LAS VEGAS — Four years ago, D’Angelo Russell and Devin Booker stood on this same court, watching off to the side while dressed in matching blue polos and white shorts.
Now, they wear “USA” across their chests as they compete on the UNLV hardwood against some of the best players in the world.
In 2012, Russell and Booker were part of a group of high schoolers who were able to sit in on a U.S. National Team practice before it went off to London for the Olympics. This year, as members of the USA Select Team, the young guards were tasked with scrimmaging the current crop of American Olympians.
“When we were here four years ago, we always knew that we’d be in this situation,” Booker said. “Obviously I didn’t know it’d be this early, but we’re blessed and fortunate enough of the opportunity.”
Booker was just 15 at the time, but both he and Russell, then-16, were confident that they would someday be playing against the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, whom they watched with awe that day.
“It was unbelievable just seeing the level they were on,” Booker said. “I couldn’t imagine just playing against them. Now it’s crazy that I got the chance to play against Kobe and LeBron and everybody like that.”
Russell and Booker had actually met a year prior at the Nike Elite 100 Camp for some of the best high school players in the nation.
What began as an on-court rivalry rapidly evolved into an off-the-floor friendship that lasts to this day.
“We met each other at this camp and we dominated the camp,” Russell said. “Every since then, everywhere we went we dominated together. Either he was on a different team or I was on a different team. You would hear his name somewhere and you would hear my name somewhere.”
From there, as Russell put it, the two saw “each other blossom,” as both finished their time in high school as top-20 recruits, according to ESPN.
Despite Russell playing at Montverde Academy outside of Orlando and Booker attending Moss Point High in Mississippi, the two remained close. In his one year at Ohio State, Russell never crossed paths with Booker and Kentucky on the court, but their connection still didn’t take a hit.
“Now it’s definitely bigger than basketball between us,” Booker said. “We’ve done vacations together. I know his brothers, his family. I know his mind. It’s a friendship that’ll last forever.”
Keeping in contact is obviously easier in the age of social media and cell phones, but it also helps that Russell and Booker remained on parallel paths from coveted high school prospects to lottery picks to key members of the NBA’s future.
“I feel like we’re similar people,” Russell said. “Our input, our opinions, the way we go about our business, our dedication — I feel like we’re similar. So it’s easy to cope with a guy like that and just grow with him.”
Growth has been the key concept with both players, who are central to the futures of the Lakers and Phoenix Suns.
Booker says that Russell has been especially locked in over the past few months, saying “he’s going to be out for a mission next year,” after an up-and-down rookie season that culminated with being named Second Team All-Rookie.
Russell, on the other hand, has seen his good friend persevere through similar obstacles and come through as one of the NBA’s most exciting prospects.
“I’ve seen him go through tough times in college and I’ve seen him dominate,” Russell said. “To be here and be one of the young guys who is a face of his franchise — I’m a fan.”
Likewise, Booker considers himself “really proud” of Russell and the way he has grown from spectator at that USA camp in 2012 to participant in 2016.
That journey seems especially fast-tracked considering how Russell was then known primarily as the center of a viral video.
After the National Team finished practiced that day, Blake Griffin threw down an insane dunk, leading the teenager to stare wide-eyed into the camera and say the often-quoted line: “He ain’t even stretch doe.”
Now, the funny kid on YouTube is a central figure in the Lakers’ blueprint for the future. But for Booker, that day is still remembered simply as a cool experience for a group of high schoolers to share together.
“It was crazy,” Booker said. “It got bigger like a year later when it got viral on Twitter and things. The crazy part was he really didn’t stretch. He actually threw it off the backboard and went between his legs without stretching. It was unbelievable.”