Heading into the only three weeks of the summer when scholarship-hungry high school basketball prospects can showcase themselves in front of college coaches, Jalen Graham set a modest goal for himself.
“I just wanted to play well enough to get my first scholarship offer,” the 6-foot-8 high school senior-to-be said.
Graham, a late-blooming power forward from Arizona, didn’t play competitive basketball until his freshman year at Phoenix’s Mountain Pointe High School, didn’t make the varsity team until two years later and didn’t generate a whiff of interest from colleges until this past spring. Coaches often told him he had Division I potential if he worked hard and had faith in himself, but Graham never truly believed it.
The turning point arrived in May when a California-based AAU team desperate for another big man invited him to try out. Graham’s confidence soared over the next two months as the long-armed forward earned a place in Team WhyNot’s starting lineup and proved to himself that he could make the leap from thriving in the obscurity of Arizona high school basketball to holding his own against some of the nation’s elite prospects.
Graham shrewdly saved his breakthrough performance for an ideal time — Team WhyNot’s opening game at Peach Jam, the most prestigious tournament of the year for Nike-affiliated AAU prospects. Inside a South Carolina gym teeming with college coaches and national recruiting analysts last month, Graham tallied 16 points, 10 boards, 4 blocks and 2 steals, scored the game’s decisive basket and emphatically won his head-to-head matchup with Auburn-bound center Babatunde Akingbola.
When his teammates mobbed him after the game, they told Graham, “You’re going to have so many college coaches talking to you now.” Graham initially shrugged it off, but it didn’t take long for him to realize they were right.
Grand Canyon, which had been monitoring Graham since the spring, offered him a scholarship that night. So did Illinois, whose coaches spotted Graham while checking in on another Team WhyNot prospect they had been targeting. Other programs observed Graham a few more times to make sure his Peach Jam debut wasn’t a fluke, but by the end of the month of July he also held scholarship offers from 10 prominent schools including Arizona State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Nevada.
“It went from zero to 100 real fast,” Team WhyNot coach Reggie Morris said. “The platform gave him a chance to show that he was just as good as some kids that were supposed to be better than him. He didn’t back down, he competed and I think his confidence grew.”
Why NCAA rule changes could make stories like Graham’s less common
At a time when the NCAA is exploring altering its rulebook and recruiting calendar in an effort to decrease the influence of AAU coaches and shoe company executives, Graham’s feel-good story is a reminder that such a plan has some major potential drawbacks.
The three-week July evaluation period offers undervalued players from far-flung corners of the country the chance to prove themselves in front of college coaches who might never see them play during the high school season. Eliminate that or trim it down dramatically, and it strips away opportunities from kids.
“I think they should keep the live period for years to come, so that kids like me have a chance to get looked at more,” Graham said.” Coaches don’t always come out to Arizona or to look at kids at a small school and a lot of kids would get missed because of that. The July period helps just so coaches can see people like me, diamonds in the rough.”
Looming changes to the recruiting calendar are part of the NCAA’s attempt to make it appear they’re doing something to fix the rampant bribery and corruption uncovered by the FBI investigation into college basketball. The National Association of Basketball Coaches originally recommended banning college coaches from attending anything other than NCAA-sponsored camps during the month of July, but intense backlash from its members forced that plan to be modified.
The new proposal preserves one of the three weekends of the July live period and prohibits coaches from attending grassroots events during the other two, CBSSports.com reported last week. Coaches will instead reportedly gain access to scholastic-sponsored events during two 48-hour windows in June and to NCAA-sponsored regional camps that will take place during a five-day window in late July.
This compromise is a slight improvement over the previous shortsighted proposal, but it still won’t solve any of the problems raised by the FBI investigation.
• Prospects will still align with grassroots teams sponsored by shoe companies because they provide the best spring and summer competition and a platform to be seen by college coaches and recruiting analysts.
• Shoe companies will still steer elite prospects to affiliated colleges because Nike, Adidas and Under Armour will continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into sponsoring prominent athletic departments. The best way for shoe companies to protect that investment is to funnel the best players to colleges they sponsor, boosting the chances those teams win and gain more exposure for Nike, Adidas or Under Armour products.
• Agents and financial advisers will still bribe college coaches, grassroots coaches and anyone else affiliated with elite prospects in return for their influence over future decisions. If anything, the NCAA’s attempt to increase the role of high school coaches in the recruiting process will only mean that more high school coaches will now be involved in such transactions.
New recruiting calendar will make it tougher for unknown prospects
The only real impact changes to the recruiting calendar will have is to decrease opportunities for prospects like Graham.
How many of the high-major coaches who offered Graham a scholarship last month would come to Arizona to recruit next June when they could instead attend scholastic events in other more talent-rich states? And what guarantee would a player like Graham have of being nominated to attend an NCAA-sponsored July camp? Only a few college coaches even knew about Graham before last month, and do you think the staffs at Grand Canyon, Weber State and Pepperdine were eager to give dozens of competitors the chance to watch him play and realize his potential?
The other problem is that it’s more difficult for under-the-radar prospects like Graham to break out in a camp setting. College coaches have a tougher time evaluating prospects at a camp because the slapped-together teams have no camaraderie or cohesion and the style of play is more selfish and choppy as a result.
“[Graham] wouldn’t be able to make his mark in a camp,” Morris said. “He definitely played better with structure and with teammates and coaches that he’s already familiar with. You put kids like that in a camp setting, and coaches won’t get to see if a kid can really play the way they’re going to play in college. On an EYBL team, there’s familiarity, there’s team work, there’s sacrifice. That doesn’t always happen at a camp.”
Luckily for Graham, the proposed rule changes will not affect him. Thanks to his breakout month of July, Graham will likely be preparing for his freshman year at Arizona State or Oklahoma or some other prominent program by the time the changes are implemented next summer.
At stake is the next Jalen Graham, the next late-blooming, under-recruited prospect who just needs an opportunity to be seen.
“The system, the way it is now, isn’t perfect, but it impacted a young man’s life in the positive way,” Morris said. “Who’s to say this would happen next year when they make the revisions? It definitely will be more difficult for kids like Jalen than it already was.”
– – – – – – –