If stretches of the basketball calendar were drugstores, the summertime would be Schwab's. That's when the best high school players in the nation come together at the top camps and travel-team tournaments to be discovered, which these days means a ticket straight to the NBA. (All others are relegated to Do Not Pass Go, Go Directly to College status.) As kids from the tiniest basketball backwaters get their chance to certify their talent against big-city powers in the hoops version of American Idol, the winners work their way into the consciousness of the cognoscenti and begin to collect the trappings of stardom (an incipient posse, breathless Internet postings, a diary turn in Slam magazine) that will confirm their stature. After all, with LeBron James already shod, drafted and signed, we can hardly be expected to wait for him to play an NBA game before we check the radar screen to see who's next.
The lesson of this summer is that basketball's future, like most radar screens, is green. With three consensus Top 15 seniors-to-be strung like rare gems across the front line, an outfit called the Atlanta Celtics slam-rocked and shamrocked the travel-team circuit. Josh Smith, a small forward with the twin advantages of being 6'10" and lefthanded, was all arms, legs and energy at both ends of the floor, scoring with ease close in and far out. Randolph Morris proved to be the rarest prospect of all, a teenage 7-footer with a mature drop step and jump hook, as well as a zeal for the throwback art of post play. Meanwhile 6'11" Dwight Howard, an ambidextrous power forward with the court sense of a point guard, turned out to be the revelation of the summer. He's an early favorite to be the No. 1 pick if he elects to bypass college and declare for next June's NBA draft, which he seems almost certain to do. "What's so great is that last summer Josh was Number 1 in his class," says Celtics founder and director Wallace Prather Jr. "And my gut feeling is that in the long run Randolph may be the best of them all."
Over the last two weeks of July the Celtics won 17 of 18 games. They went 10-0 while blowing through a field of 128 to capture the gemstone of summer tournaments, the Big Time in Las Vegas, as Howard and Smith shared the MVP award. Then they ripped off another seven victories at the Best of the Summer tournament in Los Angeles before losing in the semifinals. University of Connecticut assistant coach George Blaney, 63, spoke for many in the horde that tracked the Celtics when he called them "the best summer team I've ever seen."
Two of the past three No. 1 picks in the NBA draft have come straight from high school, and last season the Phoenix Suns' Amare Stoudemire, the No. 9 selection in 2002, became the first player drafted out of high school to win the Rookie of the Year award. Meanwhile commissioner David Stern recently conceded that his efforts to introduce a rule that would keep teenagers out of the league are "losing steam." The handful of washouts that became cautionary tales about skipping college have been eclipsed by the success stories of Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Even Rashard Lewis, the Houston high school player who dissolved into tears at the 1998 NBA draft after not being chosen until the second round, today has a seven-year, $60 million deal with the Seattle SuperSonics. "You know how trends go," says Prather. "I remember the days when every kid took five college visits and signed late. Now you can't do anything but wish the kids well [in the draft]."
Prather and his program can claim some of the credit for those accelerated opportunities. In a world in which teams go by names like Playaz and Skillz and Boyz, and some coaches sport rap sheets (former Kansas City coach Myron Piggie is the most egregious example, a convicted felon who has served time for drug dealing and most recently for fraud arising from payments to his "amateur" players that totaled tens of thousands of dollars), the Atlanta team is simply the Celtics, old school down to the shamrock on its logo. Prather and coach Karl McCray are career professionals in the Bureau of Recreation in Atlanta, where the Celtics began in 1990. While many participants in the Big Time tournament quartered themselves amid the neon of the Las Vegas Strip, the Celtics stayed in the low-wattage suburb of Henderson. Each of the Celtics' three frontliners comes from a two-parent, two-income home, and the Celtics' leaders know their place in the big picture. "We speak when spoken to," says McCray. "Our goal is to stay out and let parents make the decisions."
The Celtics program works because it's vertically integrated. Boys join as early as third grade and may be placed on one of 20 teams that are sorted into various age groups. Over the past dozen years the Celtics have produced five NBA players, including Dion Glover, Donnell Harvey and Jumaine Jones. When in 1997 freshly hired Georgia State coach Lefty Driesell called his longtime friend, Adidas czar Sonny Vaccaro, looking to join the company's stable, Vaccaro turned him down, for he already had the Celtics under contract and the Atlanta market wrapped up. "It's like that scene from The Godfather" Vaccaro says, "when Tessio said, 'Tell Mike it was only business.' "
By growing their own, the Celtics don't have to be as mercenary as some of the recent teams that have shown up on the summer circuit—assemblages like the EBO All-Stars, which featured Carlos Boozer (from Juneau, Alaska), DeShawn Stevenson ( Fresno, Calif.) and Brett Nelson ( St. Albans, W.Va.). Indeed not since The Friends—the Detroit-based travel team that included Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Voshon Lenard and Howard Eisley—has one summer team featured as much first-rate indigenous talent as the Celtics. Howard and Smith even went to preschool together. (A commemorative plaque may someday grace the wall of Lacy's Preschool in College Park, Ga.) "Playing together brings out the best in me and Josh and Randolph," says Howard, who wants to improve what he calls the three S 's—strength, shooting and speed. "We're on the court competing for everybody's attention."
If Howard has the savvy of a point guard, it's because he was one, even as a 6'2" eighth-grader. By the end of ninth grade he stood four inches taller, yet he hadn't lost any of his dexterity or court vision. "I thought maybe Dwight had a chance to be six-foot-seven," says his father, Dwight Sr., a Georgia highway patrolman who doubles as athletic director at his son's school, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. "Then all of a sudden he was 6'9". That made us rethink our plans."
Though in June he was voted the most promising prospect among the invitees to the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp in Richmond, young Dwight still wears braces, drops "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" on strangers and frequently invokes the Lord. "When we're at home, he'll empty the trash and feed the dog when it's his turn," his father says. "We've never had a problem with keeping him humble. As parents, we know you have to stay on your kids. Your child is your investment."
The Howards will no doubt soon meet other aspiring stakeholders. A constant stream of shoe company reps, agents and agents' runners are the reward for establishing yourself as a top prospect. "You'd have to be a blind man not to see this kid as potentially as good as anyone," says Vac-caro, the Adidas ABCD Camp founder and Big Time tournament executive director, who has hovered around high school basketball for nearly four decades. "Dwight is the most versatile big man I've seen since I started doing this, and that includes Alonzo [Mourning], Shawn Kemp and Shaq. People talked about [ Connecticut center Emeka] Okafor or others being the Number 1 pick in next year's draft, but that's over now. Dwight will be Number 1. I've never been so sure of something, other than LeBron."