Basketball

Local Junior NBA teams bound for Orlando to compete for another global championship

Drive 5 Power Elite and Missouri Phenom celebrate punching their tickets to the Jr. NBA Global Championship next month in Florida.
Drive 5 Power Elite and Missouri Phenom celebrate punching their tickets to the Jr. NBA Global Championship next month in Florida. NBA Entertainment

Hours before Allen Skeens embarked on the Jr. NBA Global Championship title game last August with his Drive 5 Power Elite club, a boys youth basketball team comprised of 13- and 14-year olds who live in the Kansas City metro area, the head coach met with the game’s television broadcasters.

Their names: Vince Carter and Gus Johnson. They asked Skeens about his team’s opponent, Africa, which had used its length, quickness and strength to average around 90 points per game. In the interest of preventing that sort of offensive barrage, surely Skeens would swap his strict man-defense-only philosophy for a zone defense.

Skeens did the opposite. He stuck to man defense. His team beat Africa, 60-50, and secured the inaugural Jr. NBA Global Championship.

“That’s why we won,” Skeens said. “We won by defense.”

That was in August 2018.

Now, a year later, Skeens and Drive 5 Power Elite are back representing the Central region in the Jr. NBA Global Championship, starting Tuesday and running through Aug. 11 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.

The same goes for the girls team, Kansas City-based Missouri Phenom, which used a win over Colorado Elite to advance to the Global Championship. In that game, Grace Slaughter logged a game-best 17 points, including a pair of threes, five rebounds and three steals.

Phenom’s S’mya Nichols, who posted seven points and five rebounds in the win over Colorado Elite, will head to Orlando for a second straight year.

The team that Skeens took to Orlando last year has aged out. It’s an entirely new team this year.

Skeens coaches four Drive 5 teams, which represent the classes of 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026. Last year’s team was the class of 2022, which has moved on to high school.

This roster will look completely different. Skeens’ philosophy will not.

It’s all about defense, he says. Offense comes and goes. Defense is less sporadic.

After all, Skeens said, that’s what helped this group qualify for the global championship by winning six games against teams from 10 different states at the Jr. NBA Global Championship Central Regional Tournament in May.

To understand how they did it, and to realize just how much Skeens emphasizes defense, the championship game can be of service.

Drive 5 didn’t exactly race out to a hot start against Oz Elite. Far from it. The club at one point trailed by 18, languishing in an attempt to return to Orlando.

“I’ve got kids who I’ve had for awhile, and they know the game’s not over until the final buzzer goes off,” Skeens said. “One of the things we stress is just competing and never giving up. One of the core values of the Jr. NBA is determination, and we preach that as well in our program.”

In short, that’s how Drive 5 dug itself out of the hole and clawed all the way back.

One play stands out. With under 10 seconds to play and Drive 5 leading 56-53, Oz Elite inbounded the ball under its basket, only for point guard Jason Rodriguez to poke the ball away, receive a quick pass, pump fake and bank in a layup.

The key play, of course: the steal. Defense.

“That’s what won us the global world championship last year in Orlando with that team,” Skeens said. “Good offensive teams win a lot of games. There’s no question about that. But when it comes down to winning championships, you have to defend.

“You don’t need to look any further than the Final Four this year in the NCAA (Tournament). I was so happy with that group. Three of those four teams (Michigan State, Virginia and Texas Tech) were, without question, the three best defensive teams in the country. At that level, you have to be able to guard.”

Skeens’ team looks a little like this.

Rodriguez, the group’s starting point guard, represents what Skeens called “an extension of the head coach on the floor.” Skeens lauded Rodriguez’s ability to get the team into its set plays, his “very high” basketball IQ and “very good” court vision.

“That really enables us,” Skeens said, “to do what we need to do.”

Lance Bassett, the starting power forward, is another key cog in the operation. Skeens said Drive 5 “plays through” Bassett, using high-low and inside-out actions to let Bassett make the right decisions and open up seams in the squad’s offense.

Around the rest of the roster: Kaeden Bonner, who Skeens called “an elite-level shooter,” Aidan Wing, Amarion Johnson-Jones and Grant Stubblefield, “all really great wing players who drive really hard from the wing,” Skeens said.

“We kind of use each guy to set up the other,” Skeens added, “to take advantage of their strengths. Everybody’s a little better at something than they are at other things, and we try to exploit that.”

That kind of approach has worked for Skeens and Co. thus far.

They’re hoping it does next month in Orlando.

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NBA Entertainment

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A Jr. NBA Global Championship game on May 12, 2019 at the Iowa West Field House in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Jason Bradwell NBAE/Getty Images

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