By Kevin Sweeney
The NCAA dipped its toe into the grassroots basketball world this year, establishing the NCAA Basketball Academy as a new live period event in response to the scandal that rocked the college basketball landscape two years ago.
The NCAA taking a stab at running a grassroots weekend was proposed by the Commission on College Basketball headed up by Condoleeza Rice and was quickly adopted for the 2019 calendar year as part of widespread changes to the recruiting calendar as a whole.
On paper, they created an event that should have been nothing but a positive– paid for entirely by the NCAA, giving over 2,000 prospects a chance to be evaluated, and including legitimate coaching and life skills training beyond the game-centric AAU world.
The problem: the NCAA tried to fix something that wasn’t broken. Peach Jam and other EYBL events weren’t the reason players and their families were receiving bribes from coaches and shoe companies. Blaming big, bad Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour was an attempt at a Band-Aid on the larger problem– there is a market for elite players that exceeds what the NCAA compensates them with. Until that changes, which will require the NCAA at least allowing players to profit off their own likeness, there will always be cheating. Whether Nike runs grassroots basketball or not, it will still have a vested interest in steering players towards Nike-sponsored schools and more importantly, Nike shoe contracts when they hit the professional level.
In replacing a traditional July recruiting weekend with these academies, the NCAA stripped coaches of a prized evaluation weekend in Las Vegas, where all the nation’s best players would have found themselves in gyms across the desert. Instead, most of the nation’s best players were, well, home.
The biggest complaint among college coaches that I and others spoke with throughout the week was a lack of talent. There were few clear high-major recruits who attended the camps, and some high-level ones that were scheduled to (Niels Lane and Jordan Geronimo at UConn) backed out at the last second. Certainly not all of that is the NCAA’s fault, especially given they provided lodging and transportation for the players. The fact that players sat out despite it costing them little to nothing to be there is mostly related to those around them (namely, AAU coaches and directors) telling them not to play. Combine that with a flawed nomination system in which college coaches nominated players to be there (what mid-major coach in their right mind would nominate a kid they want to get seen by more coaches?), and the talent pool drained quickly. I’d estimate that between the two sessions at UConn, there were maybe 25 clear high-major players out of the approximately 600 who played, with 25-50 more who could make a case for their recruitment to take that next step. A significant group looked like non-D1 players. The majority of guys looked like one-bid-league players. In order for this event to have credibility and work going forward, getting a higher percentage of high-level recruits in the building and playing.
While the games lacked the talent of a big grassroots event like Peach Jam, I thought they were about as good as could have been asked for given the challenge assembling teams of players who had never played together before this week. The games ran on-time, were well-officiated, and coaches (from the D2, D3, and HS level attempted to put in some set plays on offense. Players played hard and seemed to buy into team concepts. Still, the flaws of a newly-assembled team were evident, and some teams were unbalanced in terms of roster construction of point guards, wings, and bigs.
Beyond the games, mid-major coaches I spoke with throughout the week appreciated being able to evaluate players going through drills run by current and former college coaches (Pete Gillen and Mitch Buonaguro were the lead instructors for the UConn camp). Getting to see how players responded to coaching was useful and often helped me decide which players to focus on watching during the games later in the day.
Days were action-packed, with players in constant motion from drills to life skill training to the games themselves throughout their three-day stay. Those long days may have worn down some players especially towards the end of each session, but all in all showcased a well-run event that for the most part ran smoothly, impressive for a first-year event of this magnitude.
Overall, event organizers did a very good job in making a flawed plan run to the best of its ability. The success of any recruiting event, at its core, is related to the talent level, and unless the NCAA can get high-major players to come out and play, the event will likely receive ridicule from the national media. It’s hard to imagine this concept winding up better than a shoe company weekend in the long term, but I do have hopes that this could become a more worthwhile evaluation setting for higher-level players in future years. Another alternative would be bringing back Vegas in July and moving these academies to June. Perhaps they could be played at the same time as the NBPA Top 100 Camp, a mid-major alternative for a week that drew criticism from mid-major coaches as unfair.
I spent time at UConn and got a chance to watch parts of both Session 1 and Session 2. Let’s look at a few players that stood out from each session:
Zed Key– In terms of offers, Key was one of the most highly-regarded players in attendance, and he showed why throughout the event. With Wisconsin, Illinois, and a slew of other high-major staffs watching him throughout the week, dominating in the paint with his strength and touch around the rim. He even flashed the ability to step out and hit a pick-and-pop 3.
Reece Brown– Brown was impressive, showcasing his versatility as a modern combo forward, who can shoot, handle the ball, and defend multiple positions. It seems like every mid-major in the northeast has offered the 2020 Loomis Chaffee product, and Andrew Slater of 247Sports reported he’ll take an official visit to Rice later this summer. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few high-major teams jump into the mix later in the process.
Angelo Brizzi– A 2021 point guard who already lists a slew of mid-major offers, Brizzi won me over on Tuesday with his craftiness. Brizzi is still very skinny and needs to put on some muscle before he hits the floor in college, but he is comfortable with the ball and makes plays at the rim.
Other Session 1 Standouts: Noah Farrakhan, Myles Brewster, Payton Shumpert, Jack Molloy, Toby Okani
Jalen Warley– The 2021 guard had Pat Chambers watching him Saturday and is definitely a guy to track. Warley is incredibly smooth, capable of hitting outside shots and getting downhill with ease. A definite high-major guard.
Aidan Carpenter– Carpenter matched up with Warley Saturday and was fun to watch. The rangy combo guard has an awkward jump shot but is confident taking it, is very athletic, and scraps defensively. He should be a priority recruit for a number of northeast mid-majors this summer and fall.
Micawber Etienne– A stretch big man who should fit well in modern basketball, Etienne added to his list of high-major suitors with an offer this week from Wake Forest. As he continues to add strength to his frame, he should have his pick of schools in the 2021 class.
Other Session Two Standouts: Tahron Allen, Justice Ajogbor, Joshua Gray, Michael Graham, Olivier-Maxence Prosper