June 21, 2024


Exercise makes you strong

Powder League: Top Utah collegians, pros play in unique pro-am league

Rayjon Tucker of the Philadelphia 76ers, a former Utah Jazz reserve, gathers in a rebound, dribbles the length of the floor, tosses the ball off the glass to himself and slams it home.

The crowd of 1,000 or so goes wild, and some even run onto the court for an impromptu celebration at American Preparatory Academy in Draper.

Moments later, Tucker sticks a 35-footer in the eye of former University of Utah star Rylan Jones, who is transferring to Utah State. Jones immediately calls for the ball from one of his Team Egan teammates and returns the favor, swishing a 3-pointer with Tucker defending him and getting a smile and nod of approval from the former Jazz player.

Welcome to the Powder League, a summer pro-am basketball league featuring 12 teams loaded with current and former local college stars, a few NBA players and many professionals who are making a living playing overseas.

“It’s an absolute blast to play in this,” Jones said last Friday after his team lost to Tucker’s Team Roberts in a competitive, high-scoring and highly entertaining game. “I mean, I am out there trying to guard a guy who is in the ‘League’ (the NBA). How good is that?”

Jones lives in Logan now and can’t make every game on Team Egan’s schedule, but when he found out he and teammates such as longtime pro Tony Roberts, former Highland High and Weber State star Steve Panos and former Olympus star Jeremy Dowdell, a BYU commit, were scheduled to play against Tucker and company, he couldn’t let the opportunity pass.

Rayjon Tucker, former Utah Jazz player and current Philadelphia 76ers point guard, plays in a Powder League basketball game at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Friday, June 25, 2021.

Rayjon Tucker, former Utah Jazz player and current Philadelphia 76ers point guard, plays in a Powder League basketball game at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Friday, June 25, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“I am like, ‘I am going to do everything in my power to play in that game,’” Jones said. “You do it to get better and try to compete with guys in the league. (Tucker) got me good a couple times. But I learned from it. I just tried to compete with him. It is all good. It was super fun.”

Powder League games began June 15 and will run through the middle of August. Games are held at 7 and 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at the school at 431 West 11915 South in Draper. Admission is $10 per session.

Schedules for the coming week’s games are posted on Mondays on the league’s Instagram page, along with rosters of all 12 teams.

“It brings a group of guys together that don’t usually get to play against each other,” said former Ute Jordan Loveridge, a member of Team Roberts who has played professionally in Europe the past five seasons. “It is one of the best runs around that you are going to get in the summer.”

Teams are named after their captains — guys like former Ute Tim Drisdom, former BYU big man Payton Dastrup and former Utah State standout Danny Berger are among those who rounded up teams this year.

Speaking of Team Berger, the group that will include Sam Merrill when the Milwaukee Bucks are finished playing in the NBA playoffs defeated Team Joyce on Friday night behind 36 points from former Ute Parker Van Dyke. Team Joyce will eventually include Frank Jackson of the Detroit Pistons when he becomes available and already features former BYU stars Yoeli Childs and Zac Seljaas.

Team Berger lost to Team Roberts in the championship game last year, but has added current Ute Riley Battin to its roster.

Battin scored 41 points and had 22 rebounds in a Week 1 game. He had 30 last Friday, while often going up against Childs, who played for the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate Erie BayHawks this past season.

Childs had 30 points and 18 rebounds in the losing effort.

“First off, this is a lot of fun,” said Van Dyke, who played in Tallinn, Estonia, last winter. “It is good competition. You stay in shape. You keep your skills up to par and yeah, if any opportunities to play somewhere come out of it, that is great. But I think that is just a bonus.”

‘A big AAU game for grown men’

The league is the brainchild of Keegan Rembacz and Neema Namdar, friends who decided a year ago to form organized “runs” for high-level basketball players returning to Utah for the summer. Runs are what serious basketball players call pick-up games.

Rembacz is “just a guy who loves basketball” and never played organized ball after his junior year of high school, while Namdar prepped at Alta High and played collegiately at Southern Utah, USU-Eastern and Hawaii Pacific University before graduating from HPU with a degree in communications and international studies. He recently finished his first season of professional basketball in Brazil.

“I would call it a big AAU game for grown men, because these games are very, very competitive,” Namdar said.

“You play here because this is just a really fun league,” said Van Dyke. “The guys who run it do a great job. I am really impressed with how fast it has grown in just two years.”

Rembacz said the state of Utah “is kind of like a mecca now for basketball” in the summer and “very underrated” as a place for high-level pick-up games and summer runs.

“So we try to tap into that market, that potential that the Utah basketball culture has, and we just want to expand it and show how awesome it is and how great the players are,” he said.

Last year, the league included 10 teams and games were played at a small facility in Lehi that couldn’t accommodate more than 100 spectators. The way it is growing, organizers may need a bigger venue next year.

“It grows more and more each day,” Rembacz said. “It is just awesome to be a part of it, watch it grow, watch people enjoy high-quality basketball right here in Utah.”

Each team pays an $850 entry fee, and the league provides jerseys and pays the officials who are versed in NBA rules. Former BYU and Utah Jazz player Andy Toolson was one of the referees in last Thursday’s games.

“It’s just fun to get out here and still be a part of the game,” Toolson said. “You do it more for the fun and exercise than you do for the (paycheck).”

The players aren’t paid, not even the NBA guys such as Tucker and Jackson. Other current or former NBA players scheduled to appear in the coming weeks are Ronnie Price, Ian Clark, Jaxson Hayes, Raul Neto, the Jazz’s Jarrell Brantley and, of course, Tucker, the show-stopper.

“If you live in Utah and you love basketball, this is the place to be,” Namdar said.

Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale watches a Powder League basketball game at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Friday, June 25, 2021.

Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale watches a Powder League basketball game at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Friday, June 25, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Last Friday, the Jazz’s Royce O’Neale took in the action from a seat behind the basket.

He added to the festive atmosphere that includes nonstop music — played by a combination hype man/disc jockey at one end of the court — and a barber giving free, “fresh” haircuts behind the visiting team’s bench.

“It’s a riot, just a lot of fun to be involved in this,” said Seljaas, the former Cougar who played last year in Slovakia. Holding his 1-year-old son, Royce, Seljaas said the weekly runs provide a good opportunity to stay in shape and perhaps get some exposure from overseas clubs.

The games can be viewed live at KSLSports.com.

“It is really cool to watch the Utah basketball community come together,” Rembacz said. “Everyone just really enjoys it.”

Why they call it Powder League

After turning their dream into reality, Namdar and Rembacz faced a minor, yet welcome, problem.

What to name it?

They wanted something catchy that could be branded as a Utah-based circuit, much like the “Drew League” is tied to Los Angeles and draws big crowds and a lot of NBA talent.

“We wanted to do something that really kind of encapsulated Utah, so we went with something that said mountains and snow,” Rembacz said. “Powder is a relatively common term for a really nice type of snow up in the mountains. The best of the best snow is powder, and this is the best of the best of Utah basketball.”

Aside from the referees, nobody is paid, and the organizers say they aren’t doing it to make money. Thursday, the guys running the scoreboards and taking stats were from the BYU Sports Analytics Club — Bradley Brown and Andrew Cannon.

Former NBA official Gary Zielinski, a Magna native, kept an eye on the referees and offered tips and suggestions during timeouts.

J.T. Davis brings his Pacific Kuts Barbershop skills to the sidelines and cuts Lou Mayela’s hair during a Powder League basketball game at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Friday, June 25, 2021.

J.T. Davis brings his Pacific Kuts Barbershop skills to the sidelines and cuts Lou Mayela’s hair during a Powder League basketball game at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Friday, June 25, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“No, heavens no, we aren’t in it for money,” Rembacz said. “This is 100% a labor of love for us. Tapping into the basketball community here in Utah is big, and the reason why we do it. We know all these players personally. It has been awesome to watch them play again, and give fans the chance to see them again.”

Namdar said the event already has a signature moment.

Last year, after he had signed a rest-of-season contract with the Jazz on Dec. 24, 2019, Tucker drove out to Lehi to watch a friend play. At halftime, the former Florida Gulf Coast and Arkansas-Little Rock player told Namdar to go get him a jersey because he wanted to play.

“So he doesn’t even warm up or anything, and he puts on a jersey and goes in and scores 30 points in 10 minutes, and everyone is storming the court after his dunks, and that was something else to see,” Namdar said. “I was like, ‘Hey, Utah culture is changing.’ You see this in L.A., you see this in Atlanta, but in Utah you don’t really see this with music and guys storming the court and food vendors and guys socializing. We are trying to change up the basketball culture here in Utah, and it is happening.”

Who else is in it?

The games are slightly shorter than NBA games, with four 10-minute quarters, but everything else is structured to the professional game.

“We guarantee a professional hoops experience for anyone who wants to come out,” Rembacz said.

The plan moving forward is to involve more overseas professional teams, get them here to scout the state’s top talent.

“For some guys, it is hard to get that exposure and get their name out there and stuff,” Rembacz said. “This provides a platform for some of those guys to showcase their skills.”

Teams must have a minimum of eight players, and each team gets two “guest spots” per season.

The organizers are working to get the Utah Jazz more involved, and see the appearances of O’Neale, Tucker and Brantley as a step in that direction.

“We tell the Jazz if they have a free agent in town or something and want to give him a taste of what basketball is like in Utah, have them come out here, because it is an awesome stage,” Rembacz said.

The league got a shot in the arm this year when it received certification from the NCAA so current college players could participate — two per Powder League team — as long as they get the OK from their school’s compliance office and head coach.

Along with Utah’s Battin, Jaxon Brenchley, Lahat Thioune and Both Gach, other current collegians in the league are BYU’s Trevin Knell, SUU-bound Duncan Reid (after a church mission) and UVU’s Connor Harding, Fardaws Aimaq and Colby Leifson.

Former BYU standouts Eric Mika, Damarcus Harrison, Brandon Averette and Jake Toolson are also on rosters in the league, although Toolson has yet to play due to an injury.

From the Runnin’ Utes, other league participants include Shaun Green, Isaiah Wright, Tre Smith, Brekkott Chapman, Makol Mawien, Corbin Green, Sedrick Barefield, Drisdom and Chris Seeley.