Air Jamaica, others in the house

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PHILADELPHIA – While the nation’s elite descended on Akron, Ohio. for the LeBron James Skills Academy this week, Philadelphia was the place to be for everyone else.

Reebok’s All−American Camp drew prospects far and wide, elite Division I coaches like John Calipari of Kentucky, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and Jay Wright of Villanova.

Of the 120 players that made their way to Philadelphia University, 10 had New York City roots. Three of them – forward Joel (Air Jamaica) Wright and combo guards Davontay Grace and Dave Coley – hail from Thomas Jefferson, the on−the−rise program led by Lawrence Pollard and Seldon Jefferson.

It was fitting considering the Orange Wave, based out of the East New York section of Brooklyn, is just starting to establish its name on the national stage. This year, they sent two players – Wright (Fordham) and Keith Spellman (Morgan State) – to Division I colleges.

(Since Wright is out of PSAL eligibility, he will attend a prep school that has yet to be determined and was therefore eligible for the showcase.)

“It’s definitely a reflection of where the program has come and our place in the basketball world,” said Pollard, who took over the program five years ago.

Boys basketball was in disarray when Pollard and Jefferson, both of them West Virginia products, entered Jefferson. The school had produced plenty of memorable athletes on the basketball court, guys like Sydney Green, Tony Jackson and Phil Sellers. But such prospects had dried up. The two coaches changed that, redoing the gym floor, giving the uniforms a makeover and inspiring confidence with an exciting brand of up−tempo basketball.

“They made it a matter of pride,” talent evaluator Tom Konchalski said.

The three at the All−American Camp, not to mention Spellman, the all−time leading scorer in the program’s history, is proof of such strides. Jefferson made the PSAL Class AA semifinals last March despite nagging season−long injuries to Spellman and Cooley. The future certainly looks bright, guided by Coley and Grace, two almost certain Division I players.

“They’re gym rats,” said Pollard, who will take his team on three trips next season, including a Christmas time tournament in Puerto Rico.

Coley, a 6−foot−2 guard known for his deadly outside shooting and quick first step, was close to committing to joining Wright at Fordham during Rumble in the Bronx last month. Finally healthy after minor knee surgery last December, he opted to wait, and has picked up interest, Pollard said, from West Virginia, Providence and Auburn.

Grace, a big 6−foot−1 lead guard with a knack for hitting big shots, has attracted several Big East programs. St. John’s, Rutgers, Marquette, West Virginia and Pittsburgh are among his suitors.

As for Wright, he is done as a member of the Orange Wave after three effervescent seasons. He will attend prep school at either South Kent (Conn.), The Winchendon School (MA.) or Hargrave Military Academy (Va.) before landing at Fordham.

The 6−foot−5 athletic wing has already started to alter his game with an eye towards the next level, where he will likely be a small forward. He has slimmed down and worked on his perimeter game, notably expanding the range and consistency to his jump shot and improving his ball handling with Woody Souffrant, a Jefferson coach who starred at Grady and later Hofstra. Wright often led the break, to varying degrees of success, and played along the 3−point line, yet still muscles his way inside for layups.

“I’m changing, learning to play inside and out,” he said.

Wright, Coley and Grace will go their separate ways after the weekend, Wright and Cooley back to the Juice All−Stars and Grace with the Long Island Lightning. During this week, though, they have been together, even if they are all on separate teams. The three have made sure to keep close tabs on one another. They meet in times of inactivity, offering suggestions for the next go−around.

“We came from nothing to something,” Grace said. “We’re on the map now.”

Updated 3:34 pm, October 19, 2011
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