Pretty Bullets

I could have titled this article “I don’t give a damn about your shoes”, because it would effectively have the same meaning, but I wanted to approach this subject more subjectively and how it relates to my philosophy for Basketball Elite, why we scout the way we do and how we go about attending events. And no, I’m not talking about Sneakerheads, I just don’t care which shoe company sponsors a kid’s AAU team.

I’m not a “Nike” guy or an “Adidas” guy or even an “Under Armour” guy. I honestly couldn’t care less. I don’t care if a guy plays for a big name private school live on ESPN or for a 1-A public high school in Arkansas. I am not enamoured by hype. I don’t care if a kid has been offered by UNC, Kentucky and Duke. I don’t care if a kid is a future NBA lock or if he’s ‘ranked’. I’m not looking for a meal ticket or payout (I make my own rain, thanks) and I sure don’t care if so-and-so knows so-and-so and that’s why this kid won’t play in this tournament or for that AAU team.

When I first started scouting players it wasn’t to help kids get into college or to help NBA teams find that underrated power forward they needed to make a playoff run. I was just fascinated with the idea of watching players and trying to figure out how good they might be, and then tracking those players throughout their careers. Long before Basketball Elite existed (or even the Internet), I travelled to watch guys like Jason Kidd in high school (he was only a year younger than I was) just because I heard he was a lock to be an NBA player and I wanted to see what guys who were that good in high school actually played like. I would scout players, make my estimates on their potential, and then being a technical guy I built a database to track them and track their ratings over time to see how accurate I could get.

I did that on my own for many years; I did work with the NBA for a time through a third party in the late 90’s and the league gave me (through the company, of course) some cushy seats right at half court, right behind the announcers for a ton of games and even gave me tickets to an All-Star game. I’ve watched thousands of games, scouted thousands of players – literally, thousands – from tiny high school gyms to huge NBA arenas, from a folding chair at courtside to blurry video online. I was sitting behind John Wooden and Morgan Wooten in Madison Square Garden for a McDonald’s All American game where J.J. Redick scorched the nets and I was sitting next to Tim Duncan in a small high school gym when he was an unknown college freshman at a secret pick up game between a bunch of ACC players (I remember Cherokee Parks being a killer deep shooter that day). When I was young I played street ball in the roughest, meanest courts in the nation – after all, that’s the best place to play if you are a hardcore hooper – and so going to hidden gyms in back alleys to scout players certainly never fazed me. Someone told me I was mentioned by name as a street hooper in a documentary about New York’s playground, and honestly, I don’t know if they were talking about me or not. It was a long time ago. But I did play on all of those courts at one time or another in my youth, before my busted knee told me to quit. I think I drove all over most of the East Coast, South and some of the Southwest with a basketball in my back seat. New York ballers are no joke, Chicago is brutal, L.A. guys get after it and Oklahoma was just too damn hot in the summer. But when kids tell me they sleep with a basketball under one arm, I know where they are coming from.

It wasn’t until some news I privately shared with a friend about a Kentucky recruit made it into a Lexington paper that I started posting my own reports, simply because I was worried that someone would attribute some rumour to me incorrectly, which in hindsight was probably not really a big concern. But the result was that once I was publishing, college coaches started seeking me out from time to time, and eventually that led to me to expand to BasketballElite.com, where I just write up a ton of the players I watch and scout.

Okay, so what’s the point of explaining all of this? Well, when I went to watch Jason Kidd in high school I was blown away with how good he was. Believe it or not, Kidd was an explosive guard in high school. The guy most people know now as a slow set shooter with gifted passing ability had a monster two handed breakaway dunk in the first game I ever saw him. I knew he could play, and soon he wrapped up his college career after two years at Cal and went on to be one of the best point guards of all time. But I never paid any attention to which brand of shoes he was wearing and I didn’t even know if he played AAU.

Today, the landscape has changed a lot; there are mixtapes of players that can get tens of thousands of views and hundreds, if not thousands, of websites dedicated to recruiting. I don’t knock that. But along with that has come money flooding into grassroots basketball, ‘agents’ who work to move players around (and get a cut of a paycheck somewhere) and NCAA that runs a pro sports league where the only people not getting paid are the players. Twitter is loaded with fans who follow high school kids and hang on their every word looking for clues as to where they will go to college. But most of those kids will never be more famous than they are in high school, because most of them will just become average to good college players and the fan base will be salivating over the next wave of ‘can’t miss’ recruits.

Social media is rife with self-aggrandizing talk, praise for players who haven’t played a single college game, rankings of middle schoolers, chest pounding of AAU coaches over who dominates a made up league. I call a lot of the noise surrounding recruiting ‘pretty bullets’ – ammunition that is designed to look good but does nothing. If you were in a war, would you care if the bullets you used looked slicker than your enemy’s but never worked? Pretty bullets are like a fashion model dressed up to look like an MMA fighter – photogenic but you wouldn’t want most fashion models to be your bodyguard in a dark alley at 2 am.

Over the years I’ve scouted players and gotten praise for some of my reports while also getting slammed. I’ve written that some players were Division II only to get nasty texts and emails about how I was an idiot because that player was getting Division I offers. Of course I, like anyone, can be wrong, but it’s rare that I don’t see that same player transferring a year later because he was never going to get court time at that Division I team. I am careful when writing about high school players, because I would never be as harsh writing about a 16 year old as I would be when scouting an adult college or pro player. But I also am not in the hype business. I don’t care about rankings, because rankings don’t get scholarships and hype never put anyone in the NBA. Nope. Anyone who tells you that is making money off of hype. Just check.

Some hard facts here:

– Even the best high school player on most teams isn’t good enough to play in college.

– Playing AAU will not automatically get you a scholarship.

– There is more scholarship money available to Division III players, on average, than Division I or Division II. More coming on this in another article, and yes, I am aware that Division III does not offer athletic scholarships. Did you not read my bio above? I’m pretty immersed in this life.

– Nobody ever got a scholarship because they were ranked. Don’t email me about this. I have seen players who have a dozen solid scouts who love their game, write about those players and tell coaches and still the player barely gets attention. Coaches aren’t looking at rankings and offering players blindly.

– Adults who advise players on their ‘player brand’ are only out for themselves.

– Some private schools are great. Many just put a bunch of Division I level athletes on one team and win a bunch of games with athleticism, then claim credit as though they took a bunch of talentless waterboys and turned them into all-stars. Again, there are some solid programs out there but that’s not always the case.

– College coaches aren’t looking at a players’ box score in the paper. And box scores rarely show things like assists or steals. And any local newspaper sports editor will tell you that some high school coaches only call in box scores when they win, not when they lose.

I get texts every single day from a few competing AAU coaches complaining about each other and calling each other ‘dirty’. Every. Single. Day. Yes, I have thought about just forwarding their texts to each other.

I don’t care about their politics. I will watch any player, anywhere. I’ve had players who wanted to come to my Summer Showcase but were then told not to come by their coach because I wrote something unflattering about one of their other players. I don’t care. I’m not in the ‘pretty bullet’ business, and you shouldn’t be either.

Don’t buy pretty bullets. We don’t sell them here, and if I write something about your game, it’s not because I am trying to promote my ‘own players’ because I don’t have my own players. I don’t have an AAU team and I am not getting grassroots money. I have NO REASON to write anything about anyone except that it is my observation.

AAU season, here I come. See you in the gym.

Mars Blackmon

“Yo, Mike, I got those shoes but I still never made an All-Star game. What gives?”

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