One's first venture to a major AAU basketball tournament can be frought with complications. For example the Chicago Hoops Classic, held July 9-11, 2009, was so large it had to be played in three different venues. Games were happening simultaneously on 15 different courts from early morning to late at night all three days. And there were at least four divisions of teams representing different age groups and talent levels.
College coaches were able to watch players up close, something they were not permitted to do in the spring. So the tournament was visited by large numbers of coaches.
Besides Illinois coach Bruce Weber and assistants Jay Price and Jerrance Howard, Mike Montgomery from Cal, Thad Matta from Ohio State, Bill Carmody from Northwestern, Iowa's Todd Lickliter and Michigan's John Beilein all took in part of the action. And there were too many assistant coaches from major schools and head coaches of lower division colleges to list.
New Parkland Junior College coach Nate Mast was there to find players. So were a number of the smaller schools. Their job is especially difficult as they must find diamonds-in-the-rough who are overlooked by the bigger schools. So they are there to evaluate.
But head coaches of major colleges don't have much time to look around. They must follow their top prospects wherever they may be. Weber flew in from Cleveland to watch prospects Nnana Egwu, Jacob Williams, Chasson Randle, BoBo Drummond, Sam Thompson, Aaron Simpson, Wayne Blackshear, Mike Shaw, James Siakam, Bruce Barron, Emmanuel Ochinji, Jelani Neeley and others.
Of course, he also made sure he was seen by Illini commitments Tracy Abrams, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard. Jereme Richmond was a no-show, but his commitment is secure. Weber then departed for Augusta, Georgia, while Howard took over the job of flashing the bright orange shirts representing the Illini. They already know most of their top prospects, but they need those prospects to see them wherever they go. That is the real game being played in July.
It is a shame there isn't more evaluation time as the Chicago Hoops Classic was loaded with quality prospects at all age levels. Long-time observers of the tournament said it was filled with more top prospects than other years. But there simply isn't time for Illini coaches to check out top performers from Iowa, Minnesota and other states even though some of those players may eventually come back and beat the Illini.
Coaches traveling long distances to see players may not see much, for several reasons. One, blowout games end up as dunk fests and show little of a player's all-around skills. Weber said he watched 12 games in Cleveland on Wednesday, and 10 were blowouts. Also, players don't always show up, or they are injured and can't perform. And there is little time to watch multiple games, so a coach might see a player at his worst instead of his best.
But it is a price all coaches must pay. With all other coaches out and about, a failure to compete for spots on hard benches might end up costing a recruit. It is possible some kids don't even notice who's watching. But even those who do are preoccupied and may not really benefit from the knowledge. The fear is they will notice if the coach isn't there, so the coaches are there. In force.
An interesting phenomenon is the role of young self-proclaimed recruiting gurus. Daniel Poneman and Cavan Walsh, for instance, have just graduated high school. But they have been hustling information and creating contacts with college coaches and athletes for at least four years already. Many coaches, especially assistants and those from smaller schools, seek out these young men to gather information about prospects.
In fact, Parkland's Mast has offered an academic scholarship to Walsh to serve as his Director of Basketball Operations. Mast said Walsh knows more about recruiting than he does, so he hopes to take advantage of Walsh's contacts to help him stock his junior college lineup.
As for Illini prospects, some played really well and others were inconsistent. Rock Island junior Chasson Randle played only on Thursday before returning home to play with his high school team. But he led the Illinois Wolves to a quality win in his lone game.
He is barely over 6'-0" tall, but he displayed tremendous confidence after making the USA 16 and Under National Team that won a tournament in Argentina this summer. He is a smart, athletic combo guard who's improved strength has helped him finish in traffic as well as score from outside.
Jacob Williams is shaking the rust off for the Wolves after being forced to sit out last year's high school season. The 6'-4" Williams is slender, but he was able to penetrate and finish, shoot the three, and play sound defense. He is beginning to show skills that might get him major college scholarship offers, including Illinois.
Junior Nnana Egwu, a 6'-9" postman from St. Ignatius by way of Nigeria, hasn't played much basketball, so his best days are ahead of him. He is slender but has a body that can gain strength and weight with time. He has excellent timing on his leaps, making him a good shot blocker. And he has an improving high-extension jumper.
On the down side, he still sits major portions of games. He is not yet physical enough to bang against strong opponents. He still has liabilities in terms of ball handling and ball security. And he still shows some awkwardness at times, showing a lack of confidence in his body.
If one were to compare him with the numerous other centers at the tournament, he wouldn't rate highly. But he still has two years to develop. Since he has only played ball for a little over two years, his future potential is intriguing enough to make him a high recruiting priority for the Illini. Right now, he is definitely amenable to Illini overtures.
The Mac Irvin Fire 17U team is loaded with athletes. Even without star Jereme Richmond, they could put out a lineup of Illini commitments Tracy Abrams, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head, wings Mike Shaw, Wayne Blackshear, Michigan commit Tim Hardaway, Jr., Thornton's Reggie Smith, center Phillip Jackson and others. Freshman wing Jabari Parker suited up with them since they couldn't count on who would be there each game. He played sparingly.
Despite their athleticism, the Fire struggles to win games to well-coached teams. If they can dominate physically, the Fire excel. But a team with good clock management and strategies for creating mismatches can defeat them. With all their wings, they appear to take turns either putting up long jumpers or trying to force a move to the inside for layups and dunks. They take turns showcasing themselves.
Blackshear played well the first two days, better than in the recent past. He hit a couple long jumpers, but his forte was taking the ball on the dribble off the wing or point, making a spin move to get around the defender, then finishing at the hoop. A good defender would negate most of his game as his ball handling needs to be more secure. But it is easy to see why he might prefer a college offense that runs an NBA style where isolations are made for individual moves.
The same thing might be said for Shaw. He has not grown since his freshman year, and he hasn't built up his body. Other players are outgrowing him inside, so he takes his game to the wing. He also liked to penetrate like Blackshear, although he was less effective due to ball handling problems at times.
He would be a really good college player if he dedicated himself to banging inside consistently and then hitting the opportunistic outside jumper. But as a wing, he doesn't stand out at this time.
Head was a late addition after playing in Cleveland, but he showed a dedication and consistency lacking last winter. Like Blackshear, he could penetrate for acrobatic layups almost anytime he wanted. His athleticism is his best asset. He also played tough defense and hustled throughout, suggesting his love for the game has returned. He did not take an outside shot.
Meyers Leonard continues to wow observers with his athleticism. But he appeared stiff and tired after playing extensively recently. He attended the Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James camps, and he hasn't been back to his home in Robinson much this summer.
He rarely sees the ball in a position to score except when he runs the floor and gets alley oop dunks. And he played against other 7'-0" players, making his lack of strength obvious at times. But his aggressiveness and athleticism are is best assets.
He knows he will continue to get bigger and stronger as well. He said Ohio State commit Jared Sullinger caused him the most problems at Stoudemire's Big Man Camp due to his weight and strength in the post. But Leonard looks forward to matching up against him after more weight training. He loves the challenge.
Abrams plays the point like a future All-Star, at least at times. He sometimes gets out of control and makes questionable decisions, and he needs to work on his outside shot. But he is so quick and smart. He can create offense from his defense, he sets up his teammates with tremendous ball handling and court vision, and he is conscious. He will figure out when to shoot and when to pass, and he will clear up the turnover problems by the time he reaches Illinois.
The Brehm Prep team from Carbondale entered the tournament as the Illinois Titans. Junior James Siakam, who may be shorter than his listed at 6'-6," plays center for them. He is a tremendous leaper and warrior on the inside. His coach says he can shoot the 15 foot shot, but he didn't shoot anything but layups and tipins. He will have to play power forward in college. The only question is whether he can compete effectively at that position at his height.
Point guard Bruce Barron may be rising on the Illini's radar as he continues to improve as a point guard. At 6'-3", he has the height and strength to penetrate and either finish or dish. He is a heady floor leader who can play the wing as well as the point.
The Illinois class of 2012 is loaded with small point guards. Among the best ones are Peoria Central's BoBo Drummond, North Chicago's Aaron Simpson, and Simeon's Jelani Neeley. Simpson and Neeley are short and slender, but they both have tremendous skill.
Simpson looks to score, and Neeley likes to set up his teammates. Drummond is a heady floor leader with more strength than the other two, but he rarely looks for his own shot. It will be interesting to see how these young men develop and whether they will become good enough for the Big 10.
Part of the problem in evaluating players at a major AAU event is identifying the players. Few have names on their uniforms. Of course, one could always do what the coaches do and purchase a program with all the names, numbers and information about all the players. It was a mere $200.00. Coaches forked over the money without question, but media and fans did without.
The layout at the Joy Of The Game center in Deerfield saw four courts arranged together like a four-sided rectangle. Coaches sat on bleachers dividing two courts from the other two, as well as on the sides. The event was well organized, even going as far as to keep fans and players from entering and leaving the same door as the coaches. With the NCAA looking on, every effort was made to abide by their recruiting rules on no contact between players and coaches.
If you like basketball, attend one of these events. It is a multiple ring circus with tons of eye candy. But if you are sensitive about your lack of height, it is not recommended. After all, you will be in the presence of many tall people. Even many of the mothers of players are on the tall side. But even then, the one common denominator was a love of basketball. That alone made the event one worth attending.