When Denzel Atkinson-Boyer was a Penncrest High junior, his college recruiting hit a point where Atkinson-Boyer didn’t know where he would be playing college ball, just that he could be confident of it happening.
Then the pandemic hit, with all that entailed. And NCAA transfer changes were announced, immediate eligibility becoming the new norm. His own senior season got abbreviated, no college coaches in the gym. Atkinson-Boyer could sense the change in his recruiting. It wasn’t subtle.
“I had coaches — they just stopped talking to me,” Atkinson-Boyer said.
“I have a 6-[foot]-7 kid,” said Penncrest coach Mike Doyle, referring to Atkinson-Boyer, explaining how in previous years, there would have been legit and varied interest. “No calls at all.”
Atkinson-Boyer found out how being a member of the high school class of 2021 is pretty much the perfect bad recruiting storm. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, college seniors have been given an extra year of eligibility, whether their team played this season or not. Add to it, the new rules being implemented allowing transfers instant eligibility at their new schools, creating virtual free agency. And last year, there wasn’t much of a summer circuit.
There’s a trickle-down impact to all this, resulting in fewer spots even being available. Villanova stars Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels are both returning to school for a fifth season of play. Jay Wright didn’t hide the fact that this probably factored in to forward Cole Swider deciding to transfer to Syracuse.
So keep going. Maybe Syracuse had less of a need for a high school forward, which meant that player, whoever he was, could end up in, say, the Atlantic 10. (“I’m going to go after guys who we think are going to change the program,” is the way St. Joseph’s coach Billy Lange put his approach to recruiting high school players right now.) If a potential A-10 player drops down … it keeps going. A lower D-I player ends up in D2. Except D2 programs on the East Coast didn’t even play last season. Many of their seniors are coming back (or the best of them might be trying to transfer up.)
“The offers in our league to [high school] kids are almost nonexistent,” said West Chester coach Damien Blair, whose team is a traditional contender in the D2 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. “Kids are willing to come for free because they don’t have options.”
Meaning, scholarship money is spoken for, for all the returning players.
“There are a lot of guys we would definitely be interested in during a normal recruiting cycle, but we just don’t have any room,” said Dan Burke, coach at D2 Wilmington. “I’m interested to see the impact on the ’22 class if the ’21 guys go prep or [to junior college.] We’ll be in the same situation next year.”
Not just the guys. Similar scenarios exist in women’s hoops, in football, in other sports. While schools are being granted a one-year expansion on roster limits, there is no additional money allocated. So maybe the rich get richer still. If you think about it, even with an increased roster size, places on the court don’t increase, so coaches are going to be leery about taking in a freshman who can’t get playing time. He’d be a strong candidate to transfer himself.
Now, some individual programs may feel a benefit of this trickle down, if they are able to recruit a higher-caliber of player than in normal years. Consider Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships, just financial aid considerations. Maybe D3 couldn’t compete with D2 scholarship offers in past years.
“It’s been equal parts challenge and blessing,” said Rosemont coach Bobby Hughes.
What’s the blessing part?
“Scholarships are scarce, so more talented players are answering calls and interested in our program,” Hughes said.
There’s another part of this landscape. How are you supposed to even evaluate players properly?
“COVID messed me up,” said Atkinson-Boyer, not saying that he had it, just that staying home, having to learn virtually, “the support wasn’t the same. It affected me a lot. I think I missed the first game due to my grades. There were a lot of struggles. I wasn’t the only one. I felt like I could have had a better season.”
Maybe so. But who saw it?
“He’s clearly a college basketball player,” Doyle said. “He’s not a 5-10 guard. He’s a long, lanky athletic kid who passes every single eye test. A three-year starter for a team that’s been pretty good.”
Now, Doyle has been around awhile, has coached D3 ball himself, been an assistant at St. Joseph’s — still has a school record for three-point shooting, playing D2 for Herb Magee on Henry Avenue. Doyle is picking up the phone right now, making calls about Atkinson-Boyer.
“I’m basically going to call schools and ask to take him like I would a walk-on,” Doyle said, adding that he told Atkinson-Boyer, “I would have no shot if you were a guard.”
At least one D3 school already began the admissions process, so Atkinson-Boyer’s story still could have a happy ending. (After this story was published on Inquirer.com Friday, two D3 coaches, one in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, reached out Friday morning expressing interest in recruiting Atkinson-Boyer.)
But Doyle talked about how, in a normal year, some coach might have seen Atkinson-Boyer have 17 points and 17 rebounds and four blocks, like he put up this season against Harriton, could have decided that one day was enough to prove potential. With the limited season, just the Central League for Penncrest, there were no high-exposure events. Doyle mentioned that Atkinson-Boyer had been MVP of a game against St. Joseph’s Prep as a junior in the Jameer Nelson Classic. But there was no Jameer Nelson Classic this season.
Again, this isn’t about one player. You mention a high-performing starter for a top Philadelphia Catholic League team to Blair at West Chester, a guy still looking for a home as a senior. Blair said he loves this player.
“Just don’t have any money or roster space!!!” Blair texted.
In a normal year, the Donofrio Classic in Conshohocken would be going on right now, area small college coaches scattered around the bleachers.
“Denzel is the classic guy who would go to Conshy, everyone sees him, he ends up somewhere,” Doyle said. “That was the story for decades. No Conshy, no last breath.”
So sure, you wouldn’t think a couple of senior starters returning to Villanova would impact Division III prospects. Except in this world, everything eventually impacts everything.
“It’s one domino,” Doyle said. “But it keeps going and going and going and going.”