Tuesday, October 26, 2010
How to spot the signs
By Dave Telep
In this business of scouting, you're taught to look for markers. They can be large, like the athleticism of John Wall, or small, say an innocent comment that sticks with you. Over time, you learn to keep your radar up for players whose pledges might not be on solid ground.
Ryan Boatright's decision to decommit from West Virginia isn't the first of the year, and it probably won't be the last. By our count, 31 players out of the roughly 900 prospects we evaluated have changed their pledges, with Austin Rivers, who traded Florida for Duke, being the highest-ranked player to do so.
While 31 might not seem like an enormous number considering a few thousand players are signed each year, but it's 31 non-binding covenants between a player and school that, for whatever reason, were broken before signing day. And try to explain that it's no big deal to the jilted party sometime. They're all big deals, including Boatright's decommitment from WVU.
It all started last week when Jabarie Hinds became the second point guard to commit to West Virginia. Did Bob Huggins really convince two highly-regarded senior point guards from a weak national crop to attend the same university? Plausible, but definitely the kind of commitment that gets you thinking.
Hinds' coach, Bob Cimmino, said Hinds wasn't concerned with anyone's talents but his own. He is a confident kid, and so is Boatright, who committed the day before Hinds. After speaking with the coach, my curiosity was satisfied and I wrote a reaction to WVU's new two-headed point guard tandem.
In retrospect, there was one part of the conversation that lingered. Apparently, Boatright and Hinds are not tight, do not run in the same circles and they didn't coordinate their pledges. This is a small detail that days later would prove to hold the key to understanding Boatright's decision.
There are all kinds of signs that can help us understand the nature of decommitments in the future (outside of the obvious ones like coaching changes). It's just a matter of looking for the markers.
For most players, picking a college is the single biggest decision of his life thus far, so obviously this is a key moment. If done properly all parties are on the same page and most agree on the outcome. If one party is left out of the process, it tends to lead to a behind-the-scenes power struggle that smolders before signing day.
For instance, the next time you hear an AAU or high school coach is disgruntled with their player's decision, be wary. Over time, it's likely to be revealed that person was cut out of the process by someone pushing another agenda. In short, the communication broke down.
In the case of Boatright, it's possible that there was a communication breakdown between himself and West Virginia. Had there been more communication in advance, its unlikely Boatright would have rescinded his pledge five days after making the announcement.
Though there were not as many sophomore pledges this year as in the past few years, it's safe to say that early commitments are much more precarious. The relationship is put to the test as the player and the program develop independently from each other.
When a player pledges early, especially prior to his junior year, a lot can happen. Often times a prospect may ease off the throttle and dull his own competitive edge. He may also have been the kind of player who peaked early and didn't improve. Both factors can lead to a decommitment.
When a young prospect pledges and fails to improve, the head coach who accepted his commitment could get buyer's remorse as other prospects begin passing his commitment in the national rankings.
The opposite can also happen. Players can commit to a school early and outgrow the program, essentially improving to a level higher than that of the school they pledged. We counted four seniors who likely de-committed to play at the higher level.
No matter what the circumstances, early commitments have to last the longest and stand a higher chance of falling apart before signing day.
Commitment from a prospect who never visited campus
This is an easy one. By definition, commitment means a pledge or undertaking. How does someone pledge to spend four years of their life on a college campus, around unfamiliar faces without seeing the school and what it has to offer up close? This situation is most common to younger players and often times is accompanied by the dreaded "the head coach hasn't seen me, but his assistants have."
College coaches are in pressure cookers. Their fan bases want to see results and recruiting; collecting commitments is a hollow measure of success in an area that should matter a great deal. If there is a good young player willing to commit, coaches often feel the pressure to take him. It's this "get him committed and sort out the details later" approach that is a red flag.
Multiple high schools and/or traveling teams
Our game today, on the grassroots level, is about second and third chances. Players are more likely to transfer to greener pastures than stick around and figure out the best way to fight through adversity. Often, the adults are just as much at fault because they are more than willing to steer a young person to the next best thing. Whether it's changing AAU teams or switching high schools, today's player is accustomed to wearing different uniforms over the course of his career.
It only makes sense that if a prospect is conditioned to move around when times get tough, that his commitment would be precarious. If you see a player with a background of transfers pre-college, not only is he more likely to de-commit, he's also more likely to become part of the NABC's statistic of the transfer rate which states that 40 percent of all signees transfer prior to their sophomore season.
Drop in the rankings
College basketball is a business and sometimes it's a bottom line endeavor. If a Top 100 sophomore committed to a high-level school and does not improve on the court, he's in trouble. That "Am I good enough?" thought begins to creep into the head of the player. That's when it becomes nearly impossible for the player to perform at his maximum level and for the school to sign him, or at least count on him to be a major player. We identified 11 players in the senior class who simply were not good enough to play for the school to which they originally pledged.
School parts ways
Once a college realizes the player they have committed isn't good enough to be a front-line prospect in their program, the situation gets dicey. The college coach has a few options at his disposal and you'd like to think he takes ownership and makes the player aware of the developments. Typically what happens is the coach either calls the recruit or sends word to his circle that the original commitment, on the school's end, can't be honored. Most of the time the writing is on the wall and the coach is making the move because the player isn't talented enough to help. There have been instances where coaches let the commitment die on the vine but that's not a move that endears the coach to anyone associated with the player.
Remember, we're dealing with teenagers here and in order to allow the recruit to save face, the school won't mind if the player comes out and says "I committed too early" or "I'm re-opening my recruitment." Phrases like this are meant to allow the player to save face and the school to move on.
The big reason: Attention
The Top 100 prospects are in constant competition with each other for the spotlight. Make an early commitment and players run the risk of going from white hot to ice cold in terms of media coverage. Attention in the form of love from the media and coaches drives some of these guys.
Mix in people within a player's circle of influence who find the spotlight appealing and you have one of the top reasons we've uncovered for "opening it back up." At least five current seniors could squeeze themselves into this group. The next time you identify a young player who craves attention and commits early, file this one away.
The bottom line is there are all kinds of factors at play in a decommitment. Boatright's been down this road before. He committed to Southern Cal before his high school career began. Last week he sounded excited to be a Mountaineer but it didn't last long. The Chicagoan is about to take a look at Connecticut, Oklahoma and UNLV. Somewhere, among those three new schools is the long-term answer he's been searching for the last three years.
Dave Telep is the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. His college basketball scouting service is used by more than 225 colleges and numerous NBA teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.