Pasco County and the greater Tampa Bay region isn’t really known for its basketball prowess, but that reputation, or lack thereof, may soon change.
Pursuing dreams of playing professional basketball, a large group of athletes recently dropped by Wesley Chapel, of all places.
More than 40 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft-eligible hopefuls descended upon the area to showcase their athleticism and hoops skills in the inaugural Tampa Bay Pro Combine (TBPC), held June 3 through June 5, at the AdventHealth Sports Arena at Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.
The elite-level hoopers — many from recognizable high and mid-major NCAA Division I programs — dribbled, dunked, jumped, shot and passed their way into the eyes and impressions of various NBA and international coaches and scouts.
Several names may be familiar from deep runs in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball March Madness tournament, such as University of Southern California guard Tahj Eaddy, University of Houston forward Justin Gorham, and University of Loyola-Chicago center Cameron Krutwig, among others.
The local hoops combine was designed to give exposure to players for the 2021 NBA Draft on July 29, or merely get on the radar as undrafted signees or internationally.
The three-day event featured drills, games (5-on-5, 2-on-2 and 3-on-3), athletic testing and measurements, as well as a 3-point shootout, dunk contest and more.
The player selection committee was led by ESPN television analyst Fran Fraschilla and BasketballNews.com NBA Draft analyst Matt Babcock, who were there to evaluate players during the weekend.
The competition came together in a matter of about six weeks, seeking to replicate the Virginia-based Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a long-running hoops combine event canceled a second straight year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Darryl Hepburn, a former Leto High and Hillsborough Community College basketball standout who played professionally throughout Asia, co-founded the TBPC with Rashaad Ubah, a former sports talent agent who played college hoops at the University of California-Irvine and Chaminade University of Honolulu.
Hepburn, Ubah and others quickly leveraged their connections with players, agents, coaches and media outlets to make the TBPC a go.
“There’s a void that was needed (to be filled),” Ubah told The Laker/Lutz News on the event’s first day.
“We thought that Tampa Bay was the perfect place, just because of the setting. Honestly, the (basketball) scouts want to come down here,” he said.
Naturally, they targeted the brand-new Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus as a locale.
The 98,000-square-foot facility offers eight full-size basketball courts, including a center spine separating courts, as well as an athletic training center and second-level mezzanine for bird’s eye viewing.
“It was a big team effort of people who had different reaches in different areas,” said RADD Sports CEO Richard Blalock, whose private company is charged with managing the sports complex’s day-to-day operations. “We went on board with them to help them provide the facility and help them any way we could.”
The Pasco Tourist Development Council also leaped in as title sponsor, spending $50,000. Besides providing residents and basketball lovers a tangible event, participating players combined have millions of social media followers, garnering nationwide attention to Pasco and its tourism arm, Experience Florida’s Sports Coast (FSC).
Adam Thomas, FSC’s tourism director, put it like this: “It really expands the professionalism of Florida’s sports coast and provides another level of exposure that we couldn’t create without the partnership of the Tampa Bay Pro Combine.
“This actually gives Florida’s Sports Coast and Pasco County that professional look that we’ve been looking for, outside of our youth and amateur events.”
The expectation is to make the TBPC an annual affair “for the next 20 or 30 years, if possible,” Ubah said, dependent upon the community’s level of support.
The long-term vision for the event is to create a hoops hub of sorts at the Wiregrass Sports Campus, attracting college, professional and international players to maintain a training residency there for anywhere from a week to a month — staying at adjacent hotels.
“We feel like it’s a place where we can bring basketball down here, the same way that (Major League Baseball) Spring Training is here,” Ubah said. “We want this to be something that’s here every year, and something that we can get the community involved with, especially in Pasco County that doesn’t necessarily have professional sports, so this is a chance to get those communities and kids integrated to something that’s tangible,” he said.
Quade Green, who took part in the combine, was the leading scorer at the University of Washington this past season, at 15.4 points per game.
The 6-foot guard and former McDonald’s All-American used the event as a chance to face “good competition,” particularly to show scouts he can handle long-limbed wings and big guards.
“I’m trying to play to my strengths,” Green said, “see what I can get better on.”
Like others, it was his first time stepping into the Wiregrass Sports Campus. He came away impressed with the state-of-the-art digs.
“This is a beautiful gym,” Green said. “Lot of great players here, great people around you, too. They’ve got connections. Life connections, too, for the long run.”
Sterling Manley’s hoops career at the University of North Carolina was often burdened by injuries, including surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee. He missed all of the 2019-2020 season.
The 6-foot-11-inch center from Pickerington, Ohio, ventured to TBPC to demonstrate he’s healthy and can still hold his own against other top-notch bigs.
“I think the biggest thing is just showcasing my skills and being able to be around good talent and a good group,” Manley said, “and just playing against good competition and showing I belong.”
Manley came away pleased with the entire showcase.
He referenced the “very nice” facility, plus organizers bringing in BAM (Basic Athletic Measurement) electronic sensor tracking technology. It provides accurate athletic assessments on sprint speed, agility and vertical jumps, he said.
“We get good testing, legit numbers and measurements,” he added.
Another bonus? “The hotel’s only a walk away,” Manley said, “so everything’s in a good distance.”
Former University of Tampa star Mark Borders was among several instructors on hand, guiding players through various skills and drills, such as pick and roll situations.
Pinpoint passing is an area he knows a thing or two about, as the Division II program’s all-time career assists leader, tallying 649 total from 2003 to 2006.
Borders detailed how the event provides an outlet for overlooked but solid pro prospects, while also giving basketball lovers — particularly college hoops fans rooting for a player from their favorite program — an opportunity to watch high-end talent either in-person or via livestream.
“It’s a historical event, giving these kids an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
For information, visit TampaBayProCombine.com.
Tampa Bay Pro Combine rosters
Jahvon Blair (Georgetown University)
Nojel Eastern (Howard University)
Ethan Esposito (Sacramento State University)
Loren Jackson (University of Akron)
Sterling Manley (University of North Carolina)
Obadiah Noel (University of Massachusetts — Lowell)
Nate Reuvers (University of Wisconsin)
Terry Taylor (Austin-Peay University)
Andre Melendez (None)
Coach: James Posey
Giorgi Bezhanishvili (University of Illinois)
Chudier Bile (Georgetown University)
Ryan Daly (St. Joseph’s University)
Jimma Gatwech (Core4 Atlanta)
Javion Hamlet (University of North Texas)
Jalen Johnson (Mississippi State University)
Micah Potter (University of Wisconsin)
Justin Turner (Bowling Green State University)
Brandon Williams (University of Arizona)
Coach: Xavier Silas
Troy Baxter (Morgan State University)
Manny Camper (Siena University)
Tahj Eaddy (University of Southern California)
Jordan Goodwin (Saint Louis University)
Loudon Love (Wright State University)
Ashbjorn Mitgaard (Grand Canyon University)
Chandler Vaudrin (Winthrop University)
Keith Williams (University of Cincinnati)
Coach: Bob MacKinnon
Mitch Ballock (Creighton University)
Jayvon Graves (University of Buffalo)
Quade Green (University of Washington)
Cameron Krutwig (University of Loyola-Chicago)
Makuach Maluach (University of New Mexico)
Joel Ntambwe (Texas Tech University)
Jordy Tshimanga (University of Dayton)
Richard Washington (San Jose State University)
Coach: Doc Martin
Marcus Burk (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)
Hasahn French (Saint Louis University)
DJ Funderburk (North Carolina State University)
Justin Gorham (University of Houston)
Justin Jaworski (Lafayette College)
Damien Jefferson (Creighton University)
Clay Mounce (Furman University)
D’Mitrik Trice (University of Wisconsin)
Coach: Jesus Verdejo
Published June 09, 2021