Basketball recruiting is an untamed animal that has been roaming out of control for the last several years now. The thirst for early evaluations and player rankings has hoop fans clamoring already about which brace-faced, pimple-covered power forward they should take. College coaches are equally blameworthy, as they are extending scholarship offers to kids at ridiculously early ages. Arizona made headlines earlier this year when the offered and accepted a commitment from 15-year-old Nic Wise from Houston, Texas. And new UCLA head coach Ben Howland has taken it a step further, securing this summer a commitment from 9th grader-to-be Taylor King from SoCal hoops powerhouse Mater Dei. If you read the articles and commentary surrounding that commitment from our good friends at BruinReportOnline, you saw that this commitment is supposed to help UCLA snag yet another 9th grader of repute.
Yes, we're talking about commits in the 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes, when your Cardinal heart and soul are still pounding away at the prospects of a handful of senior recruits for this 2004 Stanford class. Talk about a disconnect.
If you haven't delivered your first windmill dunk from the free throw line (with your eyes shut) by the end of your sophomore year in high school... well, you can forget it. You'll never amount to everything. Scholarship spots at most bigtime programs will be filled by the time you get your driver's license, so you might as well pick up a new sport if you have college scholarship dreams.
No, the fun stories coming out of this exciting summer recruiting period are found in this senior class, where some very talented players have verifiably broken out. For any number of reasons, there are kids who slip under the radar of premier college programs and find themselves recruited by low majors - or not at all. But so long as they get themselves on a visible AAU squad and work their way into a few camps, anybody can be seen and 'discovered' during the July evaluation period.
Nobody raised their stock with Stanford this summer more than Bedford, New York's Taj Finger. The 6'8" 185-pound power forward from Fox Lane High School averaged 15 points and eight rebounds his junior season this last year, but he had just Richmond sporting an offer and serious interest heading into the July period. Several other schools knew who he was, but had him out on the periphery of their radar.
One reason was that Finger had played the previous three years of AAU ball with the Westchester Hawks, a good squad but frankly one that doesn't sport a lot of athleticism. The Westchester area, one hour's drive north of New York City, is a middle class habitat known more for academics than athletics, and that contrast with the streetball style of play in NYC helps to reinforce certain stereotypes.
To help himself break out of that mold, Finger made the very risky move of changing AAU teams and joining the infamous Vince Carter Playaz, which each year showcases some of the best athletic 'ballers from New York and New Jersey (although sometimes under the title of the Tim Thomas Playaz'). The showcase performer this summer was J.R. Smith, the high flying wing from Jersey who is currently ranked by TheInsiders as the #2 shooting guard in the entire nation. Another noteworthy member of the Playaz was Duke commit David McClure, the savvy 6'5" small forward. The pace of play was fast, and the athletic demands were high if you wanted meaningful playing time on this squad.
Finger could have put him in a situation where he would ride the pine, event after event. But his gamble was instead rewarded, as he found himself thriving in his new environment.
"It was like night and day," he says of his experience with the Playaz, as compared to his Westchester days. "I was playing with four other guys who are going high Division I, and they all pushed me. I chose the Playaz because I know the exposure and the players I would play with would be a big change, and it sure was."
I watched Finger play in five or six games in Las Vegas during the adidas Big Time in July, and I was just as surprised at his play as the universe of college coaches in attendance. His reputation as a nice skilled player was confirmed, and I particularly took note of his passing acumen and his shooting touch out to 15 feet. But his agility and athleticism raised my eyebrows. I still remember one play that completely revised my evaluation of the 6'8" PF, as I watched him take the ball off the dribble and go baseline for a reverse lay-up... in traffic. It was a shockingly explosive move, and one you got the sense was part of some latent ability that his new environment was just bringing to the surface.
Not only was the change of scenery a cause for this July metamorphosis, but also there is a physical maturation taking place. Finger is a year young for his grade and just turned 17 a week ago. His parents made the decision to skip him a grade in private school, pushing him a year ahead of schedule. Indeed, if he were a rising junior at 16 years old and did the things he did this summer in front of college coaches, he would be the toast of the recruiting world and be one of the more highly sought-after members of the 2005 recruiting class.
But because he is blossoming late, his list looks more than a little different. Major programs are catching on to what Richmond was first chasing. Villanova offered him during the Big Time, and he also added offers in July and early August from Stanford, Providence, Northwestern, Rice and West Virginia. Serious additional interest is coming from Boston College and Dayton, and he has fielded recent phone calls from Georgia, Florida and North Carolina State. The Ivy League programs have been all over Finger, though they may be shouting with wasted breath as more scholarship scenarios build for the Fox Lane forward.
According to James Finger, the recruit's father, the first explosion occurred before his son's Vegas exploits, which incidentally earned him All Tournament honors. At the adidas Three Stripes Classic earlier in the month, Finger was part of a Playaz Gold squad that pulled off a stunning upset of the famed Atlanta Celtics. If you haven't followed AAU basketball and recruiting this past 14 months, then just know that the Celtics have a frontline trio of three serious NBA talents that have been widely held as the best ever frontcourt in AAU competition. For Finger and the Playaz, who admittedly lack size and true centers, to pull off such a feat was shocking. James Finger says that Stanford offered after that event, by way of senior assistant coach Tony Fuler.
"Before that, Stanford had shown polite interest," the recruit's father explains. "But it is clear to us that they are very serious now."
The younger Finger says that Stanford and Richmond are his top two schools today, and it makes sense that they are the first two places where he has scheduled official visits. He will trip out to the West Coast campus on September 18, in what will be a seminal event for his recruitment and college decision.
"I think I definitely could make a decision after those visits," he elaborates. "With Stanford I know that it's a great school. They have super academics and basketball. With Richmond, I love the coaching staff and have gotten to know them for a longer time. They have good basketball and are a good school. Those are the pros. The cons are of course that Stanford is far away. That will make it difficult for me to see my family, and all that comes with that. Also, maybe I won't start as a freshman there. It's a decision about being a little fish in a big pond [at Stanford] or a big fish in a little pond [at Richmond]. At Richmond I'll have more playing time as a freshman and will be a real standout. Plus it's closer to home."
The father describes many of the same factors, but casts at least one note of approval toward the Cardinal. "Stanford is the Ivy League with athletics," he says. "There is no place like Stanford anywhere."
The senior recruit says Boston College is trying to schedule an official visit with him, and is also considering trips to Northwestern or West Virginia. "Yale and Penn might be there at the end, too," he opines. "Just because of their academics."
Villanova is a very intriguing candidate, if for no other reason than because of the ties his AAU coach, Jimmy Salmon, has with the Wildcats. Salmon was the high school coach of New Jersey prep star Tim Thomas, and coached one year at Villanova. That relationship plus a recent offer from 'Nova might put fear in the eyes of competing schools, but both Fingers say no such influence is taking place. "Villanova is actually a dark horse," the father explains. "We just don't know that much about them yet."
But for now, this is a two-horse race between the Cardinal and the Spiders. The plus/minus tabulation for each school is pretty clear in the recruit's mind, but the official visits will go a long way toward determining which place has that best fit for his college years. School starts back up in just over a week at Fox Lane, and he'll soon be taking trips to different corners of the country, with premier college coaches wooing him at every turn. It's a fun time for the New Yorker, and he is still a little amazed at all that has transpired in the last 30 days.
"It's surprising," Finger admits. "I think I played well and I would get a little more attention, but this has been more than I could have expected. My options are growing, and I feel like I've discovered a new world of basketball for myself. I really grew my post game, and found that I can get to the basket with a variety of ball fakes and moves. My confidence is a lot higher. Everything that has happened just makes me want to keep working."
And for a kid who just turned 17 and whose father says "really got serious two years ago about basketball," it will be exciting for all of us to see how far Finger can go.
As a final Stanford note, Finger is currently working on his admissions application, which he says he hopes to have submitted and reviewed for a decision before he makes his trip in four weeks. He reports a 92% average in high school and a 1130 on the SAT.
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