Commentary

Tales from the summer recruiting trail

Originally Published: July 6, 2011
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

The NCAA membership appears ready to alter the July evaluation period in men's basketball in 2012, possibly making the upcoming weeks on the recruiting trail the last of their kind.

The Conference Commissioners Association proposed eliminating the July evaluation period altogether at its fall meeting, with the aim of limiting the influence of third parties. A second vote tabled the proposal for more discussion. Under the current system, coaches can hit the recruiting road for two 10-day sessions, the first of which begins Wednesday; the second period begins July 22. Some reduction likely is coming, as the days taken from July would be moved to April.

Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, who chairs the Division I Leadership Council's effort on reforming summer recruiting, told USA Today that the NCAA will review prospective changes later in the fall of 2011 or in early 2012.

If that's the case, and there's even more streamlining of the summer evaluation period, an era of memorable performances and unearthing hidden gems in obscure gyms across the country may be coming to a close.

This month, as hundreds of coaches head for various destinations -- such as Indianapolis; Akron, Ohio; Philadelphia; Springfield, Mass.; North Augusta, S.C.; Orlando; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Los Angeles; and points in between -- they can reminisce about a past that may not be repeated.

"He was a find we didn't anticipate"…:

Coaches pride themselves on finding players no one is discussing. Scouting services like to ensure that they've gobbled up every last one so that there are no more secrets.

Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said he can't remember any such players, which makes sense because the Blue Devils are always recruiting players at a high level who are already known commodities. Butler, which has played in the past two national championship games, actually follows a similar path, albeit at not as elite a level. Butler associate head coach Matthew Graves said the Bulldogs haven't come across many, if any, surprise players because they know before they go into the gym whom they're recruiting. The Butler player pool is apparently well-known to the Bulldogs before they even leave Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeRobinson
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKansas forward Thomas Robinson wasn't on Bill Self's radar until he watched him play during the summer evaluating period.

That hasn't always been the case for countless others.

"I was watching Thomas Robinson at ABCD camp in New Jersey, and I'm sitting next to a scouting service guy and I said, 'Am I missing something, because this kid looks really good,'" Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He was a find we didn't anticipate."

Even before landing Marcus Camby, former Massachusetts coach John Calipari was searching for the kind of player who could change the UMass program. Camby was a celebrated high school player. Harper Williams was not, but he helped give the Minutemen a national profile three years before UMass reached the Final Four in 1996.

"I think it was us and Central Connecticut," Calipari said. "We went to a gym to see two other kids. [Williams] wasn't one of them. But he changed our program."

Calipari had a similar experience as the head coach at Memphis when he went to see a recruit who was playing against Robert Dozier. He wasn't as highly recruited as the targeted player, but once Calipari saw Dozier, the coach knew he wanted him. He ended up helping the Tigers to the national championship game.

Current Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton was head coach at Oklahoma State when he was recruiting in an obscure gym in Georgia. He was watching Darwyn Alexander.

"He never took a jump shot all summer," Hamilton said. "He was a facilitator. He was a passer and enjoyed being the point guard. I was hoping no one would notice him."

Alexander played for Oklahoma State from 1989-92 and had a solid career for Hamilton and subsequent head coach Eddie Sutton.

There are some cases of hidden gems where it's hard to imagine how they weren't more well-known. It might be a bit of revisionist history, but Mike Anderson of Arkansas found himself chasing two players during his tenure as an assistant to Nolan Richardson, and Anderson was hoping they wouldn't get noticed by other schools.

"Scotty Thurman and Joe Johnson," Anderson said.

Tony Benford, now an associate head coach at Marquette, was an assistant at New Mexico and got wind of a big man in El Paso named Kenny Thomas.

"Nobody knew about him at first," Benford said. "He blew up, though. Everybody was recruiting him. Suddenly, North Carolina and Connecticut were involved. UCLA, too. He went from nowhere to No. 15 in the country when he moved to Albuquerque. But when he was first in El Paso -- how many players have come out of El Paso like that?"

Thomas led the Lobos to the NCAA tournament and eventually had a lengthy NBA career.

There was a time when Collins and fellow Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski thought they were unearthing a hidden gem.

"Wojo and I were watching a team from Atlanta and saw two kids finishing their freshmen year, and they were young and athletic and showed a lot of potential," Collins said. "We said, 'Hey, we need to track those two kids.' It turned out to be Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. We thought we had found a diamond in the rough."

But it doesn't just happen at a high level. Pitt's Jamie Dixon was an assistant at Northern Arizona under Ben Howland when Dixon saw a big man who could fit in perfectly for the Lumberjacks. His name was Dan McClintock.

"It was us and Fresno Pacific," Dixon said. "I saw him on a side court. Once everyone saw him, I thought we would lose him. But we didn't."

McClintock would go on to lead the Lumberjacks to an NCAA tournament berth.

And for a relatively new head coach like Greg Lansing of Indiana State, a hidden gem can be a career- and program-changer.

"Two summers ago, Jake Odum was the starting point guard on the Terre Haute Jammers, and he was always in the lower division in their tournaments," Lansing said. "They went 40-5 that summer, and game after game he was controlling the game, killing guys, making outlandish plays -- Scott Skiles-type plays -- and no one was in the gym to watch them. It was a bunch of 6-foot-and-under Terre Haute kids."

Odum led the upstart Sycamores to a surprising Missouri Valley Conference tournament title in 2011 in Lansing's first season, averaging 4.1 assists a game.

"That was one heckuva event"…:

[+] EnlargeLenny Cooke
Bob Falcetti/Icon SMI Glory on the summer recruiting circuit doesn't always translate into success at the next level, as former standout Lenny Cooke's example illustrates.

The summer scene has had its fair share of crazy games with memorable performances. You could poll countless coaches and come up with a number of different answers.

"Without question, it's not even close, it was Jerod Ward," said Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar of the former Michigan wing. "It was at a Nike Fab 40 event, I think in '94. He scored 37 points. I think he hit nine 3s, and on the last he pulled up with his left hand -- he was right-handed -- and made it."

"I think for me," Calipari said, "it was seeing Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon on the same court together and Derrick deferring to Gordon so much. It showed [Rose's] mentality."

"For me it was seeing O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose go at it in Las Vegas one summer," Self said. "That was big-time."

"I just remember walking into a gym and seeing Eric Montross, Corliss Williamson, Chris Webber, Corey Beck, Penny Hardaway all in the same gym," Anderson said. "It was a great atmosphere, a great tournament, and there were so many great players."

"When I first got into the business, I remember seeing Jerry Stackhouse at the old Five-Star camp go nuts on the outdoor court," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "I think he scored 40 points. He was dominant."

"I wasn't recruiting Lenny Cooke or LeBron James, but I do remember them going against each other at the ABCD camp one summer," Benford said. "That was one heckuva event. You knew they were both going to try to go straight to the league."

And in a classic summer tale, that hyped matchup didn't translate into similar future success for both, as James went on to become an NBA megastar and MVP, while Cooke disappeared.

Coaches are still searching for the finds, and some will need to head overseas to secure such hidden gems. But even that has its pitfalls. Self said he remembers flying to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa in search of a player on a one-day trip.

"I don't remember who he was, but he couldn't play dead," Self said. "It was a wasted trip."

The days are long. The games are monotonous, and the basketball is rarely, if ever, a beautiful game. But the evaluations are still happening, and this month coaches will be in search of the perfect fit for their recruiting classes of 2012 and beyond.

The July evaluation period may have run its course in its current state. If that's the case, recruiting will be geared even more to the school year in a more traditional form, but plenty of obscure locales will still exist, and hope will remain that a coach can find the player who is just the one for them.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com