NEW YORK — While Victor Wembanyama addressed a throng of reporters at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, five floors above him were three lottery picks laughing in a conference room. The source of their amusement: Kentucky guard Cason Wallace’s hair, circa 2018.
“I didn’t realize it was him,” Kansas wing Gradey Dick said. “I was like looking back at the pictures. And then he posted this video and it was him making a layup. I looked closer and I was like, ‘What?’ A whole different hairdo and everything.”
Houston forward Jarace Walker concurred: “I didn’t know that was him, bro. ‘Cause the headband threw me off like crazy, bro.”
Leading up to the 2023 NBA Draft, Wallace retweeted numerous clips and photos from the 2018 Jr. NBA Global Championship, a 32-team tournament evenly split between boys and girls teams and U.S. and international teams. Wallace played for a Dallas-based AAU squad that qualified by winning the U.S. South regional tournament. Walker played for an AAU team based in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, that won the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region. Dick’s team, from Overland Park, Kansas, won the U.S. Central tournament and then the whole thing, beating the team that represented Africa and the Middle East in the championship game.
They were all 14-years old, at which point it was novel for them to be at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, playing in televised games. It was “an awesome experience,” Walker said, to simply see people “walking around with the NBA logo on their shirts.” He remembers being in the presence of players “that you play in 2K with, that you watch highlights of on the NBA page.” He took a team picture with Dwyane Wade, and he saw Vince Carter and Grant Hill up close.
“It’s just the place you dream of as a kid,” Walker said. “And the first step to getting there was the Jr. NBA. Just experiencing that platform, that atmosphere, that environment. Especially with people around the world hooping. It was definitely a whole different vibe from anything I’d ever played in.”
Walker, already an otherworldly athlete, made headlines on skills night by dunking over a teammate:
“I didn’t even plan it or nothing,” Walker said. “It kind of just came in my mind, I just decided to try it. I feel like that’s what dunk contests are about. Just having fun and trying stuff. So I did it, it worked out. Just being so young and it going viral, it was just more motivation than anything, I would say, just to keep going, to just see how far I could take it.”
Wallace said that, even back then, Walker “had pretty much everything, like the full package. He could shoot it, he could get by you. If you get on his hip, it’s over with, he’s at the rim. He was strong.” Amazing as it was to see a player that young pull off that dunk, Wallace wasn’t exactly surprised. “That wasn’t my first time seeing him. I already knew what time it was, for real.”
About himself, though, he was less effusive. “I wasn’t the best shooter,” Wallace said. “I didn’t hardly ever shoot. And if I did, it was a midrange pull-up. Probably a catch-and-shoot midrange.” Laughter filled the conference room. “That’s crazy. Catch and shoot midrange is crazy. I wasn’t shooting the 3 like that. I, for sure, wasn’t breaking nobody down. So it was just a lot of developing for me.”
To advance to the championship game, Dick’s team beat Wallace’s.
“I didn’t really know who he was at the time,” Wallace said. “But yeah, I found out that game: Shooter. I feel like we were winning for the most part, and then me being me, I fouled out in like the last few minutes of the game and we lost. I was sick.”
The level of competition was “eye-opening,” said Dick, who did not take the opportunity to talk trash about the result. Dick didn’t normally play for the PowerGroup AAU team, but joined for Jr. NBA because it needed an extra body — one of its players was over the age limit.
“I was definitely more of an all-around player back then,” Dick said. “I didn’t shoot as much.”
“So my assessment was wrong,” Wallace said.
“But I feel like you could always shoot,” Walker said.
“Yeah, no, I could,” Dick said.
“So my assessment was right,” Wallace said. “He’s talking like he was trash! We was saying you were a shooter.”
“You could always shoot, bro,” Walker said.
If he could talk to his 14-year-old self about the five years that followed, Dick said he’d tell him to “enjoy it more,” and not to “stress about going into the next camp or tournament.” Wallace and Walker enthusiastically echoed the sentiment.
“It all goes by so fast,” Walker said. “We don’t realize in the moment, but it’s surreal. Like looking back, even like McDonald’s, Hoop Summit, all those different types of events, it was such a fun time but we were just so focused on performing that we ain’t even get to really take it all in.”
For Walker, some of the most memorable parts of the Jr. NBA Global Championship were away from the court: Connecting with fellow elite prospects, playing table tennis and NBA 2K with players from India and Africa in the game room.
On the cusp of the biggest day of their young careers, it’s no wonder that all three are thinking about being present. “In two days we’ve done like 50 interviews,” Dick said. “In between those is kind of where you make memories, too. ‘Cause you’re with other dudes you grew up playing with. If you’re just worried about it being done and dreading staying there any longer, you’re kind of missing out on little things that you can actually enjoy and have fun with it.”
If there’s ever a time to reminisce with your peers, this is it.
“I feel like that’s one of the best parts,” Walker said. “Being able to see all the guys that you were hooping with, hooping against, like from years ago. It’s really crazy we was hooping against each other in the Jr. NBA and we were 14. It’s crazy how far we’ve come.”