By Mitch Stephens
MILWAUKEE – THIS HAS TO be a setup.
We travel half-way across the continent, from the cozy confines of California, fighting sleet, frost and a whimpering airport family (more on that later) on a red-eye flight, to witness the broad range of remarkable national hoop talent at the McDonald’s All-American game and what do we get?
More California basketball.
Monday night’s Jam Fest at the US Cellular Arena in and around snow-infested Milwaukee was another love fest for the Golden Staters. See notebook and results.
Compton’s DeMar DeRozan, as expected, glided to the slam dunk championship.
Taft (Los Angeles) sharpshooter Larry Drew II out-bombed Nevada’s Luke Babbitt to win the 3-point shooting contest.
UCLA-bound Jrue Holiday, of Campbell Hall (North Hollywood) teamed with Stanford-bound Nnemkadi Ogwumike (Cy-Fair, Cypress, Texas) to win the Team Ball competition.
And Ashley Corral (Prairie, Vancouver, Wash.), who will play – where else? – in California next year at USC, took the girls 3-point contest.
“We want to keep everything on the left coast,” the North Carolina-bound Drew said. “Left coast, left coast, left coast.”
It’s like a NASCAR race. Every storyline we take, it takes a left turn, left turn, left turn.
We hate being a homer, but what can we do?
This may be California’s most talented senior crop and considering it already leads the country in most McDonald All Americans at 74 – New York is second at 59 – that’s saying something.
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Certainly the state has never had such an array of talented backcourt prospects in a single recruiting year.
All five of this year’s Golden State selections are guards if you count Los Angeles native Brandon Jennings who transferred from Dominguez (Compton) to basketball factory Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.
And if not for parity’s sake, the selection committee could have easily picked two other California guards: Washington State-bound Klay Thompson (Santa Margarita), son of former NBA standout Mychal Thompson who scored 37 points in a state title game 10 days ago, and Jerime Anderson (Canyon, Anaheim), yet another UCLA-signee.
“It’s kind of off the charts,” West co-coach Tom Diener said.
Which is exactly how Diener, who has led Harold S. Vincent High to five Wisconsin state titles, described Jennings, a 6-1, 165-pound lightning rod with heart, handles and hoop sense.
“He’s Allen Iverson with a great attitude,” Diener said.
Whoa now little coachie.
I know my press badge is still caked with white sand and I wreak from sunscreen but you don’t have to treat me with some California hyperbole.
“No really,” he said. “He’s probably the best guard I’ve seen at this level.”
Well, the fact Jennings shattered the storied Oak Hill Academy single-season scoring record at better than 35 points per game, maybe it’s probably someone one could consider.
But Diener, who coached the 2005 Nike Hoop Summit team that included Tyler Hansbrough and Monta Ellis, believes Jennings has a chance to be among the elite. He rates him above Ellis, an explosive 6-3 guard now leading the charge for the Golden State Warriors.
“Monta was bigger and stronger, but as a polished product, Brandon is further along,” Diener said. “The kid is incredibly quick and fast, but under control. He sees the court. He can shoot. He’s remarkably athletic. He reminds me of Iverson but with a better attitude. At this stage, that gives him the edge in my book.”
Just getting the edge over his Californian brothryn is high praise enough.
Holiday, a 6-4, 195-pounder headed for UCLA, is considered by most the complete off-guard package. His ability to be a defensive stopper, plus scorer, rebounder and shot blocker puts him in a different category.
Drew, a 6-foot, 160-pounder, is a playmaker first but showed on Monday he certainly can shoot. At 6-6, 210-pounds, the USC-bound DeRozan showed he’s a freakish talent, while Lee (6-4, 165) possesses all the skills and may be the most consistent of the quartet.
Though California is a huge state, what makes this quintet so unique is they all grew up within a 20-mile radius.
“That’s what makes this (the McDonald’s game) so special,” Jennings said. “We’ve all been playing together and against one another since the fifth grade. Now we’re together on the same team. It’s really nice.”
It’s better than nice, Holiday said.
“It’s like a family reunion,” he said.
The Arizona-bound Jennings and DeRozan grew up in Compton and are extremely tight. Those two plus Holiday and Lee will be battling next year in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Right now they’re just enjoying each other’s play and company.
“I don’t think we ever imagined this, playing together in this big event,” DeRozan said. “We all played and competed back when we were nobody. Now we’re together here just having fun.”
Holiday, who 10 days ago led his team to a second straight state title, thinks the old Southern California backcourt network is awfully special.
If Monday’s Jam Fest results didn’t reveal it, then they will Wednesday when the West tangles with the East live on ESPN at the Bradley Center.
The East leads the series 16-14 but the West has won two of three, including a 94-86 victory last season in Philadelphia.
Holiday came up just short of guaranteeing a victory.
“I just think we’re pretty unbeatable,” he said.
Especially, evidently, if you know who is in the building.
Shhhh. E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.