Commentary

Basketball recruiting changes could hurt midlevel players

As well-intended as they might be, recent developments to resurrect youth basketball in America could actually hurt more than they help, writes Chris Lawlor.

Originally Published: May 1, 2008
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPN.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- Justin Harris, like most high school basketball players, is hoping to attend college on an athletic scholarship.

Harris, a promising 6-6 freshman from Paramus (N.J.) Catholic High, sees the summer as his time to get noticed. He plays for All Out Ballerz, a Paterson-based Under-15 club that competes at the national level.

From a player's perspective, exposure is the name of the game when it comes to recruiting. The more looks you get with college coaches in the gym, the better opportunity you have to earn a scholarship.

Recent developments -- like the just-passed NCAA legislation that further restricts the April contact period, and the NCAA and NBA's joint initiative to restructure youth basketball -- have some fearing that opportunities for players to showcase their abilities are going to become fewer in number.

"I don't understand why [the NCAA] would shorten the calendar," said Harris, who is receiving interest from Penn State. "I understand the NCAA is trying to better the game, but limiting exposure events isn't the way to go.

"A lot of players depend on the summer for their chances at [a college scholarship]. In high school, you don't always play against the best [players], but usually in the summer, the best are on the court. That's the way [college] coaches can best judge you."

Harris and his teammates competed Saturday in the semifinals of the New Jersey U-15 AAU state tournament at the cramped West Side Recreation Center. And the All Out Ballerz, who qualified for the national tournament (which will be held in July in Cincinnati), left it on the court, despite the fact that no college coaches were there. The college coaching fraternity was in cities like Dallas, Las Vegas, Washington, Akron, Ohio, and Providence, R.I., attending high-profile events where rising seniors and juniors were on display during the final weekend of the abbreviated spring live period.

According to proposal 2007-30-C, which is in a 60-day override period until June 23 and could take effect Aug. 1, college coaches could attend during the April contact period only "events that are approved, sanctioned, sponsored or conducted by the applicable state high school, preparatory school or two year college association, National Federation of High School Associations or the National Junior College Athletic Association."

Eliminating the viewing of April AAU and club-team tournaments is "Intended to address concerns about the significant amount of class time missed by prospective student-athletes during key academic time periods in order to accommodate travel to and from events, the disruption to the relationship between NCAA Division I basketball coaches and their own student-athletes during a critical academic time period and the increasing role of outside influences during the April contact period."

And with the recent announcement that the NBA and NCAA will be joining forces to reorganize the youth basketball world, there is fear in the youth basketball community that exposure events as a whole might fall by the wayside.

The five-year initiative is intended to lift the youth basketball scene by targeting it at a grassroots level. Under the plan, each side reportedly will contribute $15 million, with an additional $20 million coming through joint marketing ventures, which could include a social-networking Web site, tapping the young basketball consumer. (It is likely the NCAA and its media partner, CBS, will leverage new media entities, CBS College TV Network (formerly CSTV) and high school sports Web site Maxpreps.com, to attract young consumers.)

NBA commissioner David Stern and NCAA president Myles Brand gave the plan their blessings at a news conference held at the Final Four in San Antonio.

"Nothing speaks more strongly for the future of basketball in America than to have all the key stakeholders come together to help create that future. That is what this initiative means. The leadership in American basketball is coming together," Brand said at the news conference.

Stern, a shrewd businessman, underscored the importance of the development of youth basketball at the grassroots level, where players generally don't get as much hands-on coaching with their summer travel teams.

"Our goals with this broad-based initiative are to positively influence all boys and girls who play the game, to continue growing the number of those who do play, and to help all players develop both personally and on the court," Stern said.

Sonny Vaccaro, a pioneer of grassroots basketball who has worked with shoe giants adidas, Nike and Reebok, thinks the NBA and the NCAA have overstepped their bounds.

"It won't work," Vaccaro said. "[The NBA and the NCAA] are not compatible. You can't speak for the thousands of youth players who you have no jurisdiction over."

Vaccaro, who recently was a guest lecturer at a Columbia University sports ethics symposium on amateurism in sports, fears the NCAA and NBA soon will dictate a national camp system.

"Who says they have the wisdom to make this decision?" Vaccaro said. "Suddenly the NCAA will pick and choose who to invite to the camps, and entities like the AAU, which gives thousands of kids a chance to play, won't be deciding.

"The NCAA just wants to fill their coffers, and now they want to regulate kids who are 14 or 17 years old and don't even play for their teams."

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Chris Rivers, the director of basketball for Reebok, quickly ascended through the grassroots ranks and operates Rbk U, a summer showcase in Philadelphia. Rivers is willing to throw his full support behind the joint initiative for "the betterment of the game" but is waiting for the next move.

"I'm open for what they do," he said. "You have to start somewhere, and we'll align our platform with the greater picture."

Bobby Dodd, the AAU's president and CEO, is "cautiously optimistic" about the partnership.

"The objective is to win a gold medal [in the Olympics]," Dodd said. "The NBA wants to develop kids and bring them through the pipeline and make the sport better in the long run. It should be an interesting ride, as long as they fight for all the kids; they are our main asset."

Mike Rice, a first-year head coach at Robert Morris, thinks restricting the live period in April will strike a damaging blow to all low- to mid-major schools. Robert Morris is a member of the Northeast Conference and ranked 23rd in RPI this past season.

"It'll hurt considerably," he said. "I'm surprised more coaches on this level aren't kicking and screaming. If [the proposal] passes, what is the NCAA going to do? Provide on-campus tryouts, I hope. They have to give us something. The NCAA must realize there are more low- to mid-major players than superstars."

Rice, who previously was an assistant at Big East powerhouse Pittsburgh, made good use of the past two weekends, attending events in Akron, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. Rice said he still is recruiting players for 2008-09 season and he lands 50 percent of his recruits during the April observation period.

"I saw 12 potential recruits in the last two weeks," he said. "I scouted 160 players and 18 [club] teams last weekend in Akron. At Robert Morris, we don't have the manpower of the big schools. We make good use of the April weekends."

Event operators also are wary.

"What you'll see is more regional and local events," said Hal Pastner of Vision Sports. "Why travel to events if there won't be any coaches there?

"The NCAA has lost touch with reality. They are forgetting about the tens of thousands of student-athletes who are seeking scholarships or who compete for the thrill of competition."

Pastner, one of the most successful event operators on the youth basketball circuit, also owns and runs the Houston Hoops, a highly competitive club team that has sent more than 20 players to the NBA. Emeka Okafor, Daniel Gibson and Kendrick Perkins are Houston Hoops alumni currently on NBA rosters.

Vision Sports conducted three events during a 10-day stretch in April, attracting 1,100 teams and nearly 15,000 student-athletes. Normally, Pastner agrees with NCAA recruiting rules, but in this instance, he feels the organization's pact with the NBA is self-driven.

"This committee is concerned with 12 or 14 players that represent the U.S. at the Olympics every four years," he said. "All we hear coming from the meetings is the negative aspects of our coaches and volunteers. At least 98 percent of those involved are good for the game. They commit time, effort and money all for the good of the kids. Instead of knocking them down, they should be applauding and thanking them for the good they do."

Greg Barnes, a coach for All Out Ballerz, agrees. He's spent 10 of his 14 years coaching with teams on the summer and AAU circuits, while juggling his family and his work as a police detective.

"I'm a coach 24/7," he said. "You get calls from players all hours of the day. They have problems, and you try to help them."

Barnes, a stickler for fundamentals, has helped hone the skills of recent Paterson products such as Tim Thomas (Villanova and NBA), Donald Hand (Virginia), Darryl Watkins (Syracuse) and Marquise Webb (Rutgers).

"If [the NBA and NCAA] are worried about the erosion of skills, I agree it's difficult for a kid to adapt to styles emphasized on their high school and summer teams," said Barnes, who also is the head coach at Paramus Catholic.

Brandon Jennings, who is ranked in the ESPN 150, honed his skills in Compton, Calif., before transferring to national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.). Jennings, an Arizona-bound point guard, said the recruiting game can be a fickle one, making opportunities for prospects to get exposure extremely valuable.

"Players fall through the cracks," he said. "One day, they are Division II players, and then later in the live period, they improve and now have Division I schools interested. Limiting exposure will hurt players and coaches. Now coaches may not get good reads of players."

In 2009, FIBA will conduct its first U-16 boys' and girls' zone qualifiers, with U-17 world championships the following year. With the creation of the two youth teams, some fear USA Basketball will gain control of the grassroots level. If that happens, many will question the methodology of whoever selects the players for the camps and teams.

Rob Kennedy of Hoop Group, a Neptune, N.J.,-based comprehensive basketball organization, is one of the nation's top event operators. Hoop Group is concerned that the recruiting calendar "is getting squeezed every year," Kennedy said.

Kennedy also voiced concern that under the NBA and NCAA's proposed reorganization, the landscape of spring and summer basketball could be adversely affected.

"The reality is that there isn't enough time to see the kids as it is," said Kennedy, who was an assistant at Monmouth University from 1987-1991. "Soon the summer will be a dead period, and colleges will stress their elite camps for the top players."

At the Hoop Group's Metro Top 100, a showcase recently held at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., Joe Willman of Monmouth Regional (Tinton Falls, N.J.) needed exposure.

Willman, a 6-5 wing player who will graduate from high school in June 2009, is getting interest from mid-major programs like Monmouth and Rider. He is hopeful that interest will generate one or more scholarship offers.

"[The colleges] saw me play during the summer," he said. "You can't always rely on the high school season. Sometimes you play on a weak team that gets no exposure. Coaches want to see players go up against the best. It's only natural for coaches to get a better feel for a player against higher competition."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade National Player of the Year program for nine years. A New Jersey resident, he grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.