Mbeng is a rising senior at Good Counsel High, and these few months are a critical time in his recruiting process. He recently met with Towson’s coaching staff on a video call and received a scholarship offer, which joined a list that includes La Salle, Saint Francis (Pa.) and Bryant. But Mbeng doesn’t feel close to a decision. He had hoped he would grab the attention of more college coaches during his AAU season with DC Premier.
“I really thought I was going to break out then,” Mbeng said.
But with the AAU season on hold, optimism has been replaced by uncertainty for many potential recruits.
April has come and gone without the usual evaluation weekends. The recruiting dead period, during which coaches cannot have in-person contact with high schoolers, was extended through the end of June. Top AAU tournaments in July are in jeopardy. College coaches have instead relied on virtual recruiting methods while recognizing the lack of events could lead to inaccurate assessments. High schoolers, Mbeng among them, worry they’re missing out on valuable exposure.
Damon Handon, co-founder and director of DC Premier, thought Mbeng was poised to benefit from a breakthrough spring, just as some of his past players did. Saddiq Bey, a projected first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, had only a few scholarship offers when he stepped inside a New York City gym three years ago. Smaller programs had shown interest in Bey, who was a high school junior. But by the end of that weekend, Bey’s performance had launched him toward a bevy of high-major offers, and he ended up at Villanova. That springtime breakout “changed his whole trajectory,” Handon said.
Years of work and improvement led Bey to that point. But sometimes just one weekend provides a needed jolt. Every year, teenagers around the country hope for a similar surge.
Stepping out of the spotlight
Annual July tournaments hosted by major shoe companies are the epicenter of recruiting each year. Hundreds of college coaches pack into gyms. Elite players match up against one another. Rankings change. New talent emerges.
During the AAU season, which has yet to begin this year, players without scholarship offers may pick up a few. Mid-major offers might turn into interest from bigger programs. That doesn’t happen for everyone, but the players know the opportunity exists.
“This right here is definitely going to affect their lives,” said Mike Irvin, the CEO and a coach for Mac Irvin Fire, an elite AAU team in Chicago. “Now you’re telling a kid this is his only option to get out of the neighborhood and try to make something of himself. … What is the NCAA going to do once it’s over to get these kids a chance to be seen? You’ve got to give them a chance.”
Nike and Under Armour did not hold spring events, and organizers have not announced decisions about July tournaments. The National Association of Basketball Coaches recommended the NCAA extend the recruiting dead period to July 31, which would prohibit coaches from attending those events if they are held.
TCU Coach Jamie Dixon, the president of the NABC, said even if travel becomes safer in the summer, coaches need to prioritize their current players, many of whom would be returning to campus after months away. With universities and athletic departments cutting budgets, nationwide recruiting trips would feel inappropriate, he said.
“We're making every effort and planning and preparing to recoup those opportunities whenever it is safe,” Dixon said. “The timing has changed, but the scholarships remain.”
To Irvin, the worst outcome would be canceling the AAU season. If events don’t take place as scheduled, he hopes the tournaments can be pushed to the fall, as long as it’s safe. If fans can’t attend, organizers probably couldn’t justify having hundreds of coaches in the gym, so live streams could be an option.
“We have no definites,” Dixon said. “But we have been working and we’ll continue to work and have been promised the flexibility from the NCAA as to creating these new opportunities when safety prevails.”
‘You see so much more in person’
The current climate leaves college coaches with only game tape and virtual interactions to evaluate prospects. When they watch recruits in person, they often gain more valuable information. Perhaps a player experienced a growth spurt; coaches in the gym can get a better sense of a recruit’s measurables.
When elite AAU teams gather in one place, George Washington’s Jamion Christian said, coaches can more accurately evaluate and compare: “Hey, this guy moves a little bit better. This guy is a little more restrictive in his movement. This guy jumps a little bit higher.” Competitiveness is easier to spot, too.
“Sometimes on film, you’re not into the game as much,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “It could be a two-point game, but you’re fast-forwarding. ... You see so much more in person.”
Coaches assess a player’s ego and coachability, his body language and his interactions with teammates. Turgeon watches how a prospect treats his parents, which is possible to perceive on a video call but not quite the same.
Advanced statistics and reservoirs of video make virtual evaluations easier than they would have been years ago. South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said those changes have led to more focused recruiting. Instead of spotting a new prospect at a tournament and shifting attention to him, a staff often homes in on players the school has recruited for years. Likewise, recruits might be less inclined to wait for what they consider a better scholarship offer to arrive.
Coaches who have already seen plenty of players in the Class of 2021 have a solid handle on whom to target. Schools scrambling to fill unexpected scholarship openings are in a tougher spot.
Without live events, some players will not be properly evaluated, coaches said. That’s already the case under the best circumstances, but this year’s unusual setup could exacerbate the imperfections of the process. Programs could start copying one another, offering scholarships to the same players. Top-tier prospects probably won’t suffer, but so far this spring, there has been no way for a player to burst onto the recruiting radar.
“It’s going to go both directions, though,” Christian said. “You’re going to have some guys that slip through the cracks, and you’re going to have a lot of guys that will go higher than they should go.”
With players and coaches confined to their homes, recruiting visits have gone virtual. Families gather around a computer as coaches share presentations, pitching their campuses and cities. A 2021 recruit said one school shared the staff’s vision for his role, comparing his video to that of a former player who is now in the NBA.
George Washington’s coaches have discussed incorporating video calls in their recruiting even after travel restrictions lift. They could replace separate calls to multiple family members, and a video setting helps keep everyone attentive.
Some AAU coaches worry about their players choosing a college without visiting any campuses. College coaches expect more regionalized decisions because recruits are more familiar with those schools.
High schoolers hoping for more scholarship offers and clarity can only work out at home and stay ready for whenever AAU competition might return. Tre Carroll, a forward from Florida, scored 48 points in a high school game this past season. He is 68th in 247 Sports’ rankings for the Class of 2021. Carroll has scholarship offers from schools such as Santa Clara and Florida Atlantic, but major-conference programs have shown interest.
“It was going to be a breakout year for me and for my teammates,” he said. “Knowing this summer could be canceled hurts all of us, including everyone in the 2021 class in the whole entire country. It just sucks that we can’t get out there and show people who we are.”
Carroll has had virtual meetings with schools. He tries to work out twice a day. He and his teammates had looked forward to their last run through the AAU calendar. But now they hope for a call from their coach telling them the season will begin at last. They want to compete and long for the chance.
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