3 Flyers get NBA-level playing experience in L.A.

Malachi Smith’s high school coach arranges opportunity at Rico Hines Runs

Three Dayton Flyers men’s basketball players — Malachi Smith, DaRon Holmes II and Mustapha Amzil — enjoyed the summer basketball experience of a lifetime last week in Los Angeles.

The three played in the Rico Hines Runs, a series of games held every year at UCLA’s Student Activities Center. Chris Williams, an assistant coach at St. Raymond High School for Boys, Smith’s alma mater in Bronx, N.Y., arranged the opportunity, which came between the end of Dayton’s summer practice season and the start of classes at UD on Monday.

“In a nutshell, Rico is one of my best friends and also a mentor of mine,” Williams said Wednesday, “and he also used to coach at St. John’s, and when he was coaching at St. John’s, Malachi was 7, 8, 9 years old going to the St. John’s basketball camp.”

Hines, who’s now an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors, played at UCLA from 1997-02 and coached at St. John’s from 2010-15 under Steve Lavin. He then worked as an assistant coach for the Reno Bighorns, a Sacramento Kings affiliate in the NBA G League, from 2016-19. Whenever the Kings came to New York City to play the Knicks or Nets, he would leave tickets for Williams and Smith’s family. He always encouraged Smith and gave him feedback. Smith’s appearance at the Rico Hines Runs had been in the works for four or five years, Williams said.

Holmes and Amzil heard of Smith’s opportunity. Williams was able to get all three in the games, which featured a number of NBA players and college stars on the same floor where UCLA coaching legend John Wooden once trained Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known as Lew Alcindor during his college days.

“You have three courts running at the same time,” Williams said. “You have a main court in the middle, which starts off with like NBA veterans and high-level overseas guys. Then you have the loser’s court, which is to the left of the main court and then you have the loser-loser court, which generally starts off with the college guys. If you win on the loser-loser court, you get to the second court, which is the loser’s court. If you win on the loser’s court, you move to the main court.”

The first team to seven wins, but they have to secure the victory by making a free throw. There are no 3-pointers. Every basket is worth one point.

Williams said Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson started the pickup games in the 1980s, and Hines restarted the games eight or nine years ago with two other former UCLA stars, Baron Davis and Earl Watson.

“Magic, when he started it, he wanted the runs to feel like the last five or six minutes of every game,” Hines said. “Earl put an emphasis on, ‘Hey, you guys can’t jump on the court thinking you have a whole game. You’ve got to get to seven.’”

The NBA players use the games to get their bodies back in shape after time off earlier in the summer.

“Draymond Green said it best,” Williams said. “He thanked Rico for providing a real basketball atmosphere where it’s not about who’s in the gym or the Hollywood stuff. It’s about everyone pushing and teaching the younger guys and everybody just trying to get better. That’s the whole focus. Rico’s whole mindset and mission is, ‘Let’s pack some positive days together, and let’s get better. Let’s push each other.’ It’s like a competitive fellowship.

“Lou Williams (a 17-year NBA veteran) came in. He’s a free agent. He called Rico up and was like, ‘Man, I need to get in shape. I need to see where I’m at.’ He got his flight out there, came out with his family for about 10 days and his focus was, ‘I need to get ready for training camp. I need to play.’ There’s no greater runs than those because it’s really high level, intense and just focused on competition.”

The Dayton players won two games on the main court one day, beating a team that included Green and another team featuring Fred VanVleet, of the Raptors.

“It was really good to watch those guys and see the chemistry they had on the court,” Williams said. “They were able to get some positive feedback from Paul George (of the Los Angeles Clippers) and Patrick Beverley (of the Utah Jazz) and Kevin Punter, who played at Tennessee and is from New York is one of the highest-paid players in Europe. He was like the unofficial host for Malachi. It was just a great opportunity to get some time in that pro setting and really see what a professional offseason is like as guys are gearing up for the NBA season.”

Williams witnessed how much Smith’s game has grown since he arrived at Dayton about 14 months ago.

“He plays to win,” Williams said. “That helps him out tremendously. From a physical standpoint, he was right there. From a mental standpoint and playmaking standpoint, he was right there. His goal now is just make sure he can make a consistent outside shot. Rico had some great feedback for him. He was like, ‘His game is there. He made some incredible reads, some high-level plays. He defended older guys, pros.’ The biggest compliment he got was from Rico and some of the guys in the gym was he’s just a sponge.”

Holmes, Dayton’s leading scorer last season as a freshman, and Amzil, one of the key reserves in his second season at UD, also impressed Williams.

“It was good for DaRon because he had to expand his game a little bit,” Williams said. “He made some outside shots. He competed at a high level. He was very active, talking. He really showed a high level of competitiveness. Mustapha, he showed that he can really score the ball and make some tough shots. He has a good skill set and good size for the next level.”

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