Basketball recruiters eyeing younger prospects


Lake Howell's Nick Calathes fights for a loose ball against Dwyer during the Class 5A state title game in Lakeland in 2004. The next year, as a sophomore, Calathes was offered a scholarship by Billy Donovan to play at Florida. He accepted.

Scott Wheeler/The Ledger
Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Flattered. Elated. Anxious.

Nick Calathes felt the swirl of emotions when Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan offered him a scholarship in his sophomore year of high school.

Shortly after the offer, Calathes' father, John, gave his son some advice on the ride home from Gainesville.

"I told him, take two weeks to think about it and enjoy it," John said.

Three days later, Nick Calathes committed to Florida, an oral pledge he held for more than a year. Calathes, a McDonald's All-American point guard, signed a binding letter of intent last November as part of a consensus No. 1 freshman recruiting class that will hit the Florida court this fall.

Calathes is an example of a college basketball recruiting landscape that's getting younger and younger. Seven high-school freshmen already have committed to major Division I schools. USC basketball coach Tim Floyd recently made headlines when he accepted a verbal commitment from eighth-grade point guard Ryan Boatright.

In his 11-year tenure, Donovan has accepted oral commitments from four high school sophomores - Calathes, Gary Clark, Brett Nelson and Teddy Dupay.

Of the four, Clark is the only one who didn't make it to campus, de-committing after a meeting with Donovan last summer. Clark signed a scholarship with Wake Forest last spring and is expected to debut as a freshman there this fall.

"Every kid and their family is entitled to make a decision when they want to make a decision," Donovan said. "We've obviously had some guys make decisions early here. Certainly, it is early to make a decision, but if that's what a kid knows he wants to do, I think really it's the family's responsibility."

John Calathes said he quizzed his son before he made his commitment to Florida.

"I asked him, if Mike Krzyzewski comes from Duke, will you listen? What if Bill Self from Kansas comes calling? What if Roy Williams comes from North Carolina?

"Your first thought is it's so far away," John said. "But I think it worked to Nicky's advantage. The nervousness, where am I going to go to school, was gone. He was able to go up to Florida and play with the guys, use the resources of the coaching staff, get on a nutrition program."

While the process worked out for Calathes, it has created a certain level of skepticism from coaches forced to speed up the recruiting process.

"What's happening right now is making me a little queasy, to be honest," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "Guys are in such a rush and it doesn't make a lot of sense. I just hope it doesn't go to where football has gone, where people commit and de-commit based on numbers."

Felton said his biggest concern is players and coaches not keeping their word over a longer period of time.

"It used to be 95 percent of the time if someone committed to a school, they would stop recruiting them," Felton said. "We're losing a little bit of that integrity. You're seeing more kids de-committing and what happens on the front end is the coach stops recruiting the position, and then when a player de-commits, instead of getting the top 10 at that position, you're down to the top 20 or top 30 at that position."

Without naming specific teams, John Calathes acknowledged he was approached by several schools after his son committed to Florida.

"They would ask, how firm is the commitment?" he said. "I couldn't believe it. I said, it's a done deal, a commitment is a commitment."

Coaches can ask because commitments aren't binding until a letter of intent is signed. The first official signing period is November of a player's senior year in high school.

Evaluations start much earlier than that. External factors such as the internet and increased summer-league travel play has created increased exposure for younger players.

"Kids play so much more competitive basketball now than they used to," said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie. "I think that's one of the reasons why coaches can make judgements earlier. There's probably more information now than in the history of basketball."

Gillispie recently accepted a verbal commitment from ninth-grader Dakotah Euton, a 6-foot-8 forward.

"The younger the player, the greater the risk, for the player and the school," Gillispie said. "There's obviously the risk of injury, physical development, skill development."

Said Donovan: "When you watch them play you are going to have to have a feel of projecting. I think it's just like when you're watching a player as a junior or a senior you want to project where they're going to be several years down the road in college. Obviously, the earlier you deal with it, the harder it is to project."

The domino effect of players making earlier commitments has created peer pressure among top young high school players.

"There's a lot of competition for scholarships, especially at the elite programs," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Kids want to play where they are going to get the most exposure and feel like they are passing up an opportunity if they don't commit earlier."

Added South Carolina coach Dave Odom: "It used to be, kids who didn't come out early for the NBA Draft had a black mark on them. Now it's become, if a high school kid doesn't commit early, there must be something wrong with him.

"I don't pay much attention to eighth-, ninth- or 10th-grade commitments. There's so much more basketball to be played. ... I prefer not to do that. I don't want my coaches involved in that type of recruiting."

Not all coaches feel the same away. Donovan said he generally starts to get a feel for players in their freshman or sophomore years in high school and wouldn't rule out offering a scholarship to a high-school freshman.

"I don't necessarily have a line," Donovan said. "You go watch Greg Oden play as a freshman in high school, a lot of people probably would have offered him a scholarship. You go watch Kevin Garnett as a freshman, you would have offered him a scholarship. Some of the kids that are committing as freshmen, I haven't seen them play, so I don't know where their talent level is at."

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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