In years past, the Drew League was a place where experienced players could hone their skills and stay in shape during the offseason by playing against the toughest competition the Los Angeles basketball community has to offer.
However, more than ever before, it’s now turned into a showcase for emerging talent as younger players, from buzzed-about high schoolers taking the next step into college to college players preparing themselves for pro draft scouts, enter the league to test themselves against and learn from the best of the best.
Players like Cassius Stanley, Ethan Anderson, Jake Kyman, Josh Christopher, KJ Martin, LaMelo Ball, Onyeka Okongwu, and Shareef O’Neal, along with younger brother Shaqir are rapidly forming the Drew’s next generation of high-level talent. The Drew offers something for these players that no other program can: an opportunity to find out if they have what it takes to play at higher levels of competition.
For the most highly-touted young players in the nation, playing ball among their peers can seem like being a man among boys. These players, tabbed to play against the best of the best, can’t get a sense of who they are as players—what skills they should work on, how they stack up against fully-grown athletes—until they play against older, more experienced opponents.
Too often, a player that looks like a sure bet in high school or college turns into a bust when pitted against bigger, stronger, faster players—the very definition of the big fish in the small pond becoming the small fish in the ocean.
“AAU is really the only time you get to play against your own age [group]…You’re gonna be playing against older guys [in college and the pros] for many years until you turn into the vet,” Stanley says. “So it’s always good getting older guys to teach lessons and really soak up things.”
Stanley actually made his Drew debut in 2018 with his Nike EYBL team, Team Why Not?, coached by Chris Young in a one-time exhibition against Spider Webb. He maintained that connection this year, jumping onto Young’s Hometown Favorites team to play alongside Anderson under pro scorer Gerry Blakes.
While Cassis and Ethan learn under seasoned Drew League vets, other young players have been given the keys to their own teams to learn the intangibles that will eventually define them as great players.
The O’Neal brothers, Shareef and Shaqir, have some mighty large shoes to fill, and many have already projected greatness for them thanks to their Hall-of-Famer father. To that end, they’ve become part of the Tuff Crowd core with Brandon Jennings, with Shareef receiving top billing on a crew that includes even more legacy players, including Kenyon “KJ” Martin Jr and Gary Payton Jr.
Reef says the experience is helping his game, especially after returning from heart surgery. He was “itching” to get back onto the court. One aspect of his game that he wants to work on is being a leader.
“I just want to work hard on being the best I can be,” Shareef says.
Showcasing his emerging leadership took on a whole new dimension recently as Superman himself, the original Shaquille O’Neal, sat on Tuff Crowd’s bench as they took on Hometown Favorites, Cassius and Ethan. A thunderous dunk elicited zero reaction from the legendary big man, a fact that amused Shareef more than it surprised him.
“He tells me, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do,’” the eldest O’Neal says. “He’s seen crazier dunks before. I’m his son, I know he’s happy for me.”
Tough crowd, indeed.
Other players used previously existing connections with Drew League favorites and their local status. Carson resident Josh Christopher has been a fixture of Nick Young’s Most Hated Players for years at the Drew, but this year has had increased significantly as he prepares to move to the next level. He’s shown a more refined game in each of the prior years he’s played with Nick’s MHP squad, and as his physical stature has grown, so has his confidence and his perspective of the game.
“My two years playing here have taught me how big these guys are at the next level,” Christopher says. “You see pros, overseas guys, college guys, so you kind of get a reality check.”
Jake Kyman’s debut came about in spectacular fashion, as the 18-year-old forward—a future UCLA Bruin—knocked down a last-second, turnaround shot in CABC’s Week 2 matchup against Drew League powerhouse Problems to secure a one-point win. CABC returned to the Drew after a year away, reloaded with a fresh roster of young players led by Drew League fixture AJ Gasporra, who trains most of the young men on the team and provides a steadying presence on the court.
He was the one who drew up the play that took out Problems, and he was quick to brag about Kyman’s accomplishment.
“We worked on that,” Gasporra says.
Kyman corroborates that the Drew is the best place to try new moves and improve his “quickness and speed, guarding better, master those intangibles.”
The one thing all these young players have in common is a love for playing at the Drew. To a man, they all cited the environment, which is unlike any other in basketball today.
“The guys out there—even though they talk a lot of smack, they still give me tips and try to help me because they know I’m a youngin’,’” Shareef says.
The “Welcome-to-the-Drew” moments fly fast and furious; no shorts are taken and no quarter is ever given in this league. During No Shnacks’ recent tilt with Nationwide Blue Devils, LaMelo Ball was absolutely leveled by a pick from burly shooting guard Tre Williams. There wasn’t much he could do but pick himself up sheepishly and return to the other end of the court, even after being stepped over by Williams.
But the bumps and scrapes are part of these young players’ growth and every missed shot, turnover, blown defensive rotation, and yes, hard pick is a lesson they wouldn’t otherwise learn, being taught by some of the most experienced and hard-nosed players in basketball today. Right now, they’re the small fish in the big pond, but playing in the Drew League is a one-of-a-kind experience that turns boys to men and little fish into the sharks who will take over when they head for open waters.