Hoops Recruiting: Against All Odds

This story originally appeared in the October issue of Go Pokes Magazine. It is not normal policy to publish articles here that have already appeared in the magazine but we are doing so with this article because of the numerous requests that we have received from subscribers of Go Pokes Magazine.

Ray Penn arrived in Las Vegas with a dream, just like many others who travel from all across the world hoping to become the one in a million person who strikes it rich. But the teenager from Houston didn't make the trip in July with the hopes of cashing in on the slots, bluffing his way to a big jackpot at the poker table, or collecting after betting on a longshot in the horse races.

Penn had more important matters to deal with than beating the odds at the casino. The 5-foot-9 point guard was in Las Vegas to showcase his skills in front of college basketball coaches from all across the nation. The senior-to-be at Travis High School in Richmond, Texas (a suburb outside of Houston) had more pressure on him than any poker player down to his last dime while holding a pair of twos.

Then, while leading his Houston Superstars team in the Reebok Summer Championships, Penn received word that one of the schools most interested in signing him this November had gone another direction. "We were looking at Missouri, Mississippi State, Colorado State and TCU," said John Eurey, coach of the Houston Superstars.

Missouri assistant coach Melvin Watkins called Eurey while the team was in Las Vegas to tell him that the Tigers were no longer interested in Penn because they had received a verbal commitment from Michael Dixon out of Lee's Summit (West), Mo.

Penn's options were suddenly diminishing quicker than a 75-year-old New Jersey woman's retirement account as she keeps plugging the dollar slot machine.

He knew that if he wanted to play major college basketball that he needed to show what he could do during the five-day event July 22-26.

"There was no pressure at all. I just did what I knew how to do, which was play basketball. I just used my strengths, and God blessed me," said Penn who set a Reebok Summer Championships scoring record by averaging 36 points per game.

Eurey said that despite having coached current NBA player T.J. Ford and his pushing of Penn to college coaches, the Houston Superstars point guard entered the Las Vegas tournament a virtual unknown. He was not ranked by any scouting services and was on the radar of few college coaches. Penn attended Elite Camps at both Missouri and Texas A&M this summer, but the Tiger and Aggie coaching staffs obviously weren't expecting him to become one of the most talked about prospects in Las Vegas.

"He kept asking me, ‘Coach, why isn't anyone recruiting me? I'm better than all these other guys.' I told him, ‘Raymond, let your game do your talking. Don't worry about the rest of it because if you can play, people are going to find you,'" Eurey said.

"We targeted the Vegas tournament because it's the biggest show in the country. You're put on a national stage to show the world that you can really, really play," Eurey continued. "I knew he was going to get it done because when we left Texas A&M and we got to Vegas, he said, ‘Coach, this is the first time this has been my team.' It's always been someone else's team, whether it was Kodi Augustus of Mississippi State (who played for the Superstars in the past) or someone else.

"I wasn't really worried but sometimes you get a little nervous because you don't know how kids are going to play. But I knew he was very focused and ready to play. I figured that he was going to do something, and I was right.

"He did something really wonderful that no player in the history of that tournament had ever done – no player ever! It was nothing but amazing."

Penn put on a show in Las Vegas that had college coaches flocking to his games and recruiting services re-evaluating their player rankings.

Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford saw Penn score 37 points against the Playground Warriors from Wisconsin in the Houston team's opener of the tournament. Either Ford or a Cowboy assistant made it a priority to be in the stands to watch each of Penn's games the rest of the tournament.

"That first game he had 37 and there weren't a lot of (college) coaches at the game," Eurey said. "A lot of writers came to me and asked me if he could do it again. The next day he scored 19, but the third game he really, really blew up and that was against one of the better teams in the country. That's when he really exploded."

Scout.com national recruiting analyst Dave Telep says, "When you lead the Reebok Summer Championships in scoring with a prodigious average, people tend to notice."

Penn scored 43 points against the Worldwide Renegades and highly touted guard Lorenzo Brown, who is committed to North Carolina State. "Lorenzo couldn't guard him," longtime recruiting expert Brick Oettinger told the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer's Dean Wiederer. "They even gave him help and double-teamed Penn the whole second half, and sometimes ran a third guy at him. And he still got 43."

Eurey said, "He showed he was fast, he was explosive, and he could shoot off the dribble. He was really unstoppable. He's really an unstoppable player. You can't stop him. There's no one player that can stop him because he knows how to play."

But Penn wasn't done. The next day, against New York's Upstate Basketball Club, he put on another scoring display with 44 points. Penn finished the tournament with three of the top five scoring performances of the week, including No. 1 (44 points vs. Upstate Basketball Club), No. 2 (43 vs. the Worldwide Renegades and No. 5 (37 vs. the Playground Warriors).

"Throughout the Reebok Summer Championship, Penn put up big numbers and really drew college coaches to his games, including Travis Ford. He's quick, crafty and showed off an impressive mid-range game. He averaged over 35 points a game against some good competition and really proved himself as a gamer," said Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels.

Eurey says, "He gives Coach Ford an advantage because ... I know they were recruiting John Wall but I told them not to worry because they're getting just as good of a point guard, trust me, because John Wall cannot guard Raymond Penn. He doesn't have to worry about that now because he's got a bona fide point guard for the next four years that's really got a good chance to play in the NBA because he's got all the tools that you need to play in the NBA."

Penn and Eurey made an unofficial visit to Oklahoma State within days of the Las Vegas tournament. It didn't take him long to decide that he wanted to be a Cowboy.

"I love it. The campus is beautiful, the coaches – Coach Ford, Coach (Chris) Ferguson, Coach (Butch) Pierre – are straightforward and honest with you. They don't beat around the bush with you, and I like that," said Penn.

"Oklahoma State was offering pretty much the same thing as the other schools but what Oklahoma State was offering that they couldn't was a chance to play in the Big 12. Who's going to turn down Oklahoma State? The minute I got the offer, I jumped on it.

"I'm happy to be getting a chance to play in the Big 12, a chance to play against the best of the best, and show that I am the best. I'm a Cowboy now."

Penn will be a senior at Travis High School, which has just been open for three years. He played as a freshman at Bush High School in the Fort Bend Independent School District but was re-assigned to Travis High School when it opened. The Tigers played a junior varsity schedule his sophomore year, and played their first season of varsity basketball a year ago, when Penn earned District 23-5A MVP honors.

"When I was coming up I really didn't have a dream school," Penn said. "I wasn't one of those spoiled type of kids who said I've got to go to this school because one of my friends went to that school. If you had asked me what school I wanted to go to, I would have told you ESPN. That was my school – ESPN. I wanted to go to a school that played on ESPN, that's a big college and everything that went wrong and went right was because of me. I love the pressure. I love it!"

It's performing when the spotlight is the greatest – as in Las Vegas with a scholarship offer on the line – that makes Penn the player he is today.

Ford made the run to get Penn when it appeared that Wall, the nation's top-rated high school point guard, was probably going to commit to Baylor.

Is he upset that he may have been the Cowboys' second choice? "Not at all because I'm here," Penn said. "Like I said, I'm grateful to be coming to Oklahoma State. He probably was their number-one guy but everything happens for a reason. You can mark my words, and you can quote me, when we come in a year from now as freshmen and the season starts and we play Baylor and John Wall, we will win. And when we play Oklahoma and (recent Sooner commitment) Tommy Griffin, we will win. You can quote that."

Eurey says that Penn has the game to back up his words. The leader of the Houston Superstars once coached current NBA player T.J. Ford, the former Texas Longhorn All-American point guard who is now with the Indiana Pacers.

"He's better than T.J. Ford at this level. At the same level that T.J. was in high school, at the same year, he's better than T.J. Ford right now primarily because he's a better shooter than T.J. Ford," Eurey said. "T.J. could just go to the basket ... but he's going to be better than T.J. Ford. T.J. Ford is a spectacular player, a wonderful player, and I love him to death, but Raymond Penn is a 50 times better shooter on the high school level than T.J. Ford. There ain't no question about that.

"He's a tough-minded point guard. He's very explosive. He's a high-level shooter. Out of all the point guards I've seen in the country, he's probably the best shooter out there. He's really, really fast. I mean T.J. Ford fast, and he's tough. He's a tough defender. He's a high-level player. He's tough minded. Plus, he's a good kid."

Penn has 12 months to prepare himself for the rigors of playing at Oklahoma State and in the Big 12. "He's going to keep his grades really, really high. We're going to get the test out of the way in October. He's just going to do a lot of hard, hard work," Eurey said. "He'll do a lot of running, a lot of shooting... His high school is one of the newer high schools in Fort Bend ISD and he wants to go to the playoffs which would be quite an accomplishment for a new high school (which will be open for just the third year).

"I think he just needs to get stronger," Eurey continued. "He's not weak right now ... he's not going to get as big as Byron Eaton or anything like that because Ray only weighs about 165 pounds right now. Physically, he's compact and he's strong. He's going to get stronger. I think he probably needs to work on his help defense a little bit. He wanders a little bit. He plays good defense but his off-the-ball defense he needs to work on a little bit and I think he'll do that because he knows that now that he's going to Oklahoma State he realizes the significance and the level that he'll be playing at.

"When he gets to Oklahoma State he'll be more than ready. He'll be ready to step right in and put on an amazing performance. I really believe that Oklahoma State got the real steal of the summer. Nobody really ranked him and then when everybody saw him (in Las Vegas), they were asking, where has this kid been? Clark Francis told me that he's a top-25 player in the country. If he's that type of player then he's going to bring that type of impact to Oklahoma State and he'll make an immediate impact."

Travis Ford believes the odds are in his favor now that Penn is a future Cowboy. It doesn't sound like this is a point guard you want to bet against.

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