarding Rod Strickland one time and I was really intense and trying to get in his jersey on defense," recalled Duane Cooper, a 6-foot-1 guard from USC and Lakewood (CA) High School who spent two seasons in the NBA after being drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1992. "I was guarding him in the backcourt and his demeanor didn't change one bit as he dribbled up court. All of a sudden he made a few dribbles behind his back and I didn't know what hit me. He facial expression never changed and just like that I was beat. Tyreke has a similar game. He plays with that stone cold face and a demeanor that oozing with confidence."

Injuries Hamper Kobe Campers

During Wednesday afternoon's scrimmage, Evans sat out as he was suffering from minor back spasms and he wasn't the only high-major prospect nursing an injury. 2007 Student Sports National Sophomore of the Year Lance Stephenson was suffering from a badly bruised knuckle that limited his mobility at times and forced him to play with basically one hand when he didn't have the ball in order to avoid contact. According to his father, Lance Stephenson Sr. , the 6-foot-4 Lincoln of Brooklyn, New York standout was supposed to only compete in non-contact drills after getting an X-Ray on Wednesday morning, but he did participate in a few half court sets as his father looked on.

Xavier Henry (Putnam City, Oklahoma City, OK) was also nursing an injury and didn't participate Wednesday while another fine prospect from the Class of 2009, Terrell Vinson (Montrose Christian, Rockville, MD), broke his wrist at the Vince Carter Skill Academy in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday according to Montrose Christian strength and conditioning coach Alan Stein, who was working out the two-guards at the Kobe camp. At Carter's camp in Florida for wing forwards, the campers were treated to something a little extra special as "Vinsanity" fully participated in drills and scrimmages. While it was fortunate those campers were able to receive valuable experience and hands-on training from the former North Carolina standout and Mainland of Daytona Beach product, it's unfortunate a serious injury occurred to a young player looking forward to a strong summer.

"Man, we're just glad to find out it wasn't broken," Stephenson Sr. remarked in regards to his son's hand injury. "He should be ready to go in a week. It's tough sometimes, since the boys have played so many games since the end of the regular high school season. Lance has only played in about four pick-up games around the neighborhood since the end of the season and still, it's a lot of games he's already played this summer."

With the no-nonsense nature of Kobe's camp combined with the sheer amount of games the campers have played in recent weeks, it's no surprise some of the players were nursing injuries and playing with dead legs on Wednesday afternoon. During previous summers, most of the nation's elite players took a few days off in between the NBAPA Camp and the early July shoe camps, so let's hope the players that are attending the NIKE Skill Academies aren't burnt out by the time they hit Las Vegas at the end of July.

Despite the minor injuries and dreary legs, the campers are learning many finer points of the two-guard position, seem to be enjoying their experience and have a positive attitude about the camp's format which includes minimal open run.

"It's fun learning some of the techniques that Kobe uses," remarked Demar DeRozan, the Compton High product who at 6-foot-6 (without shoes) was the tallest, most athletic player in attendance and also one of the standouts. "It's fun but a lot of hard work. I like it (the format) though."

College Standouts Show Off Skills at Kobe Camp

A special bonus feature of the Kobe Bryant Skills Academy was the presence of 10 highly skilled two-guards from the college ranks. Like DeRozan among prep players, Arizona sophomore-to-be Chase Budinger was the tallest and most athletic of the bunch. If Budinger can continue to improve his intensity level, there's no telling how good of a professional player he could become. DeRozan is a similar situation among the preps, but Budinger already possesses that effortless jumper that DeRozan is improving.

Budinger's match ups with Duke sophomore-to-be Gerald Henderson were one of the highlights of Wednesday's camp. Henderson already has an NBA-ready body whereas it was difficult at times to tell the difference between some of the high school and college players from a pure physical standpoint. Henderson also has a presence both on and off the court that most of the other players didn't posses and impressed both Cooper and Stein in that area. "He's put on 10 or 15 pounds of muscle since the (2006) McDonald's game and he's really improving his overall game," Stein said.

Like the high school players, the college prospects we talked to also like what they see in store with the revamped nature of summer ball taking place this year.

"I think it's good for the high school players," explained Ohio State sophomore-to-be David Lighty, a veteran of the summer camp and AAU circuit. "A lot of times at ABCD Camp, there was just a lot of focus on the games. In this setting, it's about breaking down the game in more detail at certain positions. Anyone can play all day long, but it's all about getting better at the position you play."

Note: Check back later for a recap of Wednesday's live scrimmage and for a scouting report of the top players in attendance. That story will be for our premium readers, so if you haven't already now would be a great time to join our team.

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