Summer league basketball has taken on a life of its own for high school athletes and coaches in Montana. Not many days go by without a tournament, shoot-around or open gym for players hoping to make their impact the following basketball season.
For Kendal Manuel, Danny Betcher, Jared Samuelson and a select group of other Montana seniors-to-be, spring and summer hoops have taken them beyond the Big Sky’s borders.
The trio — along with Laurel’s Tyler Thompson, Bozeman’s Adam Huse and Jesse Meade, Missoula Hellgate’s Mark Lebsock, and Great Falls’ Lukas Vining and Matt Wyman — recently returned to Montana after playing in last weekend’s Fab 48 AAU tournament in Las Vegas.
Hellgate’s Tres Tinkle also played in Las Vegas, but he returned to Corvallis, Ore., where his dad, Wayne Tinkle, is the Oregon State men’s basketball coach after eight successful seasons at Montana.
Manuel, Samuelson and Tres Tinkle played for Anthony Davis Select, a team based in Boise, Idaho, sponsored by NBA star Anthony Davis. The other seven played for Montana Hoops, which was coached by former Montana State men’s coach Brad Huse.
Helena’s Henry Garrett was also on the Montana Hoops roster, but he missed the Las Vegas trip.
“It’s a big privilege (to play on the AAU circuit),” Manuel said. “To have us be the ones that get to be the ones that get to go out there and showcase our talents in front of all those coaches, it’s a big opportunity.”
For many athletes, the summer AAU sessions are the biggest and best opportunity to flash on the radar of college coaches from around the country. If a scholarship offer doesn’t come in July, the hope is one comes in the following months when coaches line up players for official visits to their campuses.
Brad Huse cautioned against players focusing on that aspect of the game, though.
“Don’t worry about getting the attention,” he said of his message to his players. “If you go out and play the right way, they’ll notice. I really emphasize to these kids that they’re going to get evaluated a lot of different ways.”
That's precisely how the players handled it, Betcher said, noting the high competition level compared to high school basketball in Montana.
“You just kind of have to clear that stuff out of your head, just focus on playing the game, playing as a team unselfishly,” he said. “I think we did a great job of that, actually. We didn’t have guys that were worrying about that stuff.”
Montana Hoops won three games and lost two in Las Vegas after playing poorly in an earlier tournament in Seattle, where Huse said the team was “pressing.”
Anthony Davis Select, which played in the highest or second-highest division at tournaments, lost in the semifinals in Las Vegas. They played six tournaments total over the spring and summer, advancing to at least the semifinals in each tournament.
“Everything went well, but it didn’t go as planned,” Samuelson lamented. “We went into every tournament thinking that we were going go win it and that we had the potential to win it. We put ourselves in position to win. A couple of them were games that we could have won, but didn’t. But it was a good summer.”
Samuelson said 25 or more college coaches would watch their games, and sometimes that number would grow to 40. Playing in the upper divisions naturally garners more attention from college programs. So, too, does playing on a team with one of the country’s top 50 recruits.
Tinkle is ranked 46th on ESPN.com’s list of top 100 prospects in the 2015 class. The network’s Joel Francisco wrote in a mid-July recap from Los Angeles, “Tinkle may be the most college-ready player on the West Coast … Tinkle’s game translates well to the next level due to his length, skills, and savvy.”
“It’s fun playing with a player like Tres,” Manuel said. “He’s so versatile he can do a lot of things. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to play with a kid that’s top 50 in the nation.”
Playing with, and especially against, some of the best players in the nation was a big adjustment. Betcher mentioned his need to focus on staying aggressive, Manuel challenged himself on defense, and Samuelson pointed to the tempo of the game as a big difference.
But there were challenges off the court, too.
“The whole deal was fun, but you kind of miss home, too, at the same time,” Samuelson said. “I like sleeping in my own bed, because we had to share beds with everyone on our team. It got to you. Some nights I didn’t even sleep that well.”