Friday night games are always special at the Drew League. It always feels a little more familial, due to the often ad hoc feel of the games. Casual fans are not usually in evidence, the distractions of the snack bar and sponsor booths are minimal. The basketball becomes the star attraction…it also doesn’t hurt when no fewer than three big name pro players show up to take to the court.
Last Friday’s games were no exception, and when DeMar DeRozan, Jarrett Jack, and the infamous Swaggy P Nick Young showed up for the Game of the Week, it was apparent that the assembled fans were in for a show. The Most Hated Players have seen some roster fluctuations in recent weeks, missing out on star forward Victor Rudd in a handful of games, while the Most Hated Player himself has only recently been sighted around the gym, what with celebrity relationships and all (also, congrats, Nick!). With that being said, their young core of Alex Strauther, Mike Williams, DJ Shelton, Reggie Murphy, and Ray Hairston have held it down impressively, earning a reputation for being one of the fast scoring teams in the league. They also play very little actual defense, making them a lot like their benefactor.
Meanwhile, I Can All-Stars has made a little noise this year, usually due to loudmouth coach Rock Johnson and his boisterous trash talk. However, since adding shooting guard Deonte Burton as the perfect backcourt mate to Vince “the Body Snatcher” Camper, much of it has been justified. Camper has been leading the Drew League in scoring this summer, averaging 23 points a game, mostly out of necessity. Unfortunately, after losing frontcourt stalwart Jordan Bachynski, the All-Stars’ offense has flagged somewhat; without Burton making shots, the Body Snatcher is usually forced into posting up his smaller defenders and working the baseline, often taking a beating in the process. Anthony Kimble and Shelton Boykin do their best to help out with scoring, but when Vince sits, the offense can get pretty messy. Going into the weekend, I Can was ranked 5th in the Russell Brown division, with MHP sitting at 6th, and their records tied. From the jump, it was pretty obvious that both teams had plenty to prove; for MHP, with their roster, they should have been able to manage better than a sixth seed. I Can All-Stars, ironically, was out to show that they could beat teams with legitimate NBA All-Stars.
I Can took an early lead in the first, due to their star guards going directly at MHP’s longer, taller backcourt. Burton nailed a 3-pointer over Young’s outstretched arms, and as per usual, Camper bulled his way under the basket, sinking a beautiful reverse. Body Snatcher got an easy blow-by lay-in when he rocked Derozan to sleep above the arc. Not to be outdone, the two NBA guards went to work, with Demar showing off his impressive new stepback jumper and Young dunking on poor Elliot Berry seemingly effortlessly. As far as that third NBA player? George the Voice threatened him with the “Truck of the Year” award, reminding the crowd of previous “winners” such as Josh Smith. Jack couldn’t keep his hands on the rock, and every shot he put up bricked badly. The first quarter ended with I Can leading by 6, 26-20.
They say no lead is safe; after DeMar hit a step back 15-footer, an easy lay-in, and followed his own missed dunk attempt with a much safer two-handed jam, the lead was all but erased. Burton showed off a nice hesitation dribble on a 2-point drive, but MHP’s role players got involved, with Williams hitting his jumper and the Murphy/Shelton tandem menacing the painted area. Burton turned it on, hitting a 2-pointer off the glass through contact and the resulting foul shot, but DeRzan returned fire, hitting a fallaway dumper over Kimble to keep it tight. Deonte found his way through a maze of Hated Players, weaving around 3 defenders on his way to another 2. Hairston tied the game at 36, and DeMar smacked Burton’s next lay-up attempt off the backboard, giving Mike Williams the opportunity for a go-ahead free throw. Vince got the most questionable assist ever in a basketball game as he tripped while trying to back down Swaggy P and fell face first to the floor, but still managed to deliver the ball to Kimble. Whether he dropped it or passed it, Kimble made good, and the Body Snatcher added to his assist total. Nick continued to do Swaggy things, but perhaps the most surprising was that he corralled so many rebounds, finally putting his 6’7” frame and silly long arms to use. He hit the final shot of the frame, a buzzer-beating 3, to give MHP a 46-39 lead going into halftime.
Body Snatcher went back to basics in the third, getting his points inside, to warm up, then knocking down a 3 pointer over Jarrett Jack. This prompted Nick Young to hit one of his own over Kimble. Both teams traded free throws, then Young hit a step back fallaway 2 pointer. It was clear MHP intended to use their size advantage in the backcourt, as he and Derozan shot over the smaller defenders that were all the All-Stars had to throw at them. Burton dished an assist to Garrett Neilan off a touch pass from Body Snatcher, but it was becoming clear that they couldn’t do it all themselves. While Deonte was able to get the easiest lay-in in the game while Young argued a non-call with the referee, it was a bad sign that Nick felt comfortable enough in the first place to completely stop playing while palling around with the official. He showed why a few plays later, using his NBA savvy (I bet you never thought you’d see those words typed about Nicholas Young ever in your life) to draw contact as he shot a 3, then calmly sank all 3 free throws. Demar put Burton in the spin cycle and hit his falling 2-point jumper to set MHP firmly in the lead 68-55.
I Can finally cracked under the pressure in the fourth, making too many mistakes to make up the deficit. On one particularly egregious play, Camper threw a standing pass right over Dashawn Gomez by about 3 feet. The only other eventful occurrences were Jarrett Jack finally getting a jumper to go, and Demar throwing a pass to himself off the backboard for jam that brought the crowd to its feet. MHP had a particularly bad turnover of their own when Demar was bringing the ball up court and went to throw the ball back to Nick, who was already walking off the court. The ball sailed past him as he shrugged and watched the clock run off the final ticks of the game.
The final score when the horn sounded showed 88-74 for MHP, who overtook I Can All-Stars in the standings. Their highest scorer was Nick Young with 26 points and – astonishingly – 13 rebounds. Vince Camper led I Can with 23 points and 4 assists.
Headed into the playoffs, I Can needs to find some size; they got killed on the rebounds in this game and it’s clear that their guards aren’t going to be able to just shoot them into wins. On the other hand, they were missing key players Friday, and should be taking their full roster into August, which might not be something MHP can say. Even if Victor Rudd comes back, Nick and Demar are spotty about showing up, and with all 3 on the court, MHP has a lot of mouths to feed and no one who really thinks to pass first. They had 8 assists as a team, and played 10 guys. While their two NBA guards can do a lot of damage, previous seasons have shown us that NBA guys can be overwhelmed with the right defensive adjustments. MHP will look to improve their skyrocketing record against Problems, a team loaded with tough vets. That game is Sunday at 2pm. Meanwhile I Can will do battle with Hard Times for Sunday’s 6pm closer, hoping to do to the soldiers what MHP did to them in the standings.