The July recruiting season is officially in full swing, but this July is like few before. Because of new NCAA rules -- which allowed coaches to recruit in April, but shortened the July period to three four-day windows -- the same number of events are being crammed into a much tighter schedule. Travel demands for coaches are higher. Performances by prospects carry more weight, for better or worse. The general atmosphere, at least viewed from afar, almost feels frantic.
This is nothing new in the world of college basketball recruiting, where the search for talent -- inarguably the key ingredient in program building and sustained national championship contention -- has been a life-or-death ordeal for decades. The best players win national titles almost all of the time. The difference in 2012, or at any point in the past five years, is how much attention that search has received.
Which brings us to Mike DeCourcy's feature on 2014 prospect Noah Vonleh, who impressed Mike with his maturity at the adidas Invitational tournament this week. But I'm less interested in Vonleh's story -- though his is well worth your read -- than the meta-portrait DeCourcy paints of the scrutiny Vonleh, who won't play college basketball for another two-plus years, finds himself party to:
For all the attention he draws from opponents, Noah Vonleh never has been surrounded like this. Standing adjacent to a basketball court at North Central High, site of this summer’s adidas Invitational tournament, he is working hard not to be intimidated by the sight of nearly two dozen microphones stretched toward his chin. [...]
This is college basketball recruiting in the summer of 2012. Still two years removed from high school graduation -- an incredibly versatile 6-9 forward, he ranks among the top-five prospects in the Class of 2014 — Vonleh is feeling compelled to explain a substandard performance to an army of reporters representing daily newspapers, national recruiting services, national sports websites, team-specific sites and even a longtime columnist who now works for a TV station.
Again, Vonleh just finished his sophomore year of high school. I mean, can you imagine? Let's try.
Say you're 16, and you're one smart cookie. In fact, several of the national math and science rankings algorithms believe you to be five smartest high school sophomores in the country. You're at a major high school programming competition, competing against the best 16-year-old programmers from across the country. Every top science organization, engineering-based corporation and government agency has at least one representative in the crowd. They're all watching your every move.
But you have a bad run. The proof is more challenging than the regional competition, way more challenging, and the rest of the programmers are just as good as you. Things don't click. Hushed murmurs trickle through crowd. Your sidelined idols furrow their brows and scribble something -- oh, God, what are they writing? -- on their notebooks and iPads. And then, once you've finished, you don't get to go home, pop in some video games and be a 16-year-old kid. You have to sit down and wait for the media horde -- the kind you thought only existed on TV, the kind that doesn't show up for a Space Shuttle launch, for crying out loud -- to cram 30 recording devices into your face and ask you questions about why your mastery of C++ didn't live up to the hype.
Doesn't that seem at least a little bit insane?
Alas, I don't think there's a solution. Coaches are going to recruit players in person. Fans have an unquenchable thirst for recruiting information. High school freshmen and sophomores are going to have microphones shoved below their chins. It has been this way for some time now.
Still, it's hard not to think this entire process has become cyclically amplified. The noise has never been louder.
And I'm not even sure it's totally a bad thing! For players like Vonleh -- players who have a very real shot at one day being an NBA player -- it can't hurt to learn how to deal with the horde this early in life. It's a skill not unlike shooting a free throw, borne of consistent repetition and avoidance of bad habits. You get a rep, it works or it doesn't, you try again. The kids have to learn to drive one day. It might as well be now.
Still, it's a lot to ask of a teenager, any teenager, no matter how talented or self-assured or mature, no matter how "stable" the player's "home environment" might be. I don't have any solutions, nor I am interested in hectoring, nor am I exactly sure what this all means. I just know that it's a lot to ask.