May 26, 2011

Warriors excelling on both levels

In charge of one of the top AAU programs in the country, Ritchie Davis, who oversees the Wisconsin Playground Warriors, took some time in between tournaments to discuss a number of topics with

Within his program are some of Wisconsin's top in-state players and Badger basketball recruiting targets, a list that includes Sam Dekker, J.P. Tokoto and Bronson Koenig.

The following is a question and answer piece with Davis:

To start, can you just talk about Sam this spring? He seems to be playing a very high level and he's shot up in a number of individual rankings, including about 50 spots in ours.

Davis: Well, I think Sam has been really consistent. Those people who have been out to enough events have seen him play at a real high level from game to game. Probably more importantly, Sam's played at that level from one event to the next event against some really good competition, so I think that helps. When it comes to evaluating Sam in these individual player rankings, he's played very, very well and has certainly added some stuff to his game. He's added some weight, which I think has helped. Everyone talks about what he does on offense, but I think the big thing that he's done this spring is show the ability to guard multiple positions. Along with guarding those positions, his ability to rebound has improved.

Sam has certainly improved from year to year in our program. There's no reason why he won't continue to improve with the way he works. It should be fun to see where he's at in July and into his senior season. I supposed for your readers, all the way until he puts on that read and white uniform and arrives in Madison.

Did Sam tweak his ankle in the last event you guys were in?

Davis: Yeah, he had a severe high ankle sprain when we were at the Addidas May Classic, which was two weeks ago from this past Sunday. He tweaked his ankle early in the quarterfinal game and we had to play the rest of the way him. He had it looked at and has since taken part in some extensive daily treatment; he's actually getting it done in the morning and at night, so that's been good. He's made pretty good progress to the point where we think he'll be able to play for us this weekend.

You've seen more basketball than I have over the last 10 years, but does Sam, at his size and with his skill set, offer something unique to this state? Maybe something this state hasn't seen before at the high school level?

Davis: It's really tough to say if I've seen someone like Sam over the last 15 years. He does so much and he's so good for being a bigger kid. His ability to handle the basketball, to shoot the basketball, and he's so good in transition. There have been kids his size that have done things but they're not the same type of player some is.

Obviously Sam Okey was 6-foot-7 and way more dominant than Sam (Dekker) will ever be on the interior - and Okey shot it pretty well - but he didn't have some of the perimeter skills that Sam (Dekker) does. Steve Novak was probably the best shooter that I've seen over the last 15 years at that level. I think he does that better than Sam Dekker but Sam can do some other things that Steve maybe wasn't able to do quite as well. Sam's overall skill level and what he brings to the table is pretty unique and I think he's much more athletic than most people give him credit for.

Have college coaches reached out to you about Sam, even though he's committed to Wisconsin?

Davis: Not too much; I think everyone knows that he's committed to Wisconsin. I think Sam and his family have made that clear. I have not heard from anyone asking about Sam.

Moving on to J.P., have you noticed a sense of relief since he made his decision? Is he maybe able to play now without any outside pressure?

Davis: You know, J.P. has also played really well for us this spring. Quite frankly, I thought at the last tournament in Bloomington that Sam and J.P. were the best two players there. I'm not saying one was better than the other, but J.P. was very good. As a matter of fact in the semifinals and finals, he played at a level I don't think the people down there have seen before or expected. He was really, really good in a lot of facets.

I would say that he's a little more comfortable not thinking about those things but J.P. really never let that stuff get to him. He's just a fun kid and I don't think that has ever been something he's thought long and hard about while he was actually on the floor competing. When it comes to evaluating J.P. for people that haven't seen him enough, I think they come in expecting something that you're not going to see. Our teams win games and we're fortunate enough to have some talent besides those two (Dekker and Tokoto), even though they are the most talented players on our team.

There are differences. Sam Dekker is probably going to lead our team in scoring in the games our team competes in, but J.P. Tokoto is an absolute stat-stuffer. J.P. rebounds pretty well, he's capable of defending because he's so long and he's real good with the ball getting up and down the floor. Sam is really good with the ball in the open floor but J.P. is the best I've seen in 15 years in the transition game. I'm not just talking finishing; I'm taking with the ball in his hands and his ability to find open teammates. You talk about all the facets you look for in a basketball player, in most of those J.P. is really good in those areas. And like I said, he's a stat-stuffer, even for us.

We've been very happy. He's played very well and he seems to be enjoying it, as has Sam. We're fortunate in the events we play in and against the competition that we see to have our two Wisconsin kids playing so well together. That's something that we really appreciate.

Can you talk about how you guys utilize Bronson and his ability to play up with the 17s when needed?

Davis: Well, he's clearly good enough to play at the 17-and-under level. A lot of programs will move up those types of kids, which is not uncommon. Some of the better 2013 kids from Wisconsin will play up as well, but we're in a position and have a program where we don't need to play Bronson up in order to win games. When it comes to Bronson playing up, it's not that he's not capable - he's more than capable of playing up there - but we have an extremely tight group of kids in the 2013 class that truly enjoy being around one another on and off the court. As a result, we try to cultivate those relationships and have the kids build on stuff that has nothing to do with basketball and those relationships are really special to our guys.

In Bronson's case, he likes to play up and will do so. But he truly values those friendships with his classmates. I think what people don't realize is that when all our 17-year-old kids move on after this year - because our program does not play seniors - Bronson's classmates are all still going to be here and we don't want to bring him back down to a bunch of kids he's never played with. They already have a repoire with one another and a strong friendship as a group. On our end, we're lucky to have two teams that have done so well. When people ask us why he's not playing up there, well, we've won 23 games and lost five. Would we only have four losses or three losses if Bronson played up there? We'll never know, but we've done well enough and at the same time, the 16's have had a good deal of success.

It hasn't done anything to hinder Bronson's recruitment at all and some very high-quality programs have been involved this spring. He's the premier player in Wisconsin for his age and I think his scholarship offers are pretty impressive when compared to anyone else in our state. As a result, we haven't hindered his ability to been seen. He's still playing against really good competition because our schedule top to bottom, week in and week out, is very good. There just hasn't been a situation where he absolutely felt he needed to play up.

To answer your question, we're fortunate that way to have the talent to be able to do this and it works out well. In the spring time, you can play at both levels. If for some reason the schedule dictates that he could play some with both teams, he has. In Bloomington, the 16s happened to lose in the brackets early enough on Sunday morning that we had him available for the whole stretch run. For those things, it just makes sense for us to handle it the way we have. It might be a little different, but I think we have a luxury the rest of our state doesn't have in that we have two very good teams at both levels.

There has been some talk of Bronson playing in a combo-guard role. How do you feel about his ability to play both spots?

Davis: Bronson can play both. He obviously shoots it very well; there are some really good shooters in Wisconsin's class of 2013 and Bronson probably ranks pretty near the top, although I think Matt Thomas is the best shooter I've seen in that class. Bronson is without question the best scorer in that class. Does it make sense to play him off the ball some? Absolutely, and we'll do that so he doesn't have to burn energy brining the ball up against pressure all the time.

But his ball handling ability and passing skills are so good that it's tough not to want the ball in his hands. I think that most of the schools that have recruited him all want the same thing. They tell Bronson that he's a basketball player and that he can help them win games. He can play both spots and if that's what it takes for that particular team, then that's what he'll do in order to win games.

In terms of Bronson's recruitment, where does he stand right?

Davis: I haven't had that conversation with him or his parents at this time. He's still in the 10th grade and he has finals coming up in a couple of weeks. At this point, I think he continues to build relationships with those coaching staffs that have taken a genuine interest in him. That's probably as far as it is right now. Has he talked to certain staffs more than others? Sure, but I don't think there is any timetable set up for when he expects to make his decision.

He's got some really nice options that most kids who grow up in Wisconsin would love to have. From that standpoint, I think he's a very fortunate young man. I just don't see anything happening within the next week or next two weeks or anything like that. Once again, that's entirely up to Bronson. I know both his mother and father want him to have as much information as possible, but they also want him to make the best decision for him and the one that he's most comfortable with.

Are any of your guys going to be at Wisconsin's advanced camp in June?

Davis: Sam will be there, and I think that makes sense. We have a couple kids that may choose to go because it fits in well with their schedule and financially they are able to do it. Outside of Sam, I think there is a chance that Carson Shanks or Bronson could both go. Bronson has been offered by Wisconsin and Carson has been shown very strong interest. Other than that, I just don't know.

Right now, we're in the process of finalizing Bronson's June schedule. His father has most of that worked out as to where he'll be, but I just haven't seen that yet. But hopefully we can get that finalized over the weekend and have everything set.

I believe you guys are going to add Carson for this weekend. Can you talk about his ability so far?

Davis: I've seen Carson enough and I've watched him play to know what he does. He's been able to practice with us a few times. For him, I think he fits in well with what are kids are all about and what we do schematically. He's a big kid and he's all of 7-feet tall. Carson also has really good skills but the best thing about him is that there is so much he's still able to do and learn. If he continues to work hard and put the time in, I think some really good things will come down the line. Carson and his family have sincere interest in Wisconsin and coach (Bo) Ryan and his staff have an interest as well. We'll see how it plays out over time, but there's interest on both sides and for that reason I think there is a good chance Carson will be at the advanced camp.

Talk about how your schedule worked out this year. You guys won't be playing any tournaments in Wisconsin.

Davis: We'll, I don't think there is a real reason. I don't think we're hiding from anyone. You know, we made the switch this year to Addidas and there are some things that are required there. We felt with the schedule we had, we wanted to play in the best events available but you just can't play every weekend. While there was an event in Milwaukee this past weekend, Sam Dekker wasn't the only player that was injured and our guys had been playing for four straight weekends and needed a break. A lot of that has to do with academics and those requirements. I think we play in the top events in the country each weekend - if they're not the best, they're certainly one of the top two events going on at a given time.

The state tournament in Wisconsin is not what it used to be at all. In all the years that I've done this, it just didn't pay for us to go this year. A lot of people ask why we're not going to the state tournament. Well, we won without J.P. at his age level and we won at Bronson's age level last year. For the people that were there, we had a couple games that were close for a little bit, but for the most part, they weren't.

We went up to the (Wisconsin) Dells last year because it fit perfectly for us and we weren't with Addidas. So we went there in the spring and won and we won there in July, and it worked pretty well for the Dells community and the people up there. But there really isn't a reason for us to be up there this year. Our guys want to play people and it is unfortunate because there are people in Wisconsin that want to see us play. I know that our kids would have liked to play in Wisconsin if the right thing was there and it was possible. I understand that there's a nice event in Milwaukee in July after we get back from Kentucky, but for our guys and for our parents, that's just a lot of games. So for us to go from Indianapolis to Louisville, all the way to Kentucky and then to come back and play, that's about 11 straight days of basketball and I'm not sure we can hold up that long.

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