College recruiting is overrated

This spring, after six players signed NCAA D1 scholarships, a few NCAA Division 1 coaches made some interesting comments. One, after we discussed our record and such, said, “You had a talented team”. Another implied that they had spoken to one of my players when she was in high school and passed on her, as though they did me a favor. Finally, another asked if I knew that my best player would end up that good.

Five of the six were initial qualifiers; the D1 coach who thought they were talented could have signed any of the five, but none had even a D2 offer, although several talked to D1s and D2s before signing (truthfully, the coach had three chances to sign them: as high school seniors, after their first year at J.C., and after their second year at J.C., and despite their talent, the coach never offered any). If it was evident that they were talented, how did not one of the 351 NCAA D1 women’s basketball teams offer a scholarship to any? If each program signs an average of four players per year, roughly 1400 players signed scholarships, but these talented players had no offers.

The school that spoke to one before she signed with me was as good as any player on that team. The coach basically admitted one of two things: (1) They could have signed her, but their evaluation skills are poor, and they passed on her to sign players who are not as good; or (2) She chose a not-quite-full scholarship at a junior college over a D1 full scholarship. Either way, I thought, “So, you’re admitting that you’re bad at your job.”

Finally, I did imagine that the player would be as good as she is. I watched two possessions on video before offering her a scholarship. Furthermore, I watched two pull-up midrange jump shots, shots that I avoid. I never saw her play defense or pass or go to the rim. In those two possessions, it was easy to see that she had a transferable skill set: She had a good shooting technique, she moved effortlessly, and she had good height for her position (she signed as a 2/3). When she arrived, I learned that she never shot three-pointers. Also, I moved her to point guard, a position that she had never played. She left as a point guard who shot 38% from the three-point line. She is far from the same player as when she arrived, but it only took two possessions to project that she could develop into such a player.

These three comments illustrate the recruiting issues at many programs. We overrate marketing and sales, and underrate evaluation. We see recruiting as “connecting with players”, and not as identifying players who fit a system or who have the foundation on which to develop. Recruiting is social media and fun graphics, taking pictures in uniform and going to expensive restaurants, not identifying and filling needs or seeing the difference between a weakness that can be developed or hidden and one that will inhibit success.

Consequently, nearly every NCAA Division 1 program relies on recruiting services to rank players and tell them who to recruit. Despite employing multiple coaches who are hired ostensibly for recruiting purposes, they pay outside consultants and services thousands of dollars per year. They outsource the evaluation and talent identification and focus on sales and marketing.

Of course, these adults market to 18-year-olds. I am not invested heavily in recruiting because 18-year-olds do not make rational decisions. I made my final college decision because of weather. My players are older (19-21), and they made their college decisions for a variety of reasons, many inexplicable. Who knows why an 18-year-old chooses one school over another? I know my players thought that the recruiting tactics employed by most of the schools and coaches were ridiculous. Over and over, they asked why a coach did something, and my answer tended to be “because they think that they have to do that because they think that other schools are doing it and they don’t want to miss out on a player because they did not do something that another program did.” It seems like nobody really evaluates which strategies actually work.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball. Talent wins. This is not debatable. The top programs — Notre Dame, UConn, Baylor — not only recruit top 10 talent, but sign specific top 10 talent. Other programs collect stars and hope to figure out their fit later. They sign as many McDonald’s All-Americans as South Carolina, Baylor, Notre Dame, etc., but fail to reach Final Fours. If talent wins, why?

Evaluation and identification are more than noticing good players. A recruiting service ranks players in a vacuum because the service does not have to win games. Player #1 is marginally better than Player #2 in the rankings’ opinions, but Player #1 is not better in all situations. Kalani Brown led Baylor to the 2019 NCAA National Championship, but she does not fit well with UConn’s style; that does not mean she’s not a great player or that UConn plays the wrong style. It suggests that UConn probably would not recruit her regardless of rankings or stars or that UConn would have to adjust its preferred system to maximize her strengths and hide her weaknesses.

When I recruit, I value certain things. I also trust that I can develop certain skills. I have a strong sense of our style of play. Consequently, I ignore players who went on to sign NCAA D1 scholarships. Am I wrong? Maybe. However, I know out style, and the players did not fit. That does not make them bad players or not D1 players. When I recruit, I am not collecting recruiting stars; I am building a team.

I worry little about sales and marketing; my biggest recruiting tool is current players. They are my salespeople. I trust that by treating players well, running fun practices, developing skills, and working hard to move on players to the D1 level that the current players will see that and explain that to recruits. Part of that is shaped by our constraints; if a player needs to be wined and dined or cares greatly about gear or free stuff, etc., we don’t have it to offer. We sell what we have: Opportunity and a commitment to enjoying basketball and developing. It is not a sales pitch to wow potential recruits, but I do not want players who need to be wowed. I want gym rats who are drama free, and this recruiting approach tends to work on those players and eliminates others.

This year, I looked for two qualities above all else. I want to be + in these two qualities at every position. When I found players with these qualities, I tried to get a sense of their personalities; were they gym rats? If they have these two qualities, and they love to play, I am confident that our style (practice and playing style) will attract them, and I am confident that players who love to play will improve.

I don’t care who recruits the players or what a recruiting service says. I am not battling for the top 5 players; signing a player such as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Aja Wilson, Arike Ogunbowale, Napheesa Collier, etc. gives a program an opportunity to compete for an NCAA National Championship. I recruit down in the 100s to 1000s to 5000s where the differences between players is one opinion versus another. Ultimately, I trust that players who sign with me will end up better than others because I trust that few coaches develop players as well. Arrogance, maybe, but I think most good coaches would think the same.

When I see discussions about recruiting, however, the basketball side is all but ignored. Recruiting discussions center on wooing players: The sales and marketing. Players are wooed and arrive to campus and find that the coach is completely different. Recruits go from special (the one being pursued) to the bottom once they arrive. Some cannot handle this. Some feel that coaches lied in the recruiting process. Once the sales and marketing ends, they realize the customer service and the product is not actually what they wanted to buy. They are unhappy or they transfer.

Often, this happens because there is a mismatch between the player and the style of play or the coaching style. The player enjoys being wooed and picks the best wooer, and the recruiters focus on sales and marketing and signing the biggest names or the highest ranked players. Nobody really thinks about the fit.

I saw a player on the transfer portal yesterday. I tried to recruit her as a high-school player, but was told that she was going D1. I never saw where she signed. Once I saw her in the portal, I laughed out loud. Like, seriously, who made this decision? The fit was awful in almost every way possible. Of course she is transferring after her freshman year! Our scholarship may not have been as enticing, and bragging about a junior-college scholarship is not the same as a D1 scholarship, but I guarantee that she would have fit better, had more fun, and developed better here. It is not that the college is bad or the coach is bad; this coach is an acquaintance and I would not hesitate to send a player there. However, not this player. It’s like once the momentum got rolling, everyone got distracted by “D1” and “highly ranked” and nobody stopped to think about fit.

Noticing the top 5-10 players is easy. Selling your program should be easy; after all, if you cannot sell your own program, why would anyone want to go there? The difficulty in recruiting is finding the right fit and evaluating players with room to grow (whether because of right mentality, physical traits, developable skills, etc) versus players who have peaked.

Unfortunately, when we discuss recruiting, these separators are discussed infrequently, which is why recruiting ends up being tremendously overrated for nearly everyone below the top 5-10 programs.

The problem now with the transfer portal is that those coaches and programs who are bad at the important skills — identifying potential, evaluating fit, and developing skills — can get rid of mistakes more quickly and sign transfers who are mature and more proven at the D1 level. There were multiple programs that had 5+ transfers this year; before the portal, that would have been a sign of a coach to stay away from. Now, it’s barely a blip. Other programs succeed almost entirely on Division 1 transfers; why risk signing unpredictable high school players when you can watch them play against college competition and then evaluate their skills and fit?

Looking back at the 2007 NBA Draft to discuss talent identification

I found an old blog entry from 2007 that discussed talent identification in the lead up to the 2007 NBA Draft.

That is Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown and Tskitishvili. So far, so good.

Certainly missed on Conley, and everyone missed on Oden, but the other six remain in the NBA a dozen years later, which isn’t bad.

Not bad on Afflalo and Dudley (even nailed the Pistons drafting Afflalo!), although Young has had a great career, albeit not as a superstar.

In the lead up to the 2019 NBA Draft, I took issue with an article that described the NBA Draft as a crap shoot:

The NBA drafts players between 18 and 22 years of age. Despite youth coaches believing that they can identify talent in elementary school, these players are not finished products. Only the rare players enter the NBA as ready-made starters; almost every player has to improve to earn playing time and stay in the NBA. Therefore, when we look back after 2, 5, 12 years, some things appear obvious, but that is hindsight because we have learned more about the players in the subsequent years. Should we have known these things at the time of the draft? Sometimes, but not always.

I wrote this about Jeremy Lin during Linsanity:

What if this is really a story about a player who met failure at every step of the way with a Growth Mindset and responded with increased effort and determination to make himself into a better player? Poor Man’s Commish, the authority on the Jeremy Lin story, has commented several times about moves that he has now that he did not have at Harvard or about improvements to his shooting technique. Others have noted his improved quickness since his time at Harvard.

Maybe, just maybe, people made accurate evaluations of Lin at the time. Maybe Lin took note of those evaluations and viewed them as progress reports, not final grades. Maybe Lin heard about his suspect jump shot or need for more quickness and worked at those weaknesses.

The thing that differentiates Lin might not be his ethnicity or Ivy League degree but the way that he deals with criticism or rejection. Rather than losing hope when he went undrafted, maybe it fortified his will and determination and spurred extra effort in the gym. Maybe when he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets, it created an urgency to show more if given another chance.

Maybe Jeremy Lin is not the story of others who made mistakes, but an individual who believed in himself and created his opportunity through a re-dedication to perfecting his craft. While others settled with being pretty good, maybe he strove to be great. While others headed to Europe for a nice payday, maybe he maintained a single-minded focus on his NBA dream.

Maybe everyone was right all along. And, maybe, just maybe, Lin had the will and desire to hit the gym and prove them wrong by improving and stepping up his game at each step along the way. Maybe he persevered when most others would quit; maybe he did not allow others’ perceptions to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe he grew from these experiences which tend to stagnate growth in others.

Maybe the narrative should be about a kid who likes to ball who didn’t let other people tell him what he couldn’t do or achieve and who believed in himself enough to put in the work to make an absurd dream (non-scholarship to NBA) into a reality.

Similarly, it is easy to look back and believe that we should have known that Steph Curry should have been drafted higher, but what role does the environment and coaching play?

With his astonishing success, it seems ridiculous to think that anyone would question his skill, success, decisions, or shot selection, but considering the rhetoric from a lot of NBA players, who I imagine share many feelings with a lot of the ex-NBA players who are now coaches, how would a coach have reacted at the beginning of last season before Curry became an MVP and World Champion? Remember, we’re talking about a player who many Warriors’ fans would have preferred to see traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis.

Would Curry be Curry without Kerr? On any team, with any coach, he would be a great shooter and scorer. But, in a different environment with a different coach, would he be more like JJ Reddick than Curry? How much of his brilliance is due to the environment?

This, then, changes the question. Rather than wondering why coaches missed out or did not recognize Curry’s talent and skills (since I and Tucker are arguing that it was recognized), the question instead should be: How many other players would move beyond their current status if they played in the right environment?

In today’s NBA, nobody would draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but the NBA in 2019 differs from the game that was played in 2007. In 2006-07, Golden State led the NBA with 1967 three-point attempts; in 2018-19, the Spurs attempted the fewest three-pointers (2071), and Houston led the NBA with 3721 three-point attempts (stats from Basketball Reference). Similarly, Curry obviously should have been drafted higher, but it took him changing the geometry of the entire NBA to demonstrate that obviousness. He was drafted into a different NBA than the one in which he plays today.

At the time, maybe NBA GMs should have known more about Durant, Lin, and Curry. As I wrote in 2007, rather than following the adage that you cannot teach height, NBA teams should draft for the psychological skills and intangibles that predict success (competitiveness, focus, discipline) that author Marcus Buckingham argues are equally innate. If a team had identified Lin’s tenacity and grit and drafted him, would it have allowed more time for him to realize his potential?

For youth coaches and parents, there are three primary take aways:

  1. The game evolves. A player who thrives today may not have a role in a decade if he or she cannot evolve and improve. The ability to and willingness to learn and improve is as important as any skill, quality or talent.
  2. The psychological and mental skills ultimately trump the physical gifts. In any sport, there is a minimum physical threshold; a 5’8 male is going to have a very difficult time making the NBA, and a 7’0 male likely will be exposed on a soccer field. Once the minimum threshold is achieved, it is the psychological characteristics that will determine one’s success: Resiliency, grit, mindset, adaptability, work ethic, and more. If you plan to prepare your child for athletic greatness, focus on these skills and characteristics before worrying about his or her jump shot.
  3. The environment matters. Does the environment allow for the player to thrive, like Curry with Kerr or does the environment limit the player(s), like Curry under Marc Jackson? By focusing only on what a player cannot do, do we miss what the player can do? Is there a way to exploit the positives?

Yes, NBA GMs make mistakes. However, many mistakes are obvious in hindsight only because a player improved, the environment changed, the game evolved, or an injury occurred. Decisions are made with imperfect information, but to improve one’s odds, more emphasis should be placed on the psychological traits and the fit with a team’s environment (which, of course, is difficult when coaches change every 2-3 years, which is one reason that organizations such as the Spurs and New England Patriots have an advantage).

The unpredictability of talent identification and development

Chris Devenski is a reliever for the Houston Astros. He has been one of the best relievers this season on the best team in baseball. Read more

LTAD, LeBron James and Team Handball

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Problems with talent identification

More and more, youth basketball moves from an environment of talent development to an environment of talent identification and selection. Many coaches who used to engage in development with young players have left the sport because they invest years into a player and watch the player and his or her parents leave their home program (school/AAU) for another program because of exposure, free shoes, or whatever. Inevitably, the original coach reads about how this new program that coached or trained the player for 1-2 years was responsible for their development. Why spend time and effort developing players for little to no money or recognition when you can poach the already talented player and reap financial benefits and recognition?  Read more

Tryouts for AAU, high school, or provincial basketball teams

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Stephen Curry, the environment, and problems with talent ID

Draft Express profile on Steph Curry showed real hurdles. (Getty via CBS Sports)

I found the above picture in a CBS Sports article after originally seeing the weaknesses described in a presentation by Ross Tucker (if you’re interested in talent ID, I highly recommend Tucker’s presentations).

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Recruiting and the Development of Tall Players

I spent this week watching the girls’ basketball state play-offs with an eye on evaluating players for the junior college where I work as a strength coach in the event that the basketball coaches ask for a second opinion. In debating the merits of various post players for a junior-college program, I returned to a persistent question that is relevant to coaches of all ages: Is the goal to win now or to develop players for long-term success? Here is how the question plays out: Read more

The Myth of the Talented Basketball Player

There is a gross misunderstanding of talent in basketball. I read articles that suggest that the coaches of the uber-talented must “let them play” or that the uber-talented cannot fit into a style other than a stereotypical AAU game. Is a player talented if he excels only in 3v2 fast-breaks, isolations, or catch and dunk lobs? Read more

The Missing Storyline from Linsanity (aka The Jeremy Lin Story)

I watched Jeremy Lin when he led Paly to the CIF State Championship in 2006, as I was living in Sacramento and knew many players, coaches, and fans in the Bay Area. I knew Mitch Stephens, who was criticized when he picked Lin as the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Player of the Year. I have written several times about Jeremy Lin (here, and here) and Poor Man’s Commish has kept everyone updated via twitter for years, but I do not know Lin or his story personally, so this is a view from the outside. Read more

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