Back in Connecticut, Drummond one step away from Team USA

Andre Drummond (Getty Images)

Andre Drummond (Getty Images)

WATERBURY — Andre Drummond stepped out of a massive red Escalade and into the Crosby High gymnasium for his first organized basketball game since Friday’s Team USA intrasquad scrimmage.

And we all saw how that ended.

“I see one of my good friends in the league go down, and I’m still trying to get over it,” Drummond said Wednesday. “I talk to him every day. He’s keeping me up to date on how he’s feeling, and he’s looking great.”

Drummond, of course, was referencing Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who suffered an ankle fracture so gruesome that coach Mike Krzyzewski decided to call off the remainder of the scrimmage while George was taken to the hospital. George’s injury prompted sympathy, but it also prompted some questions.

For NBA players, are exhibition games — even Team USA exhibition games — worth it?

“You know, everybody has to put their egos and things aside,” Drummond said. “We’re working toward one common goal. And for us to come together like that really shows the camaraderie we have.”

Truth is, the world can understandably overreact when it sees an ankle snap in half. But an ankle can snap in half during a workout or a summer league game or a round of 21. And truth is, basketball players become great because they play a ton of basketball. If players, fearing injury, avoided pick-up games and summer league contests, how sharp would they be for the season?

So that’s why Andre Drummond played, and played heavy minutes, and appeared to have played fairly hard in Wednesday night’s Greater Hartford Pro-Am playoffs.

“That’s my best friend right there,” Drummond said, pointing back to Mike Boornazian of Middletown. “He’s being asking me to play all summer and I finally have some free time.”

In what turned out to be a bizarre game, Drummond was not the best player on the floor. Not on this night. Frankly, not even close. That distinction belonged to Cambyland’s Roosevelt Lee, a former big-time recruit out of New Britain who was once listed ahead of Chris Paul in the class of 2003 rankings. Lee scored 52 points Wednesday. A quick Google search will cue up this quote from his high school coach, Stan Glowiak, in a 2001 Hartford Courant story: “He has a ticket to any division level. He’s a natural scorer.”

Lee led his team, Cambyland, from 20 down. Drummond, who opened the game by hitting a 3-pointer that bounced off back rim and dropped, began working inside as the lead shrunk. His team leading 100-99 with 4.5 seconds remaining, Drummond caught the inbounds and, in an effort to avoid being fouled, bounced a quick pass  to a guard. It was intercepted by Lee, who after a few dribbles, was fouled on a running 3-pointer that he sank….at the buzzer. The shot was waived off, though, and Lee was sent to the free throw line because Cambyland was in the bonus.

He swished both. Game.

It was a wild  celebration for a group of ex-high school stars, some of whom played in college, all of whom probably dreamed of being where Drummond is today. Amazingly, he’s not yet 21. The big day’s Sunday. He’s already signed an endorsement deal with the Jordan Brand. He was second in the NBA in rebounding and field goal percentage this past season. He’s one of 16 finalists for the 12 spots on Team USA. And he’s the youngest of the group.

Andre Drummond (AP)

Andre Drummond (AP)

“Definitely another big step,” Drummond said.

Be honest: Could you have predicted this two summers ago?

Drummond was unpolished and underwhelming in Storrs. He did set the UConn freshman record for double-doubles, but he also had 15 games with both single-digit points and rebounds. There was once an argument to be made that UConn, in 2011-12, would’ve been better off without Drummond. He couldn’t co-exist with Alex Oriakhi because neither could play the four-position. But everything fell into place long-term for the Huskies, culminating in what you witnessed last March.

There was once an argument to be made that Drummond himself would have been better off skirting college. His original plan was to prep at Wilbraham & MonsonAcademy and presumably turn pro, which wouldn’t have magnified his flaws. If he’d gone that route, he probably would have been a top-three pick.

But if he’d gone that route, would he be here today?

There’s much debate about the proper path for an obvious one-and-done like Drummond. Emmanuel Mudiay, the top-ranked point guard in the class of 2014, is spending his single year in China collecting a $1.2 million check. It’s been widely reported that Mudiay had serious NCAA eligibility concerns. Still, some argue that a one-and-done player with no immediate use for a college classroom might as well collect some Europe cash while waiting to join the NBA. Why not keep a low-profile and get paid? Seems like a win-win.

Drummond fondly reflects on his single year in Storrs. Ultimately, there’s no doubt he was better served, even if it dropped his draft stock, by attending college.

“Playing for Jim Calhoun,” Drummond said. “Not many people can even say they got a chance to speak to him. Just to be able to have him coach me was a blessing and really beneficial.”

Ultimately, St. Thomas More and Wilbraham & Monson were designed to shield him, to protect him. UConn was designed to expose him. He was on ESPN one night. He was at a campus function — a play or a concert or a soccer game — the next, mingling with regular students. He was written about, dissected, questioned. He had shed the cocoon that he wore through his teen years.

And now, on the verge of finally turning 21, he’s blossomed. He’s wearing a Team USA jersey.

“Sometimes you just have to look down at it,” Drummond said. “Even the (USA) backpack I have today, just walking around knowing that I’m representing my country, it’s an excellent feeling.”; @KevinRDuffy