Jaylin Fleming is a child prodigy. The 5th grader at Beasley Academic Center in suburban Chicago already has nationally prominent coaching and plenty of contact with college and professional experts. He may be the basketball equivalent of Tiger Woods in golf. He is a natural.
Fleming has amazing ball handling skills, an uncanny shot and a burning desire to learn and improve. There is every reason to believe he will continue to attract attention as he grows up. If he remains steadfast in his all-encompassing focus on basketball, all the predictions of greatness might come true.
However, Illinois coach Bruce Weber wonders if the attention is arriving too soon for young Fleming. He was interviewed last Saturday on NPR.
"I think that's a little younger than I've ever dealt with. I've been to games for 7th and 8th graders, but usually they're a phenom, a 6'-8" 7th grader. But to go down to 10 years old, we have kids come to camp at all ages, and we're always watching. But that's a little young. He must be special."
Colleges are recruiting younger and younger players to keep up with competitors. Weber wonders how young is too young.
"I don't like it, to be honest. I think kids need to be kids. Kids should have a dream, a goal. But the problem with college coaching is now, to get involved with kids, you have to get them interested at as early an age as possible where they're feeling good about Illinois basketball or whatever school you're at. So if it means going to 7th and 8th grade games, we're starting to do that."
This approach is a big departure from when Weber started coaching.
"I've been involved with Division I basketball for 31 years. When I first started, we were worried about seniors in high school. That was it. There was a late signing period.
"Now there's the early signing period, then juniors, then sophomores. We've even had a commitment from a freshman in the last four years. Everything's accelerated. I'm not sure it's good, but it is there. If you don't do it, it's gonna hurt you probably in the long run recruiting these young men."
Weber evaluates and contacts younger players because others will do it and he doesn't want to lose ground to competitors. But even if college coaches prefer to leave the younger ones alone, some parents make sure they are involved anyway.
"Yeah, there's no doubt. With the attention the NCAA Final Four gets, parents I think have changed. They see their sons or daughters being the next superstars, and they're pushing and pushing at a very young age. That's where we've kind of gotten involved.
"I'm part of it, but I don't think I created it. A lot of it comes down to the parents. I think you have to be careful how fast you push an individual and how much pressure you put on him."
Recruiting young kids is much different than recruiting high school juniors and seniors.
"There's no doubt. I went to see a 7th grader, and I asked the principal if he ever had any trouble with the young man. He said once in awhile he tries to chew gum in class. And it made me laugh because I'm thinking, 'This is a young kid. I'm here to watch him play basketball and he's worried about chewing gum in class.'
"It kind of got my attention. These kids are young, and they're still kids. If you put so much pressure on the young men or young ladies, I think it's gonna backfire in the long run.
"I think the pressure will get to them mentally, and they may not like it. Down the road, they may get burned out. The older you get, the more basketball becomes a job. If they don't play it for the love of the game, I think it will backfire and they never make the progress they should make."
Fleming is just the tip of the iceberg. Many parents are pushing their kids to become star athletes even though they have nowhere near the same natural skill level as Fleming. Weber is concerned about the trend.
"I've now been at Illinois for seven years, so we know a lot of coaches around the state. They work our camps and come to our clinics. And with all the videos now, the Internet and stuff, parents will put out videos for the next Kobe Bryant. And these kids might be 5th or 6th graders.
"You don't know if they're gonna grow or mature physically. And then the other part is, do they have the ability to go to college? More and more people are trying to create or make their child be this elite person that maybe they aren't meant to be."
The NCAA has had to lower the age at which a college must consider a player a prospect and follow rules governing recruitment. But how low will it have to go?
"It used to be a student-athlete was considered a prospect when he entered the ninth grade. Now because of what has happened, where coaches are going to 7th and 8th grade games, they've had to change the rule book and say a prospect begins when they've entered the 7th grade.
"So if we have a 7th grader come to a game, he becomes a prospect. If we go watch him, he becomes a prospect. I haven't heard it drift down to 5th and 6th, and I hope it doesn't."
Jaylin Fleming may be legitimate, a future college and pro superstar. But most youngsters need to play basketball for the fun of it and not to satisfy their parents' self-interests for them.