I don’t know many parents who aren’t worried about their children’s futures. No matter how talented our children may be, no matter how much we know they have going for them, it’s impossible not to worry that they won’t get the best shot at reaching happiness and success.
Parents of student athletes are no different than parents of any other student, and rightfully so. Just because a child plays a sport well does not mean that child isn’t just as deserving as children who excel in other areas. Many students excel in multiple areas, but sports is so consuming, so personally identifiable, and so prominent in our culture that it can take center stage in our children’s lives.
Over the years one of the questions I’ve gotten lobbed my way many times is simply, “How can I help my child get recruited to play college basketball?”
This is a question that I can absolutely answer, but giving parents the answer –which is all I really want to do– is not as simple and blurting it out; each student is different, each family is different, and each set of opportunities is different. I never want to just tell them ‘hey, your son should just come to my showcase’, because while I do work extremely hard to make my showcase a valuable tool for players to improve their game while getting seen by college coaches, I don’t feel like it’s the answer for everyone, and I would rather try and determine exactly what would help their specific child instead of sounding like someone just promoting my own event to anyone.
If you are a parent, then you know there are established scholastic methods to help your child get to college, or improve their school performance. It basically comes down to time, money, and your child’s ability. ‘Ability’ is a tough subject to tackle when talking about scholastic work, but let’s sidestep the possibility that we are talking about students who cannot do the classwork. That’s a bit out of scope of what I’m delving into at this point, but the three things that compose a winning formula in the classroom also are the exact same three things that create blueprint for a college athletic scholarship, but with one significant difference…which we will get to in just a moment.
Let’s start with an example high school student who is struggling in a math class. Parents already know, or can quickly learn, what the standards are for their child to successfully be accepted to a college, and one of those is having a high enough GPA and the correct course credits; several of those are going to be in mathematics. So parents have several options available – first, to determine where their child is lacking, what their study habits are, and putting in more time with their child to help them overcome and work through these issues. For some parents, they are able to take it a step further, hiring a tutor who is an expert in the subject and thus allowing their child to get even more assistance than they might have been able to get from the parent alone. Every child’s situation is different, every family is different, but the tools available to parents and students are pretty much established. They can invest time, money, or hopefully, both, to help their child improve and succeed in any scholastic area.
Now, let’s talk about the last component of the formula: ability. One of my favorite quotes is from comedian Jackie Gleason, who quipped “find out what you don’t do well…and don’t do it.” We all know, especially as adults, that we have some things we do well and others which we don’t…do so well. I know I do; we all do. My wife is fantastic at crossword puzzles, but I am definitely not. However, show me some physics equations and I will run circles around them. Like all of us, I know I am stronger in some areas than others…and that is where ability comes into play. All of understand this is a truth for everyone; no one does everything brilliantly.
For parents, it’s pretty straightforward to figure out where our children’s scholastic strengths are. In addition, there are tests – both classroom tests assigned by teachers and standardized tests administered at local, regional and national levels. It’s pretty clear when your child scores in the top 98th percentile in a nationally standardized English exam that they are doing just fine in that subject.
However, while these same components for scholastic success –time, money and ability– are exactly the same for athletics, the key difference is that while parents understand the ‘time’ equivalent – more gym practice, more physical workouts, more games –and the ‘money’ equivalent– paying for them to play on an AAU team, paying for a trainer to work out with them– parents have almost no way to determine ability in athletics.
For parents, they are left to determine athletic abilities of their student-athlete with the following available methods:
– The opinions of others, including presumed experts, published rankings, coaches and other parents
– Their own sports knowledge
– The box score of games played
– The attention or publicity their child receives
This is not just a guessing game, it’s a guessing game loaded with bias and misinformation as a launching point. This is a system based in informal logic from the very onset and it is no wonder so many parents spend several years immersed in in the AAU scene before suddenly coming to the realization that nothing they’ve believed was true.
So now that we’ve determined that the basic similarities of successful formulas exist between scholastic and athletics, here’s my initial answer to parent’s question about getting recruited for college, and a basic plan for raising your child’s athletic profile.
As I said, everyone’s situation is different, but in order to try and provide a generic answer that can help the most people, let’s set some basic assumptions.
First, if your child is in grade school or middle school, stop worrying about recruiting. Just stop. No legitimate college or NCAA service scout is looking at elementary school kids. I really don’t want sound harsh, but it matters absolutely zero that your 5th grader is ranked number 12th or 57th or 83rd nationally by some service. I already know as I write this that some parents are reading this and walking away, convinced that I am an idiot. I can’t help those parents. But elementary school rankings are not real. Middle school rankings aren’t real, either.
Look, here’s the deal: It’s hard enough to look at a high school senior and figure out if they are a college prospect. Each year backwards on the age level becomes even more difficult. Judging a high school freshman and trying to figure out if he’s actually a college prospect is such a gamble that no major scouting services or fan ranking site even attempt to truly rank players (which is another issue I’ll get to in a moment) until after their sophomore season. Proof? Andrew Wiggins wasn’t the number one sophomore in his class when he was in the 10th grade. A few years later he was the number one pick in the NBA draft. Kids and teenagers grow and mature so drastically that judging where they will wind up is extremely hard. A player who dominates every game he plays in as a 6th grader might be the shortest, smallest and slowest kid on the court by the time he’s in the 11th grade. Not to mention that no one knows how puberty will affect a child, and I’m not just talking about physical changes. The entire concept of Catcher in the Rye, the famous book so often listed among the literary masterpieces, is based on the difference between how children view the world versus adults and teenagers.
If your child is in middle school, there are a rare few — a very rare few — who are already good enough to get some notice by colleges and scouts. Guess what? If your child is one of those players, chances are pretty good you’ve already been contacted by a few colleges and scouts with name recognition. We’re not talking about the vast majority of college prospects here; we’re talking about Lew Alcindor type of players, kids usually already with enough height to play college ball and dexterity to compete against really good high school players. Remember that even most of the players in the NBA today weren’t those kind of players in middle school and it should help frame the conversation. Almost no middle school players fall into this category.
So we’re talking about high school kids, primarily. Recruiting for most high school players will generally start picking up between their sophomore and junior years – that’s when many of them start playing varsity, and that’s when many of them start growing to the height/position they will play in college. This is also when parents start noticing that their child isn’t getting much college interest and that’s when the questions start getting asked. So, after all of this preamble, let’s talk about where to go from here.
1. You need some video of your child playing. Honestly, a lot of people have video of their child but it’s pretty much useless. I’ve seen so many videos with blurry video of a ‘featured’ player making an open pass on the perimeter to another player who scores – that’s not a highlight, guys. If you show me six plays where your student athlete made a routine play or scored an open layup, that’s not really showing much. And mixtapes –the glorified, slickly edited kind that gets tons of views– don’t work for most players and don’t really show what a player can do. What you really need is the best game footage you can get, showing things like ballhandling, shooting, finishing in traffic, deep shot, things like that. And cut down on the hype music. But you will need video.
2. Once you have video, you can reach out to colleges yourself, and here’s the part where parents balk, but I can’t state this clearly enough: if your child has zero college offers and zero colleges contacting them on a regular basis, you need to start with Division III and NAIA school and work up from there. I’ve had dozens of parents over the years who had kids who were decent players tell me that they’d sent their son’s highlight videos to schools like UNC, Duke, Kentucky, and so on. This is just naive, and it’s also a reflection of the fact that most parents don’t know that there are hundreds of schools that a player could attend that don’t play all of their games on national television. I can also tell you that Division III, Division II and NAIA schools have miniscule recruiting budgets; if you are a serious recruit and you reach out to an assistant coach of those schools, there is a very good chance that many of them will follow up with you. This does not mean they will automatically give out a scholarship, but it does mean they will take a look at your student’s game and see what they think.
Before you shake your head and say ‘no way, my kid is Division I all the way’, I’d like to point out that I’ve heard that from hundreds of parents over the years whose children ultimately never got an offer from any school. I can also tell you that I personally have known dozens of players who took my advice, starting contacting colleges and in many cases, eventually landed at Division I or Division II schools. I can also tell you that most parents and players are completely deluded about Division I basketball, thinking that it means they are one step away from the NBA, but that is absolutely not true. I know several basketball agents who cannot get players signed, even with foreign teams, who played on high major college teams but got little to no playing time.
But let’s not get into pro prospects now, that’s something to discuss later. Right now, let’s talk about getting your child the best shot at playing basketball in college. This is why I usually ask players what they want to study in college first, instead of where they want to play. Too many teenage players (and often, unfortunately, their parents) are completely focused on the basketball teams of their prospective colleges. Yeah, it does matter if the coach is a decent person or if the basketball team makes headlines for committing crimes. But most college players will begin and end their basketball careers at the college they attend, and for most of them, they will need to make sure they like the school and they can study something they want for the future. This is not an easy question to answer, but it does matter. You want to study to be a veterinarian? Chances are pretty good there are colleges in NAIA or Division III that have good programs.
I’m not saying this is where every player should end up, but this is the reality facing parents and players. I know that most people want a ’10 quick steps’ guide to getting a scholarship at a major Big 10 or ACC school, but that isn’t based in realistic thinking. But guess what? There are many players who started off with Division II or Division III offers and ultimately ended up in high major conferences.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject, including how to track down the contact information for colleges you will need, but I wanted to move back to our original list of available methods for parents to determine ability and break them out a little bit.
– The opinions of others, including presumed experts, published rankings, coaches and other parents
Okay, this is a wide range of people but I feel it’s important to at least address it a bit. Presumed experts includes regional and national scouts, coaches and trainers. The ability and knowledge of experts is as widely varied as sports fans. Regional scouts are more likely people who scour gyms constantly, working hard to find and evaluate players regardless of whether those players are nationally known prospects or not. National scouts tend to focus more on players already considered to be high major, and in some cases, there is a difference between a national ‘evaluating’ scout and a ‘media’ scout. Trainers…well, trainers are guys who really need to have a proven track record, and that means years of players and recommendations. There are some awesome trainers out there and some, like Alan Stein, have revolutionized basketball strength and conditioning. But many trainers are just people who latch onto a top physically gifted prospect and are riding their coattails, using that player to build their own business. Coaches are the hardest to gauge. For example, some AAU coaches are fantastic, have coached and played at multiple levels and really devote themselves to their teams. But AAU doesn’t really have standards for coaches, and that means anyone can organize a team. This is both good and bad, but it’s important to understand that just because an AAU team is sponsored by a shoe company or they win a lot of games necessarily means their coaching staff is composed of experts to advise you on the best path to recruitment.
And listening to other parents? As a person who has watched waves of parents come through high school and AAU, I can tell you that parents often live in an echo chamber that they perpetuate. Many parents will talk with each other about things like reclassing, which AAU teams they should be on, how to get ranked and recruited, and most of them are completely wrong. And three to four years later, all of those parents will be gone and there will be a new crop of parents on the sidelines, all claiming to be experts in how things work. There’s nothing wrong with talking with other parents, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that most of the parents you are seeing at tournaments every week only have a year or two of involvement and that’s the extent of their expertise. Meanwhile, some of the players I scouted when I first got involved in high school recruiting have since retired from the NBA. This is not a brag, it’s an attempt to point out that what you are hearing around you is not always as tried-and-true as it may seem. Echo chambers are dangerous because they feed on themselves and limit the amount of new information that is allowed in.
– Parents’ own sports knowledge
Some parents know a lot about basketball. Some know very little. But watching the Lakers on television and understanding how to scout a high school player to see if they are a college prospect are very different. Add in the fact that the player is your own child and it becomes extremely difficult to determine whether your child can play at a higher level or not, and what they might need to work on. The vast majority of sports fans have never even seen a Division III basketball game, yet will quickly dismiss it as a substandard level of play. How would they know? Frankly, they don’t know. A good scout should be watching basketball at multiple levels –high school, college, pro– and constantly be immersing themselves in various types of play to determine where a player might fit in. Many people think that college players who don’t go to the NBA are great candidates for playing overseas, but they have never seen an Italian League game and don’t know that in many countries, there are multiple talent levels of professional play – so a player could be playing in Korea, but not playing in the highest-talent-level (and best paying) league. There are players who only make a few hundred a month playing pro basketball overseas, and there are players who make as much as NBA players. This is not common knowledge and it’s not something you can glean from watching Inside the NBA a couple of times a week.
– Box scores
This is the closest thing that parents and players understand to a math test score; they think, if a player can average 25 points per game, they’ll get noticed by colleges. Sure, it’s great if you have a player who is a prolific scorer, but college coaches are not checking box scores in random newspapers around the country every morning, and I’ll be blunt: there are hundreds of players who score a lot of points in high school who can’t play in college or, even if they do, won’t be scorers in college. I’ve seen many point guards or scoring guards who averaged 30+ points per game in high school and couldn’t even break 5 points per game at the college level. This is why I get more interested when I see a player has a triple double or is averaging 8+ rebounds per game. Those stats are a little more telling than pure points. And stats are just a starting point.
– The attention or publicity their child receives
I skipped over rankings a few paragraphs back when talking about expert opinions, because I wanted to include it here. High school rankings are not real. Sure, I can whip up a list of the top 10 point guards in a region or the top 20 small forwards in the nation, but even if my rankings turn out to be perfectly accurate (they won’t) it won’t mean anything much to a player’s recruitment or how they actually play in college. College coaches aren’t looking at rankings and deciding to offer ‘Player X’ because he’s ranked at #83 and not offering ‘Player Y’ because he’s ranked at #84. They are going to watch both players play and decide who is the better fit for their program.
Make no mistake; some publicity will help a player get recruited. If multiple scouts are mentioning a player on Twitter and/or on their sites or reports, then college coaches are far more likely to take a note to watch that player in the future. Sometimes I’ve gotten calls from coaches or even newspapers about players where I have mentioned that player before. But a bigger issue is when parents stress about if their child is left off of some arbitrary ranking chart or their name isn’t hyped in an article or, even worse, they see their child ranked highly on a list of other players and think their recruiting is going very well even if their child has no offers. Publicity has its place, but it’s a piece of the puzzle, not the barometer. There are players who I fervently believed could play at the college level but had trouble getting colleges to really look at, and it really comes down to that college’s needs and evaluation.
This was a long read, I know, and honestly, I could dig into this a lot more, and I will. But if you want more information on this kind of stuff, you can sign up for my email list here:
And of course, we talk about a lot of this at our annual showcase, the Southeast Summer Showcase. Check out the event website here events.BasketballElite.com for more information and to register before slots are gone. You can also hit me up on Twitter @m_shockley.