PHILADELPHIA–The NCAA’s live viewing period opened on July 9th to begin the first of fifteen live summer evaluation days for D1 coaches to observe the nation’s best high school players at various grassroots and corporate-sponsored tournaments, team camps, and elite showcases spanning both coasts.
On my drive from Boston to the 2014 Reebok Breakout Classic at Philadelphia University, where the legendary Herb Magee posted over 800 wins during his forty-year tenure as men’s basketball coach, I began to wonder, like every one of the estimated 100 D1 assistants and head coaches in attendance, if this year’s camp will have an unknown sleeper buried on one of the rosters.
“It’s difficult in this day and age of YouTube and the ‘Twittersphere’ for a great player to go unnoticed,” one assistant explained as he observed afternoon games. “Kids just have more outlets to be noticed before coaches can actually evaluate them live.”
Twenty-five-years ago, coaches did not compulsively monitor their landline messages or recklessly swing open the doors of payphones to catch incoming calls. Before technology became a staff’s recruiting coordinator, coaches relied on word of mouth. Bob Callahan used to be a regular counselor at the Xavier basketball camps in the late 1980s. In 1989, Callahan played against a kid named Brian Grant from Georgetown, Ohio in a rec league. He told the Xavier staff about his potential. Although legend has it that anonymous phone calls promoted Grant to the Xavier basketball office, Callahan’s recommendation really piqued the Musketeers’ interest.
“Dino Gaudio went out and saw him play and liked him. He didn’t play basketball during his junior year of high school,” said Pete Gillen, the former Xavier headman. During January of Grant’s senior year at Georgetown High, Gillen made the drive to see him and subsequently made an offer to the 6’9” frontcourt player. “At the time, he only had Youngstown State interested in him. After we came in, of course, Cincinnati and a few of the bigger schools followed, but at the time it was just us and Youngstown.” After his four-year career at Xavier, Grant became an NBA lottery pick with the Sacramento Kings and played 13 seasons in the NBA.
Long before the “Sneaker Wars” dominated recruiting events, and paradoxical resume-deficient but nevertheless credible internet recruiting ‘zines trumped word of mouth, the Bridgeport Jewish Community Center served as an unlikely grassroots stage that brought the likes of Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, John Thompson, and other D1 coaches in the northeast to the dimly-lit gym to evaluate the best schoolboy players from Long Island, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.
At the JCC in 1980, the diminutive Michael Adams put in major work in front of a myriad of elite-school and mid-major coaches. Adams was a native of Hartford, an overlooked Big East recruiting gem sandwiched between talent-heavy Boston and New York. Former Boston College assistant Kevin Mackey was at the JCC in 1980 canvassing the gym for a future pro hiding in plain sight. “He had no D-1 offers. None,” said Mackey, a current Indiana Pacers scout, when asked about Adams’s recruitment. After accepting his lone scholarship offer at Boston College, Adams not only led the Eagles to the Elite 8 in 1982, but went on to play 11 seasons in the NBA.
In recruiting, spotting a “nobody from nowhere” is much more difficult today because everyone is a somebody from somewhere. One former America East head coach said, “You want to know who the top-ranked fourth graders are in the country? There’s a site. You want to know who the best junior-high kids are in the country? There’s a site for them, too. These kids are ranked earlier and earlier each year.”
Another former D1 head coach explained, “Back in the day we waited for the Bob Gibbons Report to come in the mail. We read through hundreds of player reports and rankings and then tried to find which players were ranked too high because Bob may have been doing the kid’s high school coach a favor by putting him on a list.”
Over the years, the NCAA has shrunk the summer’s live evaluation period to three small windows in July. Of the Reebok Breakout Classic’s 142 participants, all were potential Division 1 scholarship players. But identifying precisely what D1 level comes only after passing an eye test.
“At the end of the day, you have to get in your car and go watch them live. You could outwork people back then if you were a grinder,” said the former America East headman as he reflected on the NCAA’s less restrictive recruiting model. The challenge for the assembled coaches at the Reebok Breakout Classic was finding 2014’s Michael Adams or Brian Grant.
Below are my five favorite players from the start of the live period. While they may not be sleepers, each of these guys has a chance to be very good at the BCS level.
The hometown kid was a staple of consistency throughout the event drawing the two national championship game coaches, Kevin Ollie and John Calipari, to courtside seats during DJ’s games. DJ is a smooth lefty with a high-major wing’s frame. He can elevate in transition and off the bounce. The super-athletic Jones looks like a much better shooter than he has been labeled by analysts and played as a consistently tough match-up throughout the event even when defenders “laned” the Archbishop Carroll swingman. One former mid-major head coach referred to DJ as “like a young Tayshaun Prince.”
Although only entering his senior year in high school, the Tabor Academy player has the unassuming yet tough-as-nails look of the graying, old man in a men’s league you pray doesn’t back-screen you when you’re ball watching. One former ACC assistant told me, “He’s like a janitor. He just gets the job done, and never changes his emotion. He just plays really hard all the time.” Reuter does all the little things. He rebounds despite a below-average vertical. He scores against bigger players because he chooses to win the shoulders game in the post and post up deep on the block. Everything Reuter does displays an ego-less, persistent form of bully-ball that will make Reuter a huge gain for any mid- to high-major program. Reportedly, Providence, URI, Boston College, and UConn lead a buffet of northeast schools that believe Reuter will choose a college closer to home, unlike the comparable Georges Niang, who left the region with a similar skillset for Iowa State.
The 190-pound, 6’3” Mitchell has a high-major build and always plays in attack mode. I was very impressed by his ability to make and take good shots, an area that earlier reports questioned. His body allows him to take contact off of two feet and penetrate at will off straight-line drives directly to the rim. Mitchell can create his own shot and really sprint the wings in transition. More than 20 BCS schools have offered, answering any question of what level the combo guard from New York City belongs. Mitchell can play.
For the big man at the event with tremendous hype, Skal Labissiere has the habit of drifting to the short corner and wing for catches. This should be correctable in the right program. But when the Tennessee native does post deep, and has a defender on his backside, Skal can be dominant playing over his left shoulder. Unfortunately, with every SEC coach in attendance there to see him, Skal rarely played against one guy in the post. After being double and triple teamed, Skal showed that he needs to develop a counter move, chin the basketball, and play more consistently over both shoulders. One former pro told me, “All you need in the post is three moves to be really, really good: a move, a counter move, and a counter to the counter move.” Offensively, Labissiere is heavily dependent on tip dunks, lobs, and drop offs. His jump hook over the left shoulder is excellent, but he needs to develop an effective counter and learn to find the open man out of double teams and repost. The sky is the limit with Labissiere given his body, frame, and athleticism.
Satnam Singh Bhamara
Although I did not see the 7’1” “Indian Shaq” until the Hoop Group Top 20 All-Star Game at Albright College Friday evening, a former mid-major assistant told me, “This kid is going to be a high-major kid by the end of the summer. He has great hands and knows how to play. I don’t know too many mid-major centers that will be able to guard him.” The IMG Academy rising senior is the second coming in India, although I am unsure who the first coming would be. Bhamara has been labeled a mid-major player by most outlets at this point, but is rumored to have cut about 25 pounds down to about 290, making him lighter on his feet to compliment an already solid low-post skill foundation. It will be interesting to watch Bhamara’s recruitment unfold as the summer evaluation period concludes in late July. This winter, he will be a major piece for IMG’s prep squad that should have plenty of eyes on them when they begin to play nationally.
Photo credit: Yong Kim/philly.com