Anthony Lee had never been in greater demand as a basketball player than the morning after Temple released him from his scholarship. That day in March, Lee woke up to 40 text messages and dozens of missed calls from people he didn’t know.
“It was like a bum rush, a stampede almost, with so many schools calling as soon as they gave me my release,” Lee said.
Before Temple signed the forward out of high school, teams from the Pac-12, SEC and a handful of prominent mid-majors all pursued Lee, so this was not entirely unfamiliar ground.
He was a veteran power forward who averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds last season for the Owls. And more important, he was on track to graduate by the end of the semester. He was the fourth-leading scorer from a bad team, but he was among the most valuable commodities in college basketball in 2014-15 — a proven veteran player ready to transfer and, as a graduate, eligible to play immediately for a new team.
Critics have called the recent transfer trend everything from an epidemic to free agency, but here’s what it is: reality. In 2012-13, 13.3 percent of Division I college basketball players had transferred from another four-year school. Another 14.5 percent were junior college transfers.
Transfer season has become a second recruiting season.
The transfer trend isn’t just for upstarts or mid-majors. Final Four contenders and national powers have made Division I transfers a major plank in their recruiting strategies. Even Duke embraced transfers by adding Rodney Hood from Mississippi State in 2012 and Sean Obi from Rice following the ’13-14 season.
As the trend has become more pronounced, more public and more accepted, coaches and players have to be ready to navigate the transfer recruiting waters.
Ohio State, for example, rarely dives into the transfer market, but the Buckeyes knew they’d enter the 2014-15 season with major holes in their frontcourt. Lee, with the right skill set and the ability to play now, was one of the top targets on their list.
Compared to the typical high school recruiting process, Lee’s transfer moved at lightning speed.
Two days after Lee announced his intent to transfer, Ohio State was upset by Dayton in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament on March 20. By March 29 — the day Dayton lost in the Elite Eight — Lee signed a letter of intent with the Buckeyes. In between, Ohio State coach Thad Matta and associate head coach Dave Dickerson met with Lee in Philadelphia near the Temple campus, and Lee took an official visit to Columbus.
Lee knew other coaches weren’t pleased that he committed to Ohio State before taking the visits he promised to make, but like many transfers, he knew the terrain better than he did as a high schooler.
“I didn’t want to let that opportunity slip by,” Lee says. “At that time, the (McDonald’s) high school All-Americans were making their decisions. I couldn’t wait and enjoy it too much. I was a high-profile athlete, but I was with other high-profile athletes, incoming freshmen and other transfers who were looking to make decisions, too.”
Lee had played through the recruiting game — and waiting game — before. VCU recruited him out of high school, and although Lee liked coach Shaka Smart, he wasn’t thrilled about living in Richmond. Instead, he hoped to land at USC with all that Los Angeles had to offer, but another recruit snatched the last scholarship offer before Lee had a chance to commit. He eventually signed with Temple.
He started 73 games, played in two NCAA Tournaments and helped the Owls win a regular-season Atlantic 10 title before they bottomed out at 9–22 last season. Lee says he enjoyed his time at Temple and parted on good terms with coach Fran Dunphy. But he asks himself, what if he signed with VCU? The Rams reached the Final Four in 2010-11 (a year Lee redshirted at Temple due to injury) and have played in the last four NCAA Tournaments overall.
When he approached recruiting the second time, Lee couldn’t be swayed by the cities or the facilities he considered. He was more interested in developing his game. Temple wanted him to rebound and play close to the basket — an area where he excelled — but Ohio State would allow him to expand his offensive game and play away from the basket.
“The only reason I didn’t go to VCU was because of the city, and when I look back at that now, it’s kind of crazy,” Lee says. “This time around, it wasn’t about the city or how the place looked.”
Experiences like that of Lee are why Florida coach Billy Donovan has been wore willing to seek out transfers in recent years.
Donovan’s team this season will include four players who transferred from major conference programs — Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech), Alex Murphy (Duke), Jon Horford (Michigan) and Eli Carter (Rutgers). Finney-Smith led the team in rebounding last season, and another transfer, Mike Rosario from Rutgers, led Florida in scoring two years ago.
“A lot of times these guys don’t make the best choices in terms of what is going to make them happy,” Donovan says. “When you go out and recruit a kid who is transferring, there’s just a different level of maturity, a different level of understanding because they have more of a foundation of what’s important to them and what’s going to make them happy.”
For Donovan, one of the most important factors in targeting a transfer is learning why a player is looking to change schools. And, yes, more playing time and more opportunities to thrive are valid reasons.
“You always want to get to the core of why a kid is transferring,” Donovan says. “In a lot of ways, the problems that they’re enduring at one institution are not going to go away at another one.”
Like Florida, Iowa State under coach Fred Hoiberg has become a prime destination for transfers.
The last three Big 12 Newcomers of the Year (there’s a separate award for freshmen) have been Division I transfers at Iowa State. The haul under Hoiberg has included star players like All-Big 12 performers DeAndre Kane (Marshall), Will Clyburn (Utah) and Royce White (Minnesota) and role players like Chris Babb (Penn State), Korie Lucious and Chris Allen (Michigan State) and Scott Christopherson (Marquette).
Iowa State added three more since December in Bryce Dejean-Jones from UNLV (eligible immediately), Jameel McKay from Marquette (eligible in December) and Hallice Cooke from Oregon State (eligible in 2014-15).
Hoiberg’s program isn’t the first or only national power to take a deep dive into the transfer waters, but the competition for these collegiate free agents has become more intense since the former NBA player and executive returned to his alma mater in 2010.
Besides Iowa State and Florida, high-major programs like Gonzaga, Illinois, Maryland, Miami (Fla.), Missouri, Oregon, UNLV and West Virginia have re-stocked their rosters with multiple transfers from Division I programs.
“We weren’t competing against too many schools or so many high-profile schools as we are now,” Hoiberg says. “It’s become difficult, but it is the landscape of college basketball right now.”
The transfer trend is exacerbated by a number of factors, among them the graduate transfer rule allowing players like Lee to be eligible immediately if they’re holding a degree and want to pursue a post-grad program not available at their current school. Undergraduate recruits generally sit out one year by NCAA rules unless granted a waiver.
In addition, many new coaches encounter a wave of transfers after they’re hired or they release signees from a previous staff from their letters of intent. Or both. This transition creates an immediate need to fill some scholarships. There’s no official transaction wire maintained per the NCAA, but Jeff Goodman, a reporter for ESPN, has been tracking Division I transfers since 2006 — a list he updates regularly throughout the season.
Coaches check the list of hundreds of available players on a regular basis.
“Our staff does and I think every staff in America does,” says Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, who was hired in April after 15 years as a Duke assistant.
After a transfer target is pinpointed, the recruiting process begins.
Coaches and assistants often call their counterparts at other schools to figure out how to track down a transfer. Even though transfers may have been in college for up to four years, the parents, high school coaches and AAU coaches may be gatekeepers to the process.
Point guard Matt Carlino, who signed to play for Wojciechowski at Marquette, used his father as well as BYU assistant coach Mark Pope as intermediaries in his most recent recruitment. During the summer, Carlino was taking two regular classes and an online class while serving as a teaching assistant and finishing papers at BYU so he could finish his undergraduate degree and be eligible immediately. With that workload, Carlino gave his father and Pope the parameters and allowed them to sift through requests so he could finish his class work. Like Lee, Carlino wasn’t interested in finding a sexy locale — he started his career at UCLA and decided it wasn’t for him.
He even considered playing time to be an unnecessary topic to broach.
“They’re not bringing in a guy for a year not to play,” Carlino says.
Carlino took a month to make his decision during a process that included visits with Purdue, Providence and Saint Joseph’s. His final decision came down to another truth in recruiting transfers — the coach matters perhaps even more than with high school prospects.
Strip away the bells and whistles like location and facilities, and what’s left? Coaching, style-of-play and ability to thrive.
“I knew everywhere I was going to go the facilities would be nice, the campus would be nice,” Lee says. “So it wasn’t about the facilities, the area. It was about the coaches.”
The same was true for Carlino.
Marquette wasn’t completely on Carlino’s radar at first. His uncle played there and his family is from the Midwest, but he had little contact with former coach Buzz Williams.
When Wojciechowski arrived — and needed a point guard immediately — that changed. Carlino clicked with the former point guard from Duke and signed in late April.
In other words, recruiters would be well advised to get right to business.
“The fluff is eliminated,” Wojciechowski says. “You talk directly about what the school can offer the player, what the player can offer the school and you really hone in on what I would consider are the most important things of the decision. It’s their last chance or close to it, so you’ve really got to get it right when you decide transfer.”
Bryce Dejean-Jones is another player who knew exactly what he wanted in a school this summer. After starting his career at USC, Dejean-Jones transferred to UNLV, where he averaged 11.8 points per game in two seasons. While Dejean-Jones was at UNLV, the Runnin’ Rebels went one-and-done in the 2013 NCAA Tournament and missed it altogether his second season. With a churn of freshmen — and, yes, other transfers — consistency was tough to find. In the transfer market a second time, Dejean-Jones looked more closely at rosters and where he had a chance to fit.
“Choosing UNLV, I was coming there to sit out, so I wasn’t looking at the players that would be playing with me,” Dejean-Jones says. “This time, I looked at who else would be on the floor with me.”
When Hoiberg recruited Dejean-Jones, he talked about style of play and how the guard could step in for the departure of Kane.
And that’s a completely different conversation Hoiberg had with Cooke, his undergraduate transfer from Oregon State who would redshirt in 2014-15.
“You have a support system for those guys. You talk about skill development in their year off,” Hoiberg says. “When you recruit a kid who’s sitting out, it is more like recruiting a high school kid.”
In other words, the recruiting pitch is different, depending on the player. But as the players are more in tune with what they are seeking when they transfer, coaches have to be ready to prepare. And many times, decisions are closed within a matter of weeks.
If landing a transfer starts to sound like a lot of networking, background research and job interviews, there’s a good reason for that.
“It’s a business for the players, too,” Carlino says.