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Live hoops recruiting is back, as important as ever | Mike Jensen

“The reality is that there’s nothing better than sitting courtside, watching kids play, interacting with their teammates, all that,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said.

Camden and Roman Catholic faced off in Philly High School LIve at St. Joseph's Prep.
Camden and Roman Catholic faced off in Philly High School LIve at St. Joseph's Prep.Read moreMike Jensen/Staff

Back by a basketball court, watching prospective Penn men’s players and everyone else, Quakers coach Steve Donahue understood immediately what he’d been missing for the last pandemic year.

“Maybe I’d talked myself into it, that films are good, and Zooms are good,” Donahue said this week. “But the reality is that there’s nothing better than sitting courtside, watching kids play, interacting with their teammates, all that.”

What Donahue really tries to take back into a gym … a willingness to be surprised.

“Kids have surprised me in both ways,” Penn’s coach said. “Some underwhelm -- God, I thought they looked so much bigger on film. And the other way -- This kid is really strong. Had to see it in person.”

» READ MORE: NCAA transfer portal and pandemic impacting hoops recruiting

No paying customers were allowed inside the St. Joseph’s Prep gymnasium for the last two weekends for the Philly High School Live player showcase, four courts across going all day and into the evenings for three straight days, ballplayers with their high school teams instead of AAU squads for this live period, by NCAA fiat. (Games were livestreamed.)

The event, held initially in 2019, lost to the pandemic in 2020, is the brainchild of Imhotep Charter coach Andre Noble and Archbishop Wood coach John Mosco. Between them, the two know the recruiting landscape as well as anyone.

The first weekend, college coaches were kept upstairs on a running track, just as they had been in 2019 at Jefferson University. The only problem, the track at the Prep is maybe a full story higher.

“You have to write about this event giving every college coach vertigo,” texted one coach from on high during the first day of the first weekend event. “Over/under on the numbers of phones dropped this weekend from up here?”

The thing about Noble and Mosco, they are problem-solvers. Coaches didn’t keep their complaints to themselves. Weekend two -- coaches now upstairs and down?

“They’re all down,” Noble said.

Was it, they couldn’t see, or be seen?

“Both,” Mosco said. “Mostly, they couldn’t judge the height. We made the change this week. This is starting all over. We’re still getting kinks out.”

A team from Florida had just missed a flight so Noble and Mosco were huddled by a laptop in the lobby, making schedule adjustments.

“We didn’t have to go hunting for anybody,” Mosco said.

Harcum head coach Drew Kelly and assistant John Ball were in the gym on two fronts, scouting for players, but also talking up their own junior college players in attendance.

“We have recruitable athletes, too,” Ball said. “So we’ve got to make more connections, and get our players into their gyms.”

In many ways, the sport fell back into familiar rhythms.

“I was talking to him, and then he just ghosted me,” one Division III coach said to another about a potential recruit who had stopped answering his phone.

“Me too!” the other coach said.

They both knew the player in question had just committed to a third school, a local rival. The coaches weren’t complaining so much as acknowledging how it works sometimes.

Meanwhile, the games went on … and on.

“I love the high school June period,” said Wagner assistant coach Bobby Jordan, himself a Roman Catholic High graduate. “The games in Philly and D.C. are the best in the country. Teams compete, play hard -- you can tell they mean something to the players. The only time you see that in AAU is at the Peach Jam.”

The Peach Jam, a massive AAU event in North Augusta, S.C., attracts a great national field. Coaches wouldn’t trade AAU events for all high schools.

“I think the high school evaluations are good, but I’m looking forward to seeing guys play in AAU against better competition every game,” said La Salle coach Ashley Howard.

Will the high school class of 2022, the oldest group competing at the Prep, have it better than the class of ’21 players in terms of opportunities, simply by being seen in person?

“I think it depends on the amount of scholarships a team has,” Jordan said. “If you have five or six scholarships, you might take two high school guys and just save the rest for [junior college] or the transfer portal. If you only have two or three scholarships, I think you only take a high school kid if he is really above your level.”

“Having used so much video to evaluate the last 12-plus months, what’s different is I don’t see these venues as being that important,” said St. Joseph’s coach Billy Lange. “I see them as data points to guide the evaluation process.”

He also said, look around, see which coaches are diligently studying the games as opposed to using it as a social hour and networking.

“I mean there is work in the conversations, but how much do we truly watch?” Lange said.

He is not saying he’s wasting his time. And let’s face it, watching eight hours of hoops can make anyone a little loopy. It doesn’t hurt to pass the time talking about the proposed expanded football playoff with Maryland assistant Matt Brady, or with others about whether Camden High’s D.J. Wagner should be No. 1 nationally in the class of ’23. (Without seeing the other contenders, my opinion: Why not? He’ll be in the NBA for a long, long time. Don’t care if he’s missing three-pointers in the summer of ’21. Watch how he’s always in the right spot.)

“For some guys, who can’t be appreciated on film, this venue is a total advantage,” Lange said, mentioning that he didn’t mind being upstairs at the Prep, since he could lock in a game easier with less distractions.

Sometimes, whatever the vantage point, a live event provides a little treat, such as last Friday evening, when the matchup down at Court 4 was Camden High vs. Roman Catholic. A classic local rivalry, whatever month the game is played. Even coaches who weren’t recruiting anyone in the game gravitated to that side of the gym, saw Camden get the best of it, but a class of ’22 player such as Dan Skillings from Roman showing he could handle the top-level competition played in front of an audience that included the likes of Villanova coach Jay Wright sitting just past a baseline.

“I will say this, the class of ’21 got completely screwed,” said Donahue, not just speaking about Penn recruits. “But the ’22 class, in a weird way, benefits. I feel like we have a grasp on that class way sooner than we ever had before. I think that’s going to go forward.”

What Donahue meant was that the technologies used during the pandemic will be incorporated into the status quo. Film work will help, and a 90-minute Zoom call with a player halfway across the country will give both sides more of a grasp of what the other is looking for, so time isn’t wasted.

“We really have more of a pulse,” said Donahue, whose team didn’t even have a 2020-21 season.

So everything returns to normal? Nobody is saying that. Just that for coaches, being back by a basketball court is enough right now.