Even at the highest levels with the top prospects, the brand of basketball played on the shoe-company circuits this time of year can sometimes be tough to watch.
That’s especially the case as the weekend drags on and travel-weary players start to get tired, make mistakes and mentally check out.
That’s not what happened here on Court 6 at the Under Armour session Saturday night. What spectators saw instead was a thing of basketball beauty.
Those responsible: Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis — two high school teammates from New Jersey who have been playing alongside each other since the seventh grade and are combining forces again this spring for Team Rio.
The Antoine and Lewis show began just after the opening tip, when the latter of the duo sank a three-pointer to start the scoring in a game against Atlanta Xpress.
Less than a minute later, Lewis drove the lane and made a great pass to an open teammate, who knocked down a jumper. A few seconds after that, the 6-foot-5 Lewis, already locked in on defense against the opposing team’s best player — top-10 national recruit Khavon Moore — used his length to deflect a pass out of bounds, much to the delight of his head coach, his teammates and the parents and fans in the stands.
Team Rio Coach Mike Rice, formerly the head coach at Rutgers, excitedly rushed onto the court to give Lewis a high five, and the show was on.
By the end of the half, Antoine had knocked down a couple of three-pointers and showed off his blazing speed and athleticism in the open court, and Lewis had a couple more crisp assists and acrobatic drives to the basket.
Oh, and each player threw down a SportsCenter-caliber dunk, both times causing a few overwhelmed spectators to spill onto the court in celebration.
“It’s not just the athleticism,” Rice said. “It’s the understanding of the game. The pace of their decisions, for sophomores — how to get rid of the ball, how to find a teammate, how to attack the rim, it’s rare. And then you add that to the physical tools that they have. That’s why (everyone) is recruiting them.”
That’s the other thing: Antoine and Lewis are both still sophomores in high school, still two-plus years removed from stepping on a college campus for good.
For much of Saturday night’s game — Team Rio mercy-ruled the Xpress, by the way — Antoine and Lewis looked like seasoned pros.
They made the right decisions, they found the open lanes, and they played off of each other and their teammates.
Asked afterward if Rice — now a high school and AAU coach based in New Jersey — had ever seen two players that young with that much chemistry, he shook his head.
“No, they’re amazing,” he said. “In this day and age, everybody wants attention. They’re understanding that they both complement each other so well. And that when one does well, the other one’s going to do well. That’s so unique and rare in today’s younger players. It’s refreshing, because they’re just as happy when one of them scores as the other guy. It’s fun to coach that.”
Lewis, the more vocal of the duo, barely stopped talking the entire game. On the court, he made sure everyone was in the right spot at the right time. From the bench, he shouted words of encouragement to his teammates.
He had arguably the most electric dunk of the weekend, but he cheered harder when the other Team Rio players scored.
“I like playing. I like being active. I like having fun,” Lewis said. “When you’re out here with guys that you love, with coaches that you respect, when you’re in this kind of atmosphere, you can only have fun. You can only want to be that active and showcase everything that you’re capable of doing.”
Antoine — also a 6-5 guard — isn’t quite the extrovert that his teammate and friend is, but he played with his head up, scanning the court for the best opportunity for his team to score. Often, as has been the case since seventh grade, the two played off each other.
“Me and him have been through the highs and lows,” Antoine said. “There have been times where he’s been upset and I had to pick him up. And sometimes I was upset and he had to pick me up. … We’re pretty much like brothers, to be honest.”
They’re both top-10 recruits in that 2019 class, and that has attracted the early attention of UK’s John Calipari (and a host of other major college coaches).
Calipari made a special trip to watch the duo during the high school season — something he usually doesn’t do for sophomores, no matter what they’re ranked — and he was here earlier in the weekend to get another look at Antoine and Lewis.
On Friday, they’re scheduled to come to him.
The five-star pair will take unofficial visits to Lexington, get an up-close look at UK’s program and spend a little more time with a coach they feel like they already know so much about.
“They reload. That’s exactly what they do,” Lewis said. “I’m just excited to go there and hear his pitch and what he has to say. Because obviously his pitch must be pretty damn good after reloading every single year.”
The two players, who share the same personal trainer who has worked with Brad Calipari, mentioned Duke, Florida, Maryland, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Rutgers as other schools that are heavily involved in their recruitment.
Like all players in their position, the long-term goal is getting to the NBA.
“As far as going to the NBA, I think any school can have that capability,” Lewis said. “It just depends on how much work the individual player does.”
When pressed to name the program — based on recent history — he thought had done the best job of getting guys to the league, Lewis didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely Kentucky,” he said. “They breed athletes. They breed people who have that drive and that heart and that passion who want to — not only make it to the NBA — but (excel) in the NBA.”