Names, placed have been changed to protect anyone who thinks this might hit too close to home…but these examples are based on true events of different players from the past few years. These are, obviously, not the real names of these players.
It’s 5:30 am on a Wednesday in North Carolina, and the early morning Sun hasn’t yet made an appearance. However, in two small gyms located in different parts of the state, two high school basketball players are beginning their school year with workouts.
5:30 am – Alamance County, North Carolina: a Wednesday in September
A lone basketball bounces off of the backboard in a quiet gym as Jeff Davis, a 6’7″ high school junior, practices a turn-around jumper from the low blocks. Every morning, school day or not, you can find Jeff here, putting up jumper after jumper, running sprints, or doing backboard touches. Jeff does not have a personal trainer and he attends a public high school, where he plays the center position for the varsity team. He just finished off a summer where he was not able to play AAU basketball, as his mom couldn’t afford it, and Jeff worked full time hours over the summer at KFC, which gave him extra money but the grease played hell with his adolescent skin.
Without a travel team and without a travel budget, Jeff made his own workout schedule, scraped together enough money to attend a couple of individual showcases and spent the rest of the summer putting up shots in his high school gym, which has no air conditioning, and he’s technically not supposed to use. His left shoe has an embarrassing square of duct tape on the outside corner; it popped a seam last week when he touched the baseline on a self-imposed suicide sprint.
5:30 am – Mecklenburg County, North Carolina: a Wednesday in September
A gym with several high school players, well lit but quiet except for the squeak of sneakers, has been in full swing with workouts since 5:00 am. One one court, four players are putting up early morning jump shots and chatting. They are all wearing identical warm up suits, emblazoned with a Nike logo and looking very similar to those worn by several college teams this season.
On the other end, a trainer feeds the ball to James Crews, a 6’7″ high school junior. Crews is putting up two hundred three-point shots this morning. His trainer, 32 years old and 5’4″, has never played or coached any organized basketball, but is wearing a warm up suit identical to those of the players and has access to all of the facilities. All of the players are wearing custom blue Nike basketball shoes, perfectly matched to the team colors, with the exception of Crews, who has shoes which are pristine white and gleam as though they’ve never been worn in a game, because they haven’t.
Crews spent his summer flying around the country with a Nike sponsored AAU team, attended elite camps organized by NBA players, and visited multiple major colleges. He’s actually from California, but he lives during the school year with his dad in North Carolina so he can attend school in the state.
As he continues to put up his early morning shots, the door to the gym swings open and four people walk in – two national media scouts and two coaches from an SEC school. The coaches can’t talk with Crews or scout him, so they walk up to the head coach’s office, which has a large glass window overlooking the court. As Crews continues to put up his shots, the coaches all stand and watch from the window, their conversation unheard but clearly focused on Crews.
9:30 pm – Alamance County, North Carolina: a Friday in October
Jeff Davis texts his best friend, Mack, asking if Mack is headed to the school’s football game. Jeff wants to catch a ride, since he doesn’t have a car and there’s really no chance he’ll have one any time soon. Jeff’s mom is working late today and the house is empty, as Jeff’s younger brother has already gone out. Normally, this would be a work night, but Jeff was hoping to catch the team’s last home game of the season and asked for the night off. It would be the first game of the season he’d get to see.
At halftime, one of the varsity football players waves to the crowd, who start singing a disjointed version of ‘Rocky Top’ – as close to the song as a crowd of high schoolers from eastern North Carolina can manage. “He committed to Tennessee this morning,” says Mack, “It was on the news.” Jeff thinks about the upcoming basketball tryouts and gets a little hope – maybe if one of the kids on the football team can get a scholarship to play at a BCS conference school like Tennessee, is it possible a college coach would come and see him play this season?
9:30 pm – Orange County, North Carolina: a Friday in October
The arena is filled to the rafters as midnight approaches. On the floor, the collegiate volleyball team is finishing their game in front of the largest crowd they will see all season.
The minutes are ticking away as the ‘real’ event of the night approaches – “Midnight Madness”, although technically every major college which holds such an event has their own name for it. The fans in the stands are there to see this year’s college basketball roster as they kick off their first practice of the year. It’s also a night of entertainment, complete with skits, an emcee from ESPN, current NBA players and video tributes. James Crews will be in attendance, along with a handful other high profile recruits, with floor level seats and backstage access. As he enters the arena, thousands of fans immediately recognize him and his compatriots. Some fans even start cheering.
“Your mixtape was AMAZINGGG!”, yells an anonymous voice.
If Crews is impressed by any of this, he doesn’t let on. He walks to his seat, sits back and has the look of a celebrity on the front row at a Vegas prizefighter event. Just another stop on the Crews tour. Later that night, he will post a message about his favorite type of juice to 20,400 followers on Twitter. He will not mention anything about Midnight Madness.
8:00 pm – Guilford County, North Carolina: a Tuesday in November
Road game for Jeff Davis and his team, and it goes poorly. His team loses by 24 points and his coach screams until he loses his voice during the second half. Jeff is overmatched at center, as the opposing school has a 6’9″ muscle bound player inside and a 6’7″ power forward who can scorch it from the perimeter. Jeff is built much more like a power forward and keeps getting knocked around by the bigger player inside and his teammates can’t defend the size of the big forward; no one else on Jeff’s team is taller than 6’3″. Jeff fouls out with about a minute to play, and his jaw aches on the bus ride home from an elbow he took to the face in the first half.
When he gets home, he sees on Instagram that the opposing center, a senior, posted a season high against him and was offered by Wake Forest and Vanderbilt after the game. Discouraged, he tries to study for a math test but eventually gives up and ends up texting his friend Mack until 2 am. At 6 am the next morning he goes back to the gym to put up shots. When he wakes up, he sees a message on Twitter from someone he doesn’t know who says he’s a basketball scout and saw his game and wants to ask how his recruiting is going. Jeff doesn’t respond and decides to think about what to say.
8:00 pm – Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia: a Tuesday in November
The arena is about a third full, but the lights are on as ESPN is ready to broadcast a high school basketball game between James Crews’ team and another national powerhouse. Along the baseline, college coaches from every high major conference sit and wait for the tip off; press row has a dozen or so national and regional media scouts. The sideline reporter is a 27 year old former pro football cheerleader with a gleaming smile and 6 inch stilettos. When the camera cuts away from her, she turns to tell one of the girls helping to retrieve loose basketballs to ‘get the hell out of my shot’.
Crews comes out for warm ups and never looks at the other team warming up. A few college coaches nod to him as he hits the floor and he cooly regards each one. His dad is sitting with a rep from one of the shoe companies – Adidas, maybe, but who can remember? Crews will score 18 points in the game but at one point the other team switches in transition and he finds himself being guarded by 5’10” point guard, and he dunks on him easily, sending the small crowd into a frenzy. Three mix tape crews are on hand and the clip of him dunking on the smaller player will get 25,000 views on YouTube by the end of the week. Crews fouls out with about a minute to go but his team wins by 6. After the game, a gaggle of colleges coaches make their way back to the locker room as well as scouts and media. All of them want to talk to Crews. Most of the college coaches just give him a great handshake and a couple tell him they would love to have him playing on their campus.
A newspaper reporter from Atlanta asks him how it feels to have so many college coaches watching. Newspaper reporters don’t come in armed with the recruiting resume of players, so they go with standard questions. Two national scouts are more familiar; they ask him if he has a timetable for committing and if he has a leader in the list of colleges that have offered. Finally, his dad appears with the shoe company rep, who tells him two things: it would be great if he could get a couple more highlight dunks a game, and see if he can attend the company’s nationally televised All-Star game in March. Crews checks his Twitter account and sees the clip of him dunking was posted with Vine and he was tagged in a fan’s tweet – and that tweet has already been re-tweeted 340 times.
7:30 pm – Albermarle County, North Carolina: a Saturday in January
Jeff Davis team gets a win in a rescheduled game to reach .500 for the season. The game was rescheduled due to a massive snowstorm that closed all of the schools Jeff’s district for two days. Davis did message that scout back in November – and as a result got a small article on the scout’s website which then led to a couple of letters from smaller area schools. None of the schools have offered him yet, and the high school season will end in a month. He will still be young enough to play AAU in the Spring – if he can afford it – and he also has to decide if basketball is worth pursuing into college with such limited options. He has one more year of high school basketball after this season. After the game, he texts the scout to tell him his stats – 18 points, 8 rebounds.
The scout texts back – ‘8 rebounds, that’s great! how’s your GPA looking?’ Jeff texts back ‘Ok I think’. Jeff thinks he has a B average, but he doesn’t know if that’s what the scout is asking for. When he gets home he has a letter from a small college in Virginia that he’s never heard of, but when he looks online he sees it is a Division III school. He knows that Division III schools don’t have athletic scholarships, but he texts the scout the new school information anyway. The scout posts it on Twitter the next day, and three more college coaches follow Jeff immediately, but they don’t contact him.
7:30 pm – Los Angeles County, California: a Saturday in January
Crews is on an unofficial visit to two colleges in California. His mom lives about 3 hours north, but he may not see her on this trip. His dad flew with him this time, and when they arrived on both campuses, a coach handed his dad an envelope with ‘school information’ in it. Both times the envelopes only contained cash, to ‘cover the cost’ of travel. Crews doesn’t know how much is in the envelopes, but after the visits he and his dad will drop by a mall and buy two pairs of $150 sneakers each before going to eat. Crews never sees either of the head coaches on his trips but he does hang out with some of the current players on both teams after his dad disappears into the city for the night. Two of the current college players introduce Crews to a few very pretty girls and they make a night of it. Two days later, Crews will cut one of the teams from his ‘official list’ and lose 2,400 followers in the same day. Multiple tweets directly tag him calling him homophobic and racial slurs and one of his former followers tells him he hopes Crews breaks his leg in his first college game and never plays again.
8:00 am – Wake County, North Carolina: a Saturday in March
Jeff Davis arrives at a local gym near Raleigh for an individual player showcase. There are over 100 players in attendance and promises of several attending scouts. By noon Jeff has played in two games at breakneck speed, transition pick up where players race up and down the court trying to get off shots. There are over a dozen scouts and a few college coaches in attendance. The only scout Jeff knows is the scout he’s been texting with since November. In the first game, Jeff is teamed up with a ball hog shooting guard who takes the ball and runs full speed end-to-end before launching a contested shot or getting an open layup. Jeff only touches the ball 3 times in the first game and gets no points. He mentions this to his scout friend who tells him, “yeah, these events are kind of like that. But you still have some size and even just showing you can run the floor well is a little something.” Jeff isn’t happy about this and decides to be more aggressive with the ball in the next game, but before the game, a college coach comes up and talks with him. The coach asks Jeff which position he plays in high school and what he’s hoping to study in college. Jeff hasn’t really thought about this much and mutters that he ‘wants a school with good academics’. Later Jeff sees his scout friend talking with the coach just before he plays his second game, which goes better than the first. Jeff scores 10 points and gets a couple of blocks but twists his ankle late in the game and doesn’t play in his team’s last game of the day.
8:00 am – Mecklenburg County, North Carolina: a Saturday in March
James Crews and his father sit at their kitchen table, dozens of college recruiting letters sitting around them, with a trash can pulled close. As they pick up each one, his father looks at it briefly before tossing it into the trash can. “Some of these schools ain’t had an NBA player in history, why are they bothering?” he mutters aloud. Crews is scheduled to practice with his AAU team later that day, but it hasn’t been decided if he will or not. He and his dad were offered money to switch to other teams this year, but his dad is holding out thinking his current team will pay if they just wait it out. James wants to play with the same team he played with last year, but they didn’t pay any money so now he may be playing somewhere else. School is up in the air, too. His dad and trainer have been talking about switching to a school in the northeast or maybe out west. The head coach at Crew’s current school also doesn’t want to pay as much as some of the other schools. His trainer also left the job at the school to train other players full time. After Crews became a national prospect, his trainer was able to tell other parents about how his training methods are what turned Crews into an NBA prospect, and that allowed him to land more clients.
A week before, one of the ranking publications listed Crews as the #3 player in his class – something his dad and trainer did not agree with. James was also scheduled to visit a school in the Midwest but it fell through when they landed another commitment for the same position. Since Crews would have to compete for playing time – the school would not guarantee James would start – the visit was cancelled.
James hasn’t dropped any more schools from his list since January, but two of the schools on his list have not contacted him in several months. He doesn’t want to drop them from his list because he really wanted to attend one of them and the other is where one of his best friends wants to play, and he had hoped he could play with him for one year before turning pro. Going pro is a given, because everyone – every ranking site, every mock draft site, every national scout – has him listed as a sure fire lottery pick once he plays his one season in college. James has only talked to a lone NBA scout, briefly, at one of the NBA player’s elite camps, because NBA scouts aren’t supposed to be interacting with high school players.
5:00 am – on the road, somewhere in Kentucky: a Friday in April
Jeff is asleep in the back of a van with his AAU team mates. Together with his mom they managed to pay for a slot on a decent travel team, and this weekend that takes them to a tournament two states from home. Jeff is hopeful there will be a lot of Division I coaches in attendance and he’ll be able to play well. Last night he fell asleep reading about how the NCAA should pay student athletes because they make so much money from free labor. At this point, Jeff has only one college in regular contact, the Division III school from Virginia. They have told him his current grades are good enough to get him academic assistance for $8,000 per year. He was surprised that a Division III school could offer him any money, but he was also surprised that a scholarship wouldn’t even be close to the full tuition. He would have to take out student loans for most of his college education to play there because it is a private school with a high cost. It’s also a small school far from home and he’s not sure if that’s what he wants.
When Jeff arrives at the AAU tournament, he’s shocked by how many famous college coaches are there – but most of them only come to see the first game, where the team they are playing has a nationally ranked shooting guard. He thinks he plays well, but none of the college coaches come to talk to him after the game. A scout introduces himself after the game and asks him a few questions and takes his picture. After the tournament, his AAU coach tells him he has two colleges which called about him – both are Division II, which makes Jeff a little hopeful, but in reality he was really hoping to get some Division I schools interested. However, he knows he has more tournaments coming up.
5:00 am – hotel, somewhere in Kentucky: a Friday in April
James Crews and his team are heading into another EYBL tournament this weekend. There will be a ton of college coaches, major media, national and regional scouts, mixtape crews and sizeable crowds. His team has played well so far, but they need to win enough games to get to Peach Jam in July, which is the final tournament and playoffs of the EYBL, Nike’s organized AAU league. Last year, Crews was the main scorer on his team, but this year his team added a center who is getting more points. James has struggled to get his points at times as the coaches want the ball to go into the post much more now. Last weekend, Crews had a triple double – 10 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists – but the stories about the game were focused on the center’s 34 points and monster dunks. After the game, Crews trainer mentioned they might not stay with this team if they can’t get Crews the ball more. After his triple-double game, one college coach stopped by and said he admired Crews’ approach to the game.
After the first day of the tournament, Crews watches some NBA draft analysts talking on television. One of his high school team mates from last year has declared for the NBA draft after playing one college season. The draft analysts have him projected as a mid-first-rounder. Last year, he was projected as a lottery pick in the same mock drafts that are currently projecting Crews’ draft position. During the college season, his former team mate was the leading scorer on his team, started at point guard, and led his team to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament. He and Crews have texted each other many times over the course of a year. His friend has confided to James multiple times that he has not gone to class after February and was going straight to the NBA no matter what. He also said when he got to college the coach ‘flipped’ on him and acted like an entirely different person than during the recruiting process.
11:00 am, Dekalb County, Georgia: a Saturday in July
Last AAU tournament of the year for Jeff Davis and his team, and possibly the last AAU tournament ever for Davis. After playing with his team in April, May and July, he has exactly one college offer from a Division II school in addition to the offer he held originally from the Division III school. The Division II school is in Ohio, and the scholarship package they offered was less than the Division III school. Jeff has been playing very well, averaging over 20 points per game, and had a number of colleges and scouts talk with him, but nothing has really come of it yet. He has one more high school season ahead of him to see if anything changes. His scouting friend has told him that many of colleges at the Division II level will wait until Spring of his senior year to see which players are still available, but that it’s important to keep his grades up. Jeff’s AAU coach has mentioned attending a prep school or a junior college to get more exposure, but Jeff’s mom isn’t too keen on that idea. Jeff never reclassed and is graduating from high school on time, and isn’t sure he wants to wait another year to attend college.
11:00 am, Los Angeles County, California: a Saturday in July
James Crews’ AAU team is playing in the Peach Jam but he is not with them. Following the early July tournaments his dad and trainer decided he wasn’t being featured as he should be, and pulled him from the team. Now he’s back home with his mom in California waiting to hear where he’s supposed to go next. He dropped all but two schools from his list, the two schools which offered his dad the most money. James hasn’t mentioned the money to his mom, and he isn’t sure if she knows about it. She isn’t involved with his recruitment at all, and he only talks with his dad about it during the season. Instead of playing hoops, he watches a live stream of his former AAU team online and texts several of his former team mates after they win.
That night, he looks at photos and reviews of Maybach cars online and thinks about what color he would like to buy when he gets drafted in the pros. His trainer has been telling Crews how he can help him by being his manager when he gets drafted and last week two guys flew out with the trainer to take him to dinner. They told him they were businessmen who were getting into the agent business and that they had the contacts to get him in the NBA. One of the guys was wearing a Audemars Piguet watch, which he told James was worth $36,000.
Marcus Shockley operates the Southeast Summer Showcase to bring in high level competition, drills, coaching and recruiting information for high school basketball players. He has been scouting and covering basketball for almost two decades and you can follow him on Twitter @m_shockley.