BY PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON —
Braden Fitzjerrells spent his freshman basketball season traveling around southern Illinois with the Rams.
This spring and summer he's been traveling around the country with the St. Louis Eagles 15u AAU basketball team.
“It's an experience of a lifetime,” Fitzjerrells said. “You get to see the best of the best. You get to see some 17u players that are going to colleges like Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, North Carolina – all the big schools”
The Eagles schedule includes stops in Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia. July will be another busy month with journeys to South Carolina and Kansas City.
“It's kind of like living the dream of a college athlete or an NBA player,” Fitzjerrells said.
AAU teams have become synonymous with summer basketball, but the Eagles have a reputation of producing some top players during their history. Ben McLemore, who was drafted fifth overall in the recent NBA draft, is an alum of the Eagles. Current NBA players Tyler Hansbrough, Bradley Beal and David Lee also played for the St. Louis AAU squad.
“When you get a chance to play with a team like the St. Louis Eagles, that's a great opportunity,” Mt. Vernon coach Scott Gamber said. “Because anybody can play AAU basketball, there's a million different AAU teams out there, but the Eagles are a well-known team.”
Fitzjerrells currently plays for the 15 and under White team. Teammates mostly include high schoolers from Missouri and Illinois. Former Marion player Aaron Aaron Adeoye along with O'Fallon's Roosevelt Jones are recent products of the Eagles as well.
Fitzjerrells spent his freshman season at Mt. Vernon and started most of the season at point guard. He drew the attention of the travel team at Effingham in late February. The Rams lost the game, but the freshman exploded for 26 points to lead all scorers and despite giving up numerous inches to most players on the court, finished with six rebounds.
Both Gamber and Fitzjerrells were approached about the AAU team. Gamber said he was familiar with the outfit from former teammate Kent Williams' high school playing days. Williams, Mt. Vernon's all time leading scorer, played for the Eagles toward the end of his high school career. Fitzjerrells participated in a tryout and made the team.
This offseason Fitzjerrells has had days where he participates in Mt. Vernon's open gym followed by an Eagles practice later in the evening. He said he doesn't feel the physical strain.
“As much stuff as I go to just makes me better,” he said. “I'm a kid.
“Kids have tons of energy, we can bounce back. It's not like we're old and we get really, really sore the next day.”
Gamber said Fitzjerrells' commitment to the Rams activities has been just as focused despite playing with the AAU team.
“Braden has not missed a summer event with us wether it be weightlifting, CrossFit, open gym, contact day, games,” Gamber said. “He comes to everything. He has really worked on his skill. So him playing with the Eagles is just that much better because he's getting to work on his skill.”
Even after a couple months of work with the team, Fitzjerrells said he notices changes in his play.
“I realized it after the first few practices,” he said. “My ball handling has gotten way better. My dad's even told me my ball handling's gotten tons better. Definitely my confidence has gone up.
“I'm ready to come back and lead the team to, hopefully, to a successful season.”
The Eagles travel to Augusta, South Carolina July 10-14 for the Nike Elite Youth Invitational.