Three players who will participate in the 37th McDonald’s All-American Game on Wednesday night in Chicago will play for their high school program less than 24 hours later in New York. For all three, the motivation to win the prestigious Dick’s Nationals tournament has them more concerned about their mental than physical approach.
It’s happened before, and it bound to happen again, but it’s still an interesting situation when a high school athlete has an opportunity to play in two nationally-televised basketball games on back-to-back days halfway across the country.
If anything, it shows how the high school game has evolved since the first McDonald’s All-American Game was played in 1978. Long gone are the days of the local high school hero who makes it big. Elite high school basketball is truly a national game, as the power of television and social media has turned McDonald’s All-Americans in household commodities before ever stepping foot on a college campus.
This week’s McDonald’s All-American festivities and game (April 2, 9:30 ET, ESPN) is a tremendous honor for the participants and as shooting guard D’Angelo Russell of Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.) puts it “fun,” but the Dick’s Sporting Goods National High School Tournament takes on a completely different feel. Russell and his Montverde Academy teammates, along with Rashad Vaughn and Kelly Oubre of Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.), will look to close their senior season on a high note by winning the prestigious tournament to be played in New York City beginning April 3.
For Russell, the stakes are quite high. Montverde Academy is currently the top-ranked team in the Student Sports FAB 50 and three wins at the Dick’s Nationals event will secure the program’s second consecutive No. 1 ranking and mythical national title. There’s also the motivation of leaving no doubt as to which team is the best in the country after Montverde Academy lost to fellow McDonald’s All-American Cliff Alexander and his team at Curie (Chicago), only to later have it ruled a forfeit win.
“I feel like if we played them again, we would win by 30,” Russell said. “There is no excuses, we lined up against them and lost. If doesn’t matter what the media says or anyone else, we look at it as a loss.”
Last season, Montverde’s Dakari Johnson (Kentucky) and Kasey Hill (Florida) played in the McDonald’s Game and turned right around the next day to help the Eagles in a quarterfinal win. Russell feels Montverde’s preparation, practice ethic and approach helped Johnson and Hill and shouldn’t pose a problem on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Montverde’s players went home for a Spring Break weekend then it was back on the grind for a team that hasn’t played since February 16.
“We took a little break, but we’re at Montverde to play basketball,” Russell said. “Here I can have fun with Rashad and Kelly, but when we step out onto the court in New York, it’s all business.”
Russell also admits to conserving his energy a bit at Sunday and Monday’s practice sessions, but he’s also shown flashes of his ability to score in bunches while still maintaining an unselfish approach. On Monday, Russell was making the extra pass and trying to get teammates involved just as he does with his high school team. Then, when the moment is right, the Ohio-State bound Louisville, Ky. native strikes.
“I feel like I can do whatever it takes to help our team win,” Russell said. “To me, it’s not about scoring or doing one thing good, it’s about making basketball plays.”
For Vaughn, a shooting guard headed to UNLV, and Oubre, a small forward on his way to Kansas, this trip has a bit different meaning. The motivation is to help Findlay Prep restore its standing among the upper echelon of high school basketball programs after a trying season. Currently, the Pilots are 30-4 and ranked No. 14 in the FAB 50. They open the tournament against sentimental favorite and No. 2 Rainier Beach (Seattle).
“At Findlay everyone’s goal is a national championship,” Vaughn said. “So despite the ups and downs and injuries, at the end of the day we have a shot to be national champions. We’re trying to win it.”
Facing Rainier Beach just adds fuel to the fire for the third Findlay Prep duo to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game in the past five years, joining Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson in 2010 and Brandon Ashley and Anthony Bennett in 2012.
“We’re 17-year old kids, we can do this,” Oubre said. “We love the fact that everyone is talking about Rainier Beach. It feels like nobody is respecting us.”
Findlay Prep is the Dick’s Nationals’ most successful program, winning it three times and posting the best all-time winning percentage, but Vaughn echoes Oubre’s sentiments about how they are approaching the next three days.
“We’re very motivated, and when people put us as the No. 7 seed, we feel disrespected,” Vaughn said. “It comes down to what you have inside, there are no excuses. I’ve talked to our coaches about how to approach this and they say go hard and play basketball.”
For all three of these McDonald’s All-Americans, the physical basketball gifts are evident. It comes as no surprise the mental aspect of the game is what may put Montverde Academy or Findlay Prep over the hump. Oubre summed it up best.
“It’s all about mental toughness. Me and Rashad are ready for anything.”
Dick’s Nationals Quarterfinal Schedule*
Thursday, April 3 at Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.)
12 p.m. — No. 11 La Lumiere vs. Huntington St. Joseph Prep
2 p.m. – No. 4 Northside Christian Academy vs. No. 6 Oak Hill Academy
4 p.m. – No. 2 Rainier Beach vs. No. 14 Findlay Prep
6 p.m. – No. 1 Montverde Academy vs. No. 4 Sagemont
*All games ET, televised on ESPNU and listed with Student Sports FAB 50 rank