Heralded Hoop Star Doesn't Reveal Plans

O.J. Mayo
O.J. Mayo is the first star player who will have to make a decision about college since the NBA instituted an age restriction. (Al Behrman - AP)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

HACKENSACK, N.J., July 6 -- With college basketball observers breathlessly anticipating a long-awaited announcement, heralded high school player O.J. Mayo provided no clarity on his plans while remaining the focal point during the first day of competition at Reebok's ABCD Camp.

Amid whispers that he had finally decided to commit to Southern California, Mayo held a brief news conference but made no such announcement as the circus-like atmosphere surrounding him continued to build. Considered to be the best high school prospect since LeBron James, Mayo -- a 6-foot-4, 190-pound senior from Ohio -- appeared to revel in the spotlight on the first day college basketball coaches were permitted to evaluate players this summer.

Mayo is considered the first truly elite high school player to explore his options since the NBA last year instituted a policy requiring players to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school before entering the draft. Greg Oden, who will be a freshman at Ohio State this fall, was the best player in the first class of high school players affected by the rule, but Oden had said for years he planned to attend at least one year of college regardless of his draft status.

As a result, every move Mayo makes is scrutinized as analysts, coaches and fans try to gauge whether he will attend college, even for a year. In fact, during a spring AAU tournament, Mayo caused a buzz merely by playing for a Nike-sponsored team, leading some to conclude he had declared a shoe alignment.

So when ESPN.com reported Wednesday night that sources said Mayo had told coaches and players at USC he would make an oral commitment, it became the hottest topic among the 156 players here. And while Mayo did not address the speculation, some players acted as if it was common knowledge. Brandon Jennings, a Los Angeles native rated among the nation's top five juniors, said Mayo's decision to attend USC would trickle down and cause other, less-talented players to do the same.

"I think a lot of players listened to him," said Jennings, who will attend Oak Hill Academy this fall. "I did especially because I have a lot of respect for him. If he can go to college, I can go. I would have considered the NBA. [But] I'll just go to college. College is the option."

Theoretically, there are other options Mayo could consider even if he does make a nonbinding commitment to USC this week. If he chooses not to attend college, he could play overseas, compete in the NBA Development League or attend a prep school until he becomes eligible for the draft.

Another scenario, according to summer league basketball sources, is to play a makeshift schedule of exhibitions on a barnstorming team formed by a power broker such as Sonny Vaccaro, Reebok's director of grass-roots basketball and one of the most influential figures in basketball over the past 30 years. The team would consist of high school graduates who await the NBA draft and have no desire to attend college.

"A younger Sonny Vaccaro would have done that," Vaccaro said. "I do know for a fact that there are interested entities that would do this in a minute. Say someone invested $1 million to do something with these kids. This is no different than investment bankers, building a housing complex. We'll build a group of kids and prepare them for the professionals."

Under that scenario, Mayo could sign a lucrative sneaker contract and get paid while awaiting the draft.

But when asked during a tournament in Ohio in May whether he would attend college, Mayo said, "Yes, college is the way to go, sir."

If college is the choice for Mayo, summer league coaches say the favorites to land him are USC, led by former NBA coach Tim Floyd, and Kansas State, under first-year coach Bob Huggins. Mayo is believed to relish the spotlight of Los Angeles. But if he attended Kansas State, he could be joined by two other top 10 players, Walker and Michael Beasley, who plays at Oak Hill Academy.

Mayo has seldom talked at length about his recruitment because media access around him is usually tight. In fact, at the tournament in Ohio, Mayo's summer league coach, Dwaine Barnes, yelled at a reporter who tried to talk to Mayo. Barnes did not allow Mayo to talk to reporters until after his team, the D-1 Greyhounds, won the event.

Thursday's news conference stood in contrast to 2002, when ABCD Camp, then sponsored by Adidas, staged a media session for James, who was joined by his mother and entourage and chatted with reporters on a wide range of issues. On Thursday, Mayo would address only specific questions about the game he had just played, and Reebok officials made clear that "no announcements would be made." And during the news conference, Reebok's Chris Rivers, who sat between Mayo and high school teammate Walker, reiterated that only questions about the camp would be addressed.

Rivers quickly cut off questions concerning his recruitment. After Rivers said the players would take just two or three more questions, Mayo was asked, "During the game you just played, were you thinking about USC or Kansas State?"

On that note, Rivers abruptly ended the proceedings. "Georgia State," joked Mayo, flashing the biggest smile he had shown all afternoon.

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