By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Yes, the McDonald's All-American Game, the most storied high school All-Star game since its inception in 1978. More than 100 current NBA players took part in the event, including four from last year's game alone. This is the deciding factor. If Aldridge wants to make his NBA dreams a reality, he can't just play well in the McDonald's game, can't just be a name in the box score and a sentence or two in the accompanying story. He has to be in the headline.
Because now, every NBA scout knows about him. They've seen tapes, and most have seen him in person. But they also know plenty about the other 23 players in the game, especially the other kids expected to put their names in the draft: point guards Telfair and Shaun Livingston, center Dwight Howard, forwards Josh Smith and Al Jefferson. Aldridge has to stand out, has to push scouts onto his side of the fence.
"[Now], everyone's aware of him," one scout says. "He needs experience, like all the young guys. It's a little early--we don't know all the foreign kids, and we don't know all the underclassmen that are coming, so it's a little hard to make a determination for him today. The other guys are locks--I mean, you know, Jefferson and Telfair and Livingston. If they all decided to come, they're certainly first-round picks. This kid is a little bit further down the pecking order."
Before the game, ESPN's Chad Ford is less dubious of Aldridge's chances.
"I think he's definitely a first-rounder if he goes in," Ford says. "From what I've heard from the scouts, anywhere from the late lottery to number 20 in the draft--so somewhere between 12 and 20, I think, is looking like his draft range right now. I think what scouts like about him is he has a lot of skills for a guy that size--in some ways, he reminds them of a European young big man, in that he can handle the ball a little bit, he can shoot the ball, he's very coordinated. He has skills that a lot of American big men just don't have."
Unfortunately, they never appear during the game in Oklahoma City on March 31. While Telfair rings up 11 assists, J.R. Smith wows the crowd with his 30-foot shooting range, Josh Smith displays a tantalizing inside-outside game and Howard dominates as expected, Aldridge doesn't do much of anything, other than striking up fast friendships with two of his fellow UT recruits, Danny Gibson and Mike Williams. He plays less than anyone on either team (11 minutes) and finishes with five points on a pair of unassuming layups and one free throw.
Aldridge never looks comfortable on the court: Seconds after checking into the game, he launches an ill-advised 17-foot jumper, as if he has to prove he's more than just a post player who can destroy smaller high school competition. It never gets much better for him.
In the second half, one of ESPN's commentators suggests that of all the players here, Aldridge might be the most talented. The only person who can hold LaMarcus Aldridge back, he says, is himself. It's telling, because that seems to be what Aldridge is doing. Every time he gets the ball, he's double-teamed by what's going on in his own head, the pressure to do more, to be more. After almost a year of keeping the pressure at bay, it has finally gotten to him.
Just like that, just as suddenly as his NBA chance appeared in front of him, it disappeared. Not for good. It'll be there a year or two from now. He just needs to go to school first.
"He didn't knock anybody's socks off," the NBA scout says. "I think he played like we expected him to. But not well enough to leapfrog, you know, to get everyone salivating about 'God, I hope that this guy puts his name in the draft.' I think he's making the right decision."
The tide rises higher when LaMarcus Aldridge arrives, along with his coaches and his mother, Georgia. At 6-foot-2, she's tall enough to stand up to a 7-foot-tall son. But she probably doesn't have to very often; they share the same easy smile and easygoing manner. It's an exciting day for her, but a bit bittersweet. It means she's losing her baby.
"I'm already trying to deal with that right now," she says. "Emotions and everything--it's real hard, because he's my youngest son. He's just nice to be around. He's a chosen kid."
As Aldridge takes his seat in front of the UT display on the wall, the girls from the homemaking class whisper to each other. "He's so nervous," one says. "You can tell."