On the AAU circuit with Game Elite

The summer has been a whirlwind for Ashton Hagans. A highly ranked rising junior from Newton County High, Hagans has traveled to, among other places, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., Colorado Springs, Colo., Charlottesville, Va., Spartanburg, S.C., Milwaukee and, last week, Las Vegas, for tournaments or camps.

The most notable names in college basketball – Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky – have either offered him scholarships or are showing a lot of interest. It’s no surprise if Tar Heels coach Roy Williams shows up to one of his games with his Georgia-based AAU team, Game Elite.

“It’s crazy,” he said last Friday afternoon in his hotel room at the Palms Casino, about a mile west of the Strip.

Hagans was there with Game Elite for the Adidas Summer Championships. The team arguably is the best team in the U16 (rising junior) class in the country. It’s the only U16 team that has played this summer on the AAU circuit against U17 (rising-senior) teams, Game Elite coach Chris Williams said.

The team is treated accordingly. Adidas, the team’s sponsor, funds the team’s hotel, airfare and rental cars, which is standard for the top rising-senior teams.

It is part of the life at the top of the AAU basketball world. Hagans may be 17 and still in braces, but there’s no denying that he and his teammates are pieces of the sports apparel industry and the rivalry between Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

“They want to be back home,” Williams said. “They’ve got girlfriends and they want to be around their families, but at this age, it starts to become a business.”

Perhaps no one could speak to that better than Williams. Williams, a Lilburn resident who works in IT for Napa Auto Parts, moved his team from the powerful Georgia Stars program, which is sponsored by Nike, to Adidas and Game Elite in April. Given that Williams’ team boasts three of the top players in the class, it sent shockwaves in grassroots basketball circles.

AAU teams such as the Georgia Stars provide brand awareness and build relationships with prospects. For the shoe companies, it ideally creates loyalty for players as they choose colleges and then, for those who reach the NBA, as they select which brand they want to endorse.

Adidas officials approached Williams in April, offering the chance to play in U17 brackets, which would provide more exposure for his players, as college coaches typically focus their attention at AAU tournaments on the rising seniors. Adidas and Williams spoke daily for a week until Williams decided to make the jump from Nike and the Georgia Stars.

Williams said that the decision was made when Norm Parker, the Georgia Stars founder, made an attempt to keep players from leaving. When Game Elite did leave, Williams and players were taken care of well, receiving sponsorship funding – airfare, hotel, rental cars, gear – that is not the norm for U16 teams. Adidas fully stocked the team with shoes and apparel.

Chris Rivers, the director of global basketball sports marketing for Adidas, said that he wanted to add a team in the South, particularly Atlanta.

“The grassroots business is about talent, and we were pretty good in the ’18 class, but we needed some depth in the ’19 class, so it worked out very well,” Rivers said.

Hagans, rated the No. 2 point guard in his class by 247 Sports, said that people from Adidas have talked with him about the possibility of someday wearing Adidas in the NBA. Another Game Elite star, small forward Christian Brown from Columbia, S.C., said that he “definitely” would want to play for an Adidas school in college. It was, he said, “a great move” to jump to Adidas.

“Because they just treat us better,” he said.

Before games, the players have access to a masseuse. On their trips, a videographer has traveled with them, making videos posted to YouTube. When Game Elite played in Portland, home of Adidas headquarters, players took a tour of the company and were given access to the factory store.

Said Brown of the store visit, “Man, it was awesome.”

Parker of the Georgia Stars declined comment but to say, “There’s two sides to every story. The Georgia Stars are alive and well and look forward to 2018.”

AAU life can be pretty good. Before their game last Friday, they piled into SUV’s to go to a five-star hotel for an Adidas event. The hotel’s theater rented out by the shoe company featured a DJ on the stage and a court laid out on the theater floor. Players munched on complimentary chicken fingers and made customized t-shirts.

“This is awesome,” said Quinn Richey, a guard from Mt. Pisgah Christian. “This is so much fun.”

Game Elite’s star power – a third player, shooting guard Josh Nickelberry of Fayetteville, N.C., is rated the No. 5 junior at his position by 247 Sports – has earned it some notoriety. Players from other teams frequently ask if they can join, Williams said, seeing the scholarship offers and social-media attention that their players have drawn.

“There’s not too many hotels where there’s an AAU event going on, that we walk in the hotel lobby for breakfast that they don’t know who these guys are,” Williams said. “Just based off social-media alone.”

As Hagans sat beside a wall in the Cashman Center on Friday night, preparing to play, he was approached by an adult male wanting to take a picture with him.

“Y’all are a duet,” he said to Hagans, referring to him and Brown.

On this night, the attention seemed justified. Against a team of rising seniors from Raleigh, N.C., Game Elite started sloppy, falling behind by double digits in the first half before Hagans led a second-half comeback with downright furious defense and playmaking on offense. Brown showed off ballhandling and speed. A pass-first point guard, Hagans found Richey for three 3-pointers to spur the rally. (Nickelberry did not make the trip because of a broken finger.)

Tech assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie and Georgia assistant coach Jonas Hayes were among those in attendance.

Game Elite ultimately fell short of the title. But next year’s summer circuit awaits, provided Williams can keep the team together.

The summer of 2018, Williams said, will be “a madhouse.”

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