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ASU Basketball: Weatherup Center heats up during summer pickup games with NBA players

The pros and amateurs met and it turned into something special

Mar 23, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Marcus Morris (15) and guard Gerald Green (14) rebound against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Dante Cunningham (33) in the fourth quarter at Target Center. Phoenix wins 127-120.
Mar 23, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Marcus Morris (15) and guard Gerald Green (14) rebound against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Dante Cunningham (33) in the fourth quarter at Target Center. Phoenix wins 127-120.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA offseason is a character in and of itself. Team USA usually takes the floor overseas in the Olympics or FIBA World Championships in August, but the environment back on American soil in June and July is much different. Many players try to stay sharp in the offseason and there aren't many places outside of the official NBA summer league that can provide the level of basketball competition NBA players are looking for, but a few can.

On the West coast, it's the Drew League. In one of the toughest and historically most violent neighborhoods in the country is one of summer league basketball's most sacred traditions. It began in 1973 under the direction of Alvin Willis at Charles Drew Junior High School in the heart of South Central Los Angeles.

It's full of urban legends such as Raymond Lewis, who was widely regarded as the best player to never see an NBA court. Only more recently have the stars of the NBA such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden come out to play in league games filled with streetballers who are trying to impress scouts from overseas teams sitting in the stands.

On the other side of the country sits Rucker Park, located in New York's Harlem neighborhood. Kevin Durant once scored 66 points in a game there at the Entertainers Basketball Classic. Among the other campfire stories are Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, who was drafted and offered a contract by the Los Angeles Lakers after being scouted in the park. Rumor has it that a number of other players have gotten contracts to play on the AND1 Mixtape Streetball Tour after being scouted during pickup games there.

Somewhere much lower on the summer pickup basketball totem pole sits the Weatherup Center, the Arizona State basketball practice facility. It doesn't have any folkloric tales of days gone by, but it's certainly some the best basketball you'll find on any given day in the Valley during the long Arizona summers.

The NBA players who stopped by this past summer to play and test their skills against the best the Sun Devils had to offer included former Sun Devil James Harden, Rudy Gay, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Dionte Christmas and Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris.

"I think the ASU basketball staff got in touch with us asking us if we wanted to go over there and play some pickup and obviously we would," Phoenix Suns shooting guard Gerald Green said. "I think a couple of guys just went over there and started to play some pickup and then throughout the summer we just kept going back and forth with each other."

Not only did it help the Arizona State players by competing against superior talent, but it also helped keep the NBA players sharp in the offseason. Suns center Miles Plumlee and Green both characterized the pickup as incredibly competitive and a really constructive environment. In talking with Sun Devil junior college transfer Roosevelt Scott, the NBA players would help Arizona State players with their game while they were playing.

"They were all working really hard," Plumlee said. "When they asked I just told them keep getting better, keep working hard. I mean I was a journeyman through college and if they just keep working they'll get their chance (in the NBA)."

Arizona State forward Willie Atwood said he was a little star struck seeing the likes of Harden walk into the gym, but tried to absorb as much knowledge as he could.

"I definitely learned about quick shots and not going all the way to the rack all the time," Atwood said. "I've watched them on TV for so long but never got to play against them. It's totally different playing against them than just watching them on TV."

Risking injury

The NBA players risk a lot playing with the Sun Devils. Something evidenced on Aug. 1 when a national TV audience watched in horror as Pacers superstar Paul George broke his leg in a Team USA Basketball showcase event. George will most likely miss the entire upcoming NBA season because of the injury.

It ignited a national conversation as to how much NBA players should be participating in exhibition and pickup games in the offseason and how much control franchises should have over players and their offseason activities.

"It's just part of the game, you can't worry about getting hurt," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "I'm sure owners feel a little differently because they're paying the money. The more they can play the better, sometimes it gets sloppy, you know it's summer and they're clowing around a little bit. But the guys that are serious about getting better will work on their stuff."

Somehow players have to find a way to work on their game in a competitive environment, and while it's a scary thought, injury is a risk players have to be willing to take in any sport.

"That's one of my good friends in the league," Green said of Paul George. "But at the end of the day I think if you were to ask Paul George would he do that play again? I think he would do it. I don't think it's a bad thing it's just an unfortunate injury that happened."

Thoughts on ASU

Although it was just pickup, this group of professional players were in some way the first to play competitively against the 2014-15 Sun Devil squad. The maroon and gold only play against each other in practice, so how did they fare against a small sample of some of the best in the world?

"Those guys really competed and got us better. It definitely got us in shape and ready for summer league," Green said. "I think to me, I think they're going to be pretty good this year hopefully. They've got a couple shooters, a couple guys that can penetrate, a couple guys that can make plays. I'm going to watch them this year for sure."

As for the Sun Devils, they were just grateful for the experience.

"We loved playing with them," Scott said. "I can't wait until next summer when they can come out and play with us again."

Below are some pictures from the summer

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Blessed to hoop with some NBA players #James Harden #Gerald Green..! DreamChasing..!

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Blessed to hoop with some NBA players #James Harden #Gerald Green..! DreamChasing..!

View on Instagram