Commitments are solid, NLIs are not and nothing's better than hiring dad
Whether it’s football or basketball, recruiting is a wild game. So much so that we wouldn’t mind listening to a basketball assistant and a football assistant swap stories from the road.
Certainly, both would have their share.
By now, many college fans follow the recruiting process in football and basketball to some degree, but how much do you really know.
For one, football and basketball recruiting are two completely different beasts with their own rules, written and unwritten.
If your a basketball fan, here’s what you need to know about how your team landed — or lost — that coveted recruit.
Athlon Sports contributor John Martin is a columnist and host with 92.9 FM covering the University of Memphis and the Memphis Grizzlies. Martin also contributed “13 Things you Need to Know about Football Recruiting” for Athlon Sports’ College Football preview.
1. This isn’t football: A commitment means something
When a prep football player commits to a college, it doesn’t necessarily signal the end of his recruitment. Opposing coaches still call and write and fight to get the prospect on campus. The commitment of a basketball player carries more weight; among the top-100 prospects in the Class of 2014, only seven decommitted from their original choices.
Two of those players — James Blackmon Jr. and Quentin Snider — ended up going back to their first choices. One — Ahmed Hill — changed his mind due to a coaching change. Another yet — Elijah Stewart — had a strong senior year and moved up a level, from Loyola Marymount to USC.
So why does a basketball player’s commitment hold more often? The numbers game, most times, kill off the competition when a player makes his decision.
“It goes like this: We may have only two scholarships. And so if you commit to my scholarship, the other teams — they gotta keep moving,” Wichita State assistant coach Steve Forbes said. “They gotta get somebody. In football, you have so many numbers, you just keep recruiting.”
On the other hand, when a decommit does take place in hoops, it might indicate a deeper issue than just a simple change of heart. And it can even cost an assistant coach his job — like one SEC assistant, who requested anonymity.
“So I’m recruiting a kid. He’s a top-level kid — a top-25 guy,” the assistant said. “I become the point contact on the guy. I’m putting out a whole lot of energy and effort. I’m going to his games, watching him play, I’m communicating with him and his family. I’m going from recruiting to now relationship-building.
“And when you get a commitment in hoops, you don’t keep recruiting the position. It’s in place. I got the one guy. Guy ends up coming in (for a visit), and then he decides he wanted to open it up. I’ve been talking to my boss about the landscape of our program with him in the fold. Then the kid decommits on me, and now I don’t have an explanation for my boss on who’s next. There is no next, because I haven’t done anything with anybody else. That led me to changing jobs. I knew I was expected to deliver, and I didn’t.”
2. Midnight Madness: It’s all about recruiting
In college basketball, there are two types of madness. There’s the one that comes in March, with fairy tale upsets and countless office brackets. And then there’s the madness that comes before the season starts — in the form of a glorified practice.
Schools all over, from Kentucky to Memphis, kick off the college basketball season with a preseason practice in their home venues, giving fans a free and early look at the upcoming season’s team. But Big Blue Madness, Memphis Madness, and events like them aren’t just for fans; typically, that weekend serves as the program’s biggest recruiting event of the year.
Memphis, for example, hosts anywhere from 20 to 25 recruits on both official and unofficial visits every year for Memphis Madness. Which is why Memphis coach Josh Pastner does whatever he can to make sure FedExForum is packed out.
“It’s been a great tool for us,” Pastner says. “It works because of the crowd support we get. The place is sold out. It’s an overflowing crowd. It’s a fire hazard in the FedExForum (because of the crowd). That’s why it works. We’re so fortunate to have that support and passion from the fan base.”
It’s little more than a pep rally, but for recruits visiting that weekend, it’s a perfect window into what he can expect if he enrolls at the school.
3. You can’t pay the recruit ... but you can hire his dad
Stephen Thompson is a former Syracuse basketball player who coached at the Division II level for over a decade. The head coach of Cal State-Los Angeles for nine years, he’d never had a chance to coach at the Division I level — until earlier this summer.
Oregon State hired Thompson as an assistant coach, which, on the surface, seemed random. But it wasn’t at all. Thompson has a son — Stephen Thompson Jr. — who is a top-60 recruit in the Class of 2015.
Indeed, the “package deal” in college basketball is the latest layer in an already complicated recruiting world.
“It’s a reality of the game right now,” Cal assistant coach Yanni Hufnagel says. “I don’t think you’ll see a reversion. If you can make a hire where you get a guy on the court, coaches will do it.”
It happened most recently at Memphis. Keelon Lawson, a high school coach in the Memphis area, made it known that he was interested in coaching at the college level. He wasn’t just any old high school coach, however; he has four sons between ages 10 and 17 who are all considered high-level recruits. Whichever school hired him, despite his lack of college coaching experience, automatically landed his talented sons.
Ultimately, Memphis made the decision to hire him. A week later, Class of 2016 five-star recruit Dedric Lawson made public his commitment to the Tigers.
4. Mid-majors understand their spot on the food chain
Generally, the bluebloods of college basketball have their pick of players. Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina don’t tend to lose out when they zero in on a prospect, most of which is due to tradition and reputation.
But what about the smaller schools? It’s easy for top programs to recruit; just identify the five-star recruits and work your way down. But what about the schools that have to look beyond that pool?
Chattanooga coach Will Wade says he doesn’t necessarily evaluate prospects; he evaluates situations around them when prioritizing who to recruit.
If a player has a scholarship offer from a team within a multiple-bid league, Wade usually doesn’t waste his time.
“If it’s all one-bid leagues recruiting the kid, we’ll take our shot at him,” Wade says. “If it’s a multi-bid league, that’s gonna be really tough for us to beat most of the time. We’d likely just cut bait, move on and go to someone else and rely on our evaluations.”
Wade isn’t naive; he knows that the best players don’t go to Chattanooga. If a good player chooses his program, he likely has what Wade calls “warts.” His job is to determine which warts are worth living with.
“He’s gonna either be too short, too skinny, maybe too fat,” Wade says. “You just have to figure out which one fits your program.”
5. It’s all about AAU
Though the AAU circuit might make your stomach churn, what with its shoe company affiliations and the omnipresence of “handlers,” there’s no denying its influence in recruiting.
Unlike in football, high school coaches — other than in specific cases — have little or no say in the recruitment of basketball players. AAU coaches reign. The reasoning is simple: AAU coaches are with the players in the formative stages of their recruitment. College coaches rarely evaluate prospects during the high school season, simply because they have their current teams to worry about.
The evaluation gets done in the summer on the AAU circuit, which gives AAU coaches a certain level of authority on the kids who play for them.
“A high school coach is going to have relationships with one player,” Missouri associate head coach Tim Fuller says. “An AAU coach is gonna have relationships with 10 or 15 in the course of that year.”
But Fuller said his approach to recruiting, even with the heavy involvement of AAU coaches in recruiting, is slightly different than others’. He said if he were to chart his time spent with the adults around a prospect, 50 percent of his time would be devoted to the player’s family. Thirty percent would go to the AAU coach. The remaining 20 percent of the time goes to the high school coach.
Fuller’s best example was Johnathan Williams III, a sophomore forward from Memphis who led the team in rebounding as a freshman last season. Whenever the recruiting calendar allowed, Fuller shot down to Memphis and joined Williams’ mother for a jog around her local community center’s running track. That extra time paid off, obviously, when Williams chose the Tigers.
“A lot of AAU coaches and high school coaches have relationships (with other coaches) that outdate me,” Fuller says. “When I can get in front of a parent and spend time with a parent, they see the genuine approach with me.”
6. Recruiting never stops
Many moons ago, Josh Pastner’s girlfriend broke up with him because he chose to take a recruiting call during a movie date. On the line was Ndudi Ebi, a stud forward who was at the time considering Arizona. He ultimately committed but never made it on campus, instead opting for the NBA Draft.
It’s a story that perfectly illustrates the non-stop nature of recruiting in 2014, especially with the unlimited text messaging rule. Coaches can begin texting prospects starting June 15 upon the completion of their sophomore years.
“I would say the knot in your stomach never goes away about recruiting,” Hufnagel says. “You’re always connected, always on your phone, always talking to kids. It’s a high-stress game.”
Pastner notoriously has called prospects from the delivery room as his wife was in labor. It’s the most time-consuming and demanding part of the job, but it’s part of the job. And any coach that doesn’t understand that won’t last very long.
Hufnagel, for example, hasn’t turned off his cell phone in a year — other than while being on a flight.
“And even then, you get stressed if the airplane doesn’t have WiFi so that you can check texts,” he says. “It never ends.”
7. Spring Signees are in High Demand
Before the winter of 2004, Tyrese Rice was a little-known, smallish point guard at Bird High School in Richmond, Va. At 6-0, he didn’t possess imposing height, and at 165 pounds, he wasn’t exactly a profile in brute strength.
A lightly recruited prospect, he opted to wait to sign until the late period of his senior year. What did he have to lose? He could go through his senior year, put up big numbers, and hope a bigger school noticed.
That year, as fate would have it, Rice’s high school team was set to play Oak Hill, a powerhouse prep school in Virginia that boasts alumni from Jerry Stackhouse to Carmelo Anthony. In that game, as one coach remembers, the unsigned, barely recruited Rice destroyed North Carolina signee Ty Lawson. College coaches, predictably, noticed, and Rice was soon fielding phone calls from Maryland, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Boston College. He committed to Boston College and went on to have a prestigious career there.
Rice’s story is the primary piece of evidence for prospects who are considered low- to mid-major to wait out their recruitments. The bigger schools may have a spot come open after a player declares for the NBA Draft. A player may transfer.
In the numbers game that is college basketball recruiting, it makes sense to wait if the situation is right. Sometimes, a prospect can go from having one or two offers to being the most coveted recruit that spring.
“It’s all cyclical,” one SEC assistant coach says. “It’s a domino effect. One thing leads to another. If we have a guy transfer, or declare for the draft, you circle back around. There’s guys you would’ve never recruited that have high-major offers in the spring because you have three guys declare for the draft. In the end, you gotta have bodies.”
8. International players can be tough to scout
Basketball is a global sport in 2014, and there are players everywhere from Montana to Australia. A college coach’s job today is not just to monitor the players that reside in the nearest region or even in the United States; it’s imperative to keep watch internationally.
Under coach Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s has built a reputation as one school that scours the world for prospects with a concentration on Australia. Bennett’s biggest success internationally was landing Patty Mills, who played a big role on the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs this season.
But it can be a tough task evaluating players across the pond, especially considering that the level of competition overseas is considerably weaker than in America. The players are coached differently, they develop different habits, and the American and European styles of basketball aren’t exactly one in the same.
“It’s all about your contacts,” one American Athletic Conference assistant coach says. “You have to have a network of people who can give you the lead on some kids you may not be aware of. Once you do that, you can look at film and some other things like that.”
In recent years, Canada has become part of the firmament of college basketball. Anthony Bennett, Tyler Ennis, and Andrew Wiggins — three first-round NBA Draft picks — all hail from Toronto. In 2014-15, Canadian-born Trey Lyles figures to play significant minutes for Kentucky.
There’s an undeniable international influence on college basketball today. When deciding which prospects to bring over, however, a coach’s basketball instincts are most important.
“If a guy won’t rebound internationally, he won’t collegiately,” the AAC assistant says. “If he can knock it down from the international 3, he can do it from the collegiate 3. A lot of people make this more than what it is. Yes, there’s an art to it, a science to it, but it just comes down to you have to have a vast knowledge of the game.”
9. Letters of Intent aren’t always binding
A National Letter of Intent is, at its core, supposed to be “binding.” When a prospect signs one, whether in November or April, the idea is that he’s locked into the school and the school is locked into him.
But, in reality, that’s not the case at all.
Any time there’s a coaching change at a school, many signees request to be released from their NLIs, even though they’re intended to be binding. There were more than 10 high-level players in the Class of 2014 who requested and were granted releases from their NLI due to a coaching change, free to attend a new school of their choice. One of these players, point guard Devonte Graham, will play a key role for a team with national title aspirations. Graham originally signed with Appalachian State but ended up signing with Kansas, where he will fill a major need. Shelton Mitchell (from Wake Forest to Vanderbilt), Elijah Stewart (Loyola Marymount to USC) and Malek Harris (Marquette to Kansas State) are three other prominent freshmen who were allowed to “walk” after their original school went through a coaching change.
There is one recent high-profile case, however, in which a prospect was not released from his NLI. Isaac Hamilton was a five-star recruit from California in 2012. He signed with Tim Floyd and UTEP, the first five-star high school recruit to choose the Miners perhaps in their history.
But he had a change of heart at the last minute and decided he wanted to be closer to home. When Hamilton asked for a release, Floyd and UTEP refused. Despite going in front of an appeals committee, Hamilton was denied immediate eligibility and was forced to sit out a year at UCLA.
It’s a complicated issue, with both sides obviously prioritizing their own interests. But the NLI itself, in many cases, seems to be an obsolete system.
“The kids do deserve freedom, if there’s a change of coaching or a change of heart,” national college basketball recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said. “That’s real stuff. The NLI doesn’t make much sense to me. There’s not much benefit for the kid, outside of the school giving away the scholarship (if he doesn’t sign). For these elite-level recruits, it’s not doing much for them.”
10. Grad transfers are the ultimate free agents
If you ask most coaches, there’s no better value on the recruiting market than the graduate transfer.
High school players are necessary to build a program, of course, but once you get outside the top 50, it tends to be a crapshoot. Junior college players are stop-gaps, but they often carry baggage with them, whether it be academically, emotionally, or, in the worst cases, criminally.
Graduate transfers are one-year rentals who have been in a college system for at least three years. Last year, Tarik Black of Kansas and Antonio Barton of Tennessee were two of the most prominent grad transfers, helping their respective teams reach the Sweet 16.
Miami (Fla.) has taken a graduate transfer in consecutive years; Joe Thomas of Niagara this year and Donnavan Kirk of DePaul last year.
“It’s a unique scenario,” Miami assistant Chris Caputo said. “Any opportunity for a program to get a little bit older, to get somebody who’s a known commodity because he does have those stats, good or bad, behind his name, and then also to get the scholarship back after a year — it’s a good thing.”
The perception of graduate transfers has changed in recent years, Caputo says. Yes, there tends to be an open market feel to it all. Yes, the NCAA is looking at a way to govern it. But graduate transfers don’t carry the same stigma they once did. In today’s game, it’s considered a luxury.
“It’s another good avenue to build a program,” Caputo says. “To get (a grad transfer) with any sort of numbers behind him, especially a frontcourt player, you’ll see a recruiting frenzy. In terms of priority, those guys become a very big priority.”