Without question, the most exciting recruit in Northern California this year is 7'1" Robert Rothbart, who lives in Cupertino right in Stanford's backyard. He is a native of Yugoslavia, and fits the stereotypes you might envision for a "Euro" player. Though long and lanky (at approximately 200 pounds), he has a shooting touch out to the three-point line and a handle that I've seen take players eight inches shorter than him off the dribble from 20 feet. In the truest sense of the word, he is a skilled big man who can score in ways that most small forwards his age only dream of. Rothbart just completed the best season in his young career, averaging 26 points, 16 boards, six blocks and three assists per game as a junior at Monta Vista High School.
But what has helped so much to make Rothbart the special player that he is today is the coaching and mentorship he has received from his mother, Nada. She is a towering figure in her own right, probably able to contest a Justin Davis dunk if she cared to, and is quite the accomplished ballplayer. She has played professionally through many years, including serving as captain of the Yugoslavia National Team. The Rothbart family fled the war-torn country when Robert was very young and headed to Israel seeking sanctuary. The family had a tough time making ends meet in their new home, so the retired mother broke out the high tops and played professionally in Israel for two years to support her family. She's a tough woman who puts in a lot of work and sacrifice for Robert, including getting up every morning at 5 am to go work out with him before school. More than just a mother, she is one heck of a coach and has shaped her son's game in many ways. Defense has been a key area of development.
"I tell Robert every day that I don't care how many points you score. I only care about your defense," Nada Rothbart proclaims. She preaches defense every time I have talked to her this past year, but is also working to try and put some mass on her son's thin frame. She knows that this is time in his physical development to fill out his frame. "It's time for Robert to get serious on nutrition," she says. "I'm making him eat five meals each day, and he takes protein bars with him to school. Fortunately, he is starting to understand the importance of eating and getting bigger."
To that end, Rothbart is working out at the famed Riekes Center in Menlo Park, which is also the home of Stanford strength coach John Murray. Mrs. Rothbart says that the goal for her son is to gain one pound per month and to reach 216 pounds by the end of his senior year. Robert is working out six days a week currently toward that goal, but is also gearing up for the big hoops AAU season. This year he will play with the West Valley Basketball Club, rather than the Bay Area Ballers from a year ago. Their first big event is this weekend in Las Vegas at the Pump N Run Easter Tournament. That event falls during the April evaluation period, so a horde of college coaches will be in the stands. And you can count on a surge in Rothbart's recruitment shortly thereafter.
This past week, he spent time hooping it up at Maples Pavilion with Stanford's players for pickup games in the afternoons. And he gave me the recruiting update that he has been visited by college coaches at his school this month by Stanford, Cal, Missouri, Washington and Loyola Marymount. Though other schools are showing interest, he names those as his top five, given that they have gone to the trouble of setting up the in-school visits. There is no question that Stanford and Cal are his top two schools, though, and everyone else is jockeying for his final three official visits.
Rothbart already has taken his official trip to Cal, and did so in late February on a Thursday and Friday to watch the Bears host top-ranked Arizona. The visit went well, according to both mother and son, though they admitted that they learned little new about a place with which they are already so familiar. The two assets for Cal with the visit were the experience of a home game atmosphere in Haas Pavilion, and the impression they made with their staff academic advisor, who talked with the pair extensively. But the Rothbarts were in Maples the next day to watch Stanford go toe-to-toe with those same Wildcats, and they left without any question that Stanford was a superior team that put forth a superior effort compared to their cross-Bay counterparts. Stanford has yet to setup their official visit with the 7'1" center, but are in no rush. He has taken countless unofficial visits and knows the program and University inside-out by now.
As to those other three visits, they remain completely up in the air. "I think Robert wants to experience all the visits he can take," Nada comments. "But he never has a clue of the other three schools." Look for that to become much more clear after this current evaluation period, as his suitors firm up their intentions.
One outstanding issue of importance, though, is the academic admissibility of this elite young man. He has an unsteady record of grades in the classroom, though as his focus on Stanford has increased, his discipline has risen. This junior year started off badly for him, with some mistakes and lapses in the opening two weeks, and he spent the rest of the semester working hard to repair the damage. The result was a 3.0 GPA, which may sound problematic, but it was a report card of straight-B's. And that isn't so bad. He is trying to push higher in this second semester and reports that he is pulling down some A's, though English reportedly is a problem. How he fares at the end of the semester in those classes may go a long way toward determining his future as a Cardinal.
Rothbart also has taken the SAT, back in December, and landed a solid 1140 score. That's the good news. The bad news is that his math score outstripped his verbal by almost 200 points, which is a lopsided profile that the Admissions Office will not likely smile at. He is determined to improve that verbal score this spring, but just missed the deadline to sign up for the May test. He says he will try to sign up for the June date now. That test result may be the last he takes before he makes a college decision, and will come on the heels of an extended number of sprint travel tournaments. Fingers are crossed all over the Stanford basketball office for a bump in that verbal score, which may be key to his admissions application. The essays and information portions of the application are already underway, as Rothbart reports that he has the forms in his hands and hopes to have them filled out in the next few weeks.
Robert Rothbart is the top center in the country Stanford can recruit, and he comes in a year where big men are valued like the rarest of gemstones by the Stanford coaching staff. But his strategic importance goes beyond just his abilities. I have little question in my mind that he would be the most skilled center in Cardinal hoops history, and would be a program-changing addition to the roster. Even as he takes time to adjust to the speed and strength of the college game, his defensive presence would let him contribute from Day One. And his offensive upside is fantastic. But the strategic importance here gets to the core of Stanford basketball recruiting. The numbers the Cardinal staff can recruit are already grotesquely thin, and the number of true big men with Stanford talent to go with those Stanford grades narrows the pool even further.
The remaining handful of premier big bodies that Stanford can recruit in a given year is spread throughout the nation. And with big men in such demand at every college campus, the Cardinal find themselves fighting uphill battles to pull those kids away from their local schools. Just last year, Stanford looked to have a fantastic crop of post players to recruit in the springtime. The Admissions Office stripped away several, but a pair with board scores up in that stratospheric realm were Michigan's Drew Naymick and Baltimore's Will Bowers. Both were legit national talents with grades and some Stanford interest, but both committed early to schools in their backyards that had the benefit of local exposure. You see, NCAA rules prohibit official visits by a recruit until they have posted a board score, and unofficial trips across the country rarely come before the late spring of their junior year. Naymick made such a trip, but the exposure he got with Stanford paled in comparison to the regular trips he could take to East Lansing. Bowers practically lived on Maryland's campus, and worked out with the school's players all the time. Simply put, Stanford is disadvantaged to gain traction for kids outside the West Coast like these.
But Robert Rothbart presents the opposite dynamic for the Cardinal. He is in the shadow of The Farm and was able to attend a majority of home games at Maples Pavilion this year. That presented a wealth of interactions with the players and coaches, and has made him as comfortable with Stanford as Naymick was with Michigan State or Bowers with Maryland. Rothbart maybe physically thin at this stage in his career, but he is about to "blow up" on the national recruiting scene, as they like to say. I predicted last spring, when the members of the 2004 class were late in their sophomore year, that Rothbart would become the premier center on the West Coast - ahead of then-darling Robert Swift. Rothbart will achieve that status and more this spring/summer, likely landing himself in the top five centers in the country.
And Stanford has the advantage. Rothbart and his mother love everything about Stanford, from the proximity to the education to the big man development to the genuinely nice players. The pearly gates are standing quite literally in front of them, but the key remains in the hands of Robert's admissions application. The quote you will hear from them, which I have heard over and over, goes like: "We would like to have the opportunity to have Stanford as a choice." They will not publicly proclaim that Stanford is their #1 school. But it truly is, and they know that the barrier between the two parties is all about getting admitted to the school. There is reasonable doubt toward those chances, though, and they are approaching the recruiting process with due prudence.
But an admissible talent like Rothbart comes along in Stanford's backyard like this, maybe once in 20 years. Maybe 30. Maybe never.
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