Daniel Skillings, from Sicklerville, is not a late bloomer. He’s a bloomer, a high school basketball player ready to show off his skills, now. Best kept secret in South Jersey, according to one of his AAU coaches.
“This was going to be a big, big, big summer for me,’’ Skillings said over the phone.
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Instead … quarantine life.
“I have two basketballs,’’ Skillings said. “I’m dribbling a lot.”
Skillings is Class of 2022 at St. Joseph, a 6-foot-5 forward at a program on the rise, and part of the Philly Pride AAU program. There’s still time for him. It’s just that in a normal recruiting cycle, when there isn’t a global coronavirus shutting down life and sports, the summer after a sophomore year is a prime opportunity to show off your maturation.
“It hurts bad,’’ Skillings said. “Atlanta, Vegas … all the live events. Big moment in my life.”
The pause right now, where college coaches aren’t allowed to watch live events through the end of May, with the rest of the summer in limbo, means a pause for all levels of recruiting. The ramifications are vast, the trickle-down impact immense. If you think the NCAA transfer portal is busy now, wait a couple of years. A missed year of recruiting won’t make evaluations more precise, which probably means more flux down the road.
Interviews across the hoops spectrum show the adjustments that have been made from all sides, but you can make all the adjustments you want, it doesn’t change the fact that courts are now empty. Recruiters can’t start at the beginning, watching players play live.
When might that happen again?
“The NCAA has always tilted towards the word scholastic,’’ said Norm Eavenson, of West Chester, who has been a top local recruiting evaluator for more than three decades, and has many college clients subscribing to his service. “AAU is non-scholastic. They’re more worried about whether there’s going to be football in the fall than anything. The sooner they can wipe their hands off anything in June, July and August, they will.”
Eavenson isn’t putting the onus all on the NCAA.
“What building operator is going to let people in?’’ Eavenson said. “What venue is going to open up for these events?”
From a liability standpoint?
“Absolutely,’’ Eavenson said. “Absolutely.”
The events Eavenson is referring to include the whole pyramid of recruiting. The real blue-chippers are mostly identified, and will have a choice of big-time destinations, no different than usual. What, Eavenson asked, about the high school junior who shows a Patriot League school he can handle real competition at a Hoop Group event? What happens without that kind of showcase?
Even the blue-chippers can be impacted. Amauro Austin, the head of Philly Pride AAU, pointed to his top 2021 player, Stevie Mitchell, MVP of last summer’s Under Armour circuit. Mitchell has offers from most of the Pennsylvania schools, on out to programs such as Stanford.
“College coaches know,’’ Austin said. “There are still some guys who wanted to see more. Like the last two national champions have been in. Neither has offered.”
He meant Virginia and Villanova. Austin noted that while Villanova assistants had seen Mitchell live, Villanova has a process it follows, and Jay Wright hadn’t gotten a chance to see Mitchell before play was stopped.
Observation isn’t just about play on the court, and coaches will tell you they are reluctant to go just on word of mouth.
“How do they relate to their teammates, interactions with their coaches?’’ said Temple coach Aaron McKie. “Those are the things you want to see. Are they coachable? Do they have a motor? High character?”
“You stand side-by-side and size a kid up to see true height, weight [muscle or fat], and reach,’’ said West Chester coach Damien Blair. “You can’t judge quickness, speed, skill set, or toughness. You can’t judge a handshake, eye contact, or if the recruit’s personality meshes with your current players.”
“Spring AAU is a good time for us to steal a player who might have fallen to our level or risen,’’ said Wagner assistant Bobby Jordan, a Roman Catholic graduate who used to be a Drexel assistant. “Now you need to depend on relationships more than evaluations on players.”
It’s sometimes hard for players, Rider assistant Geoff Arnold noted, because Power 5 schools “might put the hook out there a little bit,’’ expressing interest, so those schools have backups in case prime targets go elsewhere. It’s hard for recruits to let go of that big-time interest, even if there’s no offer. “Everyone does it,’’ Arnold said.
“A possible plus in all this, let’s say a school really, really likes a kid who hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet,’’ said Eavenson, the talent evaluator. “Let’s say they’re right. … There’s nothing more aggravating to recruit a good player and then someone swoops in after 18 months.”
Right now, Blair said, a recruit should “create a narrative for yourself. Ask some of the local scouts, coaches and evaluators to promote you to college coaches. Don’t sit at home and wait to be recruited. Be creative, advocate for yourself, and start recruiting the program that fits your personality and style of play.”
Some coaches plead for nuance, though. Don’t reveal yourself as that annoying parent.
“What you shouldn’t be doing is having you or your parents send emails every day to coaches,’’ Jordan of Wagner said. “These films and bios of a player need to come from a coach. We will look at it more seriously.”
The basics of recruiting gets quickly to having proper communication skills. Quarantining doesn’t change much of the fundamentals.
“Our phones and laptops are our office,’’ said Drexel coach Zach Spiker. “As long as they are charged up we can be productive.”
In some ways, Spiker said, it is possible to be more productive in recruiting, in certain aspects of it, since you don’t have on-campus responsibilities. Everyone is in the same boat, trading texts about ... well, anything.
“I’m texting a recruit … trading stories on what properties we owned in our different games of Monopoly,’’ Spiker said.
“You do have an opportunity to build relationships,’’ said Marquette assistant Dwayne Killings, a former Temple and Connecticut assistant. “But you have to work the phones, Zoom, and FaceTime. It makes things old school. It isn’t about the bells and whistles. It’s about the words and the connection.”
“I’ve been doing more interactive Zoom with recruits,’’ said Penn coach Steve Donahue. “I’ll share the screen and show them different aspects of our offense and defense. I’ll also pull up clips from their games and talk about aspects of their game.”
It’s been refreshing to have recruits answer the phone more often, Donahue said. “Most kids like to text but since they are sitting at home you can catch them more often.”
“To me, it’s really who can say the most and be effective in a short period,’’ said McKie of Temple. “You lose ‘em after the first couple of minutes,’’ noting that while recruits are home, so is everybody else. “Now, you might have somebody else in the background, watching TV.”
For a Division III school such as Johns Hopkins, don’t just send film, have your transcript ready, said Hopkins coach Josh Loeffler.
The timing is getting tough even for the Class of 2021 at a school like his, Loeffler said, noting that if summer events get canceled and that bleeds into the fall — "will they be held in time to see kids before applications are due?”
In addition to losing the chance to see a player live, Loeffler said, “word of mouth is harder to come by. Big events bring lots of people together. You would be stunned at how many leads we get from being in a gym, in a conversation, and another recruit comes up while talking.”
“I think coaches feel they need to watch every possible recruit online because we will most likely not have any live recruiting this summer,’’ Donahue said.
Harcum College coach Drew Kelly has built a high-level junior college program in Bryn Mawr. That means this shutdown doubles the impact, since he’s got to worry about players coming and going. Two of his players have signed early, to Florida Gulf Coast and Penn State. But Harcum has six more sophomores trying to find Division I homes.
“So far, we’ve been pumping out highlight reels of our guys and encouraging coaches to our Synergy page for film,’’ Kelly said. “I’m telling my guys, if you get an offer you like, take it. Don’t wait for a visit or hold out for something better.”
With his own potential recruits, Kelly said, he’s trying to get them to understand they’re probably going to have to sign without visiting campuses. That’s tough, he said, for a lot of players to wrap their minds around.
“We don’t recruit juniors,’’ Kelly said. “We recruit seniors, and this time of year is our primary recruiting period. Losing events like the Donofrio Classic [in Conshohocken] is really impacting our ability to evaluate and build relationships with potential recruits.”
The impact can vary by program.
“In all honesty, I don’t think we will be radically impacted on the recruiting front,’’ said Rowan coach Joe Crispin, noting that they have a good list they’re working with. “We will have to go with kids who really are familiar with us.”
While all coaches are forced to be more creative with communication, Crispin said players need to be as well, including having a quality video to share, joking that it should come “preferably with music I actually want to hear in my home office.”
Gabe Moss, from Morgantown in Berks County, transferred to the Hill School for last season. He’s Class of 2022. He was also looking at this being a big summer playing for Philly Pride.
“I think we were supposed to be in Texas last week,’’ Moss said of a travel-team event.
Instead, “there are no courts really around me. The rims are either too high or too low or crooked. I can dribble.”
There is a basket at his house, Moss said, “If I took the ball and threw it as hard as I could at the backboard, it would just fall right in. And the farthest away I can shoot is the free-throw line.”
The 6-foot-8 forward does have an offer already, from Penn State. That shows the importance of in-person evaluation. A Nittany Lions assistant had come to a Hill School practice to see a player who had committed to them already. They saw Moss, and an offer came.
“It was actually kind of nice,’’ Moss said.
Same for Skillings, who was supposed to be his teammate this summer. Temple treated Skillings “like a VIP,” he said, when he visited for the Villanova game. He’ll remember that early attention.
“He’s an elite three-level scorer,’’ said Philly Pride’s Austin. “He’s got all the tools.”
“This isn’t my last chance to show myself,’’ Skillings said. “I will get it.”
Another coach once sent this essay to Swarthmore head coach Landry Kosmalski. “A message to Garcia” is about just that, the need to get a message to this man Garcia, from the President of the United States, just before the Spanish-American War. Garcia was somewhere in Cuba. The messenger did not ask where Garcia was within the country, or how to find him. He just took off on his mission.
Swarthmore’s coach has incorporated this essay into his program, bringing it out occasionally when expectations are met with questions instead of actions.
If that sounds like a dramatic interpretation of present conditions, is it really? Nothing is easy right now, and maybe that includes finding the right basketball player for your team.
Harder to get academic information, Kosmalski said, which makes it more challenging to home in on good fits. Plus, no campus visits, no in-person evaluations. Everyone in the same boat, surveying the same landscape.
“There could be advantages for outside-the-box thinkers,’’ Kosmalski said. “Gathering more names than usual is part of the plan though, because it is obvious we are all going to need to cast a wider net.”
From a recruit’s side, Kosmalski said, “it will be very obvious to evaluators which prospects did at-home workouts [limited though they may be] and which ones played video games the whole damn quarantine. It is a mentality and we can sniff it out.”
So, this coach is saying, “A message to Garcia,” is a message for everyone. The essay explains how the message gets delivered. The messenger, not the president or Garcia, is the hero of the piece.