Thomas Vaillancourt is about to find out how he stacks up against the best of the best. The 16-year-old Welland resident has been selected to the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) U15 roster that will compete in the annual Peach Jam Tournament in South Carolina over the next two weeks.
The EYBL is a circuit for teams of players 17 and under founded in 2010 and is regarded as of the top youth basketball loops in the United States.
“I’m very excited,” Vaillancourt said before leaving for the tournament. “It’s my first time playing games in front of scouts. It’s a mix of excitement and nervousness. I’m excited to show the scouts what I can do but there is still that nervousness being the first time in front of scouts. You’re always a bit nervous when you do something for the first time.”
Vaillancourt flew out of Toronto where he met up with several teammates from across Canada. The team has yet to practice together due to Covid restrictions.
“We will get some practices in to get some rust off because we really haven’t been together at all,” Vaillancourt said. “We’ve all been practising individually in our own areas.”
The team began their schedule of seven games July 13.
Vaillancourt, who has been a member of UPLAY (United Public Leadership Academy for Youth) since he was 13, where they competed on a junior Nike circuit, was selected to the team following camps across the country just before Christmas last year.
The Ridley College student was able to work out some at the school, but was often relegated to exercising wherever he could with limited equipment.
“When we were able to go to the training room at school we had all the stuff. Now, I basically have my dad’s weight vest, and that’s it,” he said.
The 6-foot-8, 240-pound player admitted it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s the mental stuff as well. It’s trying to push through the mental barrier that you can do this and not sit on the couch and play a video game all day. It’s the temptation that you can do something else that you like more, but you have to do this. It’s tough.”
Vaillancourt, whose long-term goal is to garner a basketball scholarship, realizes he still has plenty of work to do.
“I have the knowledge. I know what I have to do, I just have to mould my body into fitting the requirements of what I have to do,” he said. “I get winded very easily so I have to work on my cardio to keep up with the other guys. That type of stuff.”
Vaillancourt still feels he may be growing as well.
“I feel like I have some more inches in me,” he said.
Vaillancourt was coached for several years by his father, Martin Vaillancourt, both in Pelham and at the UPlay level.
Martin feels the best may be yet come for Thomas.
“Big guys blossom late,” he said. “We’re hoping he’s at the right places and he works and transforms his body. If he can move a little better, the best years could be ahead of him. The Junior Academy head coaches were saying because there is so much room for his body to grow it was hard for them. Smaller guys who are super skilled, they cannot get much more skilled. When you get a 6’ 8”, 6’ 9” and the ceiling is so high, we really don’t know.”
Thomas also has to battle his health — he was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic when he was five years of age.
He wears a sensor that transmits his blood sugar level to an app on his phone so he can take the appropriate action, either an insulin pen if the reading is too high or liquid sugar if the reading is too low.
“Exercising and eating affect my blood sugar level,” he said.
Dad, who will be following Thomas’ progress from home, is well aware there are no assurances of playing time at the tournament.
“At that level, you play or you don’t play,” he said. “They will go on matchups. Thomas is a big kid so if the other team spreads the floor with five little guys, he’s on the bench. If they show up with a 6’ 10” guy, he might be a starter. It’s based on need but there are no guarantees.
“They wouldn’t bring him if they didn’t think he could help.”
Thomas is also looking forward to hopefully a regular season of basketball at Ridley after the Covid pandemic wiped out games last year.
“It’s definitely a really great school,” he said. “You get a high-level education and that is something that has helped me a lot. They have a great basketball program as well. We do weights in the morning and have really good practices every day, Monday to Friday. It’s really detailed and really well done.”
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