August 3, 2013 11:35:18 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Erise Wilson didn't see it coming.
The Team Elite Mississippi Basketball Club Amateur Athletic Union believes in his players, but he also knows that being seen is a crucial element of the AAU circuit.
That's why Wilson thought some of his top players wouldn't get recognized after a lack of financial resources and an inability to secure a practice facility prevented the team from going to the AAU Nationals at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Orlando, Fla., area.
Little did Wilson know that some of those players already had attracted the attention of the right people.
Last month, Wilson learned former New Hope High School standout and current East Mississippi Community College guard Jason Tate, Columbus High senior Demorius Walker, and New Hope High seniors Whyatt Foster and Curtaves "Tae" Latham were selected to be in the 2013 edition of the AAU magazine. The magazine recognizes some of the best AAU players in the United States.
"I am proud of all of them," Wilson said. "I am excited for all of them. I wish the whole team could have gotten them. These four guys did what they had to do."
Wilson said Foster made a seamless transition from high school basketball to his first season of AAU basketball. After playing as a forward or as a center on his high school team, Foster, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, has moved to guard with Team Elite Mississippi.
"Whyatt is, by far, the best defensive player I have seen," Wilson said. "I have even called him crazy at times because we have been beating a team by 40 points and I tell Whyatt, 'Let them score.' He won't let them score. He will block their shot."
Wilson said Foster's leaping ability and aggressiveness, particularly on defense, helped him receive the national award.
Foster said the award shows how hard he has been working with his team and on his own. He admitted he never imagined he would catch the eye of someone in position who could put his name in a magazine that has featured the likes of other prep basketball greats like Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.
"I thought this was just a learning year because I am still trying to get used to playing on the perimeter, but this is great recognition," Foster said. "Playing AAU lets me see more styles of play and how I can get better."
Latham, who also is in his first year with the AAU team, attracted attention with his shooting ability. The 6-1 guard/forward showcased that skill late in the 2012-13 high school season with a corner 3-pointer that beat West Point in the opening round of the Class 5A, Region 2 tournament at New Hope High. Wilson noticed Latham's shooting ability and added him to the program knowing he could bring a valuable dimension.
"He can shoot the ball real well," Wilson said. "Shooting the basketball from beyond the arc is a cakewalk for him. He really did an outstanding job in his first AAU tournament."
Latham said he didn't have to change anything in moving from high school to AAU. He said he was pleased with how he handled the different level of competition.
"It was a bigger test because it was faster and a faster tempo," Latham said. "It was a blessing from God because many people don't get (their names in the magazine). I was surprised."
Walker, who is Wilson's stepson, is a veteran of Team Elite Mississippi. Wilson joked Walker has attracted the most the attention of all four players because he has had to hear him rant and rave and re-visit games hours after they are completed.
"This program got started because of him," Wilson said. "I was super hard on him this year, but I tried to get him to understand to keep the same leadership he had. He didn't play a whole lot this year, but he never complained. That is just the type of player he is. He is always there when you need him."
Walker remembers being part of the first AAU teams and thinking that some of his friends would benefit the most from the exposure. Now that it's a few years later, Walker is reaping the rewards of being a player who has played multiple roles and handled all of them well.
"I had to take everything (coach Wilson) said and listen to it and go from there," Walker said. "He had to tell me a couple of times. Every time he told me I had to listen and had to do it because I would get tired of listening to him."
Walker admitted his definition of "a couple" was actually "20 or 30 times."
Tate, who played at New Hope High before taking an independent study at the University of Mississippi, signed a scholarship in April to play at EMCC. He credits AAU basketball for helping to mature him and his game.
"When Jason first came to the team, he was a scrawny little kid," Wilson said. "He looked like he was about 6 years old, but he had the talent. Each year he progressed. I watched him become a man. Mentally, he became a man. I am so glad because a lot of guys looked up to Jason. Jason could have destroyed this team if he wanted to. That is the type of leadership he had and guys looked up to him."
Tate hopes to fill a similar role for coach Mark White and the Lions, who are the only Division I men's basketball program to have earned a berth in the NJCAA tournament each of the past four years. Looking back at how far he has come, Tate credits Wilson and AAU basketball for opening another door for him. He hopes Foster, Latham, and Walker earn similar chances to play at the next level. Being included in the AAU magazine could be something that helps all four players take another step closer to their dreams.
"I didn't really know about the recognition," Tate said. "I was just playing, but I am blessed to have it. I am excited to have it. It shows the hard work is finally paid off."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.