Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It has become a familiar summer ritual for Michael Brown.
The Wasatch High School guard gathers up his uniform and basketball shoes, hops into his car and makes a 45-minute drive from Heber to Salt Lake City in order to get in some quality time on the court.
There's a good reason behind making these frequent trips from home. For Brown, it gives him the opportunity to play AAU basketball and offers an avenue to give college coaches a good look at his game.
"The best way to get recruited and the best way to get better is to go out and play against the AAU competition," Brown said. "So I decided that in the long run I could get a lot more experience and a lot more skill behind me if I make the drive here every day."
Brown and his teammates on the Utah Pump N Run 17U Red Elite team are not only bolstering their own recruiting profile by playing in national AAU tournaments, they are also showing they can measure up quite well with many of the elite AAU squads they face outside of Utah.
PremierBall.com currently ranks the 17U Red Elite team at No. 8 overall among AAU programs in the Western United States. Competing in the highest brackets at many AAU tournaments, Utah Pump N Run has strung together a series of quarterfinal finishes — including most recently at the Best Buy Summer Classic in Minneapolis a week ago.
Rivals.com selected both Brown and Highland point guard Sam Orchard to the all-tournament team at the Best Buy Summer Classic.
Orchard said playing AAU ball at an elite level has been an eye-opener. It has also benefitted him tremendously in drawing notice from college coaches. Right now, schools like Utah State, Columbia, Bucknell, Princeton, Harvard and UC-Davis are showing interest in him.
"It gives you a chance to show what you can do," said Orchard, who has been playing even while healing from a broken thumb on his shooting hand. "And there's always a ton of coaches at all the tournaments. It's a good experience and good exposure."
Orchard is not the only player on the 17U Red Elite team being recruited by several Division I schools.
Brown received a scholarship offer from Weber State this month. And Springville center Matt Sumsion has scholarship offers from Bucknell and Colgate and is also drawing interest from Princeton, Richmond, UC-Davis, Utah State and Weber State.
Woods Cross center Austin Bankowski is drawing interest in two sports. Utah Valley is interested in him for basketball, while UCLA, Oregon and Utah are looking at him for baseball.
And the remainder of the roster is being recruited from schools at the Division I level down to the junior college ranks. Locally, Westminster, Dixie State and SLCC are actively pursuing several Utah Pump N Run players.
One reason for all the attention, Brown thinks, is how the team approaches AAU ball. Team success for them matters more than individual glory — a trait rarely found on most AAU teams.
"The way we do it is we play really well as a team, and I think a lot of coaches notice that about our team," Brown said. "Sometimes it's easy to beat these guys that are one-on-one all-stars because a lot of them can shoot, but we play team defense and team ball."
Jason Long, head coach of the 17U team, said these players fare well at several national tournaments, in part, because they make a commitment to improve their game. If there is an extra drill to be done or another shot to be taken, they will not hesitate to do it.
"They are the ones bugging me to practice more," Long said. "They are the ones saying, 'We'll drive. We'll do anything. We'll get there.' Which, obviously, says a lot about their commitment. And it's made my job very easy."
Playing AAU ball has aided each Utah Pump N Run player in adding a new wrinkle or two to their own game.
Orchard notes he has improved his quickness, shooting and dribbling going up against top point guards. Brown said he has developed a stronger pull-up, midrange jumper, since it is harder to drive to the hoop against good AAU teams than against the typical opponents he faces during the high school season.
Both players feel like it has helped make them more recruitable.
"It's tough to come out here and be a one-dimensional player," Brown said.
Playing AAU ball has meant a tremendous time commitment over the spring and summer for the players involved. The additional exposure outside of Utah and the skills they've gained or improved have made such an investment worthwhile.
Orchard, for one, believes that staying at home would have severely limited his opportunities to eventually play in college and prevent him from fulfilling a childhood goal.
"Out there you get so many more coaches watching," Orchard said. "Only in-state people would see me if I was just playing at Highland. So, it's been good to get out-of-state and let all the other coaches see what I can do."