Current, future Gophers draw crowd for summer league playoffs.

The Howard Pulley Pro City Summer League keeps many Gophers in shape for fall and gives fans a chance to see next year’s team in action.

Electrifying slam dunks, thunderous shot blocks, diehard fans and free basketball is what fans get when they go to a Howard Pulley Pro City Summer League playoff game.

The league’s playoffs, a culmination of the four-night-a-week, six-week stint, began Monday with the No. 1 El-Amin Fish House team defeating No. 8 Howard Pulley Panthers, and No. 5 Petters Group defeating No. 4 Sabes Foundation.

However, this isn’t just another summer league. It’s Minnesota’s most competitive, with players like former Connecticut player Khalid El-Amin , most of the current Gophers and some of the state’s most talented high school players gathering to play at the Salvation Army gym in downtown St. Paul.

The league has been important to the Gophers, who have looked to it to provide off-season development and competition to prepare players for the season in November. Its importance has grown since the arrival of head men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith, making player development and readiness crucial.

It offers the Gophers a chance to play against other players and each other and continue to enhance their skills, said Rene Pulley , the founder of Howard Pulley Basketball. Players often get to try things offensively that they wouldn’t be able to during Big Ten games, he said.

If there is one thing the league lacks, however, it is defense. There are a fair share of steals and blocks, but most are brought on by poor decisions by the offense.

Smith suggested that his players participate in the league, said Errol Carlstrom, chairman of the board for Howard Pulley Basketball and coach of the Errol Carlstrom Playaz .

“Given the level of play, his players are all going to be tested,” Carlstrom said.

Highly touted recruits like incoming freshman Ralph Sampson III can get a glimpse of basketball at the next level.

Sampson played passively in the Sabes Foundation team’s 77-70, first-round loss Monday. Although he did show signs of potential, for most of the game he was outplayed by the centers of the Petters Group team.

“Regardless of how high- profile a Gophers player may be, in this league he is just another player and cannot dominate,” Carlstrom said.

That’s what current Gopher Al Nolen likes about the league.

“You’re playing against better competition, wiser competition like El-Amin, Ariel McDonald,” Nolen said. “You can learn a lot from playing against those guys.”

The league, which tipped off in 1989 and is named after Rene Pulley’s father, has more Division I and professional players than any other metro-area league. Its history is filled with collegiate and professional players from leagues around the world, including the NBA.

During the 2003-04 season, five of the Gophers’ starting players went through the Howard Pulley youth program, Rene Pulley said.

At one point, the league had former Gophers McDonald, John Thomas, Quincy Lewis, Bobby Jackson, Mark Jones, Richard Coffey, Randy Carter, Mario Green and Sam Jacobson. It also had future NBA players Vashon Lenard and Devean George.

But most fans don’t come for the history of the league – they come to see the current Gophers.

“Fans want to get their first glimpse of the new players like Ralph Sampson that they would otherwise have to wait until November to see,” Carlstrom said. “The fans have a curiosity as to whether these Gophers are as good as suggested.”

Fans throughout the gym Monday were already talking about the Gophers’ next season and were predicting how the newest Gophers – Sampson, Colton Iverson, and Devron Bostick – would fit into Tubby Smith’s depth chart and system.

Other current Gophers playing this summer include Blake Hoffarber, Travis Busch, Jon Williams, Kevin Payton and Damian Johnson, who are all playing for various teams in the league.

“There is no question that current Gophers are the biggest draw for the league,” Carlstrom said. “They are a great addition to the league.”