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November 26, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

The next Russell Westbrook could be playing this week in Las Vegas

Long before Russell Westbrook emerged as one of the NBA’s top young players, he was an unheralded high school senior-to-be trying to make a name for himself in the adidas Super 64 AAU basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

It’s safe to say a star was born that late-July in Southern Nevada.

“Russell Westbrook played for a team we had never heard off,” said Ron Montoya, the tournament’s director. “Nobody had heard of the team and nobody had heard of him. UCLA happened to be in the stands that day, loved what they saw and offered him a scholarship. That is what this tournament can do for you.”

Three years after playing in Las Vegas, and after leading UCLA to a pair of Final Four appearances, Westbrook was the fourth overall selection in the 2008 draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2011, he was a NBA all-star.

That’s the beauty of the annual week (which runs through Tuesday) of summer basketball in Las Vegas: several players come out of nowhere to earn a college scholarship. The scene inside the gymnasium is almost comical when an unknown player does something extraordinary during a game, with college coaches frantically thumbing through the player guide to find out his particulars.

While most of the attention every summer is on documenting the moves of elite recruits — this year, that’s players such as Bishop Gorman’s Shabazz Muhammad, or Findlay Prep’s Winston Sheppard and Anthony Bennett — it’s the potential for the tournament’s other players to thrive that keeps coaches on their toes.

The bottom line is they only have a handful of roster spots to fill and most are recruiting for a specific position or need. But with more than 1,100 coaches from 375 schools camped out at multiple gyms around town, you don’t have to be a five-star recruit or have a player page on a recruiting-service website to be noticed. Non-mid major conference schools need players, too.

“That is what this tournament will do. Anybody can get recruited,” Montoya said.

The players know this is their chance to be seen.

While coaches are they ones who are supposed to be evaluating the players, it’s often the players who glance into the stands to take an inventory of the coaches watching. It doesn’t have to be a top-tier program, either.

They are smart enough to know it takes peaking the interest of one coach from one school to get a free education and chance to have a memorable college experience.

Some will get lucky and use their successes in Las Vegas as springboard to a promising professional career. Others will take advantage of the free education. Some will fall through the cracks.

But, regardless of talent or background, they will all be seen. Just ask Russell Westbrook.

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