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Camden aiming to help Memphis return to the spotlight

10/06/2020, 10:00am EDT
By Josh Verlin

John Camden (above) is spending his senior year at Brewster Academy (N.H.). (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

John Camden was just a little too young to remember watching Penny Hardaway’s impressive NBA career. Hardaway, who made four NBA All-Star teams and was a two-time All-NBA First Team selection, retired in 2007, when Camden was only five years old. 

Even if Camden had remembered watching the former No. 3 overall selection and Memphis native stand out at the highest level of professional basketball for 14 seasons, he wasn’t going to let past success influence his future decisions.

“I tried to look at it from the perspective of I’m not talking to Penny Hardaway, I’m talking to the head coach of the University of Memphis,” Camden said by phone Friday night. “So I tried to not get too wrapped up in the fact of who he is, but rather look at him as just the head coach. 

“And I think that actually helped me because then I was able to really evaluate his vision for me as a head coach, and not just as Penny Hardaway.”

As it turned out, the vision that Hardaway and his staff were selling to Camden worked. The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Downingtown native made the Tigers his college choice last week, picking Memphis over Nebraska and Virginia Tech.

“They made me a priority, especially later on in the recruitment, the last 4-5 months they really hit home,” said Camden, who gave Memphis assistant Cody Toppert a good deal of credit for developing those key relationships. “Their pitch was that no other school is going to give me a better chance of getting to the league than they will. 

“They said ‘we’re going to put you in that position to be successful, you’re going to be on the floor as a freshman and you’re going to be surrounded by other really good players.’”

Also happening just before Camden became fully aware of the basketball landscape was Memphis' powerful run under John Calipari in the late 00s, when the Tigers made three straight Elite 8s and the 2008 National Championship game. It doesn't seem like those seasons were that far back, but to Camden it's all the past.

"All I was aware of [before they started recruiting me] is that I knew they had history, and I knew that it was a basketball school," he said. "Other than that, (nothing)."

Camden, who’d been at Archbishop Carroll for the last two years, is spending his final year of high school at New England prep powerhouse Brewster Academy (N.H.). The co-ed boarding school’s prep basketball team has produced 17 NBA players under 21st-year head coach Jason Smith, including Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton, who played his two years of college ball at Memphis from 2010-12.

And while Smith didn’t want to make any comparisons between Camden and any of the Brewster standouts who came before until he was able to see the Philly-area product outside of intrasquad practices, he was clearly impressed with the big wing.

“He’s really got a great understanding of the game, he knows how to play,” Smith said. “He’s been very vocal in a positive way in the couple months he’s been here thus far, so I’m excited to have the opportunity to coach him.”

Spending a year in the small town of Wolfeboro, N.H. (population: 6,400) wasn’t a move Camden had intended to make before COVID, but the uncertain future of the 2020-21 season and whether or not Archbishop Carroll would even be open made him look for his best possible option to get ready for high-level college hoops. After missing his entire 17U summer with Team Final on the Nike EYBL circuit, Camden thought the daily competition on the deep Brewster program would be a suitable backup plan even if the team wasn’t able to play any games.

“I didn’t want to be in that same situation where I’m just trying to find gyms to work out at by myself and doing online school, I wanted to go somewhere where I would still be able to compete,” he said. “And even if there wasn’t a season up here, I’d still be going against ten Division I guys in practice every day.”

Camden’s best and most noticeable asset is his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter, with a wide-stanced shot that looks like he’s guiding the ball right towards the hoop rather than chucking it up towards the sky. He’s improved his ability to attack the basket and finish through contact over the years, but he’s still got work to do on his body to get ready to absorb the kind of physicality he’ll take at the next level. 

“I think the one that that jumps out is his passion for the game, his work ethic,” Smith said. “He’s someone that loves to be in the gym, loves to be in the weight room. I think as he continues to develop his strength, it’ll really pay dividends to his overall game.”

Camden is part of a three-man 2021 class which is ranked No. 9 in the country by 24/7 Sports, which rated Hardaway’s first recruiting class in 2019 the No. 1 class in the country. Along with Camden, the Tigers have commitments from two other wings, Josh Minott (St. Andrew’s School, Fl.) and Jordan Nesbitt (St. Louis Christian Academy, Mo.). 

As a consensus top-150 player in his class who’s been on high-major radars ever since he was a freshman at Westtown, one might think Camden is used to those kinds of mentions. 

“Oh, no,” he said. “It’s dope. Once you get to college, obviously, all that ranking stuff is done, none of it matters whatsoever. But it’s still really cool to know going in that you have one of the best classes in the country. And I guarantee we’ll be closer to the top five when it’s all said and done.”

Though Minott (6-8, 175) and Nesbitt (6-6, 180) are similar in size and length to Camden, he wasn’t concerned about the squeeze for minutes on the perimeter. 

“They have that Brad Stevens/Boston Celtics mindset where they have Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the floor, so they’re totally comfortable and actually prefer playing with three if not four tall guards or wings on the floor at the same time,” he said. 

Camden said he’s considering majoring in broadcasting, just like his sister Anna, a sophomore at Penn State on their women’s basketball team. They come from a family of athletes: their sisters Meg (Ohio State) and Heather (Drexel) both played college lacrosse, and their mom Susan played hoops at William & Mary.

Though they’ll surely travel plenty to see their youngest child play, Camden’s family will also get a chance to see him locally. As a member of the American Athletic Conference, Memphis will visit Temple at least every other season; the Tigers didn’t come to Philadelphia this past season but had in each of the previous four years. 

“That’s definitely a plus for sure,” he said. “I know all my friends and family will be at those games, not to mention I’m just playing in Philly, where I grew up playing.”

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