It looked big-time, felt big-time. If you were looking for high-level college basketball prospects, this was the place to be one weekend morning in June. Up on the walking track above the basketball court at Jefferson University -- under the banner noting that Jefferson’s coach, Herb Magee, is enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame -- there were plenty of big-time coaches.
Auburn’s Bruce Pearl stood right under the banner, St. Joseph’s assistant Justin Scott just to his right. Temple’s new head coach, Aaron McKie, stood to Pearl’s left. Just to McKie’s left was Connecticut’s Dan Hurley. All the local Division I coaching staffs were in the building.
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Down on the court, major talents from Camden High and a Florida powerhouse went at each other. On another court, Catholic League power Archbishop Wood was in a battle. Next up, Roman Catholic High. You could easily stock a Final Four team from the talent in the building that morning.
It was big-time high school hoops -- 73 teams in all -- on Henry Avenue. And it was just what the NCAA had in mind.
If NCAA folks wanted to take power away from AAU programs in the wake of several recent recruiting scandals -- four assistant college coaches and six others associated with college basketball were arrested in 2017 for paying players to attend certain schools -- one of their solutions, designated by a high-powered NCAA commission chaired by Condoleezza Rice, was more high school hoops in the summer.
“The levels of corruption and deception are now at a point that they threaten the very survival of the college game as we know it,” the Rice commission stated in its report, which also recommended the NBA do away with “one-and-done” rules preventing high school players from going straight to the NBA. The NBA is expected to do this, possibly by the 2022 draft.
The goal -- in fact, the mandate -- was to lessen the influence of the shoe companies that have funded the summer grassroots scene for several generations. The original recommendation was to cut out AAU evaluation completely. But college coaches pushed back on that.
So one week of AAU evaluation in July was put back. Nobody is suggesting that this new evaluation setup eliminates the possibility of corruption. Everyone involved seemed to agree there were hits and misses in the new system.
“At least locally, this was a home run," said Amauro Austin, one of the honchos of the Philly Pride AAU program, speaking of that new June event for high school teams that was run by Imhotep Charter coach Andre Noble and Archbishop Wood coach John Mosco. “It was a grand slam, really.”
“Competitive and convenient," was the way La Salle coach Ashley Howard put it.
Having one week when coaches can see AAU teams instead of three is an exercise in frustration for many of the college coaches. Adding a week of a basketball academy run by the NCAA has potential, but a morning stop in Storrs, Conn., for the inaugural session suggested that it was not quite ready for prime time.
“As a coach, you’re scratching your head," McKie said about the NCAA academies. “All the guys that I’m looking at, trying to get, they’re not there.”
The new NCAA “academies" were held July 23-29 at four regional sites: the University of Connecticut, the University of Illinois, the University of Houston, and Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. The college coaches ran players through drills in addition to playing games. It had parallels to the old ABCD camp, players thrown together on a team for a few days.
Let’s pause to point out that college programs find players no matter the system. But these academies were supposed to be marquee events.
“With the ability to watch almost every game a kid plays on the Internet, this has little effect on our recruiting," said Penn coach Steve Donahue.
“As of now, not much of a difference for our program," said Villanova’s Jay Wright, who thought the new high school and NCAA academy events seemed to work well but suggested that a longer view, three or four years, is needed to evaluate these changes.
Donahue did think the new calendar might favor coaches at low- to mid-majors. “Kids will fall through the cracks,” he said.
“When there’s a limited access from an AAU standpoint, you’ve got to do your homework early," said Drexel coach Zach Spiker. “We’d all like to have a little more access. There are so many great AAU programs in Philadelphia, we’d love to see them a little bit more.”
On cutting the time his program’s teams could be seen in the summer, basically from three weeks to one, Austin said: "It’s just not enough. It should be two weeks. It hurt some guys who are surging.”
Philly Pride’s 16-and-under team won the Under Armour national title in front of college coaches, so those players got their due.
“Our guys got highlighted," Austin said of the team that included Stevie Mitchell from Wilson (West Lawn), outside Reading, and Ed Holland from Wynnewood’s Friends’ Central.
“I always thought three weeks was too much," Austin said of the old AAU evaluation period, saying players were dragging by the end of it.
It’s not the star players who are impacted, Austin suggested. Germantown Academy shooting guard Jordan Longino, a top player from Philly Pride, already has a slew of offers, with more likely to come.
“He was followed the whole weekend," Austin said. “The first day, Jay Wright and [Virginia coach] Tony Bennett followed him around. He got a lot of attention. Phil Martelli [now a Michigan assistant] followed him. Notre Dame guys were there.”
One argument is that having a high school event in the summer instead of an AAU week allows a different kind of evaluation. A player who might be seventh man on a high-powered AAU team could be the featured player for his high school team. It’s helpful to see both scenarios.
“I do think the high school event allowed a lot of kids to get good exposure who don’t normally get it," said Rutgers Prep coach Matt Bloom, a former director of basketball operations at Penn and La Salle. “I got great feedback from college coaches.”
More than that, Bloom said, his guys got scholarship offers. Some got their first offers.
So all this sounds fine. Except the NCAA spent roughly $8 million on a week of academies. Like the ABCD camps, that environment can be hit or miss for evaluation.
My favorite ABCD memory was seeing LeBron James, about to be a high school junior, play his first game, and he didn’t get a touch for the first 10 possessions other than an offensive rebound. (Hey, the other guys must have known LeBron didn’t have to worry about his future.)
“A camp setting is just not a great setting to evaluate basketball players,” said Ari Rosenfeld, who puts out the Delaware Valley Hoops Report. But he added: “It definitely went better than I was expecting. I was up in the air whether to go. It was really well run, really well organized.”
One problem …
“The nomination process and the selection process was almost hidden," Rosenfeld said. “You had to nominate yourself by May 5. You have to have your name in this system. A couple of parents missed the deadline by a day or two. There was no leeway.”
Said Philly Pride’s Austin: “I never even had the information on how to register for the camp. I didn’t know until two days after the camp deadline what the protocol was. Most of my kids didn’t know.”
One of them, Holland, did play. Austin said Friends’ Central coaches were up to speed and nominated their guys.
“I would have encouraged every kid in my program to go," Austin said, although he thought some AAU coaches probably did discourage their players from participating. “Why would our kids not play in front of college coaches? We would have sat them all down and had them do it right then and there.”
"I would have wanted all my guys to apply but did not hear anything until [after] the deadline," said Mosco of Archbishop Wood.
The next part of the process was an interesting wrinkle.
Division I coaches were supposed to then select the best of the “nominated” players to attend the academies. As it turned out, there weren’t enough nominees for this to be an integral part of the process. But it still gave coaches pause on how to go about this. Were they supposed to vote for players they were recruiting, letting other coaches see these players?
“That’s a debate we had on our staff," Spiker said. “Our guys were a little split.”
Spiker said he conjured up “the spirit of Fran Dunphy” and decided the right thing to do was to vote for their own recruits to be seen by other coaches.
Good for him, since there are no secrets these days anyway, few hidden gems. Spiker also saw some players at the NCAA academy who were worth a second look. So he’s not being naive. The system has to work for the players in order for it to work for the coaches.
Wilmington University coach Dan Burke coached at the academy and said of the 15 players he coached in the two three-day sessions, “I believe 10 held Division I offers. I think six had between seven and 20 offers.”
The others were maybe good enough for Division I, Burke said, and all were certainly good enough for Division II scholarships. That might have been typical. And there’s nothing wrong with a setting that favors lower-division teams over the Power 5 schools, which usually have all the advantages.
A problem, however, was that there just weren’t enough players. Burke had seven players in the first session but was down to six by the last game, and one suffered a concussion, so he was playing with five guys. One was limping toward the bench at the last timeout.
It made sense that a player such as Jordan Hall of Neumann-Goretti, class of 2020, did not attend the academy after committing to St. Joseph’s.
“From working the event, I really do see a lot of potential in it," Burke said. “Any time you have a pilot program, there are kinks.”
“The model is here. It’s not going anywhere," said University of Sciences coach Dave Pauley, who also coached a team in Storrs and applauded the professionalism of the operation.
“Everybody is saying there are no players," Pauley said. “It’s confirmation bias. You sit there for a session or two, say there’s no players. There were players all over the place. You’ve just got to dig a little bit. I would say it helped 90 percent of the kids.”
Pauley said it was easy to come up with “20 positives, 20 negatives, 20 suggestions” about all the changes.
“They’re going to get it right," Pauley said. “Because they’re not going to turn back the clock.”
Austin agreed with that but said AAU coaches have to be included more in discussions.
“I think we need to be more solution-based," Austin said. “That doesn’t mean shut us out. We weren’t involved. We get it. There were some problems. All these [AAU] guys aren’t bad guys. Not all of us are the big, bad wolves, so to speak. At the end of the day, we’re the guys [players] start with. Don’t freeze us out.”
“This is a power struggle between the NCAA and the AAU programs," McKie said. “They’ve got to find some common ground.”
As a place to evaluate players, McKie said, no setup beats the big-time AAU tournaments.
“I can get in the gym. I can be in one facility. I can see 25 guys," McKie said.
“AAU is the best platform to evaluate talent vs. talent," Howard said.
The suggestion that there should be a second week of AAU evaluation might gain some traction. Also, changing up the order of these events, maybe so the academy is a bit earlier in the summer and doesn’t conflict with a USA Basketball camp, sanctioned for NCAA coaches to attend, attracting the highest-level players but siphoning those players away from the new academies.