INDIANAPOLIS -- Derrick Caracter finds himself competing this week against some of America's best recruits - even though he has yet to put on a high school jersey.
For Caracter, it's an opportunity to blend in and prove in front of the nation's top college coaches and NBA scouts that at age 14, he's every bit as good as the other 200 or so campers in Indianapolis.
"I want people to say by the time I leave here that I'm not just a good eighth grader," Caracter said before the games started Monday afternoon. "I want them to say that I'm one of the top 15 players at the camp."
Caracter and Demond Carter are the first two middle schoolers to participate in the 16 Nike All-America Camps, but these two are no ordinary eighth-graders.
Carter, who is 5-foot-8 and 151 pounds, averaged 23 points and 5 assists playing for his high school varsity team, Reserve Christian in Laplace, La. He also was a first-team all-state selection.
Caracter presents an almost unfathomable image. At 6-9, 286 pounds, he is one of the largest players at Nike camp. He has a personal trainer and a man's face. He leg squats 350 pounds on one leg although he has not yet started doing bench presses because he's still growing.
Last season, at Terrill Middle School in Scotch Plains, N.J., Caracter put up monster numbers - 28 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists per game - against vastly undersized competition.
And while most of the players at this camp are busy narrowing their college choices, Caracter speaks of the day he could play for his dream team, St. John's - beginning in 2006.
"It's good competition here and it makes me better, as a person and as a basketball player," he said.
That players such as Caracter and Carter have arrived in Indianapolis for Nike's annual camp should not come as a surprise.
The trend in professional and college basketball has been toward finding younger players with greater potential.
Earlier this year, Ohio's LeBron James reportedly was considering skipping his senior season at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary so he could play in Europe next season while waiting to become eligible for the 2004 NBA draft. He later worked out with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were fined $150,000 and coach John Lucas drew a two-game suspension for allowing James to participate.
James is only the latest example in a long line of recent changes.
Of the top 10 picks in June's NBA draft, only three college juniors and no seniors were selected. That's forced college coaches to decide whether to pursue a DeJuan Wagner, who played one season of college ball, or an Amare Stoudemire, who committed to Memphis but skipped college altogether, or go after a player who might stick around a few years.
Now, it's the high schoolers turn to adjust.
"I think this is part of the trend," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team won the 2000 national championship and has lost three underclassmen to the NBA in the last two years. "I've recruited seventh graders, sixth graders, that's part of life. You just hope they come from good families."
Whether the inclusion of middle schoolers at the big-time camps, such as Nike in Indianapolis or ABCD in Teaneck, N.J., becomes a trend, remains uncertain.
Camp director George Raveling said Nike officials will address that issue later this year, although he does not believe the addition of incoming high school freshmen to a camp typically reserved for soon-to-be seniors and juniors will continue to grow.
"I suspect that if we determine there needs to be a more meaningful focus on kids who are 14 and under, we probably would prefer to have a venue that they compete in that stays in their age group rather than bringing in 10 or 15 eighth-graders to an event like this," Raveling said.
Still, Raveling, like college coaches and NBA scouts, cannot ignore the obvious: Basketball players are developing faster in the professional and college ranks.
And now, apparently, in middle school.
Raveling cites the physical and mental maturity of Caracter and Carter as reasons for why they were invited to the camp, which is suddenly making what once was unthinkable seem plausible.
"I get all different responses," Carter said, smiling. "People are like 'I can take you,' others stare at me like 'I can't believe you're in eighth grade.'
"I try to fit in, but that's kind of hard to do."
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