Friday, July 18, 2008

The Younger the Better: College Coaches go to Middle School

A recent ESPN The Magazine article delved into the world of a most disturbing trend: the recruitment of an increasing number of players before they even get to high school. The story highlighted an assitant coach from Illinois who fought off coaches from other big-name schools to get a prime seat at an AAU game. To watch a 13-year-old kid. This is not your father's recruiting process.

There are a number of reasons why colleges look to prepubescent kids for talent these days. The increased influence of the Internet has made access to young kids easier and easier. Now, there are databases, lists and ranking systems for basketball players as young as ten. In addition, the pressure-cooker environment created by talk-show radio, blogs and the like have put immense pressure on college coaches to win consistently. From a coach's point of view, it's easy to see why you would want to recruit more, and therefore, younger kids.

The problem, of course, is that this is a disturbingly negative development, and not just for the players. I think it's obvious that very few 13 and 14 year olds can handle the pressure that comes with being recruited by major college basketball programs. Friends you never knew you had come out of nowhere. Agents want to talk to you. Girls want to date you. Opponents target you. All this coming at a kid who is still a year or two away from his learner's permit. One youngster who committed to USC as a 14-year-old, Ryan Boatright of Illinois, reported feeling undo pressure to perform at a high level. What kid wants that?

But the often overlooked aspect of this trend is that it can seriously hurt a program. The fact that a 13-year-old kid is dominating the competition he sees certainly does not mean he will continue to do so as he gets older. Some kids stop growing. Some stop improving. Some simply decide to do things other than play basketball. Committing time and resources to recruiting a kid that is such a gamble is dangerous enough, but what happens when that player commits to a school? While high school players can't formally sign to play at a school until much later, programs that get verbal commitments are taking scholarships off the table. What happens if a much-hyped 8th grader doesn't pan out? What happens if, God forbid, he decides he wants to have a normal childhood and not play basketball? Not only does the university lose that player, but they lose the chance to recruit scores of others who might help the team.

The NCAA and the NBA have already teamed up to set an age limit for when players can enter the NBA draft. The NCAA should do the same for when college coaches can begin to recruit prospective players. I know it is tempting to scout the youngest, most promising talent, but coaches should be forced to wait until the kids are old enough to understand the responsibility that comes with choosing a college. I remember being completely overwhelmed while choosing what college to attend at 17-years-old. How then, is it deemed fair or wise to let a 14-year-old to make the same decision? A recruitment age limit would benefit the development of amateur basketball players around the country. And in many cases, the college programs as well.


nitrkulja said...

Why the drama? We aren't talking about average joe kids who can just play ball at 13 or 14, we are talking about wonder-kids. Kids who just flat out ball, incredibly talented for their age and more than likely already dreaming of making it big. I say let it be.

Jeez Europe's been doing it for years. Ajax and Feyenord are like kid farms for soccer. They pick up kids from everywhere as far afield as East Africa and as young as 8 to go to their soccer academies where every year they gotta try out just to stay. Soccer players are sold for millions upon millions of dollars the instant they turn 16 and can sign pre-professional contracts...

The same thing happens with basketball. There are so-called Basketball High Schools all over eastern europe. The most famous is in Kiev where the entire Ukrainian Junior Team goes, trains, learns, and lives together all year round. They are literally factories for kids.

Another example is Greece and Cyprus. If you want to play any sport for a team after the age of 16 you have to sign a pre-pro annual commitment letter so that the team will then go to the appropriate sports federation and get you "license" to play that sport...

Finally look at Ricky Rubio in Spain. The kid's amazing, one of the best players in DKV Joventut in Spain and a member of their National Team, he was playing pro-ball from 15, he's still to young to be legally interviewed but he is a stat leader both in assists and steals in the Euroleague.

In essence what im saying is, if the kid can play let him play, irregardless of age. If he's 13 let him sign that contract and work towards something, have some form of security too.

Rob Dauster said...

Ok, well all that makes sense, but the problem is that once these guys get labeled as wonder-kids, then everyone expects them to be the next Kobe, the next Shaq, the next LeBron. And sometimes, they don't pan out. Remember when Derrick Caracter had all the hype as the next best thing? What about Lenny Cooke? Or Major Wingate? Or Bassy Telfair?

These guys get all of this hype at such a young age, when it is not so much that they are more talented, it is that they happened to hit puberty earlier, and are just that much taller or faster or stronger than the average kid their age. Derrick Caracter was the same size that he is now when he was 14. He hasn't grown since then, and is now essentially an under sized power forward. The dreams of making it big got to his head, and now he is the biggest head ache Pitino has in his program, and may never see a college court again. Maybe he would have been this nuts and this dumb regardless, but you can't tell me you don't think that the expectation that he was 'guaranteed' to be the next great NBA center had anything to do with how he developed as a person.

And that is the problem with recruiting at such a young age. You just don't know everything that is going on with these kids.

Ross Weingarten said...

I agree. Going to a "basketball academy" is one thing. Being all over magazine covers and ESPN at 13 is quite another.
At these factories, you eat, sleep and breathe basketball. Thats mostly a good thing! In this country, the media lens has gotten so strong that any kid with size, athleticism, and the tiniest bit of talent will get noticed. In a few cases, this can be a good thing. In most, it's horribly detrimental. The simple fact is most middle schoolers can't handle the pressure that comes with immediate celebrity. Knowing that, they certainly can't begin to make a choice as serious as where they will attend college.
You're right, these kids are incredibly talented for their age. But they're not going anywhere. Why not wait a few years, and if they are still talented, and have some maturity to go along with it, then we can call them the "next Lebron".

Nik said...

But then the problem isnt recruitment of the kids at 13, but rather it is allowing the media access to them.

I think another major difference is the perception of an athlete by his peers. Here if you are good at a sport in middle school or high school you become celebrated not only by your coach and team, but by everyone your age and the entire local community. You become a local celebrity by default simply because the local community has no other team to root for. That fact is not present almost anywhere else in the world. Mix the local hype, with over extensive media freedoms in promoting these kids and you get the problems that you get.

But i still don't think its got anything to do with the colleges approaching the kids, or the kids getting special treatment. Sure many don't pan out but that's a pretty standard thing considered how much hype is creating about just about anything. Either way these kids would not be the first or last not to succeed when they were meant to and its their, and their parents, responsibility to be able to pursue other options. Even Wagner went off to Europe to play in Poland, course he didn't succeed there either but thats mostly cos he was convinced that it would be easy.