By: John Evans, Baltimore Sun
Playing as a member of the Slam City youth basketball team, Annapolis' Jaden Johnson will be traveling to Orlando, Florida, to play in the first-ever Jr. NBA World Championship tournament.
Promoted and organized by the NBA as the culmination to this year's Junior NBA program, the league bills the event as a "first-of-its kind" global youth basketball tournament for the top 14U girls' and boys' teams from around the world.
The event will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Competition for both boys and girls consists of two divisions comprised of 16 regional champions, eight from the U.S. and eight international teams. Pool play is Aug. 7-8, followed by single elimination play, leading to the winners of the U.S. and international brackets meeting in the championship games scheduled for Aug. 12.
"I'm really excited and can't wait to get there," said the 14-year-old Johnson, who has completed the eighth grade at Annapolis Middle School and is trying to decide on which prep school he will attend to continue his fledgling career.
Slam City qualified to be one of the eight teams making up the U.S. bracket by winning the Jr. NBA's Mid-Atlantic Regional. They played five games in the regional, winning the title game, 65-36 over East Coast Power, despite trailing by 14 points early.
"Of course, I hope that the team will play well enough to win the championship and that I will help with that. I also hope that I can show my skills, maybe catch the eye of some of the (coaches and scouts) there," added Johnson.
Johnson said he joined the Slam City team after being invited to by veteran coach Walter Webb, who is the founder and CEO of Slam City Management Group, an organization which offers yearround training, leagues, and AAU teams, for talented youngsters needing an opportunity to improve their skills and the tools and knowledge to get to the next level on and off the court.
Webb is also the head boys' coach at Trinity Christian School in Virginia. He previously coached elite programs at Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro, Coastal Christian Academy in Virginia Beach and Cornerstone Christian School in San Antonio. His resume boasts a career record of 685-35 and seven "national championships" over a 23-year coaching career for prep programs. His high school coaching record is 512-218 over the same period.
The Slam City team is based in Prince George's County, but team members come from other areas as well. Johnson is the only player from Anne Arundel County.
"I knew most of the players on the team from when I was younger and I either played on a team with them or played against them," said Johnson, who said he started playing organized youth basketball when he was 7-years old.
"To play for coach Webb was a great opportunity for me and playing with Slam City has made me a much better basketball player," added Johnson, whose uncle, Tony Johnson, was a teammate of Webb's at Bishop McNamara High School.
Webb said he knew about Johnson long before he became his coach.
"I've seen Jaden play many, many times and he is an outstanding and talented player and a great kid as well," Webb said. "More recently, I have seen him in the Premier Youth Basketball League. I have known about him and been watching him for a long time. Seeing him play and watching his demeanor, I thought he would be a great addition to our team. One of his greatest attributes is his humility."
Johnson said he isn't sure yet where he wants to attend high school, but Webb predicted a bright future for the 5-foot-11 guard.
"Jaden is a great representative for the talent that's in Anne Arundel County," Webb added. "Wherever he chooses to go, the coaching staff at that school is going to get a great player and a great kid."
Johnson has had two strong role models in his father, Johnnie Johnson, and brother, Jerrel Johnson.
"My father and brother have been big influences on me. They have helped me by pushing me and passing on their knowledge. They encourage me a lot to hustle and do my best all the time," said Johnson, who added that his mother, Dellisha, is a huge vocal supporter.
Webb credited Johnson's defense as one of the key factors in Slam City's championship game comeback. Playing 23 minutes, Johnson had five points, two steals and a rebound. Johnson played in all eight games in the regional, totaling 64 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists. In Slam City's 78-42 semifinal game win, he had nine points and four rebounds.
Johnson both started and came off the bench for Slam City.
"He is in kind of a Catch-22 situation," Webb said. "He can play both the one and the two (guard). I prefer starting him, but he provides a big spark coming off the bench. He makes us a better team off the bench. His defensive pressure in the championship was a key to our comeback. Jaden is a real talent, but each game is different. I use him depending on the situation."
Johnson's favorite player is Russell Westbrook and his favorite team is the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he said he looked forward to meeting the many current and former NBA players who will be on hand at activities scheduled around the games.
These activities begin Sunday with a celebratory parade at the Magic Kingdom. WNBA President Lisa Borders, two-time NBA all-star Andre Drummond and WNBA legend Jennifer Azzi will walk in the parade.
On Monday, an event titled Developing the Total Athlete will be held with such past and current NBA stars as Grant Hill, Jason Collins, Nick Anderson, Bo Outlaw, Quintin Richardson and Brook Lopez participating with the kids. There is also a coaches' clinic, a skills clinic, 3-point contest and dunk exhibition for the participants. A Youth Day of Service is also scheduled.
Current NBA free agent Dwyane Wade and Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker are the global ambassadors for the Jr. NBA World Championship and should also be in attendance.
Most important of all, of course, is the basketball – and the chance it gives the youth to test their talent against the best players in the world their same age.
"I think it is going to be great! I'm so excited to get the chance to play against the top players in the country and the world," said Johnson, who said he aspires to play college basketball – his favorite school is Villanova.
He's also confident about his team's ability to compete with teams from Seattle, Dallas and Detroit that Slam City will play in pool play. Those games are scheduled for 4:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Aug. 7 and 1 p.m. om Aug. 8
"We have a lot of talent and we're very disciplined. Coach pushes us hard in practice to be the best we can be. It's a great opportunity," said Johnson. "I'm excited about the chance to show how good we are."
Webb said he is glad the NBA decided to expand its three-year-old Jr. NBA program to include a World Championship tournament.
"It's a great experience for the kids, and a great experience for me, but mostly the kids," he said. "If these kids want to go further as players, they need this kind of experience.
"The NBA and Jr. NBA have done a great job, this event is in a class by itself," Webb added. "And with this being the first time for many things, it makes it really special."
Updated on August 6, 2018 with high school coaching record