The madness I refer to is the mainstream media's out-of-control hyping of Demetrius Walker, a 14-year-old basketball player from Fontana, Calif. Walker has been the subject of over-the-top feature stories from the likes of Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times and Fox Sports. The way these stories casually throw out comments like he's "on the express to the NBA," or he could be "the next LeBron," would almost be funny, if they weren't so troubling. Because there is a very real possibility that Walker will end up being harmed by this excessive, and unwarranted, media coverage. The expectations being placed on this kid by the media and others are unfair, unrealistic and potentially damaging.
First of all, let's start with the notion that Walker is the best eighth-grader in the country. Who decides that he is, in fact, the best 14-year-old in the country? There are now scouting services that rank players nationally in high school -- all the way down to the fifth grade. Stop laughing – I'm not kidding. They're ranking 10 year-olds. Any reputable scout in the business will tell you that accurately ranking players at such a ridiculously early age is an impossible and futile task to undertake.
I cover the West Coast prospects for this network, from high school freshmen to seniors, and I don't try to rank any of them until the summer after their sophomore year. I don't rank them until then for a couple reasons. For one thing, I haven't seen them enough. We're talking about hundreds of potential prospects in a dozen states. You simply don't have a chance to see players who just started high school enough to be able to evaluate and rank them accurately and fairly.
But the biggest problem in ranking them too early is their bodies are so far away from maturation, so much further than high school upperclassmen. A 6-5 power forward in the ninth-grade might stay that size. Or he might grow to 6-9 in a couple years. That could very well be the difference between playing D-II basketball at Pomona or playing in the Pac-10. You could have a sixth-grade small forward who has sick skills, better than anyone within ten states, but if he doesn't grow beyond 6-0 he doesn't stand much of a chance of being an NBA prospect. So it's very difficult to project how a ninth-grader is going to develop physically, and evaluating him is dubious at best. Any "expert" who is actually scouting and ranking players in the eighth grade – much less fifth-graders -- should be viewed primarily as an entertainer and not a true talent evaluator. That is one very obvious problem in the SI story: it gets caught up in the hype and entertainment ("The SI cover trumpets "''Meet Demetrius Walker. He's 14 Years Old. You're Going to Hear From Him.") with little regard for legitimate scouting and evaluation.
The biggest mistake the media is making in their coverage of Walker is their failure to understand that being the best player today does not necessarily make you the best long-term prospect. Walker might be the best eighth-grade player in the country. I don't know that Walker is the best in his age group but, for the sake of argument, let's concede that he is indeed the top player among eighth-graders. That still doesn't mean he's the best prospect. It's a crucial distinction and one that SI, the Times and Fox Sports have ignored in their coverage of Walker.
The AP All-American First Team this year included Andrew Bogut, Chris Paul, Wayne Simien, Hakim Warrick and J.J. Redick. The Second Team consisted of Dee Brown, Luther Head, Sean May, Salim Stoudamire and Ike Diogu. The Third Team selections were Deron Williams, Shelden Williams, Nate Robinson, Raymond Felton and Joey Graham. In the judgment of the AP voters, those were the15 best players in college basketball this year. So why is it that some NBA scouts and GMs believe Marvin Williams, if he decides to come out, might be the second pick (behind only Bogut) in the draft this year? Are the AP voters that far off in their assessment? Why are they hatin' on Marvin?
The answer, of course, is that the fifteen selections of the AP were more productive players this year. You might say that they're better players today – based on their current production. But when professional talent evaluators look at Williams, they see him as the better prospect. Williams is a very good player right now. But he's an even better prospect, due to his upside. Williams has a combination of talent, size, body type and athleticism that leads NBA types to believe he might be the second best prospect in the country.
So who is the best NBA prospect among all the eighth-graders in the country? I have no idea – and neither does anyone else. Because it's too early to tell. Let me rephrase that – it's way, way, too early to tell. The problem with looking at kids before high school is that, in most cases, their bodies haven't matured. There are talented 6-2 eighth-graders right now in places like Georgia or California or Illinois who will end up 6-11 by the time they start college. Those kids aren't necessarily showing up on anyone's list of the top 100 eighth-graders in the country. And yet, one of them might end up the next Kevin Garnett. Which one is the one? Good luck trying to figure that out. Anyone who thinks they can project players that far into the future has no understanding of the business of scouting. They have a better chance at being a psychic since the job would primarily entail being able to predict exactly how every eight-grader will mature physically by the time he's 18.
That's why we don't really start scouting, evaluating and ranking players until they're about 16, since there is just too much variability in physical development when trying to project how 14-year-olds will mature.
|Walker at a recent tournament.|
Given all these factors, it's remarkable that any journalist would write about this kid as a potential "next LeBron." It could only be a journalist who was caught up in the hype and the entertainment and didn't do his homework.
But SI, the Times and Fox stories all said that Walker is amazingly talented. Why can't he just be an incredibly skilled 6-2 guard in the NBA? Again, it's possible – I'm not going to say I can predict exactly how good Walker will end up being down the road. I do agree he's a very talented player for his age group. Not a freakish talent but, yes, he's a very good player. But when it comes to projecting him as an elite college, or possibly pro, prospect, there are some concerns. Walker is a 6-2 wing right now; not a point guard. He has good ball skills and a pretty good outside shot. He's not exceptional in either area. He's very athletic – good quickness, jumps well -- but he's not an off-the-charts athlete. He's strong, and he's been able to overpower smaller kids around the basket for the last couple years, but that will be difficult to do now that other players are catching up to him physically.
As a point of comparison, Walker is not close to the prospect that Tyson Chandler was at 14. Chandler was 6-10, ran like a gazelle and had freakish coordination for a young post prospect. Nor is Walker as good a prospect as Schea Cotton was at the same age. Cotton was 6-4, already had the body of a college wing, jumped out of the gym and he was a better shooter. Cotton had a decent college career and never made it to the NBA. Chandler is a solid pro who might not ever be an all-star.
So why are major media outlets mentioning Walker in the same breath as LeBron James? They are doing so because, in their eagerness to anoint the next big thing in basketball and generate the public's interest to sell magazines, they got duped. They didn't do their homework. They saw the kid's ability to play at the middle school level and then naively bought into some very optimistic evaluations spun by people with a decided interest in the situation, and then failed to confirm that evaluation with any reputable talent evaluators. Internet recruiting sites take a lot of flak – often, justifiably -- for over-hyping players. But the mainstream media coverage of Walker is as bad as anything I've ever seen on an Internet site.
It might not have been even that these sports outlets were duped, but that they simply didn't care if Walker was as good as advertised or not. The hype, the story, is really all that matters, right? It's not only irresponsible but hypocritical of a magazine like Sports Illustrated that has a history itself of, whenever it discusses recruiting reporting, talking down its nose and dismissing it as excessive, premature hype. I guess the hype and the story are fine when it's yours.
This may seem like an attack on Walker, but that's not my intention. Walker is just a kid who dreams of playing in the NBA someday. And maybe that will happen eventually – he's a pretty talented 14 year-old. My intention with this commentary is to point out the disservice being done to Walker by the media and others with this crazy, unrealistic, unnecessary hype. Walker doesn't benefit from all this nonsense. None of this helps him to achieve his goal of becoming a professional basketball player. The only thing this over-the-top hype does is set him up for disappointment. Given the expectations that have been raised by this premature exposure, Walker will be deemed a "failure" if he only manages to become a very good college player.
Stop the hype. Let the kid be a kid. The recruiting process is sped up as it is, with high school sophomores having to take their basketball as serious as a 70-hour-a-week job. It doesn't need to dip into middle school and start over-hyping pre-pubescent children who are too young and so far away from their ultimate physical development that any evaluation is more or less futile. If Walker is dominating high school basketball as a junior three years from now, and professional evaluators agree that he's an elite prospect, then it may be time for stories about an NBA career. Until then, it should be recognized that such excessive and premature media coverage does Walker no good and might ultimately cause him harm.