The virtual game
Sitting on the bleachers at Neumann-Goretti High in South Philadelphia, Quade Green shot Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree a quick look. These two seniors are close friends and also the two top high school basketball players in the city — one a point guard headed for the University of Kentucky, the other a power forward signed to join Villanova.
Waiting for practice to start, they were talking about basketball influences. Green had gone through a full catalog of top NBA point guards. Talking about big men important to him, Cosby-Roundtree mentioned LaMarcus Aldridge, now with the San Antonio Spurs.
"What?" Cosby-Roundtree said, noting the look that Green gave him.
That look said: Let's not go too far here, don't B.S. this conversation. Except when Cosby-Roundtree later opened his laptop, got on YouTube, hit the search button, he knew the player he would be looking for first.
These two teenage ballplayers could know more about the technical aspects of their sport than their predecessors of a generation ago, simply because they have free access to so much of the history of the game on their phones and laptops and iPads. They watch full games, but also study highlights of role models. A free period in school might mean a visit to a personal basketball library.
Any description of a Philadelphia hoops player usually includes drive and grit and work ethic. But there's an underreported aspect, the basketball intellect. These two, Green and Cosby-Roundtree, can break down a play — their own or just some random video — as easily as a graduate English student can break down Shakespeare.
Their games reflect the work. Veteran Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale, who has had his share of great ones, calls Cosby-Roundtree the most improved player he's ever had in terms of development from freshman to senior year. Villanova only began looking at Cosby-Roundtree since they were recruiting Green, an early phenom. The afterthought is now 6-foot-8, his motions now fluid and dangerous.
When other schools recruiting Cosby-Roundtree tried to tell him Villanova wouldn't have much of a role for him, the player asked for a meeting with 'Nova's coaches and got it. They explained where he would fit in. Wildcats coach Jay Wright said he walked away from the meeting wanting Cosby-Roundtree more than ever.
"When I finally noticed that I'd gotten way better, I kind of sat back and said, 'Like, wow, it's crazy to see where I came from,' " Cosby-Roundtree said. "I came from somebody who didn't even play. I played outside, but didn't really play in leagues or anything really officiated until the summer of eighth grade.
"Now everybody's talking about, 'Oh, you could be a pro,' and stuff like that. Looking at it from that, I didn't want to stop, wanted to keep chasing it, see where I end up."
If Green could give up sleep for basketball, he would do it. He has a tenacity about him, even in conversation. Green is an archetypal Philadelphia point guard in the sense that life is a competition. Text conversations with former Neumann-Goretti greats turn into debates about the best-ever at the school, and how high Green is rising in that conversation. Texts with a top college freshman guard turn into debates about who has the better spin move, the better "hesi", or hesitation move.
Watch their influences
Some days, Green sees a Chris Paul highlight on YouTube so he imagines himself as Chris Paul that day. His coach can see it in practice, Green working on something that only he knows. He's not checked out, just in a different place.
Green got up to the Bronx the day after last year's state title game, he said, for one reason. He decided he needed to prove himself as a pure point guard, not just a shooting point guard — get on the highest-level travel team he could find.
"They thought I wasn't really a point guard, that's why I couldn't get that high in the rankings. I had to separate myself," Green said.
How did he do? He led the national circuit in assists, and assists-to-turnovers, and added offers from the likes of Kentucky and Duke.
Green, who has "by far" the best footwork of any player Arrigale has ever coached, likes to find sweet spots of point guards on YouTube. He gets his best ideas on attack moves, he said, from watching Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder — "explosive passes, explosive dribbles, explosive to the rim." He watches Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors, he said, for his sheer toughness, his heart. He likes the Sixers "a little bit" these days, Green said, but he doesn't bring up emerging Sixers star Joel Embiid first. Point guards study point guards.
"Rodriguez is nice, I like him," Green said of Sergio Rodriguez, the Sixers' first-year point guard from Spain. Green gave a look like, Really, watch this guy Rodriguez.
Green had brought out more alter-egos for a 37-point performance last month against Imhotep, a matchup of the two top teams in the city inside a full gym at Arcadia University. "[I used] a lot of Kyrie Irving, a little bit of Steph [Curry] I would say," Green said of that night. "A little bit of Chauncey Billups, turning my body against a defender, pulling my hip, having him trailing me so if I do pull up, he's still running."
It's not just the current NBA players who draw their interest. Billups is retired now and after looking at Aldridge, Cosby-Roundtree hit search again and typed in Hakeem Olajuwon. This past summer, Cosby-Roundtree said, Olajuwon was his favorite study subject. He'd call up highlights on his phone in the middle of a workout, try to imitate them.
"My uncles always talked about him so I kind of knew who he was," he said of the Hall of Fame center, retired since 2002.
"Right there, the quick spin — that's one of the first moves I really paid attention to," Cosby-Roundtree said of an Olajuwon move. "He just drop-stepped, got him leaning one way, goes the other way. It's crazy."
Looking at Aldridge, Cosby-Roundtree broke down what he saw, the footwork and positioning, how everything the Spurs star was doing was based on what he had done before. "He did a jump hook before that, so now he's just giving him a head fake. He's got them chasing everything."
Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors was the first name Cosby-Roundtree had mentioned when talking about current influences. He later called up Green highlights. He talked of how Draymond plays all the positions defensively but facilitates for his teammates — "he does the little things that don't show up on the stat sheet," Cosby-Roundtree said, "being in the right position on defense, stepping up, helping out. … When you play with somebody like that, it's incredible how much energy it really provides."
Looking at Green on his laptop, "taking it right to them — that's a play I would make," Cosby-Roundtree said. "When you catch it, just attack the bigger defender. I couldn't always do that. It came with being more confident in myself. I knew that it would be better to attack the rim, a better chance for me to get to the free-throw line. More points to get."
Cosby-Roundtree tries to incorporate all this, but also adheres to a general theme he hears from his coaches, past, present, and future: Be you, be the hustle player you are. Dominate inside, then start expanding your game. Against Imhotep, Cosby-Roundtree had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and made all his free throws. He'd kept Neumann-Goretti close as Imhotep got the better of the early play.
Green had gotten everyone involved. At one point, he drew two defenders left, then hit an open teammate along the three-point line on the right wing. Later on, Green took over, reaching into his "Mamba bag." That's Green's way of telling himself it's time to really take over — make like the Black Mamba himself, former Lower Merion star Kobe Bryant.
There was one play when Green saw open space to his right, but he also spotted the extra Imhotep defender ready to leave his own man and join the fight. Same to Green's left. A straight man-to-man was more like a shadow triple-team with every possibility that Green would wind up on the ground again.
Green's most immediate problem was right in front of him, the quickest defender in the city. He knew one misplaced dribble and Imhotep point guard Daron Russell — a future University of Rhode Island point guard, who had 25 of his own that night — would take advantage and take the ball.
Green backed up a dribble, crossed over between his legs twice. He gave another hard dribble and when it looked like he was going to cross back over to his left he kept the ball in his right hand for another dribble.
Each component of the move, simple in itself, offered the threat of an explosion. Green gave a half-feint to his right, then went behind his back. He did a half-turn — a Penny Hardaway move, Green said later. (Let's note that Hardaway retired from the NBA almost a decade ago.)
The play produced two more of Green's 37 points. Then came a spin move away from the basket that had an Imhotep fan saying, "That's supposed to be a bad shot."
The fan said it with respect. He knew the fadeaway had been fundamentally sound, Green somehow fully squared-up toward the hoop.
"That's my shot I do in here all day," Green said two days later, sitting in the bleachers at Neumann-Goretti before practice. "I spin, he's nowhere to be found, really. … It took, like, two years to get that one."
"He was being Quade, being special," Cosby-Roundtree said.
"I wanted to make a statement that night," Green said. "I had to make a statement. Everybody was talking about me a lot. ... Everybody wants to see it, all right? 'Why is he going to Kentucky?' I had to prove that."
As Green really got going before Neumann-Goretti prevailed, 87-73, Arrigale said he joked at one point to his assistants in the middle of Green's spree that he may as well sit down and enjoy the show like everyone else. As the gym emptied out, still buzzing, a guy on the front steps said, "Quade for president." The guy amended his statement: "Quade for pope."
Jeremy Treatman, the promoter of the event, compared it right afterward to the night when Kyle Lowry and Sean Singletary faced off in 2004. Except this game had more elements, more stars.
With these guys, their own plays now are found on YouTube.
At least three video highlight packages can be found of the Imhotep game. These two guys waiting for practice to start at 10th and Moore have reached the point in their lives where they're still finding role models to emulate, but they're being studied, too — teenagers still, but already archived into the history of Philadelphia hoops.