Top players showcase skills with McDonald’s Games back on

CHICAGO (AP) — Dariq Whitehead looks forward to playing on coach Jon Scheyer’s first team at Duke next season.

He is determined to help continue the winning legacy established under Mike Krzyzewski and is ready to embrace that daunting challenge.

“That’s something we all look forward to doing,” Whitehead said.

While the Blue Devils gear up for a Final Four matchup with archrival North Carolina, Whitehead is getting ready to face some of the best high school players. The McDonald’s All-American Games are back after a two-year hiatus, with the top boys and girls showcasing their skills at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena on Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of greats who come here, a lot of legends who come here,” said Whitehead, a prized wing player from New Jersey who attends Montverde (Fla.) Academy. “To be a part of that culture and tradition is something you look forward to as a kid, and that’s something I always had a dream of. That’s something I got to check off the list my senior season.”

The event has been a showcase for some of the best players ever since its inception in 1977. It’s featured greats from Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Shaquille O’Neal to LeBron James. And after getting alled off because of the pandemic, it’s back for the first time since 2019.

It’s also, maybe in some small way, another sign of normalcy returning.

It’s hard to say exactly how high school sports participation numbers compare nationally to where they were before the pandemic, though there8 million to 9 million athletes competing, National Federation of State High School Activities Associations CEO Karissa Niehoff said.

Anecdotal evidence shows some fluctuation between sports.

For example, girls basketball participation has seen a decrease in recent years while there’s been an uptick in volleyball. Boys basketball has held steady.

The NFHS expects to be able to release a detailed participation survey for the 2021-22 year; it would be the first in two years.

“When we didn’t have sports as a country, as a society, we felt its absence,” Niehoff said, noting the physical and mental toll of the shutdown. “We felt this loss.”

Even elite players like Whitehead felt it. He wonders how much better he would be, as strange as that might sound given where he will be playing next season.

“I feel like I was starting to get better, be a better basketball player, and I feel like it impacted my development a lot to where I can be,” he said. “I’ve also improved a lot over the past couple of months, the past year. But I feel like I’d be farther along with my development if it wasn’t for the COVID years that I had to sit in my room and do nothing.”

Arizona-bound Paris Clark of Long Island Lutheran High School in New York echoed that. She also appreciates the opportunity to participate in a high-profile event that was canceled in recent years.

“It just means a lot to be able to be here and see people and interact with people and be back on the court,” she said.

Niehoff is glad to see showcase events like the McDonald’s games return even if they impact only a handful of players. But they do put a spotlight on the top athletes, some of whom may be looking at name, image or likeness endorsement deals.

“With the growing interest in NIL opportunities for students of all ages, those kinds of events, those high-profile things, get those kids out underneath the eyes of people that are recruiters,” Niehoff said. “They get them playing with elite competition. They bring some sort of larger scale excitement to watching games. And now they can even perhaps provide them with links to opportunities that are financial that are new.”

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